UK: Analysis Keir Starmer’s gambling problem It’s the Tories who are fixing Blair’s mistakes

Here’s the introduction to a piece recently published in Unherd..

June 20, 2022

When Tony Blair’s government liberalised gambling, smartphones were still the stuff of science fiction. Sir Alan Budd, who wrote the 2001 review that the 2005 Gambling Act was based on, recently conceded in a House of Lords inquiry that “no one had even thought about the possibility that someone might be holding something in his or her hand and be allowed to gamble freely”. The legislation, then, rapidly proved obsolete: nowadays smartphones facilitate the majority of gambling that happens in the UK.

At long last, the Conservatives are clearing up the mess New Labour made of our gambling laws. In December 2020, the current government promised the most comprehensive revision of them since 2005 — to ensure they are “fit for the digital age”. The White Paper is reportedly due to be published at the end of this month.

When Blair’s permissive legislation came into force in 2007, it shifted gambling from being an activity that was tolerated to something that was actively promoted and marketed, in order to stimulate demand. The attempt to “modernise the regulation of gambling for today’s world” had apparently good intentions. In 2004, Blair demanded that opponents of his reforms “go and talk to the people of Blackpool who urgently need the regeneration” that he claimed would be brought about by resort-style super casinos. Gambling, in his eyes, was a vehicle for economic development. He did not represent public opinion in this respect; the vast majority opposed the introduction of more opportunities to gamble.

Gordon Brown ditched the plans for Las Vegas-style super-casinos when he became Prime Minister, meaning Blair’s “modernising” legislation achieved just three notable things: it legitimised Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) in betting shops, which had previously operated outside of the law. This gave bookmakers permission to offer machines of up to £100 every 20 seconds on every high street. It also loosened the restrictions on gambling advertising, while also removing the need to prove there was demand for a new gambling outlet in order to acquire a license to open one.

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