What will the general election mean for the UK technology industry?
As the UK gears up for one of the most nail-biting election in decades, the parties are scribbling away at their manifestos. With both parties still yet to publish their promises for the next five years, here are some technology themes that we might see in the upcoming documents.
The Conservatives, perennially keen to stress their pro-business credentials, have been fairly evangelical about UK tech as a business success story. Here are some tech issues they might campaign on.
George Osborne, incumbent Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer, pledged a £600 million investment in ultra-fast broadband in his recent budget. Meanwhile, his possible leadership rival and London Mayor Boris Johnson commented in idiosyncratic fashion at the recent launch of the Conservative campaign in London: "Vote Tory and get broadband. Vote Ukip and get Miliband!" The 2010 Tory manifesto claimed that "Establishing a superfast broadband network throughout the UK could generate 600,000 additional jobs and add £18 billion to Britain’s GDP." Expect a further commitment of some kind this time around to extending broadband, especially to rural and hard-to-reach areas.
Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and Minister for Equalities, has made a name for himself recently with his well-publicised attempts to bring mobile phone coverage to hard-to-reach areas. He recently spearheaded an agreement between EE, Vodafone, O2 and Three and the Government to improve mobile coverage for UK consumers, which requires the operators to bring voice coverage to 90 percent of the UK by 2017. Alongside commitments to spreading broadband, we should expect commitments from the Conservatives to continue their work on extending mobile voice coverage.
Considering the Conservatives’ traditional associations with the City of London and high finance, it is not surprising that George Osborne has singled out the UK fintech industry as a strong growth market. The Chancellor claimed in August last year that he wanted the UK to become the world hub for fintech – the manifesto may include some measures to facilitate its growth, whether this includes deregulation or tax incentives for the sector.
September saw Nicky Morgan, Secretary of State for Education, adding coding to the UK national curriculum. Certainly IT skills are increasingly prized by the modern business world, as businesses big and small alike race to develop their own apps. It’s possible that the Conservatives will include further variations on this theme in their new manifesto, perhaps expanding the scope of the computing elements in the National Curriculum or adding more specialised, in-depth modules.
New tech cities
The UK Government has been lambasted for what has been seen as an excessive focus on London at the cost of ignoring other major cities. The increasing backlash has led to plans for a Manchester mayor and regular discussion of the need for a ‘northern powerhouse’. London currently hosts the lion’s share of the UK’s technology, but if the Conservatives are serious about boosting activity elsewhere we may see plans to encourage growth of the tech industry in other cities. This could include cities outside of England such as Glasgow, cited in the 2010 Conservative Manifesto as having a strong pedigree for start-ups.
Labour’s commitments are just as vague at this stage, but a ‘Digital Government Review’ commissioned by Labour as well as recent comments provide some clues for Labour’s direction.
Chris Bryant, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy, recently issued a withering put-down about the current Government’s broadband rollout, describing it as ‘SuperSlow broadband.’ The Labour Digital Government Review recommends that the next Government direct Ofcom to produce a report on a Universal Service Obligation for Internet access to be released within 90 days of taking office. Labour may also act on accusations that BT has been granted a virtual monopoly in extending rural broadband coverage, an issue that Margaret Hodge has been vocal on.
The report recommends the digitally enabling libraries and town halls so that they can be used for digital inclusion, assisted digital and other community engagement activities. This would involve the provision of free wi-fi, up-to-date computers, well-trained staff. The hope is that they could "provide places where the public sector bring together people, communities, the private sector and the voluntary sector to co-produce services addressing local problems."
The review made recommendations that the Government "lift its ambitions for inclusion" and ensure that 4.9 million people gain access to digital skills over the next parliament. The new programme would allow people to "participate in public digital services", which could lead to greater citizen engagement with the business of government. Labour may make educational commitments in the manifesto, but expect these to be focused on a broader programme of educational reform. Tristram Hunt, Shadow Education Secretary, commented at BETT in January that "investment in new technology only works when you are also producing extra investment in teacher training."
The use, collection and retention of individuals’ data by national governments has been becoming more and more of a talking point since the Snowden disclosures. We constantly share vast amounts of our personal data through apps and websites without really considering the consequences. Following Labour leader Ed Miliband’s 2014 commitment that every adult will be able to own and access their public sector data, Labour recently promised to commission a review of data sharing in government in its Zero-Based Review. The party’s manifesto may commit to an ethical approach to privacy.
Department-level leadership on digital
The report called for retaining Cabinet Level leadership for digital transformation but with individual Secretaries of State in key departments leading in their own areas. In practice, this would mean that digital capabilities were embedded in all public sector organisations, in a bid to boost ‘stronger delivery capabilities’. The Digital Government Review also praised the existing Government Digital Service and encouraged the next government to retain it, but redirect it to different digital transformation goals.