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Starmer vs the machine: how Labour would regulate tech

The opposition leader seems less comfortable on AI than Rishi Sunak, but his tech policy is taking shape.

By Greg Noone

Rishi Sunak will have you believe that he’s the UK’s first tech bro prime minister. Amid perpetually dismal poll numbers ahead of next year’s general election, our Stanford-educated, coke-addicted prime minister has made hay out of his ambition to supercharge the UK’s acumen in artificial intelligence, quantum computing, space-borne telecommunications and high-end semiconductor manufacturing by forming a new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, hobnobbing with global AI leaders and announcing a raft of new investments – all designed to spin the Great British technological dynamo back into action.

It’s much harder to imagine a bleary-eyed Sir Keir Starmer chugging sugary drinks and pulling all-nighters in a grey hoodie (though stranger things have happened.) Reluctant for Sunak to steal a march on him when it comes to all things AI, however, the opposition leader gave a ‘fireside chat’ at London Tech Week – hoping, perhaps, that the near-inevitability of a Labour government next year would prove more compelling than the prime minister’s appearance the previous day.

Neither captured the public imagination. Where Sunak’s Q&A was remembered more for a spontaneous round of applause following an exchange about Boris Johnson’s honours list than anything he said about AI, Starmer’s appearance barely registered. Heavy on principles and light on policies, it was easy for Labour’s critics to accuse the opposition leader of speaking in platitudes. “How the hell – and I am being very polite here – do you ensure that AI ‘works for working people,” tweeted Robert Colvile, chief of the right-wing Centre for Policy Studies. “It’s a technology, not a social policy.”

For others, the interview illustrated just how much Labour had been caught on the back foot by the Conservatives’ willingness to double down on technology policy. As interest from businesses of all stripes continues to rise in what UK tech would look like under a Labour government, a so-called ‘green paper’ from the opposition on all things digital policy, promised for May, has yet to emerge. Starmer’s reluctance to exactly mirror his shadow cabinet with Sunak’s has also led to confusion in the ranks about who speaks for what tech sub-sector, with party insiders accusing shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell of effectively “freelancing” on the prized AI brief.

So, what are Labour’s tech policies? After speaking to the party’s front-bench tech team and sifting through endless position papers, panel appearances and parliamentary pronouncements, it is possible to glimpse the shape and character of UK tech under a Labour government. It’s a vision that’s full of condradictions: stolid but ambitious, interventionist but friendly to business – and deeply influenced by the lessons learned from the 1980s.

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What the UK’s science and technology sectors need now, argues Chi Onwurah, is certainty. “One of the reasons Keir has led the party with a mission-based approach to government,” says Labour’s shadow minister for industrial strategy, science and innovation, “is because of the case study before us of sticking plaster, short-term, on the hoof and often reactionary policymaking.”

Avoiding this, the party reasons, requires planning – lots of planning. At a macro level, Labour’s pitch for government is articulated in its ‘Five Missions,’ unveiled in February. Criticised at the time as overly vague, much of the party’s thinking on tech since then has been written to feed into these pledges or been retrospectively lumped under them. Front of mind for Onwurah is the potential in using tech policy and investment as a lever to get the UK productivity back into high gear. “There’s so much growth which is science, research and innovation-driven,” she says. “The policies that I’m working on close that gap between our fantastic science base and our less than equally productive regional economies.”

For Onwurah, that means creating a more practical domestic launch trajectory for British start-ups and deep tech talent, both of which usually look to foreign climes for job opportunities and seed capital. That’s not an easy problem to solve – Labour’s own start-up review notes a cultural antipathy to investing in new deep tech and science businesses among UK investors – but Onwurah and the shadow treasury team are considering pension reforms that would help unlock some of the £2trn in capital that could fund the next Great British unicorn. The review also noted the potential of imitating France’s ‘Tibi’ scheme to build bridges between VCs and institutional investors, proposed constructing a public dashboard comparing universities’ spinout success, and creating a new ‘Procurement Council of Experts’ to help make the government itself a viable anchor customer for promising start-ups.

