A future Labour government looks to pin its tech sector hopes on open source

Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for science and innovation.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Support for the UK open source community will be a key technology policy focus for a future Labour government, according to Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for science and innovation.

Speaking at State of Open Con 2024, Onwurah described herself as a strong supporter of open source, citing it as an important “opportunity to democratize technology.”

Core to Labour’s mission with open source will be engendering a sense of empowerment in the UK tech workforce.

“Often my constituents feel software, technology, is something that is done to them rather than with them and for their benefits,” she said. “I want people to feel empowered to take control of the software that rules their workplaces and personal lives.”

Onwurah suggested open source values and practices could help provide a greater level of access to the skills and materials needed to thrive in software development, particularly in rural areas.

“Remote work is a norm in open source, creating job opportunities for people in all regions of the country based on their skills,” she added.

“I want my constituents in the North East to have access to great jobs without having to get the train down to London.”

With 20 years in the tech industry behind her before she moved into politics, Onwurah seems well placed to lead the charge on Labour’s open source policy approach, describing herself as “the closest thing to a dev in the house at the moment.”

As the first keynote speaker at SOOCon, it’s clear that OpenUK is keen to encourage open source recognition in government.

Speaking to ITPro, OpenUK chief executive Amanda Brock said engagement with the Labour Party suggests a growing awareness and understanding of the benefits of open source not only to the technology industry, but the broader UK economy.


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“It is great to see the Labour frontbench, to the extent we've spoken to them, actually engaging in understanding the potential to open up the skills gap in rural areas in particular,” she said.

Brock also stressed, however, the importance and necessity of cross party collaboration on open source, citing the long term collaboration between Conservative Lord Francis Maude and OpenUK.

The ability of open source to “democratize technology” doesn’t just mean empowering workers with skills, either. Brook explained it also means democratizing the industry as a whole.

“Democratization is about building skills, but it's also about opening up innovation, and allowing more to engage,” she told ITPro.

“If you think about it, 30, 40 years ago, we could not have envisioned where the tech sector would go, we did not know how tech was going to permeate our everyday lives,” she added. “Now we understand that better, we also need to think about who owns that technology.”

Regulation needs to accommodate for open source

With optimism about the collaboration between government and open source, there is also realism about the necessity of regulations. As ever with tech industry regulation, government policy needs to be pragmatic, offering a combination of both protection and innovation. 

There is a need for “well targeted activist regulation to be both pro-growth and pro-innovation” according to Onwurah, who further noted that Labour had been clear on its intended support for open source in this area.

“We've been clear that a Labour government would urgently introduce binding regulation on a small group of companies developing the most powerful AI models,” she stated.

“We're also proposing a regulatory innovation office which would thrive the pro-innovation regulatory agenda,” she added. “Regulation can be a barrier to innovation. So that office would look to remove the regulatory barriers to innovation.”

The Regulatory Innovation Office (RIO) in question was added to the Labour party’s agenda in November 2023.

Brock echoed the importance of a cautionary approach to regulation, suggesting that increased levels of compliance can have knock-on effects in the open source community.

“You’ve still got to think about individuals and how individuals make their income, and they make their income from those skills, and if they're contributing to open source, the chances are, they're making their income around that,” she told ITPro.

“And if you are commercializing open source, you're gonna have liability,” she added. “So I want to make sure that the smaller developers and the small companies are also protected because, if you've got 44 standards to comply with, that's a lot of burden to put on somebody.

“We need to think about how we build a future, allowing the people who want to collaborate to do that, allowing them to build innovation and drive adoption, but in a way that is fair and equitable.”

George Fitzmaurice
Staff Writer

George Fitzmaurice is a staff writer at ITPro, ChannelPro, and CloudPro, with a particular interest in AI regulation, data legislation, and market development. After graduating from the University of Oxford with a degree in English Language and Literature, he undertook an internship at the New Statesman before starting at ITPro. Outside of the office, George is both an aspiring musician and an avid reader.