Helping people access the opportunities of technology in a fast-changing world should be front and centre in the political contest. All the main parties are falling short.
Harold Wilson’s “white heat of technology” speech at the 1963 Labour Party conference is the stuff of political legend. More than half a century later, with the world around us being transformed at unprecedented pace and scale, anyone seeking to govern ought to be placing this present-day technological revolution at the heart of its policy agenda.
The 2019 manifestos give technology a higher billing than they did at the previous election. Nevertheless, all the main parties are still failing to address its fundamental strategic importance for the country’s future.
The Conservative manifesto has been widely criticised for its lack of ambition. On tech, however, it does pay attention to key issues like science, health, and support for startups. It pledges a range of new bodies including National Institutes of Technology, a DARPA-esque agency to fund high-risk research, and even a new Space Command. But it also carries forward a number of controversial measures, including Voter ID and the proposed digital services tax.
The Labour prospectus strikes a more interventionist note, for example establishing a state-owned pharmaceutical company to produce generic alternatives to patented drugs. Beyond the big money pledges there are a range of other promises relating to tech that sit under traditional policy silos (more WiFi for libraries, more “cyber technology” for hospitals, banning banks from closing high street branches, a review of taxi licensing, etc.).
The Lib Dem prospectus strikes a more contemporary tone on tech, with greater recognition of the importance of market mechanisms and individual choice as complements to public investment, and a stronger attempt to locate questions of ethics and equality in the debate about technology’s role in society. It also dedicates more time and attention to traditional Lib Dem themes for the Internet era such as freedom, openness and the risks around collection and use of data.
Looking across the manifestos there are three main policy areas where technology really comes to the fore: climate change, broadband and regulation.
All three main parties have chosen to anchor a substantial investment programme around a commitment to tackling the climate crisis. The focus on this agenda is welcome and long-overdue, although all sides have a way to go in terms of properly linking new technologies with a framework that meshes public investment, private enterprise and behaviour change.
The Conservatives focus on infrastructure, including electric vehicle charging and production, floating wind farms and carbon capture and storage. They pledge to set funding aside to invest in enterprise and job creation, and to focus their first budget around supporting this agenda.
Labour see this as an opportunity to stimulate a manufacturing and engineering renaissance based on things like renewable energy generation, energy efficiency and electric vehicles. They would use R&D spending, procurement and subsidies to stimulate demand for British industry. They also make an explicit connection to related issues like food waste and the environmental impact of the NHS.
The Lib Dems focus on investing in renewables and delivering a market-based route to net-zero emissions through the regulators, National Grid and other institutions. They also talk about supporting innovation to cut energy use by industry and to develop new technologies.
No manifesto would be complete these days without promising better broadband.
Labour’s plans have by far and away attracted the most attention. They have pledged to (a) take the core fibre-optic infrastructure into national ownership and significantly extend its reach, and (b) establish a second publicly owned body to deliver free broadband for all households over this network. This would be funded by a new tax on multinationals, including large tech companies.
There is a strong case for investing aggressively to expand the country’s fibre infrastructure (even if coverage would be better served by a mix of fibre and other technologies, rather than fibre to 100% of premises). The argument for nationalisation, however, is far weaker – and making broadband subscriptions free for everyone would be both highly regressive and wipe out private competition (which has delivered significant consumer benefits, not least price, over the past fifteen years).
The Conservatives and the Lib Dems offer up traditional proposals for more modest state investment to extend the reach of the fibre network and fast broadband. In both cases this involves supporting roll-out in rural areas and additional mobile data infrastructure.
All of the three main parties table a series of proposals relating to the new challenges posed by the Internet, in particular relating to cyber security and social media. This follows a trend set by the Conservative party’s focus on online harms during the last parliament.
The Conservatives promise take forward legislation on online harms, imposing a new duty of care on companies to protect vulnerable users. They also pledge a cyber crime force and new measures to ensure there is no safe space for terrorists, along with legislation to protect freedom of expression and a free press.
Labour pledge to impose a legal duty of care on tech companies to protect children, new fines for companies that fail to stop online abuse, and an as-yet unspecified Charter of Digital Rights. They also promise to tackle the dominance of big tech companies in online advertising, and a new cybersecurity Minister and review of national cyber readiness and capabilities.
The Lib Dems have more to say in this arena. Their platform includes traditional pledges like curtailing bulk data collection and strengthening data protection. They also pledge a new Lovelace Code of Ethics to govern the use of personal data and AI, a citizens’ assembly to consider the use of algorithms by the state, and real-time transparency for political advertising.
The real tragedy here is that the entire election is happening under the shadow of Brexit, and its distractive impact goes a long way to explaining why no party has been able to properly focus on the challenges and opportunities that technology presents.
If the UK does leave the EU next year, then we will need a new story for our islands’ future – and on occasion in the Conservative manifesto we can start to glimpse the early outlines of the role technology might play in this. But be in no doubt – this would be driven by damage limitation first and foremost, and entirely at the mercy of whatever new traumas the next stage of Brexit unleashes.
Whatever the outcome of the election, as we approach the end of the second decade of the 21st century it is plain that technology should be the headline act in any political strategy ― but for now it remains relegated to a supporting role. In the decade ahead, the opportunity for progressive policymakers to master the technological revolution and reframe the political debate is still there for the taking.
Chris Yiu is Executive Director of the Technology and Public Policy team at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.