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The Conservative manifesto: What does it mean for UK tech?

Theresa May

This week, Philip Salter of The Entrepreneurs Network will explore what the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat manifestos mean for UK tech. Yesterday, he gave an overview of the Labour manifesto. Today: The Conservative manifesto – is it good news for tech companies, or bad? 

For those not paying attention ­– and that includes far too many commentators – Prime Minister Theresa May won’t govern in the model of Margaret Thatcher. They might be of the same Party and gender, but that’s where the similarities stop. While Thatcher ruled Britain on ideas supplied by the vanguard of free market economic thinking, May’s convictions are somewhat less static. Many have suggested that the Conservative manifesto is an attempt to grab the middle ground – in fact, it’s a return to pre-Thatcher Conservativism, when ideas mattered less than the just being in, and holding onto, power.

While the Lady was not for turning, Theresa May has already turned on Brexit, the National Insurance rise for the self-employed, workers on boards, holding an election and even her manifesto policy of the so-called “Dementia Tax”. Of course, she has policy areas she’s cares deeply about – such as immigration and grammar schools – but she doesn’t seem to have an ideologically consistent line on all policy areas. Most of tech is in the category of not being a priority; the exception being policies to try to make the internet safer.

Come what may

Theresa May has lost none of her zeal from her Home Office days for getting net migration down to the tens of thousands. The manifesto pledge to double the cost of the Tier 2 visas to £2,000 will certainly disincentivise employers from taking on foreign staff, but perhaps more crucially, the greatest spin doctor in history would fail to convince anyone that foreigners are welcome by the leader of our country. Most people don’t want to live where they’re not wanted – particularly if you’re highly skilled and have countries like Canada welcoming you with open arms.

Tick tax

The Conservative manifesto commits to follow George Osborne in his plan to cut corporation tax down to 17% from 19%. The Conservatives promise to not increase VAT, but increase the personal allowance for income tax to £12,500, raise the higher rate threshold to £50,000 and offer a National Insurance holiday for businesses that take on ex-offenders, disabled people and those with mental health issues.

Regional offices for the British Business Bank will be created to promote trade and online commerce, and businesses would be able to insist on digital signatures and have the right to cancel any contract digitally. The manifesto also promises more spending on research and development to help develop batteries and electric vehicles, a new infrastructure police force consisting of existing transport police and nuclear staff to “bolster the response to cyber threats” and the release of more data.

HM Land Registry, Ordnance Survey, the Valuation Office Agency, the Hydrographic Office and Geological Survey would be combined to create a “geospatial data body within government.” Digitising land data is an exciting prospect – and one that could help the UK climb up the Ease of Doing Business Index – but it may run into challenges with privacy, common law, bureaucratic resistance and getting the tech right. Nevertheless, it’s the sort challenge worthy of a government – it’s a shame there aren’t more of these sorts of ideas in the manifesto.

On broadband, the manifesto promises that by 2020 every home and business would have high-speed broadband, with 5G technology rolled out by 2022 and 95% geographic coverage of the UK.

Levelling up

The manifesto plans the launch of new vocational qualifications across 15 subjects called T-levels, as well as the establishment of new institutes of technology in every major city in England. It also reaffirms the commitment to deliver three million apprenticeships by 2020.

Though no Jeremey Corbyn, the Prime Minister is a big supporter of workers’ rights. There are moves – though somewhat toned down from the pre-manifesto suggestions – to ensure workers are represented on listed company boards, make executive pay subject to an annual vote by shareholders and the publication of CEO-average worker pay ratios.

The Conservative Party promises to “properly protect” those working in the gig economy, but their ideas aren’t as fully formed as those of Labour. No doubt, they’ll be influenced by the work of the Taylor Review. The manifesto states: “We will oblige all digital companies to provide digital receipts, clearer terms and conditions when selling goods and services online and support new digital proofs of identification.”

Along similar lines to the other major parties, the Conservatives would ensure businesses that don’t abide by the Prompt Payment Code lose the right to bid for government contracts, and have reaffirmed their commitment to ensure one-third of their purchases are from SMEs by the end of the next parliament.

A chatroom of one’s own

Theresa May wants to regulate the internet. To quote: “Some people say that it is not for government to regulate when it comes to technology and the internet. We disagree.” May also hopes to start discussions to create “an international legal framework” about how the internet should be regulated. In addition, the manifesto promises to introduce a levy of social media and tech companies to pay the costs of countering so called “internet harms”, as well as the creation of a Data Use and Ethics Commission. These measures are understandably concerning for those who believe the internet should be free from government.

The manifesto reiterates May’s previous statements about safeguarding children – as well as adults – on the internet: “We will continue to push the internet companies to deliver on their commitments to develop technical tools to identify and remove terrorist propaganda, to help smaller companies build their capabilities and to provide support for civil society organisations to promote alternative and counter-narratives.” And like the Labour manifesto, people would be able to delete information held about them from social media platforms when they turn 18. Social media companies would also be made to store user data securely and offer simple export and removal tools.

There are few – even within the shadow cabinet – who doubt that this will be the manifesto of Britain’s next government. It’s not the manifesto the tech sector wanted or needed – but governments have been known to change tack when it comes to governing. The optimists will hope that May’s U-turns are the sign of someone who can be convinced by public pressure. As such, the tech sector would do well to get involved in policy – whether through techUK, Tech London AdvocatesCoadec and broader organisations like ours (The Entrepreneurs Network) – to have their voice heard in government. There are lots of gaps in this manifesto where good ideas could, and should, find a home.

Read an overview of the Labour manifesto, and what it means for UK tech, here.

What do you make of the Conservative manifesto? Let us know in the comments below.