Britain’s Labour Party used to hate Big Tech. Not any more
Shadow ministers, officials and think tankers are working on a paper setting out the party’s approach to the digital economy.
LONDON — Britain’s Labour Party is drawing up its tech plan for government. It won’t just be about slamming Big Tech.
A matter of weeks after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak put science and technology at the heart of his pre-election growth strategy, the U.K.’s main opposition party — comfortably ahead in the polls — is putting the finishing touches on its own tech pitch.
Shadow ministers, officials and think tankers are working on a paper, due to be published in May, which will lay the foundations of the party’s approach to tech and the wider digital economy if it clinches victory at the next election.
Multiple figures involved in drawing up tech policy for Labour say there has been a pivot away from left-wing attacks on tech giants to instead seeing innovation as a way to boost economic growth — even if the details still need working out.
It marks a stark contrast from the Jeremy Corbyn-era when shadow ministers leant into the idea of breaking up the tech giants, and floated the prospect of levies on Big Tech to pay for public interest journalism.
“I’m a tech optimist,” Shadow Culture Secretary Lucy Powell, who oversees tech policy in Keir Starmer’s shadow cabinet, told POLITICO in an interview in her office.
Regulation is coming in “various forms around the world,” Powell said, but should not be a “means to just stop everything, and stop the world happening,” she said, but to “enable good practice” and “give people confidence.”
“The conversation about tech regulation is stuck in a rut between lefties who hate Big Tech and the Tory right who think regulation is anti-growth,” Josh Simons, director of Labour Together, a think tank which has been offering ideas to Keir Starmer on tech policy, said.
“Labour has an opportunity to do what the Tories have been trying to do for a decade: make tech regulation Brexit’s test case,” he added.
There is a “massive opportunity” to use tech regulation “to restore Britain’s position as one of the most respected and best governed democracies in the world,” Simons, who has written a book on algorithms and previously worked as a visiting research scientist at Facebook, said.
On the all-important detail of what that tech regulation will actually look like, however, Labour still has some thinking to do.
With a general election likely to be over a year away, the tech regulatory landscape in the U.K. could be vastly changed by the time voters go to the polls.
The U.K. government’s flagship Online Safety Bill is expected to have passed by the fall; its data bill has started its journey through the House of Commons; and there have been promises of a competition bill tackling anti-competitive behavior in digital markets.
Powell says it is “too soon” to say in detail what Labour’s regulatory plans will be, and that it depends where all the expected legislation ends up at the next election.
But she has promised more online safety legislation if it is felt that the current government’s bill — aiming to more closely police online content and place new duties on tech firms to protect users — doesn’t do the job.
“We’ve committed to, if necessary, bringing in some new legislation if we need to do that as part of a broader package of stuff that we’ll do after the election,” Powell said.
Mining for ideas
With the big regulatory questions still open, officials and think tankers at the heart of Keir Starmer’s operation are looking more broadly at how tech could be used to reform public services.
While Powell is central to digital and tech policymaking, in Starmer’s office his senior adviser Peter Hyman, policy chief Stuart Ingham and domestic policy head Muneera Lula are said to be deeply engaged on what Labour’s digital pitch might look like, according to two figures working on Labour’s tech policy.
Starmer’s policy team, which has been looking abroad for policy inspiration, has been studying Germany’s digital blueprint particularly closely.
“Their digital policy is all about a positive vision for tech that makes it a tool for social democratic values rather than something to be feared in the ‘the left just hates big tech’ way,” said one party official, who was not authorized to speak publicly.
It is about “democratizing the big wins from tech so we can boost innovation, nurture growth and see the wins shared more widely,” they added.
And in Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves’ office, “tech, life sciences and green industries of the future” are also being seen as something to lean into as Starmer puts economic growth at the center of his pitch to voters.
Tech lobbyists say Labour’s front-footed response to the potential collapse of Silicon Valley Bank’s U.K. arm speaks to its willingness to listen to industry.
Within hours of the Bank of England announcing it had plans to begin insolvency proceedings, shadow ministers were out calling for swift action and highlighting the risk to startups. On the flagship Sunday morning broadcast round that weekend, Reeves floated “different answers” to the problem, raising the prospect of guarantees, or working with the U.S. government on a rescue for the beleaguered bank.
Party officials say they built links with the industry while conducting a start-up review led by the former Goldman Sachs chief economist and Conservative Treasury minister Jim O’Neill last year.
But in industry there is still skepticism that the party really understands them.
“We’re picking up on real concern, especially if they form the next government, that there aren’t enough people in Labour who actually get tech,” one tech lobbyist who has engaged with the party said on the condition of anonymity.
“When you look around at their MPs there are only four or five who seem to understand it and the rest are going to need a lot of educating.”
Powell insisted the party has some “good people” and is working with external experts too. “It’s about being porous and receptive and open to that as well,” she said.
But bashing Big Tech can be a vote winner too.
Starmer put a pledge to clamp down on legal loopholes allowing weapons to be sold to criminals through online foreign sellers at the heart of a crime policy blitz Thursday morning.
Redfield and Wilton Strategies polling for POLITICO, conducted last month, found that more than half of voters approved of the government’s regulation of Big Tech companies such as Facebook and Google. Just 7 per cent either disapproved or strongly disapproved.
Powell admits there is a challenge. The policies voters want to hear are not “the same type of policies that perhaps work for business,” she said.
“Really the top issue of concern for any parent that I speak to is how much time kids spend on the phone, what are they doing, who are they in contact with, are they safe?” she said.
And Powell makes clear that this strand won’t be lost in Labour’s pitch.
The digital age has brought "great opportunity and great change," and was supposed to be an "even greater leveler," she said.
“I think the next era of the tech age is about how we can maybe re-democratize that a little bit, and share that more in the interest of citizens and consumers and workers and small business, not just of Big Tech.”
Tom Bristow contributed reporting.