The Lib Dems should be the party of manufacturing

An article by William Hobhouse on Liberal Democrat Voice, The Lib Dems should be the party of manufacturing, reminded me that I’ve been meaning to write a post on this subject for ages. Because he’s right: we should

Hobhouse writes:

“Liberal Democrats are excellently placed as a party to champion the rebalancing of the British economy back towards manufacturing. Unlike the Conservatives, we are not tied to financial and Eurosceptic interests. We are a pragmatic party of business and wealth creation unlike Labour, and in the manufacturing heartlands our MPs already stand for jobs and renewed identity.”

Our biggest government department is Business, Innovation and Skills, with Vince Cable at the helm. In a recession, this should be the most important position in the Government for providing leadership to the country. As the Lib Dem Voice article points out, Vince has done some sterling stuff… but it has not been built into a narrative for the party.

And we have a grand narrative.

We are the industrial revolution. We are free trade. That was us: British Liberalism. Our ideological forebears created the modern world.

It is widely agreed (though not entirely fairly) that British manufacturing is in a century-long state of decline. Only Liberals have the ideological and intellectual basis, not to mention the glorious history of creating the first industrial empire, to wrench it from its torpor.

The Conservatives? They were practically made to support the landed aristocracy. It’s the same today, except the landed people they represent are those homeowners who don’t want their house prices affected by volume housebuilding, or their scenic views hurt by new industrial developments.

Labour? Their name being more or less vestigial, they now exist purely to create conditions of state dependency as a form of vote-purchasing. They put themselves in hock to big finance, and fostered unsustainable and unproductive economic booms, to get the cash to do it. In any case, they are an irrelevance: nobody believes that they could get this country making or doing.

Manufacturing and economic revitalisation should be our brand. It’s time to reclaim it. It’s what will resonate as a unifying theme through the rest of this Parliament and into the 2015 election.

Everything we already care about fits into this paradigm.

When we talk about the environment we can sound effete and metropolitan. We shouldn’t. It’s about making Britain energy-independent. Creating power. Launching off-shore wind from the docks in Hull and Middlesborough. Fighting nimbys (be they in commuter barn-conversions or on great estates) on behalf of literal electricity. Ringing the country with new power lines and mills that our industrial heroes wouldn’t have flinched at.

The High Speed Rail lines should be fought on the same basis. It’s a plan practically Victorian in its grandeur: our heritage. Someone needs to stand in St. Pancras chomping on a cigar like Isambard Kingdom Brunel to make that point, if that’s what it takes.

Free Movement

Labour have been trying to outdo the Tories with dogwhistle racism that should make all liberals gag with distaste.

Let’s not be shy about supporting the free movement of people. If people want to come here to work, we should welcome that unashamedly. Industry isn’t a zero-sum game. Immigration restrictions are already hurting some of our best universities, stifling our scientific advance.

By arguing for a renewed industrial identity, we have a solid ground from which to challenge Miliband and other conservatives on immigration.

Free Trade abroad

As the Lib Dem Voice article points out, this is where our long-standing internationalism comes into its own. Tory Eurosceptics dream of autarky. Labour talk up protectionism: British jobs for British people. Liberals want to work constructively with Europe and other markets to open them to British imports. Even international aid can be framed in this narrative: supporting investment abroad as something that’s good for our exporters.

Free Thinkers

We have put good education policies in place through the Coalition- the pupil premium, for example. But I’d bet it’ll come to naught electorally, because if Gove achieved nothing else with his O-level announcement, it was to reveal that the Liberal Democrats have no narrative when it comes to education, other than that we think it’s important.

The Tories can talk about turning the clock back to the 50s, with grammar schools and compulsory Latin – and it’s here that their appeal (?) lies. I suggest that we can weave our educational narrative around manufacturing by way of contradistinction.

We can talk about the Midlands Enlightenment and the Lunar Society – the intellectual movement that really made this country great. A deliberate focus upon practice, and the adaptation of science to useful ends. To put it in terms that Gove and Boris could understand, the Techne to their Episteme.

If the Tories want Latin and a Gradgrindish repetition of facts, we should talk about computer programming and applied sciences and equipping people to be enquiring and innovative in practical ways. Rigorous vocational training.

The Long Term

Because this isn’t just about taking leadership in the current recession, or surviving the 2015 General Election.

There is another industrial revolution about to hit, with new paradigms that will be as disruptive and transformative as the (our) last one.

