The three main national political parties competing for the 2015 general election have released their manifestos this week (13-19 April 2015), with technology and the digital economy featuring strongly.
Concrete spending proposals were thin on the ground – however, every party acknowledged the growing importance of digital technologies to the UK economy.
But which of the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties are offering the best deal to win your digital vote on 7 May?
Computer Weekly compares the three parties’ promises in each of the key areas of technology policy.
Superfast broadband roll-out was a priority in each of the three manifestos, all parties recognising the importance of high-speed internet to the digital economy. The Liberal Democrats offered the strongest proposal, promising to reach 99.9% of UK households.
Conservatives: Delivers superfast broadband in urban and rural areas to provide coverage to 95% of the UK by the end of 2017; subsidising the cost of superfast-capable satellite services in the hardest to reach areas. Ultrafast broadband to be available to nearly all UK premises, as soon as practicable.
Labour: Ensures that all parts of the country benefit from affordable, high-speed broadband by the end of the Parliament. Work with the industry and Ofcom to maximise private-sector investment and deliver the mobile infrastructure needed to extend coverage and reduce “not spots”, including in areas of market failure.
Liberal Democrats: Completes the roll-out of high-speed broadband, to reach almost every household (99.9%) in the UK, as well as small businesses in rural and urban areas.
The Conservative Party-Liberal Democrats coalition government created the Government Digital Service (GDS) to lead the creation of “digital by default” public services, a move that has been widely lauded. All three parties intend to continue the work of GDS, although Labour has criticised it for failing to meet its targets for new digital services.
Conservatives: Trumpeted the work of GDS, saying it has already created 20 digital services, although several are still only available as beta versions. The Tories also highlighted work on IT cost cuts, digital inclusion and government as a platform: “We will roll out cross-government technology platforms to cut costs and improve productivity – such as Gov.uk”.
Labour: Wants to use digital technology to create a “more responsive, devolved and less costly system of government”. The Labour Party will further develop digital government to enable better communication, more collaboration and sharing data between services, making services and transactions more efficient and simpler for people to use.
Liberal Democrats: Intends to maintain and develop GDS, and the principle of “digital by default” in public services, pressing ahead with plans announced in the Budget last month to extend GDS’s remit to local government. Uniquely, the Lib Dems introduced the concept of Technology Impact Assessments as part of the government policy design process to ensure the IT implications of new policies are properly considered.
Skills & education
The Tories, Labour and Liberal Democrats all intend to boost apprenticeships, and to focus on science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) education.
Conservatives: Promised an expansion of apprenticeships in general, without specifically mentioning digital skills.
Labour: Wants to improve the nation’s technical capabilities. Any suppliers – including IT companies – winning government business will be expected to offer apprenticeships, as will every large employer hiring skilled workers from outside the EU; a move which could particularly affect companies using offshore resources in places such as India. In its education manifesto, Labour proposed the creation of new Technical Baccalaureate and Technical Degree qualifications.
Liberal Democrats: Promotes the take-up of Stem subjects in schools, retain coding on the National Curriculum, and recruit more teachers with skills on these topics. The Lib Dems will double the number of businesses which hire apprentices – especially in creative and digital industries – and develop digital skills courses for young people and the unemployed.
The world is being transformed by tech and any successful vision of the UK’s future must have the smart use of digital technology at its core
IT trade association TechUK
Research & innovation
Support for universities and the UK’s research base was common to all three main parties. The Conservative Party offered the most specific promises – although several have previously been announced – while the Liberal Democrats made the most eye-catching proposal, to double innovation spending.
Conservatives: Made some firm spending commitments for science and technology research and innovation. The Conservative Party will invest £6.9bn in UK research infrastructure up to 2021, including £2.9bn for a Grand Challenges Fund to invest in major research facilities such as the Alan Turing Institute. The Tory party will also direct resources to the Eight Great Technologies – among them robotics and nanotechnology – where the Tories believe Britain is set to be a global leader.
Labour: Wants to introduce a long-term funding policy framework for science and innovation, and highlighted digital technology as key to its plans for improving the UK’s productivity and industrial strategy.
Liberal Democrats: Promised to double innovation and research spending, to make the UK a world leader in advanced manufacturing, clean technology and digital industries.
The Tory-Lib Dems coalition government oversaw a period of growth and excitement in tech startups across the UK, and all three parties recognised the importance of promoting the UK as one of the technology world leaders outside Silicon Valley.
