The UK’s three main political parties have released their manifestos, setting out what they would do if elected into government on June 8. What do the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat documents have to say on technology? Julian Blake leafs through the three parties’ pledges for government.
If quantity was a measure of the commitment to digital reform, there’d be little doubt looking at the three main general election manifestos which party would come out top. Measured in pure word counts, the Conservatives have about three times as much to say on technology as Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Where the other two look flimsy in parts, the Conservative manifesto is heavy on digital detail.
The Tories may actually have given too much detail. As well as running into wider problems with the so-called dementia tax, they have hit trouble with the tech startup sector for their pledge to double the immigration skills charge they levy on startups employing migrant workers, from £1000 to £2000 by the end of the parliament, albeit to use “the revenue generated to invest in higher level skills training for workers in the UK”.
The poll on June 8 has of course been dubbed the Brexit election, and the migrant worker issue is very much a part of that wider debate. On Brexit at least, the three main party positions are pretty distinct. Conservatives are pursuing a hard Brexit strategy. Labour says it will rip up the government’s great reform bill and “immediately guarantee existing rights for all EU nationals living in Britain”, while the Lib Dems promise to “give the people the final say” on Brexit in a second referendum.
So within the Brexit context, what do the three parties have to say on digital? (We’ve added manifesto page numbers for reference.)
The Conservatives go big on tech, naming it as one of the “five giant challenges” Britain faces (p7). “For the sake of our economy and our society, we need to harness the power of fast-changing technology, while ensuring that our security and personal privacy – and the welfare of children and younger people – are protected,” say the Tories.
One of several eye-catching Conservative tech pledges is a new ‘digital charter’ (p77), “a new framework that balances freedom with protection for users, and offers opportunities alongside obligations for businesses and platforms”. The charter, say the Tories, has “two fundamental aims: that we will make Britain the best place to start and run a digital business; and that we will make Britain the safest place in the world to be online.”
Continuity of existing policy through the industrial and digital strategies, alongside investment incentives like SEIS and EIS, will boost digital business growth. And the Tories promise to “open new offices of the British Business Bank in Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Manchester and Newport, specialising in the local sector…when we leave the European Union, we will fund the British Business Bank with the repatriated funds from the European Investment Fund.” (p77).
Broadband and digital infrastructure have been one of the enduring embarrassments for the Conservative government, with poor connectivity reported even in the busiest of tech hubs. By the end of this year, 19 out of 20 premises will have access to superfast broadband, say the Tories, and its universal service obligation “will ensure that by 2020 every home and every business in Britain has access to high-speed broadband”.
The Conservatives promise to release more spectrum from public sector use, and begin the roll-out of a new 5G network, providing gigaspeed connection to smartphones. “We plan to have the majority of the population covered by a 5G signal by 2027,” says the manifesto.
Online safety is another area ripe for reform, and the Tories say that “online rules should reflect those that govern our lives offline”. The Conservatives pledge to “put a responsibility on industry not to direct users – even unintentionally – to hate speech, pornography, or other sources of harm. We will make clear the responsibility of platforms to enable the reporting of inappropriate, bullying, harmful or illegal content, with take-down on a comply-or-explain basis” (p79).
New rights on data are also promised, with a new Data Use and Ethics Commission to advise regulators and parliament on the nature of data use and how best to prevent its abuse. A new data protection law, “fit for our new data age”, will ensure “safe, flexible and dynamic use of data and enshrining our global leadership in the ethical and proportionate regulation of data”.
The Tories promise to build on the establishment last year of the National Cyber Security Centre and cyber security strategy. In the light of the recent NHS mega-breach, many will welcome the pledge to “further strengthen cyber security standards for government and public services, requiring all public services to follow the most up to date cyber security techniques appropriate.”
There’s another eye-catcher in education and skills pledges, too, with a pledge to replace “13,000 existing technical qualifications with new qualifications, known as T-levels, across 15 routes in subjects including construction, creative and design, digital, engineering and manufacturing, and health and science.” (p52).