Additive manufacturing, 3D printing, bio-scale assemblers and sequencers: distributed, on-shore, artisanal manufacturing. Physical and even biological things are going to become as replicatable as the internet has made intellectual property.

Cory Doctorow described Hollywood and the music industry as “the first belligerents in a century-long war”. The new industrial revolution is going to be opposed tooth and nail by “lobbies and interest groups that are far more influential than Hollywood and big content are on their best day.” They are going to be using all their money and power to try and get the Government to stifle this innovation in manufacturing, to impose regulatory and criminal-legal blocks to this new industrial revolution.

We need a political movement that doesn’t bow and scrape to vested interests, that is willing to craft laws on patents, intellectual property, and copyrights that support innovation. If Britain is to get the start on the new industrial revolution that we had on the last one, vested interests will need to be fought, and old orders broken down.

What do you know – I think that’s a job for us again. Only us.


What fortune, then, that our current leader sits in Sheffield. The great cities of our industrial empire should be the backdrop to our cause. We have rugged stuff to do.

Published in: on June 25, 2012 at 11:18 pm  Leave a Comment  

Disturbing online copyright enforcement tactics from SOCA

The Serious Organised Crime Agency, having (apparently) solved and abolished all human trafficking, major gun crime, and industrial-scale money laundering, had some time on their hands. So, of course, they have started set about policing copyright infringement and taking down websites they suspected of distributing copyrighted music.

The use of one of the most powerful law enforcement agencies in the country to enforce a civil matter is worrying: probably unlawful function creep that suggests, with the most benign interpretation, that their boss (one Theresa May MP) isn’t exercising proper oversight.

The tactics they used were even worse. The SOCA notification page suggests that they are monitoring anyone who visited a particular website and recording their personal details, and that anyone who had used the site to download songs would be liable to ten years imprisonment. Ten years in the slammer for downloading some R&B music.

Note also that SOCA, a Government agency, repeats verbatim a line from the music recording industry’s PR people: that “as a result of music downloads, emerging artists have had their careers damaged. If you have illegally downloaded music you have damaged the future of the music industry.”

And the damage that an illegal music download can do is worth ten years in chokey.

Well really.

Let’s look at sentencing guidelines to see what you can get caught doing and get less than ten years in prison.

You can commit grievous bodily harm. You can commit an unlawful wounding. You can assault someone occasioning actual harm. In fact, if you assault someone you’ll probably get a community order, 6 months in a cell at most. Attempted murder can net you less than 10 years if you fail to actually hurt the victim. You can actually kill someone while driving that involved a deliberate decision to ignore (or a flagrant disregard for) the rules of the road and an apparent disregard for the great danger being caused to others AND GET LESS THAN TEN YEARS.

So according to SOCA, downloading an MP3 is worse than wounding someone with a knife or running them over and killing them.

Downloading a song is apparently worse than committing cruelty to a child of the most serious sort. Beating up a kid will get you two years at most.

You can even rape someone and it be judicially better than downloading a song, if you avoid actual penile penetration of your victim. Bonanza.

Maybe you feel like robbing someone by threatening them with a weapon or by using force so as to actually injure them during the course of the robbery? Less than ten years.

You can successfully carry out an aggravated burglary. You can raid a house wielding a knife, traumatise and steal from its inhabitants, and get significantly less than ten years imprisonment.

Which is to say that you can actually break into the house of an “emerging artist”, threaten them with a knife and rough them up a bit, then steal all their CDs, instruments, and recording equipment, and be treated, in sentencing terms, less harshly than if you downloaded one of their songs from a website.

I’d say that the British criminal justice system had its priorities wrong if SOCA’s claim was true… which, of course, it’s not.

Which makes me wonder… what are the sentencing guidelines for an officer of the law making outlandish threats and lying to the public during the course of his duties?

Published in: on February 15, 2012 at 9:51 pm  Comments (2)  

Cory Doctorow: copyright wars are just the first salvo in a fundamental fight

An important lesson from Cory Doctorow on what the coming war on general purpose computation. The attempts by industry to censor the internet and control our computing devices are just the first salvo in a century-long conflict.

The stakes are the freedom, fortune and privacy of the entire human race.

I particularly like his upbeat ending:

“We’ve spent the last ten years sending our best players out to fight what we thought was the final boss at the end of the game, but it turns out it’s just been the mini-boss at the end of the level… but like all good level designers, fate has sent us a soft target to train ourselves on.”

