Who will replace Tom Watson as Britain’s Gambling Reformer-in-Chief?

Posted On: 
15th November 2019

Labour’s Deputy Leader is leaving Parliament, but his legacy is here to stay, writes Dr James Noyes, former advisor on gambling policy to Labour's Tom Watson.

Tom Watson is stepping down as Deputy Leader of the Labour Party and as an MP.
Credit: 
PA Images

Two earthquakes hit the world of gambling politics last week.

The first came from the All Party Parliamentary Group on Gambling Related Harm, which released a report recommending limits to online slot games of £2 per spin. Even though the APPG has no formal capacity to change the law, the impact of their report was staggering. Over £1bn was wiped from the share value of UK gambling firms that day.

48 hours later, an embattled industry sought cover with the launch of a new Betting and Gaming Council. The BGC will be the voice of most major operators and has made five pledges: to prevent underage gambling, increase support for gambling-related harm, strengthen advertising codes of practice, and promote a culture of safer gambling while protecting customers.

Then came the really big shock: that the driving force behind gambling reform over the past five years, Tom Watson, was stepping down as Deputy Leader of the Labour Party and as an MP.

Whatever one’s party allegiance, Watson’s decision is clearly a great loss to anyone who believes in a progressive, One Nation politics. And it is a loss to the campaign for gambling reform.

As a Labour MP and then as shadow Culture Secretary, Watson led calls for changes to FOBT stake limits, long before it became a fashionable cause. In 2018, he published a detailed review of gambling policy alongside Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s shadow Health Secretary. More recently he has argued for a wholesale rewriting of Britain’s outdated Gambling Act.

The result is that the Labour Party is now seen as a vanguard in this debate by campaigners, academics, industry and MPs from all sides of the political divide. Labour has earned this recognition by establishing a principle for consensus in the gambling debate: arguing that change is only possible when policy is radical in its aspiration, rational in its application.

It is a principle that seeks common ground between the absolutist extremes of total prohibition on the one hand, or total permission on the other.

We have seen this principle at play in a series of interventions over the course of the past year: on the case for reasonable limits to online gambling, for an Ombudsman to protect consumers, for a review of offshore licence holders operating in the UK, and for a statutory levy to fund independent research, education and treatment of problem gambling.

The influence of these policies was evident last week, both in the recommendations of the APPG’s report and in the pledges of the Betting and Gaming Council. It is likely that we shall also see it in party manifestos this month.

In other words, the case for gambling reform might have its origins in Labour, but has since grown into a cross-party campaign. It is now being pushed forward by some formidable parliamentarians. The Chair of the APPG, Labour’s Carolyn Harris, has just been named Backbencher of the Year at the PSA Awards. She is supported by former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith and Ronnie Cowan of the SNP. Ex-minister Tracey Crouch still commands great respect in this debate. And in the Lords, important work is being done by peers from Lord Chadlington to Lord Foster of Bath.

This is now a broad church. Gambling has become one of the few domestic policy issues that has support across party lines.

Incredibly, some industry CEOs still do not seem to understand that what they perceive to be the middle ground has shifted. They continue to view gambling reform as a partisan issue, ignoring the fact that it has now become mainstream.

Last week’s hit on their share value showed them how dependent the industry now is on the tone of politics. The message was clear: failure to reform will hurt confidence in the market. Investors in the industry are the first to understand this. Any more uncertainty, they are telling the operators, and we’ll start to have serious doubts about our ventures in the UK.

Viewed like this, consensus should be understood not as a compromise but a necessity. The political case for gambling reform will need to remain a broad church if it hopes to achieve legislative change. And the industry will need to accept that reform if it hopes to bring confidence back to the market.

Whatever the outcome of the general election, it is clear that gambling reform is now a mainstream movement, bigger than parties and individual politicians. Tom Watson might be standing down from Parliament, but his legacy is here to stay.

James Noyes is a former advisor on gambling policy to Tom Watson MP