This appetite for creating new advisory bodies (or ‘quangos,’ as some have uncharitably christened them) carries over into Labour’s industrial policy. Here, the party’s industrial strategy mandates the creation of an Industrial Strategy Council and a National Skills Taskforce which, amply stocked with representatives from business, think tanks and unions, would advise a Labour government on what support private enterprise needs from the public sector. That’ll be accompanied by a concerted attempt to close the yawning gap in digital skills, which as the party noted in a lengthy position paper last year, a third of UK adults lack. This will include amending syllabuses to buff up students’ computational know-how and hiring many more computer science teachers.

Not everyone is convinced by Labour’s approach to economic planning. “Industrial policy of this kind has a deservedly poor reputation in Britain,” said The Economist in an editorial that stopped short of conjuring the ghosts of Butskellism. Onwurah is, unsurprisingly, more optimistic that Labour can get it right, and all to the good of UK tech. “One of the key differences between us and the government is that we believe that the public sector can do stuff!” she says, channelling The West Wing’s fictional US president Jed Bartlett. “It’s not just about getting out of the way.”

Labour also has plans for AI. Earlier this month, shadow culture and digital secretary Lucy Powell called for a new regulator empowered to licence foundation models and apply the same level of scrutiny to these vast and complex programs as given to nuclear energy projects and pharmaceuticals. “I felt that that’s not been part of the policy debate,” she tells Tech Monitor. “These are incredibly powerful and expensive models to develop, and… there’s no accountability or auditing or understanding of how those models are built and whose data they are built [on.]”

By scrutinising these models before release, explains Powell, such a regulator could help mitigate issues ranging from copyright violations and algorithmic discrimination before they impact the public. It’s also more substantive than the government’s AI white paper which, she adds, “is really leaving it to individual regulators to think about their own areas.”

Another major area of concern for the party lies in the potential and actual harms arising from algorithmic discrimination, particularly in the workplace. “My constituents feel tech is something being done to them by opaque algorithms,” Onwurah told the Trades Union Congress in April. Are we likely to see new mechanisms for workers to be consulted more closely on AI applications in the office under a Labour government? Ensuring that “workers don’t find themselves on the wrong end of automation and AI decision-making” is a priority, affirms Powell – though it’s likely that further detail on what form any new protections will take won’t emerge until the party publishes its ‘green paper’ on digital policymaking later this summer.

This rhetoric about protecting the public has been carefully balanced against Labour’s pitch to business. During his fireside chat at London Tech Week, Starmer spent as much time talking about the opportunities to be had with AI as he did the risks, and many of the dangers the party is talking about – and, indeed, regulatory solutions like licensing – feature heavily in big tech discussions about the technology. And while Powell doesn’t rule out the possibility of regulating or banning more downstream AI applications, she has repeatedly refused to endorse the EU’s approach, which does precisely this, in favour of positioning the UK under a Labour government as home to a “smart” approach to AI that keeps it globally competitive.

“The UK should be at the forefront of regulation around new technologies, making sure that we are the first to set the rules of the game and are helping to attract businesses looking for certainty and a supportive regulatory framework,” Powell told the Commons in March. Elsewhere she was starker. Tech regulation, Powell recently told Politico, should not simply be a means to “stop the world happening.”

This isn’t terribly distant from the core goals of Sunak’s frontbench tech team, argues the British Academy’s chief executive Hetan Shah, who personally doesn’t think the government’s AI white paper is so terrible (Shah is more concerned about the lack of money given to regulators to operationalise its findings). Nevertheless, he believes that both the Conservatives and Labour still need to flesh out their ideas on AI. Such interventions, he says, “are probably more signals of intent that they’re taking this seriously than, as yet, fully thought-through proposals for policy.”

Labour’s thinking is much clearer on the Online Safety Bill (OSB). Introduced by the government in its current form in 2021, the legislation promises to create a legal duty of care for platforms to prevent the spread of illegal activity, including harassment, fraud and child sex abuse material. Praised by charities as a means for the government to finally get to grips with the worst recesses of the modern internet, the bill has also been heavily criticised by civil liberties groups, IT companies and messaging services for provisions that seem poised to break end-to-end encryption.

