James Coe is Associate Editor for research and innovation at Wonkhe, and a partner at Counterculture

It was an unusually mild October in Scarborough.

The Victorian fascia of the Grand Hotel stared down the promenade upon the faces of Labour Party delegates to their national conference as Harold Wilson, the youngest ever Labour leader at the time, prepared to make the most consequential speech of his early tenure.

Wilson became Labour leader in 1963 following the death of previous incumbent Hugh Gaitskell. Gaitskell had been leader for the previous eight years and had spent most his tenure attempting to chamfer the radicalism of the Labour Party policy platform into a programme of broader appeal. Gaitskellism, as his ideology came to be known as, supported the redistributive policies familiar to Labour supporters but without the attachment to the nationalisation of major industries.

The debate over the role of the state in redistributing wealth, power, and opportunity, was and still is central to the ideological splits within the Labour Party. Where Gaitskell supported a mixed economy Wilson would be seen in contemporary terms as being part of the soft-left of the party – an unapologetic campaigner for working-class interests but with more flexibility in the means of improving their conditions. All of us interested in higher education will most fondly remember Wilson for the establishment of the Open University and it was his speech at the Labour Party conference which set out his quest to establish a new research economy with universities at their heart.

The white heat of technology

Known most of all for “the white heat of technology” in his speech Wilson set out a vision for innovation as a way of radically reshaping the state. His speech swept a history of labour relations, the philosophy of public ownership and the state, couched within the technological conflicts of the Cold War. It is remarkable in its absorption of history but astounding for the simplicity of Wilson’s policy ideas.

Wilson’s main contention was that research and development was directed toward unproductive ends. In the first instance this was a focus on the production of colour televisions, bigger washing machines, and the like. The nice to have but not the world changing. The second was that too much of the profit from innovation was captured by private industry and did not filter down to working people. In Wilson’s view this led to a focus on commercial benefit above research which would truly benefit humankind.

Predecessors and some of his successors would have called for the mass nationalisation of key R&D industries. There is an appealing if not overly simplistic argument which follows that if the state funds and directs innovation it can capture the surplus and use them toward more progressive ends. Jeremy Corbyn, for example, advocated for a publicly owned drugs manufacturer which would supply drugs to the NHS.

With his usual mix of populism and pragmatism Wilson identified a third way between rampant market capitalism and state ownership. His speech that day committed the Labour Party to state sponsorship of key industries. Wilson still believed in the capacity for the private sector to innovate but that it would need an agency to translate those innovations into public goods. In return, the public sector would be compensated for their support and surpluses could be used for other means. His insight was that the public and private sector could have complementary but different roles in the research ecosystem.

To achieve this vision Wilson advocated for a mass training effort of scientists and technicians through the expansion of higher education and the abolition of grammar school which to his view discarded too many young people. The Robbins Report, which concluded under Wilson, granted university status to colleges of advanced technology and led to the rapid expansion of education in the decades to come. Wilson also backed state sponsored apprenticeships across industry, not just within specific employers. And he advocated for the development of technologies which could be used toward overseas development.

On that October day Wilson set out his stall that scientific innovation was the means of developing a prosperous, equal, and dynamic economy, while improving Britain’s place in the world. Wilson also advocated for putting universities in places where there were obvious links to industry to upskill local workforces. He should have called it levelling up or something like that.

The blank piece of paper

Today, the Labour Party is much more cautious in setting out its policy platform. We are potentially a couple of years away from a general election but nonetheless without a compelling vision, narrative, or platform on research, the government’s proposals on building a research led economy suffer from a lack of proper debate, interrogation, or alternatives. For a progressive party which is committed to a market economy with greater distribution of wealth there are areas of clear blue water with the current government.

As Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn pledged that if he was elected his government would spend 3 per cent of GDP on research. The government’s 2.4 per cent target becomes gradually less ambitious as the economy contracts and inflation erodes the real value of investment. As of 2019 the UK spent around 1.7 per cent of GDP on R&D activity. The UK would need to spend 3 per cent of its GDP on R&D to match countries like Austria, Switzerland and Belgium, and closer to 5 per cent to match countries like Israel and Korea. In cash terms the UK’s spending on R&D is close to the level of spending which Korea achieved in 2009. The increases in recent public spending have been large but they are likely not yet large enough.

As Wilson knew there is no route to growing the size of the R&D economy which doesn’t involve the expansion of tertiary education. Labour could rule out a cap on university student numbers tomorrow and promise to establish a new generation of institutes to nurture a technically skilled workforce. This could be universities where Wakefield, Swindon, Blackpool, and Southend would be obvious contenders, or it might be a rapid expansion of the Institute of Technology programme which has seen further and higher education providers work together on developing technical workforces to meet skills shortages. The working conditions of technical staff is an important consideration but there is clear electoral appeal in capital investment, aligned to skills, to build a high value and high wage economy. This is levelling up in action.

Colour by numbers

Clarity of purpose, investment, and providing the workforce of the future, are key to stimulating business growth. R&D cannot solve every social, economic or labour issue, but rapidly expanding the concentration of technologies in the economy does leave wider social considerations. As Wilson put in his speech to the Labour Party conference

Since technological progress left to the mechanisms of private industry and private property can lead only to high profits for a few, a high rate of employment for a few, and to mass redundancies for the many, if there had never been a case for Socialism before, automation would have created it.

The language here reflects the industrial relations of the time but the sentiment is nonetheless important. Then as now the private sector follows public investment which in turn crowds in agglomerate benefits. The extent to which this value is then captured by the state, after all the activity arises from state investment, is crucial. There are ways to innovate around socially valuable activities like more generous R&D tax relief for sustainability projects or where there is business and university collaboration. This won’t be enough to move the dial on investment on its own. The UK’s Innovation Strategy sets out seven research families but these already stretching priorities are pulled to breaking point when adding in moonshots, roadmaps, and the like, on top.

In America, Joe Biden has set a target to cure cancer and cut cancer death rates by 50 per cent in the next twenty five years. Labour needs an equally large and straight forward goal to rally investment and enthusiasm around. Imagine a Labour Party which commits to being the first OECD country to hit net zero and sets out the training, investment, and improvements of life to get there. The UK could be a true global leader in this field and improve the life chances of all its inhabitants while it is at it.

As conference season approaches there is a vacuum of research policy for Labour to fill. To recapture the ambition of Harold Wilson:

The Britain that is going to be is going to need you.

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