Published in: on January 4, 2012 at 12:49 am  Comments (1)  

Lib Dem villains of the month: Bob Russell and Mike Hancock

I’m pretty sure that no Liberal Democrat members volunteered time and money to put people into Parliament so that they could join notorious crook/idiot Keith Vaz MP in trying to ban computer games

But this month Bob Russell and Mike Hancock co-sponsored an EDM essentially calling for a ban on Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3, which is to say a ban on letting adults choose how they entertain themselves.

It’s hard to tell why they would do this. Maybe there was a splash about it in the Daily Mail or something. Maybe Hancock is concerned that the game portrays Russian spies in a bad light, just when he’s trying to rehabilitate their reputation as sexy secretaries rather than gun-toting fiends.

Of course this is nothing more than an EDM, the most pointless of Parliamentary documents, written by a dumbass and essentially signifying nothing, but as Zero Punctuation’s Yahtzee Croshaw put it, if someone who wants to legislate the censorship of arts and culture gets elected, then the next thing you know you’re picking jackboots out of your teeth.

It’s worth remembering that politicians all over the world, even those who call themselves Liberals, are gagging to regulate culture, and may one day require an organised response – such as the Video Game Voters Network in the USA.

In the meantime, though, it would be nice if some liberal Liberal Democrats could sign up to Tom Watson’s anti-censorship amendment to the motion, just to counterbalance the embarrassing actions of Bob and Mike. Julian Huppert to the rescue?

Published in: on November 23, 2011 at 9:01 pm  Comments (3)  

Tories don’t understand the countryside

Tories are waging a bitter war against anything they see as damaging the countryside. Wind farms, high speed rail, and new housing developments are all encountering their organised resistance. This is because they have, dangerously and inaccurately, come to regard the countryside as a garden for their own enjoyment.

Prince Charles described wind farms as “a monstrous carbuncle”; his father just called them “a disgrace” (Wind farms are defended in the Mail article by fellow Lib Dem blogger Adam Bell!) The Government’s draft National Planning Policy Framework is condemned on the basis that it might allow buildings to go up on green fields. The HS2 high speed rail link to the North is excoriated just for having the temerity to pass through the countryside. Forget the energy crisis, the housing crisis, the decades of underinvestment in the country’s infrastructure, these people say – what about our views of grass?

The countryside is not, and has never been, some kind of vast pleasure-garden. The countryside is about grinding a hard living from the soil, corralling and slaughtering beasts by their millions, blasting rock apart for its mineral wealth, gouging out solid energy from the earth’s crust. It is a landscape wholly created by industry and toil, girded all about by steel rails.

There is wild land that is wholly worth preserving as national park. But a national park has the same relation to the countryside as a city park has to its urban context: a necessary complement, but something fundamentally unlike its surroundings.

One of my favourite spots in the country, perhaps the world, is Stanton Moor in the Peak District, for its megaliths, its ecology, a curious folly commemorating the Reform Act of 1832, and because its height affords a spectacular view of the surrounding countryside. That view is of working farms and working quarries – of toil. That doesn’t detract from the view any more than all those damn buildings detract from the view at the top of the London Eye. It is the view; it is the essence of it. The moor itself was shaped by its industrial history. You can’t walk anywhere in the Derbyshire countryside without seeing where our Bronze Age ancestors carved rocks from the earth, or the Romans dug for lead, or where Victorian Englishmen started a little thing called the industrial revolution.

These commuter Tories who escape to the country and buy up farmhouses to create a fundamentally suburban simulacrum of rural life misunderstand the element they are entering. They don the Barbour and attend the village fete and enjoy the view from their rustic-style barnconversion kitchen windows, but they misunderstand.

There is another moor that I love, just to the North of Stanton-in-the-Peak: Beeley Moor. From here you look down across an artificial rustic landscape – the Chatsworth House estate, with its Capability Brown gardens, neat turf and precisely-picturesque number of lambs. The fourth Duke of Devonshire went as far as to demolish the local village, Edensor, and have it rebuilt behind a convenient hill so that it would cease spoiling his view across the Derwent.

Now every two-bit Tory in the land thinks that they can act like this Duke and look out across a panorama of bucolic fakery. Never mind that this stops affordable housing development and drives up housing prices beyond the reach of real low-paid rural workers. Never mind that we’re dependent on Arab sheikhs for our energy security.

Tories of the shires: our countryside is not your frivolous playground. It is a serious place for serious work.

