Liam Byrne: To make it in the modern world, we need to make a big bet

Posted On: 
16th November 2017

Liam Byrne fears Britain is in danger of being left behind in the global technological revolution. But the Labour frontbencher believes all is not lost – so long act as ministers act now. He talks to Elizabeth Bates

Shadow Digital Minister Liam Byrne
PA Images

Liam Byrne can’t get a phone signal in his Parliamentary office, but is not letting that stop him from plotting a tech revolution.

“I’m building a film studio,” he tells me as I climb the stairs into what is best described as a Portcullis House attic room.

In a building where mice chew through the internet cables and messages are still hand delivered on bits of paper, the Shadow Digital Minister is determined to spark a digital rebirth.

His office is creating videos, developing software and dreaming up grand plans for Parliament’s technological awakening.   

“Why doesn’t Parliament have a podcast platform?” he asks, exasperated.

He will set out a new vision for MPs – some of whom still don’t have a Twitter account – before the end of the year, and though full of enthusiasm he is also frustrated at the limitations imposed by his antiquated working environment.

“My own view is that we should be actively exploring building a new parliament. If you think this place burnt down in 1830-something, and this great Victorian power built a fantastic symbol to what was then the super power of the steam age.

“The challenge for Britain today is how do we move from the super power of the steam age to the super power of the digital age. Wouldn’t it be magnificent if we created a new Palace of Westminster that was a beacon of strength in the digital era? A fully modern building that was set up for the 21st century, rather than the 19th century.”

And his impatience at the slow rate of progress extends far beyond Westminster.

Byrne is excited at the possibilities created by technological innovations but warns that Britain is in danger of being left behind.

Our global competitors are surging ahead, he says, with China in particular poised to “seize the gap” left by fading Western powers.

“I have written before of the red-tech revolution that is transforming the Chinese economy. Next year China will become the world’s number one science spender. The biggest tech floats on the Nasdaq are Chinese firms. They are using science and enterprise to catch us up faster and faster.”    

While Britain argues about which historical figures should be on its banknotes, the Chinese are “about to become the first cashless society on earth,” he says.

But as some of his colleagues complain that the UK’s economy cannot be transformed whilst it is bogged down in Brexit negotiations, the Shadow Digital Minister is more optimistic.

There are opportunities, he says, but the Government must play its part by investing in education and skills, using procurement to support new business and, most importantly, creating a compelling vision for economic transformation.  

“Alongside decoupling [from the EU] has got to come the creation of a bold new plan like [Harold] Wilson’s vision of white heat in the 1960s, for a new Britain to emerge.

“For a party that worries about inequality, that is a political necessity because there are 1.56million jobs in the digital sector today. On average, they pay £577 a week – that is 40% higher than the average job. 

“So, if we want to give Britain a pay rise one of the things we should be doing is creating an economy where there are millions more digital jobs, but that isn’t going to happen on its own.”

For Byrne, the meagre and misplaced ambitions of the current crop of ministers will fall woefully short of achieving such a transformation.

“Liam Fox [International Trade Secretary] says we are going to shred regulations and we are going to thrive. You know what? If we shred the data regulations, we will not have free movement of data between Europe and Britain. That will stop three quarters of our service exports.

 “So, we have got the think more realistically about how we pay our way on the world and if we are going to make it we have got to make a big bet. We need to make a significant investment in becoming one of the world’s leading cyber powers and right now we’re not there.”

If we fail to make the investment and seize the momentum, he continues, the risks are stark.

Byrne joins an ever-growing chorus of voices warning that if Britain fails to join the technological revolution it could instead become of a victim of it, as new business models make traditional jobs obsolete.    

“I reckon about a third of the English working-class work in transportation. Alec Ross [US tech entrepreneur and former Hillary Clinton advisor] thinks it’s about half of the American working class. So, the combination of drone delivery and automated vehicles could wipe out more working-class jobs than the collapse of coal, ship-building and steel put together. That is a significant problem.”   

Central to his argument is the belief that the neo-liberal economic model that has dominated the past half century and was espoused by New Labour is defunct and must be replaced.

 “The faster it’s buried the better,” he says.

“I am one of the few people who have been trying to move the Labour party on from what I call the three i’s of New Labour, which was Iraq, immigration and inequality.

“The challenge of political movements changes. New Labour’s reluctance to engage in the argument about inequality was for me the biggest reason for moving on from that phase of politics.”

He considers the unwillingness to acknowledge this as pivotal to the downfall of New Labour. Reflecting on his time at the heart of Gordon Brown’s faltering government, he describes how this influenced the 2010 general election.  

“We realised that there had been plateauing living standards for a critical group of voters since 2004 and that analysis became what is now called the ‘squeezed middle’.

“We had a political Cabinet at the end of September 2009 and then we had a discussion in Cabinet in March 2010 and I said even if we haven’t got all the policy answers now we have got to show that we understand and empathise with this group of voters who have had flat living standards since 2004. And sure enough that was the group of voters that turned against us in the 2010 election, which we lost.”

So, does this mean Byrne believes the next phase of Britain’s economic development will be delivered by lifelong socialists Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell? 

“Yes, I think it will actually,” he replies.

“What Jeremy has done has broken the mould.

“I think you need a different political and economic model. The manifesto that we published was a really good summary of a lot of the changes that were needed, and his instruction to all of us now is figure out the detail and I’m lucky to be part of that project.” 

And with recent shifts in the polls making the project ever more likely to be a programme for Government, Byrne could be part of implementing these ambitious plans in the near future.

Let’s just hope he can get a phone signal.