Why Tom Watson as Deputy Labour Leader is Great News for Nerds

By James O Malley on at

Politicians have never had a particularly good relationship with technology. For some reason, though intrinsic to our lives, tech isn't given the same respect as, say, economics or defence matters. And for anyone who at least knows a little bit about how computers work, it can be immensely frustrating.

For example, even the Prime Minister can get away with saying something as ludicrous as wanting to "ban encryption". Whilst the nerds will howl with laughter, they're drowned out by people who don't know what they're talking about muttering in vague agreement.

To the nerds, the idea of "banning encryption" is as absurd as if Cameron were to advocate reducing NHS waiting times by legislating to increase the length of a day to 25 hours.

And this is why last weekend had some good news. Whatever you think of new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, the election of his deputy Tom Watson is definitely good news for nerds.

If the name rings a bell, it is probably because Watson took part in the famous Parliamentary show-down with Rupert Murdoch at the height of the phone-hacking scandal. He also looks a little bit like the actor Nick Frost.

Watson, who is MP for West Bromwich East, has long been a champion of all things digital: He was an early adopter of Twitter and one of the first MPs to write a blog. Crucially though, when it comes to digital issues he actually sounds like he knows what he is talking about. Watson has been consistent friend of the nerds in many of his positions.

For example, Watson has been a consistent opponent of the so-called Snooper's Charter, which would grant the state new, draconian surveillance powers. Back in June, Watson teamed up with Conservative MP David Davis to mount a legal challenge to the law.

Watson has also spoken out on surveillance more generally, following the Snowden revelations.

On copyright too, Watson has expressed support for what are widely viewed more sensible approaches to file sharing and intellectual property in the digital age. In 2009 he wrote about how heavy-handed regulation could strangle creative talent, saying that:

"I'm convinced that our economic future is dependent on developing a set of economic and regulatory arrangements (which includes copyright, the mechanism at the heart of the file-sharing debate) to hothouse our digital entrepreneurs. Current proposals appear to me to do nothing for this set of people.

"Not only do the sanctions ultimately risk criminalising a large proportion of UK citizens, but they also attach an unbearable burden on an emerging technology that has the power to transform society, with no guarantees at the end that our artists and our culture will get any richer."

He also supported the campaign to prevent the extradition of student Richard O'Dwyer, who the US wanted to prosecute for creating a TV show sharing website.

Watson has been active on mobile too. Last year he posted this fascinating counter-intuitive take on national roaming, which sounds like a good thing. National Roaming is the idea that phone networks will be made to let you connect to other networks if signal for your network isn't available - for example, if there's only O2 signal where you are, you would connect to that even if you're on EE. National Roaming should mean that rural phone reception will get better... right?

Essentially, Watson argue that such a move will make networks less inclined to maintain their rural networks when they assume customers can simply roam on a rival network - something which would actually degrade the quality of rural phone service. Even if you disagree with his assessment, you can appreciate the fact that he understands the issues.

Under Gordon Brown, Tom Watson was also Minister for Digital Engagement as part of the Cabinet Office, and in his role pushed both open standards and open source software as alternatives to those stupid, massive and expensive IT projects which always cause massive scandals.

And perhaps best of all? Tom Watson is a gamer too. At the end of last year he offered his round-up of the best games of the year to the New Statesman, particularly picking Wolfenstein: The New Order and Destiny as his favourites.


So this all sounds great, right? Obviously Tom Watson isn't perfect - but then he is a politician. For example, he has proved a sometimes controversial figure in the Labour Party (the prospect of him taking over Corbyn has been likened to swapping Trotsky for Stalin) and I personally disagree with his support of the unworkable Leveson proposals.

But what is clear is that unlike the vast majority of other politicians, when it comes to digital matters at least Tom Watson knows his stuff. So rather than starting from first principles, the digital debates of the future will at least have a major, well informed participant. And that can only be a good thing.