What the party conferences told us about Conservative and Labour tech policy

Labour Conservative AI Iamge credit: Chrisdorney / Shutterstock

The role of AI and how to regulate it has become a topic of increasingly fierce political debate. Predictions about how the technology will impact society have ranged from apocalyptic to utopian, and as such it was to be expected that this would be an issue at the forefront of tech agendas at this year’s party conferences.

As the two parties with the most realistic chance of forming a government at the next election, this piece will look exclusively at how tech was approached at the Conservative and Labour conferences.

On AI, both Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Keir Starmer hedged their bets, warning of dangers and possibilities, and attacked the other’s lack of a plan to address either side. While both leaders do not want to play their hand too early, they are also well aware of the enormous transformative potential of AI and machine learning on the UK economy.

But without effective regulation there are also huge risks, as evidenced by the emergence of a deep-fake audio on the eve of the Labour conference purporting to be Starmer abusing party staffers.

In the blue corner

The Conservatives have been transparent about their desire to cut bureaucratic red tape, and emerging tech is certainly an area set to be impacted by this. With the world’s first AI Safety Summit being held in Bletchley Park on 1 and 2 November, Sunak’s party appears to want to rubber stamp the UK’s – and his government’s – credentials as the incubator of the tech of the future.

A commitment to deregulation has been a central part of Sunak’s agenda since becoming prime minister, as has science and technology, so the PM’s alignment of the two is of little surprise. When it comes to deregulation, caution is often advisable. So often, the ability to act nimbly in a sector as fast-moving as tech is paramount to being able to control such a sector. But in doing so, the government must remember that red tape often exists for a reason – to protect the user.

This is a delicate balancing act for the government to grapple with, the difficulty of which is epitomised by the ever-contentious Online Safety Bill, which is now law. At the Conservative conference in Manchester, Secretary of State Michelle Donelan cited the bill as evidence of the government’s commitment to freedom of speech. But she also drew criticism for a commitment to removing rules preventing “legal but harmful” content.

The Online Safety Bill is, and no doubt will continue to be, a divisive topic. Those attempting to provide a definition of “legal but harmful” content will likely find themselves in murky water. The climb-down from prior attempts to hold big-tech directors criminally responsible is welcome – it is impossible to see how such a law would begin to take shape – but this mustn’t lead to total, unchecked deregulation.

Big Tech leaders must be aware of their responsibilities to consumers while continuing to develop ever more innovative products.

In the red corner

Labour’s position is a little more straightforward – for now at least. With likely another year until the next general election, Starmer’s party has the benefit of time to develop its tech policies.  Starmer seems to be leaning towards a more centrist, ‘new-Labour’ side of the party, with many of its policies on tech aligning with the position of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, a non-profit set up by the former prime minister.

This is significant as the Institute has received significant funding from Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison’s foundation, which has identified AI’s potential to unlock successful public service reform. Mr Starmer knows that reinvigorating an ailing public sector with AI integration represents a crucial way to position himself as a safe pair of hands for the tech sector while also demonstrating an ideological commitment to traditional Labour values.

It isn’t all smooth sailing for Labour though. Shadow Tech Minister Peter Kyle recognised this, in response to the motion passed by Labour members at their conference acknowledging that AI can violate “basic human rights” and accelerate “rampant profiteering.”

It will be interesting to watch how Labour’s position on this issue develops, with a clear need to demonstrate how their plans for AI innovation are compatible with the party’s commitment to upholding human rights.

Priorities for the next government

It is likely that, by this time next year, the UK will be in full election mode, if not sooner. While a year is a long time in politics, it is perhaps even longer in tech. The sector’s advancement doesn’t show any signs of slowing down and decisions made during this and the next government could likely define the UK’s wider economic landscape for years to come.

As mentioned earlier, the emergence of AI has prompted extreme responses on both sides. What’s crucial is a balanced approach to this topic, one which recognises the crucial interplay between innovation and bureaucracy as well as deregulation and consumer safety.

Tech must not become marred by political division; with the point-scoring of party conferences now out of the way, it is time to work together on AI regulation to find solutions that accommodate the needs of both developers and consumers.

Russ Shaw CBE is the founder of Tech London Advocates & Global Tech Advocates, and a regular UKTN columnist.