Published in: on November 21, 2011 at 8:43 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Newport ban, and how the law impoverishes us all

Thanks to Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly Member Peter Black for being firstish with the news that spoof music video Newport State of Mind has been pulled from YouTube after EMI lodged a copyright complaint. Everyone I know even remotely connected with Wales shrieked with delight upon seeing this video, and then posted it on Facebook and emailed it to everyone in their address books.

What’s interesting is how the media has reported this, with the Guardian and the BBC only considering it a bit of a shame that the law of nature copyright has washed Newport away.

EMI’s decision to ban Newport is like an object lesson in how the law is depriving us of our own culture, putting contemporary works off limits to us even for parody. It’s impossible that Newport State of Mind was putting Jay-Z and Alicia Keys on the breadline – in fact, it probably made EMI money by reminding people about the dreary original.

Rather than watching Newport 24 times in a row, as you intended to do this evening, I recommend you watch this video of Prof. James Boyle talking about ‘The Crime of the 20th Century and how we threw away our cultural heritage for no good reason’:

Published in: on August 10, 2010 at 7:39 pm  Comments (1)  

ORGCon and the tentacle in your pocket

“H.P. Lovecraft taught us that you shouldn’t be worrying about the tiny tentacle extruding into our world, but the great big Elder God that it’s attached to.”
– Cory Doctorow

Yesterday I was at the Open Rights Group conference at City University. Julian Huppert, the new Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge proved to be a bit of a star as one of the keynote panellists, although he mysteriously failed to turn up for the Lib Dem session he himself had organised.

James Boyle and Jennifer Jenkins, from Duke University law school, spoke about the effect of copyright law on our culture; Cory Doctorow talked about Digital Rights Management; and a cross-party panel of MPs looked at where we go from here politically. Pretty much all of what I write below is taken directly from their mouths (verbatim, in the case of all metaphors and aphorisms) and possibly infringes their copyright, but I hope that they would be indulgent in the circumstances.

Jennifer Jenkins argued that the conditions of creativity today are fundamentally different from the past, because we have deprived ourselves of our contemporary culture. The use and quotation of other works has been central to creativity through history. Brahms’ first symphony is known as ‘Beethoven’s tenth’, so much does it owe to its creative influences. Today, even tiny fragments of music – an arpeggio, even a few notes – are copyrighted, with only artists with lawyers and corporate backing able to afford the up-front fees to clear samples for use. The default setting of the law is that contemporary works are off limits to us for exploitation, reference, and even parody. What was true for Beethoven and Brahms, or the giants of jazz or rock and roll, isn’t true for us today.

James Boyle, spoke about the ‘Twentieth Century Black Hole’– a whole century of creative culture that has passed beyond the event horizon of copyright law.

Only a tiny percentage of the stuff in the British Library is commercially available, even in the era of Ebay and Amazon resellers. The majority of works exhaust their commercial viability after five years, and then disappear. The majority of twentieth century culture is caught in ‘orphan works’ for which the copyright owner cannot be identified or contacted. Copyright is a strict liability system, meaning that these can’t be used or reprinted. They are lost to us.

According to the Gowers Review of Intellectual Property:

“Estimates suggest that only 2 per cent of all works that are protected by copyright are commercially available. In 1930, 10,027 books were published in the USA, but by 2001 all but 174 were out of print. The British Library estimates 40 per cent of all print works are orphan works.

“This is a large problem for many users, including those who wish to make copies for archiving or preservation and need to seek permission. The Chair of the Museum Copyright Group, Peter Wienard, believes that from the total collection of photographs of 70 institutions (around 19 million), the percentage of photographs where the author is known (other than for fine art photographs) is 10 per cent. In a British Library study to get permission to digitise 200 sound recordings, researchers were unable to identify the rights holders for almost half the recordings”

Copyright law does a good job of creating incentives for innovating and creativity, but in the UK works are currently held in copyright until seventy years after the death of the author. As the Gowers Report , commissioned by the Government in 2006 but largely ignored by Labour Ministers, has shown, allowing the estates and heirs of performers to be able to block usage rights is bad for consumers and actively harms creativity and innovation. The Gowers Report suggests that extending copyright beyond 50 years is purely harmful. The ideal period may be something like 14 years.

The extension (and extension and extension) of copyright has only ever been about Governments helping the rich protect their profits.

The creative industries (with the emphasis here very much on industries) have for a long time been using law to screw consumers. The war against their customers is only intensifying as modern technology hastens their inevitable decline.