There’s a commitment to fund innovation and science through R&D, with a pledge to “go further” on the industrial strategy already announced and spend 2.4% of GDP – the OECD average – within 10 years. And a new £23 billion National Productivity Investment Fund “will include £740 million of digital infrastructure investment”.
Reform of public services does not escape the Conservative manifesto attention. “We believe government should not only be exceptional in dealing digitally with the people it serves but should also at the forefront of using digital technology in all its systems so that it can deliver better public services,” say the Tories, promising “a new presumption of digital government services by default”.
It promises to “incubate more digital services within government and introduce digital transformation fellowships”, allowing “hundreds of leaders from the world of tech” to help deliver better public services.
And, in a pledge that will cheer those looking to develop the govtech startup sector, the Conservatives promise that 33% of central government purchasing will come from SMEs by the end of the parliament.
The rise and rise of the gig economy – with tech firms widely criticised – does not escape Tory attention. “A new Conservative government will act to ensure that the interests of employees on traditional contracts, the self-employed and those people working in the ‘gig’ economy are all properly protected”, pending the outcome of Matthew Taylor’s RSA review of the changing labour market.
Specific sectors are also covered, with a promise on health to “expand the number of NHS approved apps that can help monitor care and provide support for physical and mental health conditions”, and on land by combining “HM Land Registry, Ordnance Survey, Valuation Office Agency, Hydrographic Office and Geological Survey “to create a comprehensive geospatial data body within government, the largest repository of open land data in the world”.
Finally, there is a Conservative promise to address the issue of fake news on social media and other platforms. “At a time when the internet is changing the way people obtain their news, we also need to take steps to protect the reliability and objectivity of information that is essential to our democracy and a free and independent press,” say the Tories. “We will ensure content creators are appropriately rewarded for the content they make available online.” (p80).
For the many, not the few.
Labour, by comparison, is relatively thin on tech pledges. But its overall context of “creating an economy that works for all” accepts entrepreneurialism – at the core of tech startup culture – as a driver of growth. It is founded on a belief “that the creation of wealth is a collective endeavour between workers, entrepreneurs, investors and government. Each contributes and each must share fairly in the rewards” (p7).
Its “new settlement with business” will see it ask big companies to pay more corporation tax, meeting “the business need for a more skilled workforce with extra corporate tax revenues while contributing to education and skills budgets”, while reintroducing the lower small profits rate of corporation tax (p7-9).
On infrastructure investment, Labour promises to create a National Transformation Fund that will invest £250 billion over 10 years in “upgrading our economy”. Investment will be “fairly shared around every region and nation of the UK”, with a specific promise to “complete the Science Vale transport arc from Oxford to Cambridge through Milton Keynes.” And it promises to commit extra investment to research.
Specifically on digital infrastructure, the Labour pledge is to deliver “universal superfast broadband availability by 2022”, “expand provision of free public wi-fi in city centres and on public transport” and “improve 4G coverage and invest to ensure all urban areas, as well as major roads and railways, have uninterrupted 5G coverage”. On day one, says Labour “we will instruct the National Infrastructure Commission to report on how to roll out ‘ultrafast’ (300Mbps) across the UK within the next decade”. (p12).
A new Digital Ambassador will “liaise with technology companies to promote Britain as an attractive place for investment and provide support for start-ups to scale up to become world-class digital businesses” says Labour, and help “to ensure businesses are ready to grow and prosper in the digital age” (p15).
In a “new deal for business”, Labour pledges to support “smaller, faster businesses” that it says “will be the future of our economy”. Investment will come through a new National Investment Bank and regional development banks, that will “identify where other lenders fail to meet the needs of SMEs and prioritise lending to improve the funding gap” (p17/18).
Labour, too, looks to address the gig economy, promising to “strengthen the law so that those who work regular hours for more than 12 weeks will have a right to a regular contract, reflecting those hours” (p48).
Transport policy promises to “position the UK at the forefront of the development, manufacture and use of ultra low emission vehicles”. And, addressing the concern at the impact of Uber and other disruptive services, Labour says it will “reform the legislation governing taxi and private hire services, introducing national standards to guarantee safety and accessibility, updating regulations to keep pace with technological change and ensuring a level playing field between operators” (p91-2).