Labour has been supportive of the OSB, even attacking the government when it deleted provisions that would force platforms to remove ‘legal but harmful’ content. On encryption, too, the party has been bullish. Like the government, Labour has previously endorsed client-side scanning as a compromise between public privacy on messaging services and the need to root out harmful content. “Tech companies have made significant efforts to frame this issue in the false binary that any legislation that impacts private messaging will damage end-to-end encryption,” said Alex Davies-Jones, Labour’s shadow minister for digital, Culture, Media and Sport, during a Commons debate last June. “That argument is completely false.”

The party’s support of the government on this point alarms experts like the Centre for Policy Studies’ Matthew Feeney, who’s made no secret of his distaste for the OSB generally. “I do think the Labour Party amendments or complaints about it would just make a bad bill worse,” he says. “It’s been very disappointing, I would say in the Lords especially, to see how few Labour peers are willing to stand up for encryption and address, wholeheartedly, the security and privacy concerns.”

On encryption, Powell is more equivocal. “I think we do have to proceed with caution because these things can be very difficult to unpick again if you get them wrong,” she says, reluctant to comment on the OSB’s shape until the House of Lords has finished scrutinising it. But Powell doesn’t seem overly concerned at threats from WhatsApp and Signal that they’ll leave the UK if the bill’s encryption provisions remain intact: “I think, on the whole, social media companies and other companies who are doing the right thing in general shouldn’t have anything to fear from the Online Safety Bill.”

Broadly speaking, says Powell, Labour’s pitch on tech governance is this: that, in a time of profound socio-economic change wrought by digital technology, it is better to have a government in power shaping regulation in the interests of the many, not the few. “Do you want… an active government that is prepared to intervene, shaping that change?” asks Powell. “Or, do you want a more market-driven, laissez-faire, hands-off government that will just create losers as well as winners.”

Powell echoes Starmer in saying that the UK faces a similar economic crossroads as that of the 1980s – though, she adds, it remains an open question whether the economic disruption wrought by generative AI will impact discrete sectors or the entire economy. “But I think when you look at the types of work and the types of jobs that are most potentially affected, they are the lower-skilled, lower-paid workers, those that work in distribution, processing, call centres, a lot of those types of jobs that, ironically…came into the communities that were affected by deindustrialisation before,” she says.

That’s why, says Powell, Labour’s policies around digital upskilling and industrial strategy are so important for UK tech. But is there room for something a bit more radical? Some supporters fear that Labour’s iron message discipline around fiscal rectitude and the need for a predictable, mission-driven government has made it too cautious, afraid it’ll spook the voters in the Red Wall it lost in the previous general election. Indeed, a recent blockbuster profile of Rachel Reeves in the New Statesman revealed the would-be chancellor revelled in her reputation for saying ‘no’ more often than ‘yes’ to any new spending ideas from the shadow cabinet.

This has already resulted in Labour scaling back its pledge to invest £28bn per year in the transition to a greener economy. What this might mean for more tech-specific areas remains to be seen. Last year, Onwurah pledged public and private R&D spending would hit 3% of GDP under a Labour government – £66 billion in 2022 – which would put the UK on a similar level to Germany, Japan and the US. But a recent change in the way the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) calculates that figure means that it’s likely the current Conservative government has already reached that target.

Onwurah partly blames the government for the confusion, and says that Labour is waiting for it to verify the ONS changes. “When we have figures that we feel are going to last more than a few months, then we will be looking more closely at our own target,” she says. But that doesn’t change the fact that new thinking is needed on R&D, adds Onwurah. “If we have actually always been spending a higher proportion of our GDP on R&D than we knew… why aren’t we reaping the rewards that we would expect to see in terms of higher productivity and higher [availability] of science jobs around the country?”