Cory Doctorow spoke, as eloquently as ever, about Digital Rights Management – the technologies that restrict how people can use the data they own, make devices take orders from people other than those who own them, and stop devices doing what the owner would like them to (like Apple not allowing software on iPhone and iPads that competes with products of Apple or partner companies).

Technical DRM can only ever be a temporary solution. If you alienate your customers they don’t come back – especially when there are more open competitors, or anyone can download for free a copy without any annoying DRM. It’s a bit like the creator of a bookshelf deciding what books you can keep on it, or a dishwasher that requires you to have a certain sort of crockery. Everyone knows that it’s gross.

Cory Doctorow has said that there he doesn’t really care about the grandees of the old system, and it’s hard to disagree. Radio killed the vaudeville star; video killed the radio star. Some blacksmiths became Model T mechanics, and some became old drunks. The railways made the people who stitched horse feed bags redundant. Technology giveth and technology taketh away.

New technology means that more and more people are able to make art and music, but the current business models of the creative industry may not weather the storm. Technology just makes things too easy to copy, and there is absolutely nothing nothing nothing that software developers can do about it. Short of an Orwellian police state there’s nothing the Government can do about it either.

But to prop up the dying business model, the Labour Government bequeathed us the Digital Economy Act and the quixotic chase after peer-to-peer file sharers – with its option to cut families off the ‘net and its easily-abused siteblocking option.

The most intriguing part at the conference, for a politico, was the panel discussion with Julian Huppert MP, Tom Watson MP, and ex-MP John Grogan, titled Digital Economy Act: What’s Next?

The last Labour Government rushed the sprawling rag-bag of a bill through in the wash-up, with no time for scrutiny or amendment. It was the first ever controversial bill that had its second reading after the Prime Minister had already been to the Palace to dissolve Parliament, and so was pushed through by whips on MPs who were apathetic about the issue and who were already in election mode.

The Act was pretty much drafted by industry lobbyists, perhaps on a yacht in Corfu with Peter Mandleson. Grogan and Watson recalled how Westminster was flooded by lobbyists – more than they’d seen on any other issue. It was an abuse of democracy – bad law, forced through with dodgy constitutional tricks. Tom Watson noted that the same lobbyists are already back in Westminster, taking new MPs out for lunch.

So far so much a plagiarised summary of what everyone who already cares even a little bit about this issue already knows. In January 2009 Alix Mortimer wrote:

“I’m probably one of the few people in the political blogosphere who doesn’t regularly read tech blogs as well. I am very much your plug-in-and-play blogger.  So far as technology goes, I am a classic rearguard early adopter, last in line of the nearly-cool kids. It’s a burden.

But it does have the advantage of making me my very own canary.

If I suddenly start to get something, start to perceive a development, or start to read up on something to do with the world of tech, it means something BIG is about to happen. And this is the development I perceive:  increasingly, as the government’s designs on our personal freedoms grow ever darker and Jacqui Smith’s boots grow ever shinier, tech bloggers’ concerns are becoming our concerns as politicised liberals.”

But ORGCon was, by any description, a big hall full of geeks. Penny Arcade and XKCD t-shirts. More iPads than I’ve ever seen in one room (three). Introductions that ran, “Hi, I’m Jo. Jo5000 on Twitter.” A giant, obnoxious twitter feed projected onto the wall behind the speaker. Twitter is nothing more than an echo chamber, and it was everywhere.

But a lot of the chatter at the ORGCon workshops was about how we create a “citizens’ agenda” – actually get people interested enough to lobby their MP and create a groundswell. I think everyone at ORGCon recognised that this hasn’t even begun to happen yet. Ms. Mortimer is clearly too sensitive a canary.

As James Boyle said, Intellectual Property law used to be something for industry to worry about, not for individuals. It used to be really hard to break copyright law – you’d need a printing press or a movie studio. Now we all have the technical ability to break copyright, so we are all being subject to laws that were intended to govern businesses.

It affects everyone. It’s Apple tying customers into the bad deals that monopolies always bring. It’s Amazon deleting books from your kindle. It’s access to the whole internet – and everything that implies in our society – that can be cut off without proof, conviction, or a judge. It’s the whole of Twentieth Century culture trapped in amber because of our lack of sensible Orphan Works legislation. It’s corporations extending artificial monopoly rights to milk money out of us consumers even after the authors are long dead. It’s stifling the creative potential in everyone that modern technology has unleashed.

We have a new Government, with Vince Cable in a position to make a change. It’s not just geeks that should be interested.

Published in: on July 25, 2010 at 10:41 pm  Comments (1)