‘It would be ludicrous to make digital policy in a way that wasn’t digital’ – Labour MP’s crowdsourced plan for the UK’s technology future

Shadow digital minister Liam Byrne launches ‘slightly mad experiment’ to help set the party’s digital agenda

Credit: Liam Byrne/People’s Plan

Labour’s shadow digital minister Liam Byrne has unveiled the People’s Plan, a crowdsourcing initiative he hopes will help create the party’s next wave of digital policy.

Byrne has launched a website, where registered users can put forward ideas, or suggest additions or alterations to the ideas of others. The site will also host regular ‘viewpoint’ videos, with a range of commentators offering their thoughts on how to make the UK “the world’s most advanced digital society”. Early contributions have been made by Labour deputy leader Tom Watson, anti-extremism activist Sajda Mughal, and computer scientist Dr Sue Black.

Discussion will also be promoted by devoting months to certain topics, such as digital skills, cybercrime, or starting a new business. 

Ideas are grouped into areas, including trust, infrastructure, skills, security, jobs, and government. The plan is that ideas generated via the People’s Plan will feed directly into a digital policy green paper that Labour intends to publish in July. 

If we want to give Britain a pay rise, growing the digital economy is one of the most important things we can do

The launch of the initiative at a national level follows a similar scheme in the West Midlands earlier this year, which shadow digital minister described as “the most interesting thing I have ever done in 25 years of doing policy”.

“I became convinced that it would be ludicrous for me to try and make digital policy in a way that wasn’t digital,” he added. “[The old] model of policymaking is totally and utterly out of date. Digital democracy is opening up the policymaking process in a radical new way.”

But the People’s Plan is not just intended to help policymakers from Byrne’s side of the house, as the shadow digital minister explained when PublicTechnology asked him what would happen if the people Labour hopes to hear from come up with a plan that seems in opposition to the party’s core values.

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“We have to make particular choices in terms of what we pull out and use in the manifesto. There will definitely be ideas in there that will not share key Labour values,” he said. “I have launched this as a parliamentarian, as much as anything else. This is available to anyone. I will pull out the stuff that rhymes and chimes with the stuff that we want to present, but the nature of it being transparent is that people can [use the ideas as they wish].”

Byrne said he would “get the ball rolling” by picking out a couple of areas where Labour particularly wants to design new policy fit for the digital age.

He said: “Possibly the most important thing we have got are these old-fashioned knowledge factories called ‘universities’. But they are underfunded. We spend less than 3% of our GDP on R&D – unlike our competitors. Universities in Berlin, Stuttgart, or Munich, will proudly say ‘we are the R&D department of the mittelstand’ (German small and mid-sized business economy). Our universities do not power the small business base as they do in other countries.”

Byrne added: “The second is tax. We are locked in a global race to the bottom on tax, it is destroying our fiscal base. The tax system just doesn’t work for a 21st century economy. The Tories will always say it is the supply of capital that is the most important thing in an economy. That is not true anymore – it is the supply of innovation.”

The People’s Plan is part of a wider ambition on the part of Byrne and his party to create policy and initiatives in support of the aim of advancing the UK’s digital standing. Byrne said that how to promote digital advancement without widening inequality – particularly the digital-skills inequality between the south east and the rest of the UK – or causing job losses is an important “question for people on the left”. But he characterised himself as a “techno optimist”.

“One of the messages the Labour party have to get through is that we should be optimistic,” he said. “Sure, if the wrong people get in charge, then technology has the chance to drive massive inequalities. But that is the job of politics, to drive the debate. And the ambition that we should set is to become the world’s most advanced digital society.”

Byrne (pictured right) claimed that the average weekly wage in “knowledge-intensive industries” is £577, compared with a national average of £416.50.

“If we want to give Britain a pay rise, growing the digital economy is one of the most important things we can do,” he said. “But the knowledge economy is very concentrated in the south-east. There are superstars like Dundee or Aberdeen, but in terms of our regions there are [generally] massive inequalities.”

To make good on the ambition of becoming the globe’s most digitally advanced society will, in essence, require four things, Byrne said: more skills; better infrastructure; tougher cybercrime legislation; and stronger consumer rights. 

While he remained optimistic about the his – people’s – plan to design the policy that would deliver those goals, Byrne acknowledged that it is not without its risks. 

He said: “It may be a complete disaster – we may fail dramatically. It may be taken apart by the Russians. But we will learn a bunch of stuff doing this.

“I hope you will join me in this slightly mad experiment.”

Sam Trendall

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