Photo-bombing the Shadow Chancellor: A Day at a Labour Conference

Last Friday, I represented BCS at the Labour ‘Road to Brexit’ Conference, primarily to drum up support for the recently released BCS ‘Digital Brexit’ Report, which is now available to read.

The Conference came some seven hours after a Labour by-election defeat in Copeland, a seat traditionally redder than strawberry jam. I arrived early and there seemed to me a paucity of people sat in the first few rows behind the crème de la crème of Shadow Cabinet Members, including Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn.

This is what went through my head at least as I set down in the second row and patted myself on the back for getting a seat so near to the front. It was sometime later, when the hall had completely filled out, that I noticed the large sign reading ‘reserved’ that I was sat on and the slightly annoyed faces of various Labour employees looking for spaces towards the front and the gaggle of political reporters sat on the row before mine.

In the very vision of Kafkaesque decision making, I either had to trawl across about eight chairs which held various members of the Shadow Cabinet to take my rightful industry seat some way back, or grind it out and hope for the best. Anyhow, I went for the second option and ended up briefly appearing on the BBC homepage next to John McDonnell. The Shadow Cabinet may have had its fair share of reshuffles over the past year, but I don’t think Labour are quite at that level of desperation. I would also like to take this chance to apologise to the researcher next to me who asked whether I worked for the Party, to which I responded “yes” while turning a violent shade of crimson.

My faux pas aside, this was a genuinely useful Conference which gave the impression that Labour leadership is considering issues arising from Brexit and how we are going to deal with them, as opposed to merely debating the Referendum result from 2016. To the millions of you who tuned in for the House of Lords Debate on the Brexit Bill last week, this alteration in thought was largely present there too.

There were four expert panel sessions, in addition to Jeremy Corbyn’s first public statement following the Stoke and Copeland by-elections. Rather than spend too long on Mr. Corbyn’s speech (no, he isn’t quitting), the rest of this blog will focus on the panels and broader implications that you could garner from this Conference for BCS and the tech-industry.

The first panel was a broad discussion on ‘meeting the Brexit challenge’ featuring, among others, Sir Keir Starmer, Shadow Brexit Secretary, Frances O’Grady, Secretary General of the Trade Union Council (TUC) and Carolyn Fairbairn, Director General of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI). There was frankly a staggering level of agreement between the TUC and CBI, organisations which are often diametrically opposed, which shows how topsy-turvy politics has become in the past year.

The crux of the agreement between all panellists was that we need as much certainty as possible early in negotiations. Although they were mostly referring to issues such as our trading relationship outside of the Single Market, it’s an important issue for BCS too. As outlined in our Brexit Report, concrete positions on issues such as the Digital Single Market and cybersecurity are important for the tech-industry as early on during negotiations as is feasible. Nor is the Single Market a distant concept for many of our members who work for or run organisations who benefit from it on a daily basis.

My new mate John McDonnell, Shadow Chancellor, headed the next panel session on getting the best deal for jobs and workers. Unsurprisingly, at a Labour-led conference, workers’ rights were at the forefront of this session. There was unanimity regarding the necessity of workers’ rights enshrined by European law being part of the upcoming Great Repeal Bill (where we decide what elements of European law to incorporate into our domestic statutes). It is easy to forget the important legislation that has come from Brussels on this matter, with there being no guarantee apart from in European law for benefits we now take for granted, like paid holiday leave.

After a reinvigorating lunch where I studiously avoided the researcher I was set next to earlier in the day, we moved to the afternoon session. Emily Thornberry, Shadow Foreign Secretary, led a talk about foreign policy ramifications post-Brexit. As a self-confessed foreign policy obsessive, I found this fascinating, although it was probably the least useful session from a BCS perspective. That is unless we’re planning on opening a member group in the South China Sea imminently.

However, one interesting point came from Kate Allen, Amnesty International Director and Craig Bennett, the CEO of Friends of the Earth, when they mentioned how difficult it was to get anyone to pay attention to green or humanitarian problems at present. It is telling when organisations with the cache of Friends of the Earth and Amnesty International are fighting to get their views heard in policy circles and it illustrates the plethora of issues which policymakers are trying to understand in the Brexit context. It also shows why we must continue to make our voice heard on the issues key to us, it is very easy to get your voice lost in the shuffle with so much going on.

The final session related to the UK regions and Brexit. It starred Rebecca Long-Bailey, who has been Shadow Secretary of State for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy since Clive Lewis resigned. While this may not sound the most thrilling session at first, it contained the most important questioning of the day from a BCS perspective. The point was raised that some industries, ours included, are disproportionately reliant on medium/high skilled workers from abroad to plug the growing skills gap in tech.

This is an issue that is not focussed on enough when both major parties are, somewhat understandably, hugely concerned by issues of immigration. The responses were admirable in their commitment to ‘drive growth across the country’. But they were not wholly convincing in how the Government or Labour are going to marry together a population that overwhelmingly wants more stringent immigration controls, with key industries that require immigration to thrive. So, the onus is very much on us to make the case for the importance of having enough digital talent to fill vacancies.

Overall, the day offered a ray of hope and a potentially threatening cloud. The UK is about to embark upon the greatest set of negotiations since the end of WW2. Irrespective of views on whether Brexit is right or wrong it incontrovertibly is going to be a challenge to get it right. But at least we are now having the conversations about results, not Referendum and that is absolutely a positive. 

Theo Knott, Policy & Parliamentary Affairs Officer

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The BCS Policy team works to inform and drive the debate on public and private IT policy developments.

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December 2017

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