Sovereign capabilities are also an area in which Labour, academics and businesses have criticised the current government as having neglected. Here, again, the opposition has a structuralist approach. On cloud, for example, Powell hints that Labour’s green paper will explain how its planning reforms could help data centres more easily scale, while Onwurah points to reforms in government procurement that would seek to shore up interdepartmental and national tech resilience (thereby avoiding another Huawei-5G debacle) while also expanding the list of outsourcing providers beyond the usual candidates. Uncosted proposals for beating Big Tech at its own game on foundation models, however, are not on the table. BritGPT, says Powell, is “out of any kind of realistic policy agenda, I would think.”

Rishi Sunak agrees. There are other areas, too, where Labour share common ground with the Conservatives. The opposition has been supportive of the government’s Electronic Trade Documents bill and ARIA, though it took exception at the government’s reluctance for the agency to hold onto more of the IP in the projects it funded. Then there’s the creation of DSIT. While Powell says Starmer’s wariness at mirroring his shadow cabinet accordingly is because he’s reluctant for Sunak to define the parameters of how he’ll run his government – “Keir doesn’t necessarily want to have to always jump to that tune” – she hints that the department will probably remain in place, despite the bureaucratic headaches. “There are obvious sorts of benefits to creating a new department,” she says. “It’s really a decision for Keir, one which I know he’s given and is giving thought to.”

Retaining DSIT would be logical, argues Shah. “Certainly my sense from talking to Labour Party people is that they probably would keep [it],” he says. But what the British Academy chief would like to see more discussion about is technology take-up. Too little policy has been announced by both the opposition and the government about how to spur digital technology adoption across swathes of the public and private sectors – more than a little worrying, considering the potential role automation could play in reversing the UK’s steady productivity decline. “One of the things we’ve pushed for within DSIT is the creation of a digital inclusion unit,” says Shah, “where it can really map out the data and the interventions to make sure that everybody is included in the technology.”

The British Academy CEO doesn’t expect that this issue will be talked about at length by Labour or the Conservatives – such topics would be “just too boring” to include in any manifesto. But, argues Shah, “I think there’s an opportunity for both parties in the run-up to the election to say, actually, how do we use the technology – some of which we’ve already got – to change lives here and now.”

It might also be time to inject a bit more public consultation into tech policy, argues Connected by Data’s Jeni Tennison. “We’ve seen in the health domain a really effective use of public deliberation as a mechanism for navigating some of the difficult balances that you have to take between public health uses of data and people’s privacy,” she argues. As AI applications dance their merry jig through societal and economic norms, says Tennison, perhaps regulators like Ofcom should be making greater use of in-house citizen juries to get a better sense about what the public likes and doesn’t like about the perpetual technological revolution.

On citizen juries, Powell is reluctant. “We’re not addressing it as formally as that,” she says. “I think it’s important for politicians to play more of a leadership role in that conservation about why we’re doing things.”

Perhaps Labour’s tech policies don’t need to be that exciting. Judging by the poll numbers the public seems happy, and so does business (the number of corporate attendees at last conference was described as the ‘biggest…since 2010.’) After 13 years of political upheaval, a period of quiet reconstruction in tech policy making might just be what the doctor ordered for UK science and technology. “For me, the very top line thing is, let’s have some policy consistency,” says Shah, who advocates for a long-term funding agenda of the kind that stretches beyond the usual one or two-year time horizons of the Treasury.

More will be revealed by the end of this summer, when Powell says Labour’s ‘green paper’ on the digital economy will finally be published. But with its poll numbers remaining strong and with a general election not expected until 2024 at the earliest, there is also a sense that the party can afford to delay setting out its policy stall a little while longer. “Both parties have been relatively smart in recognising you don’t go too early, because otherwise stuff gets lost,” says Shah.

For her part, Tennison wants more from Labour ahead of the next general election. While she sympathises with the difficulties the party face in getting to grips with the rapid changes facing UK tech, she would also love to see a bolder, more compelling vision emerge from its frontbench team as the general election approaches. “What I’m really looking for,” says Tennison, is for Labour “to really face the fact that data and AI is political. It’s about power – and it’s about whose side you are on as a government.”

This article was first published by Tech Monitor on 26 June.

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