The Appliance Of Science: Why Labour Lags Behind The Tories As The Party Of The Future

The most important announcement today was one you won’t have heard of.

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As it tries to prove its northern credentials, there’s no question that Boris Johnson’s government has a lot of big decisions on its plate. Today’s decision to ‘nationalise’ the Northern Rail franchise was a signal of interventionist intent, as was the PM’s apparently soothing reply to ‘Red Wall’ Tories calling in PMQs for HS2 to go ahead.

Yet away from the headlines - and the coming few days will inevitably be dominated by Brexit Day and Johnson’s plans for a UK-EU trade deal - something very significant was also announced today, with little fanfare. Science minister Chris Skidmore told Policy Exchange that he was “working at pace” to get a UK Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA to its friends) “up and running this year”.

Why does this matter? Well, ARPA (for more detail read PX’s new report) has been championed by chief adviser Dominic Cummings as one of the most important initiatives of this entire government. It aims to pursue high-risk, high-reward transformative research, with the hope that it can help create a new generation of world-leading British start-ups in science and tech. Getting it up and running this year would be a huge feat.

Cummings has told colleagues that the new body (loosely modelled on the US’s DARPA that helped fuel Silicon Valley) will have failed unless it produces a high rate of failures. But for every three failures, one breakthrough could be huge, and Whitehall had better be braced for this brand new culture, insiders say. The Huawei decision this week underlined the lack of a home-grown tech giant to rival the Chinese firm, as well as SonyEricsson, Samsung and Nokia.

Soon after he started work in No.10 last summer, Cummings arrived in a T-shirt with the logo ‘Sci Foo’, a science conference held by Google at its California HQ. His many blogs have focused on the economic potential for a post-Brexit Britain of investing in science, tech and mathematics.

Early on he is said to have told some bemused spads that Johnson’s government could be remembered more for “radical science” than for Brexit. Some critics are naturally wary of Cummings’ ‘scientist as hero’ narrative, but at least he is painting a picture of a country with high-skilled jobs that can also finally crack its productivity problems.‌

Dominic Cummings, political advisor to prime minister Boris Johnson, leaves 10 Downing Street.
Dominic Cummings, political advisor to prime minister Boris Johnson, leaves 10 Downing Street.

Skidmore himself made a speech last week - in Durham University, near all those newly blue seats in the north east - detailing plans to boost the best manufacturing research across the whole of the UK. He and the PM committed to doubling the public R&D budget over five years, a big step towards the manifesto target of spending 2.4% of GDP on R&D by 2027.

Speaking of manifestos and the election, it was striking just how much the Tories talked about science. The word appeared just once in Labour’s manifesto, but 21 times in the Conservatives’ prospectus. Johnson made a big speech about it, Jeremy Corbyn didn’t. Way back in 2016, the chair of ‘Scientists for Labour’ claimed that “Corbyn himself has no interest in science”, a line disputed at the time but which many critics believe has been proved right since.

All of which is even more curious given Labour’s political history. Harold Wilson back in 1963 made an electrifying speech as Opposition leader with that famous line about forging a new economy in the “white heat” of a “scientific revolution”. Wilson had a chequered history on science projects, although his landmark Open University became the defining legacy of his vision of a modernised, educated nation.

It’s worth reading that Wilson speech in full (thanks to Nottingham Uni you can do so HERE) to get a measure of just how forward-thinking he was and how his powerful message was all about transforming a tired old country. He wrote afterwards that his aim had been to “replace the cloth cap [with] the white laboratory coat as the symbol of British labour”, and he largely achieved it.‌

Contrast that with Corbyn, whom many voters felt wanted to take the UK backwards to the 1970s, and whose one modernising policy (free broadband) was simply deemed too incredible or peripheral to people’s lives. Labour actually pledged in its manifesto to get to 3% of R&D spending by 2030, but (apart from John McDonnell) few in the party actually shouted about it. The pharmaceutical industry said the UK’s research base would in fact be damaged by plans to overturn patents for breakthrough medicines and phase out R&D tax credits.

As it happens, all of the Labour leadership candidates seem to get that Corbyn just didn’t sound forward-looking enough. Selling ‘change’ to voters involves selling a vision of the future that is accessible, attractive and credible. Keir Starmer (who has been talking about the importance of AI and tech) is rightly running on a slogan of ‘another future is possible’.

Yet he will need to do much more to draft new science, tech and research policies to get his party back on the pitch it vacated. All of this may seem marginal to some, but Wilsonian optimism is what ended those long years of post-war Tory rule. If Labour is to avoid a decade of post-Brexit Tory rule, it needs something similarly positive. As Johnson clearly grasps, a party that owns the future often gets to own the present.

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Cheat Sheet

The UK government has commissioned a charter plane to fly home 200 Britons from Wuhan, on the condition they agree to two weeks of ‘supported isolation’ at an unidentified medical facility in Britain. No.10 just doesn’t like the word ‘quarantine’.

MEPs in Strasbourg sang Auld Lang Syne after their final vote on the Withdrawal Agreement that formally secured the UK’s exit from the European Union.

Private rail firm Arriva was stripped of the Northern Rail franchise by transport secretary Grant Shapps after “unacceptable” delays, cancellations and dirty trains. But half the delays were due to infrastructure failures.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived for talks with Dominic Raab. Pompeo, who told reporters he wants ‘a conversation’ over the UK’s decision to allow Huawei to help build its 5G network, meets the PM tomorrow.

Rebecca Long-Bailey has formally made the final ballot in the Labour leadership election, after firefighters union the FBU endorsed her. She now has the required three affiliates for the final round, with Unite and the Baker’s Union already having given their support.

Select committee chairs were elected by MPs, with Jeremy Hunt getting Health, Tom Tugendhat Foreign Affairs, Tobias Ellwood Defence, Greg Clark Science and Tech, Stephen Timms Work and Pensions.

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