Chi Onwurah MP talks to Opencast

9 August 2023

For the opening event of this summer's TechNext festival, Opencast welcomed to its HQ Chi Onwurah, the MP for Newcastle Central and Labour's front bench spokesperson on science, research and innovation. Chi joined Opencast chief executive Tom Lawson for a fireside chat about her career in tech and politics – and the opportunities for the North East and UK.

Tell us about your background growing up in the North East.

“My mother was Geordie-Irish and my father was Nigerian, so I am Geordie-Irish-Nigerian, and a proud member of all those diasporas. I was born in Wallsend but we moved to Nigeria when I was a baby, then the Biafran war broke out and after two years of war my mother brought us kids back to Newcastle. We arrived here with nothing.

“I grew up on a council estate in North Kenton in Newcastle, and we had nothing – it was real poverty. I went to Kenton School and we had a fantastic education system and teachers. My mum had cancer and the NHS saved her life. Basically, I'm a product of great public services and I’m really grateful for that.”

“I knew from the age of seven that I would go into science and engineering. As someone who's passionate about attracting more young people to science and engineering I have thought a lot about why that was. Growing up in a region that cares about making and building things, where you saw the Tyne Bridge, shipbuilding and the products of engineering everywhere: I found that inspiring.

“I owe so much to the region I'm from in terms of my values. It's not political, but a sense of social awareness and international solidarity is very strong in this region. I think it still drives our interest in change and progress, and a belief in the power of technology and industry. That’s what made me.”

“I went to Imperial in London, which was one of the worst experiences of my life. The contrast to my socialist and inclusive upbringing, at Imperial in the 1980s was great. I’ve lived in France, Denmark, the US and Nigeria – my biggest culture shock was moving from Newcastle to London. But when I graduated, as a career engineering was everything I'd hoped for.”

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Chi Onwurah talks to Tom Lawson

Tell us about your career in technology before politics.

“My first job, sponsored during my last year at Imperial, was with Northern Telecom, where I worked for my first five years. They manufactured switches for public and private telecoms exchanges and I designed telecoms switching systems.

“The work was about interconnectivity – and that's one of the reasons why I'm such a great supporter and fan of open source, because I spent about two years working on standardised signalling systems for boxes to be able to talk to each other. It was so much work, talking to different people, with so many arguments. But once it worked, and all the boxes could talk to each other, it was so much better for both for customers but also for applications.

“Then I worked in product management in the UK, for Cable & Wireless, developing one of the first international virtual private networks (VPNs). Then I worked for a start-up in the US: we were looking at optical fixed networking, which is coming back now.

“The company didn’t ultimately survive. It was terrifying but actually really great experience to work for a company that went down – you learned so much about what makes a company succeed. You also learned so much about how the markets and investors react. This was during the dotcom crash of 2000.

“Then I worked in Nigeria, building out their first GFM network, which was also amazing and one of the things I'm proudest of.

“I came back to the UK to work for Ofcom, which was about future-looking regulation for competition. In 2010 we had the most competitive broadband network in the country, thanks in part to local unbundling, which was basically shared infrastructure access.

“Now, unfortunately, we have the re-monopolisation effectively of a lot of our broadband networks, and that is because governments need to look at competition as well as infrastructure deployment. These are things I've learned from rolling out networks in this country and abroad.”

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The session was the first of TechNExt 2023

What prompted your move from tech into politics?

“I joined the Labour party when I was 16, and my mum absolutely made sure I understood that you didn't get a fantastic education for free without the struggle of working people for centuries, so I was always interested in politics.

“I loved being an engineer, but I think particularly working in Nigeria helped me realise that I could design the best broadband network in the world. But who got to use it, whether they had the skills to have the best use of it, whether it got built in the first place when it came to regulation and the impact it had – those were all political decisions. I wanted to be part of those.

“Also, as a woman engineer, I was always the only woman. In a lab, I was often the only working class person, the only person of colour, the only northerner. It was very isolating, and I wanted to be part of changing that.

“The MP For Newcastle Central announced he was standing down in 2010. If I was going to go to politics, I wanted to represent the people I grew up with, so that’s when I put my hat into the ring.

“Harriet Harman, who was then deputy leader of the Labour Party, realised that if we went on as we were, it would be 2300 before we had gender parity in the Labour Party amongst MPs. So she introduced all-women shortlists.

“Newcastle Central was an all-woman shortlist, and that meant that only women could apply. Some people objected to that, but it convinced me that the Labour Party was serious about wanting women, and that was really important.

“That also taught me that organisations need to make real commitment to change for diversity and inclusion. Over the last 20 years the Labour Party has achieved gender parity when it comes to MPs. It’s a great advert for the need for cultural change to come from the top.”

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Tom Lawson led the discussion

What are the big tech opportunities for the North East?

“As well as a motivated, intelligent, driven and passionate people, we have fantastic universities, research-intensive and also skills-focused universities in the region.

“Newcastle has a fantastic teaching hospital, so a long history of looking at health and health inequalities. The whole industrial base which has been unfortunately reduced over the past three or four decades, but also has a role as a driver for our future.

“Right now we have real strengths in digital. We have 5,000 students studying computer science across the region – and have real strengths in the pure sciences as well. We have real strengths in health. We have some of the best health research in dementia and mitochondrial DNA in the world, actually.