Conservatives: Flagged involvement in promoting Tech City and encouraging the technology startup community across the UK over the last five years in government. The Tory Help to Grow scheme aims to help plug a £1bn finance gap for startups looking to grow and recruit. The Conservative Party will treble its Startup Loans programme during the next Parliament, aiming for 75,000 entrepreneurs to borrow money to set up their own business. The manifesto singled out the growth of the finance technology sector and promised to support challenger banks.
Labour: Had the fewest references to startups, but said it wants to build on the UK’s strengths as a technology leader. It highlighted fields such as a robotics, genetics, 3D printing and big data as areas of opportunity. It will also offer support for knowledge clusters, especially outside the south-east.
Liberal Democrats: Highlighted the fact that 15% of all firms created last year were digital companies, and promised to support the sector. The Lib Dems intend to build on the success of Tech City, Tech North and the Cambridge technology cluster with a network across the UK acting as incubators for technology companies. The Liberal Democrats will give a helping hand to technology startups making the next step in their growth, supporting fast-growing “scale-up” businesses the Lib Dems claimed could create a million jobs over 20 years.
Data protection & privacy
In the past five years, privacy and data protection have become huge political issues, especially after the revelations from whistleblower Edward Snowden about the mass collection of internet data by GCHQ and the US National Security Agency. Labour and the Conservative Party offer similar proposals – but the Liberal Democrats want to make greater changes more aligned to their liberal values.
Conservatives: Intend to provide extra cyber training and equipment for police forces, but will disappoint opponents of state surveillance by promising to resurrect the failed Communications Data Bill to enable mass monitoring and bulk data collection of people’s internet activities.
Labour: Acknowledged the need for data privacy and the role of technology in the intelligence services, but stopped short of any commitments to curtailing mass internet surveillance. It called for greater oversight of the security services, but highlighted the need for greater powers available to them, while safeguarding individual privacy.
Liberal Democrats: Proposed a digital bill of rights as a centrepiece of the Lib Dem party’s manifesto, using this as an opportunity to stress its fundamental differences with Labour and the Tories over state surveillance and privacy. The manifesto promised a complete overhaul of surveillance powers in 2016, and protections for the use of encryption.
Other areas of technology policy
If you’re interested in smart ticketing on the UK rail network, you’re in luck – each of the three parties has promised to develop this across the country. Some of the other technology areas mentioned by the parties include:
Conservatives: Look to take a leading role in developing global 5G mobile standards; raise the target for government spending to SMEs to one-third; introduce smart ticketing and Wi-Fi on trains; push for NHS electronic medical records and healthcare technologies.
Labour: Intends to review the controversial Universal Credit welfare programme, with a particular look at its troubled IT; promote “open data by default” for government information; introduce a single smart ticketing network for trains, buses and trams.
Liberal Democrats: Propose a £250m fund for healthcare technology; called for more use of open data in government; promised to support the EU digital single market.
Your digital vote
Of the three parties, the Liberal Democrats featured technology issues the most widely, with a full page dedicated to “securing global leadership in technology” and more sections devoted to its digital bill of rights. The Conservative Party stressed the achievements of the past five years in growing the digital economy, but mostly offered a continuation of existing initiatives. Labour stressed the importance of digital technology in its plans for improving the UK’s productivity and industrial strategy, and offered general support for most of the main priorities, but made fewer specific, measurable promises on what it hopes to deliver.
TechUK, the trade body for the UK technology sector, offered the following comments on each manifesto:
On the Conservative Party: “The manifesto contains detail and points to a future where every area of government policy is underpinned and enabled by the smart use of technology. Beyond commitments to back the UK’s digital economy and further develop the Eight Great Technologies campaign, the Tory manifesto makes it clear that the whole of the UK is benefiting from the digital revolution.”
On the Labour Party: “The world is being transformed by technology and any successful vision of the UK’s future must have the smart use of digital technology at its core. We are pleased that the Labour manifesto recognises the need to build on the UK’s strengths and the sector will welcome the focus on raising productivity, using digital technology to reform public services, continued investment in communications infrastructure, a commitment to long-term science funding, and proper democratic oversight of investigative powers.”
On the Liberal Democrats: “The Lib Dem manifesto contains a raft of commitments that have at their core a recognition that tech and digital are driving the future economic success of the UK economy. It is right that parties recognise the importance of having the right skills and expertise to maximise the potential of technology across the UK. There are also thoughtful pledges on the next wave of digital public services, including at local government level.”
Whoever wins the election, there can be little doubt the next government will be the most digital ever. The choice for the digital vote is yours.
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