Mission: Fix the digital divide and drive economic growth

Our Group CEO Helen Milner responds to Keir Starmer's five key missions for a future Labour government and lays out how they could fix the digital divide and drive economic growth.

Keir Starmer yesterday set out his five key missions for a future Labour government – and it’s very encouraging to see Labour’s policy platform emerging. But Keir Starmer needs to think bolder, think braver, and think bigger.

Amongst the Labour leader’s missions were:

  • Securing the highest sustained growth in the G7 – making everyone better off
  • Build an NHS fit for the future – reforming health and care services to speed up treatment and cut health inequalities
  • Break down the barriers to opportunity – reforming childcare and education, preparing young people for work and for life

These missions aren’t unique to 2023. They actually remind me a lot of where we were in the mid-90s. The country then faced massive challenges in our economy, with our NHS, and with inequalities.

But then, in 1997, a Labour Government was elected. In 2000, then Prime Minister, Tony Blair declared:

“Universal internet access is vital if we are not only to avoid social divisions over the new economy but to create a knowledge economy of the future which is for everyone… We cannot accept a digital divide for business or for individuals."

Former Prime Minister, Tony Blair

This vision led to one of the government’s most transformative initiatives – the online centres network, which Good Things Foundation now maintains, grows and supports as the National Digital Inclusion Network. A Labour government set the foundations for vibrant, community-led spaces to help people flourish and thrive online.

Of course, in 1997, only a third of households had broadband subscriptions and the smartphone had yet to be invented. Nevertheless it is remarkable, and rather shocking, that in 2023 the country faces many similar challenges to that which it faced in 1997. How do you increase growth, in a way that is inclusive for all and environmentally sustainable? How do you tackle the systemic, long-term inequalities that have held our country back for decades? And how can we harness the positives of the internet for the nation?

My answer won’t shock you – digital inclusion is the key. The challenges we face are worsened by the fact that at least two million people are struggling to afford to get online and ten million people lack critical, basic digital skills, excluding them from better paid jobs and better healthcare. And too many families don’t have access to appropriate devices to support their work and education, entrenching education and income inequalities.

So what would I encourage Keir Starmer to do?

  • Think bolder. Embrace the same vision that is driving governments led by the likes of Olaf Scholz and Anthony Albanese. In Germany, the Scholz Government has set ambitious aims in its digital strategy to make the country a more digitally included society by 2025. Meanwhile, in Australia, Labor has ramped up support for Be Connected, the flagship digital inclusion initiative led by Good Things Foundation Australia.
  • Think braver. Transformative initiatives like our National Databank and National Device Bank require a leap of faith. A Starmer Government could commit to a new approach to digital inclusion, by ensuring all government tech is reused for good, supporting those most in need.
  • Think big. This week I gave evidence to the House of Lords Digital Committee. One of the things I discussed was the Minimum Digital Living Standard — an empowering, innovative Starmer Government could adopt the MDLS as a key benchmark, and make sure no household falls below this level. And I reiterated our three core policy asks — to stop taxing broadband social tariffs; reuse all government tech for good; and unlock £13bn for our economy by investing in basic digital skills.

If Keir Starmer and Labour are truly committed to these missions — of inclusive growth, good healthcare, and equal opportunities — then the solution is simple.

The next Government must Fix the Digital Divide — for Good.

Helen Milner

Helen Milner OBE

Group CEO