“And also operationalising digital – so systems, processes, all that back office stuff, we're making that work for companies big and small. We have huge potential here because we can get access to digital skills. We’ve also got a much better quality of life here for a young professional than in London.”

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A full house at Opencast HQ

What are the big tech challenges for the region and UK wide?

“Number one and two would be access to capital and skills – which is a contradiction given that we've got so many great universities and so many people studying the subjects that we need. But because we need a broader ecosystem of start-up, medium-size and large-scale companies, which is what you need to be able to attract and grow people, we're not there.

“We've got more start-ups, I think, than we've ever had, but we still need that access to capital. It seems to be much more difficult to get venture capital. They always tell me it's not true, but to get them on a train to come to Newcastle than to go to Cambridge for example.

“We have disparities in the investment of research and development from the public sector. The golden triangle attracts more investment, more research and development and public spending than the whole of the rest of the UK.

“We have transport challenges. If we're going to have a concentration – what you need is a cluster with great start-ups and universities altogether - you need to be able to travel between them.”

“We also have a challenge in not talking ourselves up enough. With some of the great research we have here, including our Centre for Ageing and Health and our National Innovation Centre for Data, I would hope that we'd have headlines every other day about the great successes that we have here, and we don't do that enough. We've got to take some responsibility for that.”

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Chi answers audience questions

Tell us a bit about Labour’s plans.

“Keir [Starmer] would never forgive me I didn't say that there's only one poll that counts and that's at a general election. We absolutely recognise that we have to fight for every vote and also set out a future which is positive for the country. That is what we are doing now.

“The Labour Party recognises that technology, science, research and development are the drivers for an economy which delivers good, well-paying productive jobs.

“We've had 13 years without any growth. Wages in the North East – and I just find this terrifying – are in real terms less than they were in 2010.

“We've had a wasted decade, so to get the good jobs that that mean that people can raise a family on, we need to have a technology-driven economy. We also need to obviously address the existential crisis of climate change – and those things can come together.

“Keir talks a lot about a mission-driven government. I don't know where this government has been taking us for the last couple of years or indeed the one before that. We set out clear missions to what a Labour government will achieve and number one is to have the highest sustainable growth in the G7.

“We want an NHS fit for the future, and that means a number of things. It means a workforce plan but it also means using technology to improve and take advantage of the fantastic treatments that are coming through.

“As part of those missions, we want to ensure investment in R&D as a proportion of our GDP rises to 3%. We also want to ensure that happens across our country. We talk about using the regional clusters to drive regional economic growth based around key areas of science and technology.

“In the North East, we have a fantastic health cluster. We have a really good digital cluster as well. Driving that so that the regional businesses benefit better than we have now means sorting out access to capital.

“[Shadow chancellor] Rachel Reeves has been talking about how we will set up a National Wealth Fund, and how we will reform pensions, so there is secure and safe increased access to pension funds for businesses and start-ups.

“We also need to ensure that we have our skills right. So Bridget Phillipson, our shadow secretary state for education, is setting out how we can make the university system fairer and more progressive. We just want to end this kind of sticking plaster politics, so we can have a long-term plan which devolves power to our regions.

“That means not being dependent on Whitehall decision-making, and having the tools and levers here ourselves so that we can drive the economy based on our skills and our values.”

Tom: "Let's move on to some questions from the audience..."

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Tom and Chi – "fellow techies"

Did the pandemic open up opportunities or challenges for tech?

“The pandemic taught us so much that we actually knew, for example health disparities within our region. In terms of work and different work rhythms, I think there's an opportunity for them. I know many grandparents or parents who are very pleased that their children have moved back to the North East while maintaining jobs in London for example, as a consequence of the pandemic.

“I think that is an opportunity for us in the North East. I think it could also be a challenge because wages in the North East, particularly in the digital sector, are lower than those in the South East.

“Not everybody can work from home, and it tends to be those in particular sectors – and we saw that in the pandemic on the front line – who have to be on the front line of particular sectors. We need to make sure that they also benefit from technology.”

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Chi meets the audience

How can we encourage more women and diverse genders into tech?

“One of the things that I found very depressing is how I was in tech for 20 years and it changed very little. There are multiple answers. It needs to come from the top. Any leader needs to be addressing and considering the issue of an equal and inclusive workplace before somebody's asking her or him about it.

“It also needs to start with education. We've all got a role here in going into schools and promoting role models because it is so important to see as well so you can be it.

“I also think there's things which tech can do so easily, measuring the data. Sharing best practice and celebrating our successes is also part of the answer.”

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Developer Sinéad Cummings questions Chi

How will Labour look at skills in its manifesto?

“We are looking at how we reform tuition fees to make them more progressive. There can be different routes into and through universities.

“We’ve been incredibly disappointed at the way in which the apprenticeship levy has been used or not used, so that there's millions of pounds of money that's been raised from businesses for apprenticeships going back to companies. We can use that in a broader way, so that small and medium enterprises can support higher-level apprenticeships.

“I would see opportunities in getting a degree-level education whilst working through university-type apprenticeships. In-work learning is really important. So yes, we're looking at it in multiple ways.”

This is an edited version of Tom Lawson’s TechNExt fireside chat with Chi Onwurah MP on 19 June. Watch the full session video.
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Chi meets chief people officer Cate Kalson

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