Labouring the point: How biotech should engage with the Labour Party

There can have been few moments when the political landscape has looked more uncertain, with polls fluctuating wildly, leadership contests in two separate parties and a looming hard deadline for Brexit. But while the machinations of the Conservative Party leadership race rumble on, it is also important not to forget that over on the Opposition benches, new policy is being formed which has a decent chance of being implemented in some form after the next general election. While current opinion polls suggest that the electorate may give many of their votes to the Liberal Democrats or the recently formed Brexit Party, a significant chunk remain with Labour. With Labour’s narrow win in Peterborough by-election fresh in everyone’s minds, it is clear that the party is still in the running.


The Corbyn-led Labour Party is a radically different beast to the Conservatives, with very different priorities and ambitions. In recent years, engaging with the Government has been a priority and most sector leaders will be used to doing it. But as a general election in late 2019 or early 2020 looks increasingly likely, across the biotech sector we need to think hard about how to address Labour’s concerns.


So what do Corbyn, McDonnell and the wider Labour leadership want to see from industry?


First, they want to see good jobs from the biotech sector, providing decent salaries for employees. Labour is not at all averse to the innovation agenda – indeed the 2015 manifesto included a commitment to increasing R&D in the UK to 3% of GDP. As the industry which is pumping more research and development spending into the UK than any other sector, life sciences is in a good position to trumpet its role in delivering that agenda. But it needs to go beyond investment and show the good it is doing for people. Labour wants the UK to have the highest proportion of high-skilled jobs in the developed world. Biotech employs almost half a million people in largely high-skilled jobs. Not only that, 80% of biotech companies are small to medium enterprises with about two-thirds of those outside London, another priority for Labour.


The second priority is achieving public good and supporting the NHS. Labour is proud of its place in the history of the NHS, and rightly so. It has become an important facet of life in the UK and stands for principles of fairness and equality at the heart of Labour’s message. Access to medicines remains a hot topic, and one that is difficult to ignore. The biotech sector needs to highlight that, in addition to producing the medicines that save patients’ lives and improve their quality of life, it has a positive partnership with the NHS. This can be through supporting early identification using genetic techniques and prevention using vaccines. Measures like these are ultimately saving money for the NHS that it can spend elsewhere.


Finally, the sector role on the international stage will be important. More than any other major party, Labour’s current frontbench is heavily focused on international development and the need to secure improvements in the lives of people in the developing world. The biotech industry is making significant contributions to this improvement and it needs to bring those to the fore. For example, the global effort to tackle antimicrobial resistance demonstrates the sector’s commitment to helping people from across the world. Similarly, the measures undertaken by organisations in the sector to ensure that people in the developing world are able to access treatments for tropical diseases and HIV and vaccines for diseases like polio and malaria are important and potentially life-changing.


As the potential for a general election grows, so too will the speed of Labour’s policy development. Already its policy forums are beginning their consultations. The time to engage with Labour MPs, Shadow Ministers and the leadership is now, to ensure that industry addresses the Labour Party’s concerns and highlights the important role of the biotech industry in the UK, the NHS and the world.



Peter Wasson

Policy and Public Affairs Manager


Peter joined the BIA in March 2019 and has nine years’ experience working in health policy and public affairs.
Prior to joining the BIA, Peter was an Account Director at WA Communications and has also worked for two other large agencies in their health teams, working closely with clients to plan and implement end-to-end communications activity and achieve tangible policy change. He was Senior Policy and Campaigns Adviser at the Royal College of Physicians where he helped transform the way the organisation campaigns and engages with stakeholders. He has also worked for the Patients Association in its policy and campaigns team. He began his career working in Parliament for Charles Kennedy, the late former leader of the Liberal Democrats, and Lord Dholakia, a Liberal Democrat peer.

Peter is originally from Belfast, Northern Ireland, and has a strong interest Northern Irish politics. He has a degree in Law from the University of Cambridge.

Outside work, he can often be found at Chelmsford Cathedral where he sings with the cathedral choir, watching the rugby at his local, or in the kitchen cooking.