On sustainable energy, Labour promises to meet the UK’s climate change targets and transition to a low-carbon economy. “Emerging technologies such as carbon capture and storage will help to smooth the transition to cleaner fuels and to protect existing jobs as part of the future energy mix,” it says.
Change Britain’s Future.
The Liberal Democrats are either defeatist, or realistic, or both, in their manifesto’s position on securing power. “To be clear, Theresa May’s Conservative Party is on course to win this election,” admits leader Tim Farron in his manifesto introduction.
However, it is interesting to read the party’s policies in this space, not least because of its emphasis on the future economy, science, R&D and low-energy, green innovation. Like Labour, specific Lib Dem policies on digital don’t match the Tories on detail. The bulk of the Lib Dem policy on digital comes in the manifesto section on innovation, science and technology (p41).
“The advent of robotics and increasing artificial intelligence will also change the nature of work for many people,” say the Lib Dems. “The government needs to act now to ensure this technological march can benefit everyone and that no areas are left in technology’s wake.”
Responding to that future challenge, the Lib Dems promise to “protect the science budget, including the recent £2bn increase, by continuing to raise it at least in line with inflation. Our long-term goal is to double innovation and research spending across the economy.”
The Lib Dems say they would build on the industrial strategy of the last coalition (in which they partnered), “working with sectors which are critical to Britain’s ability to trade internationally, creating more ‘catapult’ innovation and technology centres and backing private investment in particular in green innovation”.
On broadband, they say they will invest “to ensure that broadband connections and services to be provided before 2020 have a speed of 2 Gbps or more, with fibre to the premises as standard and unlimited usage by 2020 across the whole of the UK”. SMEs would be prioritised in the roll-out of hyperfast broadband.
By 2022, the Lib Dems say they will “ensure that every property in the UK is provided with a superfast broadband connection with a download speed of 30Mbps, an upload speed of 6Mbps, and an unlimited usage cap.”
UK tech clusters in cities outside of London will welcome the Lib Dem proposal to “build on the success of Tech City, Tech North and the Cambridge tech cluster with a network across the UK acting as incubators for technology companies”.
There is a similar promise to spread opportunities to every part of the country (p44), and “continue to champion the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine initiatives and invest significant capital resources in infrastructure projects across the north of England and the Midlands.”
Like the Conservatives, the Lib Dems pledge to support entrepreneurs and small businesses by expanding the activities of the state-owned British Business Bank, “enabling it to perform a more central role in the economy by tackling the shortage of equity capital for growing firms and providing long-term capital for medium-sized businesses.”
For fledgling startups, they say they would create a new startup allowance “to help those starting a new business with their living costs in the crucial first weeks of their business” and “support fast-growing businesses seeking to scale up, through the provision of mentoring support”.
Under rights, justice and equality, the Lib Dems promise a digital bill of rights “that protects people’s powers over their own information, supports individuals over large corporations, and preserves the neutrality of the internet.”
The Lib Dems pledge to oppose terrorism and violent extremism, not with more control but to “roll back state surveillance powers by ending the indiscriminate bulk collection of communications data, bulk hacking, and the collection of internet connection records”. They also say they will “oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption”, such as happened after the Westminster Bridge attack.
Like the other two parties, the Lib Dems pledge to “modernise employment rights to make them fit for the age of the ‘gig’ economy, looking to build on the forthcoming Taylor report”.
On low-carbon energy and green jobs (p48), the Lib Dems pledge to expand renewable energy, “aiming to generate 60% of electricity from renewables by 2030, restoring government support for solar PV and onshore wind in appropriate locations”.
They say they will “support investment in cutting-edge technologies including energy storage, smart grid technology, hydrogen technologies, offshore wind, and tidal power (including giving the go-ahead for the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon).”
To shake up energy provision, the Lib Dems say they will “continue to back new entrants to the energy market, aiming for at least 30% of the household market to be supplied by competitors to the ‘Big six’ by 2022.