“Ministers are ignoring the people who’ll deal with the fallout from Brexit”: The case for a second referendum

Everything is fine: Prime minister Theresa May and Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson. Image: Getty.

We’ve come a long way from the days when Brexiteers promised a free trade utopia and an £350m a week to spend on our NHS. Now we have David Davis reduced to warning there will be no Mad Max-style scenario when we leave the European Union.

Anyway, how do we know? The Brexit Secretary refuses to publish his economic risk analysis so we can have an informed discussion about the effects on cities like mine. What evidence has trickled out of his department shows that the UK economy will take a hit – and the further you are away from Greater London, the harder that punch will feel.

At best, with retained access to the single market, we will take a 2 per cent hit to GDP over the next 15 years. At worst, with a so-called ‘Hard Brexit’, this increases to 8 per cent.

That’s hundreds of thousands of jobs taken out of the economy. Moreover, we know the impact will be felt unevenly. The further away you are from London and the South East, the deeper the effects.

This week, leaders of some of our major Core Cities met Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, to explain our worries. Our cities are potential engines of growth and vital players as we insulate the country from Brexit-related shocks. We are trying to play a constructive role – whether or not we agree with Brexit – because we are on the ground and left dealing with the fallout.

So far, ministers have refused to meet us. We are apparently frozen out of the conversation because our reality-based concerns do not fit with the government’s celestial belief that things will be all right on the night.

As a local government leader, I deal in pragmatic solutions. (Having lost two-thirds of our Government funding since 2010, I have no choice.) But ministers need to come out of their bunker and talk to us about the support we need and the part we can play in preventing a recession when we leave the EU.


There is only one way to interpret their reluctance to do so. They know that we are on course to take an economic shellacking, and are preparing to leave us to it. They have done nothing to reassure us that a dystopian nightmare does not await – with Britain reduced a low-tax, low regulation fiefdom, with neo-liberal hardliners taking a red pen to the social and environmental protections currently guaranteed by EU law.

This is not acceptable. It is a total betrayal of those parts of the country already struggling with a decade of austerity and all the uncertainty generated by the Brexit process. But ministers should care because if we suffer, then Brexit will have demonstrably failed.

It will come as little surprise to Scousers. Liverpool voted 58 per cent to Remain back in June 2016. That’s because we felt the practical benefits of being in the EU. Europe was there for us – especially in the 1980s – when our own government wasn’t.

Objective One and other regional funding streams helped bring Liverpool back from the dark days when ministers in the Thatcher Government were seriously contemplating writing us off entirely. ‘Managed decline’ they called it. We were to be left to fend for ourselves.

But Europe allowed us to begin a ‘managed renaissance,’ becoming the modern, optimistic and dynamic city we are today. EU funding helped us to bounce back and catalysed many of the dramatic changes we’ve seen over the past few years.

If leaving the EU now results in a harsh economic winter, then the pendulum of public opinion will swing back the other way. So it’s actually in the interests of Brexiteers to have a second vote on the terms of our departure.  Asking the public if they approve of the deal ministers will have negotiated, is entirely justified. Call it a confirmatory ballot, or a cooling-off vote.

This is not about keeping asking the same question until the political elite get the answer they want. It is about giving the British people sign-off on how the country will be governed after 2019 and the effects that will have on their lives.

It’s ridiculous that we have more opportunity when it comes to cancelling our car insurance than have when it comes to reflecting on the biggest change to Britain’s economic and political fortunes in any of our lifetimes.

If – after knowing the full facts of what we face on the outside – the British public still voted to leave, then I would accept their decision with no further protest – and so should everyone else.

But it is right to ask them.

What is not acceptable – or credible – is to ignore reality and refuse to deal with the very people who will be left to pick up the pieces.

Joe Anderson is the Labour mayor of Liverpool.

 
 
 
 

In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.