The Lib Dems are the natural home for tech workers, and the tech industry need Liberalism

Mar 1, 2019

Imagine a world where individuals worked by themselves and together, to build a better tomorrow. Where respect is earned through hard work, people are treated as equals and the best ideas win.

Does this sound similar to anything?

If you’re a Liberal, this sounds like a big part of Liberalism - people free to work together, without coercion, to fulfil their individual needs and find self-actualisation through their work and their creations. And if you’re a Free Software advocate, this sounds a lot like a sanitised story of how the internet was created.

This is no coincidence. Early pioneers of the internet often also held very Liberal values - freedom, equality, a desire for meritocracy over hierarchy. More idea sharing, less working up the corporate ladder. More code, less suits. And these are values that pervade the tech industry today, with the average coder more likely to wear a t-shirt than a shirt, and more likely to be judged on the merit of their work than simply their time served.

Tech has reached out beyond silicon valley and disrupted many industries with new ideas developed within our sector. “Challenger banks” have caught slower competition out by developing features customers have yearned for, online shopping has made people question just how much they need to leave their houses to buy more and more of their daily and one-off goods, and old ideas like dedicated home phones and quaint postal letters have been decimated by new technology. Even in politics, new ideas have disrupted old thinking and big upsets have been attributed to data, used intelligently.

It seems, by this telling, that the digital world has already achieved what Liberals set out to create.

But not so fast.

The reality of tech is more complex. Whilst largely a more meritocratic system than in other industries, a scar of discrimination runs through the sector. Women, essential to the development of the early industry, have overwhelmingly found themselves excluded through both active discrimination and passive “brogrammer” culture. Some ethnic minorities, too, have found their previously disadvantaged situations exacerbated by a largely white workforce writing software for white consumers - and, of course, have found themselves excluded from lucrative new jobs through a lack of education and opportunity.

The “old guard” have rebuffed efforts to remedy this, preferring a “colourblind” approach that mirrors the ideological battles that raged through Liberalism in the last century. Actively sexist, racist, sometimes even criminal members of the open source community have been protected by a culture that becomes toxic around race and gender.

Elsewhere, disruption has often been blind to the devastation wreaked on individuals and communities. The explosion of instant messaging has enabled lynch mobs to organise and outmanoeuvre local law enforcement, with deadly results. Social media, unregulated and outpacing regulators, has moved dystopian ideas closer to reality. And let us not forget that the “disruption” to politics contributed significantly to both a would-be fascist in the white house and a ruinous rift between us and our closest allies and partners in this world.

Answers haven’t been forthcoming, either - politicians often reach for ideas like “banning encryption” and “blocking websites”, blind to the facts and with no informed stakeholders to talk them down. Even within the Liberal Democrats, often the most informed voices on this subject are not even in the conversation.

It’s clear that the ideas and tenets behind free software, and a lot of the values held by tech workers today, are very compatible with Liberalism and the Liberal Democrats. Tech workers can make huge contributions in parts of the party that sorely need work - in understanding our digital world, in enriching our policy, and in leveraging new technology to relay our message.

It’s also clear that the tech industry needs an injection of those Liberal values.