Free full-fibre, publicly owned broadband was never supposed to be the flagship policy of Labour’s doomed 2019 election campaign. Earlier in the year the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, had been touring the country and hearing people complain that poor broadband was at least as much of a problem as poor transport links, and possibly a bigger one. Back in 2017, a report by University College London had explored “universal basic services” – that is, where the rights of citizenship include unconditional access to free services funded by progressive taxation. “This would enable access to work opportunities,” the study noted, “as well as participation in our democracy as informed citizens.”
Working closely with the Communications Workers Union, the team that was commissioned to examine the policy had to keep it under tight wraps: broadband was technically under the purview of the then shadow cabinet minister Tom Watson, whose team was hostile to the idea. It was only signed off on the eve of the election campaign itself, and there was a heated debate about whether to launch it at all. But things were clearly going badly, and the leadership was desperate to shift the political debate away from Brexit, and this was the only policy that succeeded in doing so for a brief period.
It faced much media ridicule, with the BBC straplining one discussion with the “Broadband ‘communism’”, a description taken from one of BT’s executives. After the election, free broadband was presented as totemic of Labour’s bewildering scatter-gunning of far-fetched commitments. “Offering people free broadband was just not believable” ahead of other priorities, as Jess Phillips put it, before her leadership bid crashed and burned.
Who is laughing at “broadband communism” now? At the best of times, the fact that Britain has just 14% full-fibre broadband coverage – compared with 99% in South Korea and 97% in Japan – is inconvenient to the individual and damaging to the economy. In the midst of the pandemic, with our lives now more dependent on the internet than ever before, the consequences are starker.
With schools emptied of most children because of the government’s multiple failures to suppress the virus, education depends on remote learning. But Ofcom estimates that up to 1.78 million children have no home access to a laptop, desktop or tablet: overwhelmingly these are the poorest children, for whom a lack of schooling is most damaging.
Demands by the National Education Union to provide broadband and laptops for all children who need them have gone unmet. With so many business meetings dependent on video calls and leisure time increasingly revolving around streaming, the impact of poor-quality internet does not have to be spelled out. People are living it.
Much media attention focused on the “free” aspect of Labour’s policy. The notion of universalism in economic policy – services being delivered to all, without means-testing – has been undermined for years, and so-called freebies are the easy targets of media ridicule. But the policy was about something far more profound: modernising a country trapped in the 20th century because of failures of the free market.
As McDonnell saw it, it was a policy akin to the opening of libraries in the 19th century. And it would come after a decade of failure by the private sector to deliver on connectivity, and despite billions of taxpayers’ money thrown at companies.
Broadband isn’t a luxury: it’s a necessity, without which it is impossible to be a citizen integrated into modern society. Were a publicly owned, full-fibre network to be introduced, it would boost economic growth, create jobs – not least in communities widely described as “left behind” – and have important environmental consequences. The more meetings that can be conducted online, after all, the less need for people to make emission-producing journeys. Rather than rely on failed market approaches, why shouldn’t the state – which, after all, has lower borrowing costs than the private sector – take charge, deliver it, and then own it without having to pay dividends to shareholders? Labour had envisaged the policy should be funded by taxing digital giants: as the likes of Amazon make record profits off the back of the pandemic, who could possibly now object?.
Rather than being abandoned as an embarrassing reminder of a calamitous election campaign, here is a policy that is more relevant than ever. During the leadership campaign, Keir Starmer promised to uphold the commitment. It has, alas, not been heard of since, with the leader instead suggesting that companies remove data charges while children are learning from home.
While a welcome small step, it shows a cautiousness of political imagination. In a flagship speech in September, Starmer declared that while “what we say at the next general election isn’t written yet … it will sound like the future arriving.” Few other policies can lay such a bold claim on the future, echoing former Labour prime minister Harold Wilson’s signature “white heat of technological change” speech in the 1960s. There are, of course, siren voices arguing against Labour making policy commitments so far in advance of an election. But one of the flaws with the 2019 broadband policy was precisely that it was dropped in the middle of a general election without the foundationsbeing laid.
Labour has until perhaps 2024 to draw on the experiences of pandemic Britain to make an unambiguous case for this most modernising of commitments. With all of us locked in our homes, the internet has never been more central to our lives. Labour should show courage and salvage this policy from the wreckage of its recent past.