As 12 December creeps closer, every mainstream political party fighting for your votes in the upcoming UK election has now released a manifesto.

In recent years policies surrounding technology have especially gained prominence during elections, with parties vying to convince voters that they’re not only au fait with the latest technological developments but are also the only ones that can help support innovation and digitisation throughout Britain.

Getty Images/ smartboy10
Getty Images/ smartboy10

As is perhaps to be expected, some policies that failed to meet previous deadlines have been recycled and promised again in 2019. For example, in their 2015 manifesto, the Conservatives promised to provide superfast broadband coverage to 95 percent of the UK by the end of 2017, a revision of their previous May 2015 deadline. Their 2019 manifesto now pledges full fibre broadband to every home and business by 2025.

Boris Johnson has also faced questions this week after he announced a “new” £1 billion plan to end poor mobile phone signals by ensuring 95 percent of the UK had 4G coverage by 2025. It turns out that the deal was actually struck in the last parliament and does not appear in the Conservative manifesto.

Promising full fibre broadband coverage is not usually a controversial subject and, in this election at least, is the one policy every party has pledged to implement. However, Labour’s policy to nationalise parts of BT and provide full-fibre broadband for free has turned the issue of broadband into a divisive one.

Some industry experts have not been shy in expressing their opinions on the policy. After the initial announcement, the lobbying group techUK - which represents much of the telecoms industry in the country - published a withering statement calling the policy a “disaster for the telecoms sector”. The chief network architect from BT simply tweeted that “Labour plans broadband communism”.

However, the policy has proved popular with voters. One YouGov poll showed that six out of 10 voters were in favour of the proposals. While industry bigwigs might not fully support the idea, many have conceded that the announcement has sparked a much-needed debate around the necessary improvements the next government needs to make around network infrastructure.

Andy Barratt, UK managing director at global cybersecurity consultancy Coalfire thinks that if Labour find themselves in power after the election then the cyber security industry will be watching closely, should their nationalised broadband infrastructure ever be rolled out.

“The policy would have significant ramifications for privacy and the potential for state censorship in exchange for the benefits of under-served areas receiving higher bandwidth,” he claims.

Besides full-fibre broadband, another common thread that has emerged from some of the manifestos is the desire to increase the amount of tax paid by so-called Big Tech companies operating in the UK.

Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP, and the Green Party all explicitly make promises surrounding the increased taxation of companies such as Google, Amazon and Facebook. Labour have said this tax increase will be used to fund their free full-fibre broadband pledge while the SNP pledged to place a levy on technology companies to fully fund a new independent 'Online Regulator' that is able to impose fines and block websites.

The Lib Dems are the only party to have gone into any real detail about the mechanism that will be used to increase taxation on Big Tech companies. The party has pledged to close loopholes and introduce further anti-tax avoidance rules that stop large corporations getting away with paying minimal tax rates whilst generating large profits. However, Labour have released the 'grey book' (PDF) - a costing document with a section on corporate taxation that would surely include the large Silicon Valley businesses.

Earlier this year, the OECD published its plans, aimed at ensuring global firms pay more tax where they sell products and make profits. Before this announcement, the UK already had plans to introduce a digital services tax in April 2020, however the government has said it would rescind these if "an appropriate international solution is in place". Either way, all the centre and left-leaning political parties clearly want to make it known that this is a policy they support going forward.

Green technology

Technology has a significant role to play in the fight against climate change and in the 2019 manifestos. Every major party besides the DUP and Brexit Party have committed to making substantial investments in green technologies that will enable the UK to take action against climate change.

The promise of a 'Green New Deal', a leading proposal among left Democrats in the US such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has been adopted by a number of British parties this year. The Green Party presented the most radical version of a “green industrial revolution” and are the only party whose manifesto outlines the importance of industry moving towards a circular economy, “designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems.”

Investments in carbon capture technologies also feature heavily throughout many of the manifestos.

Labour are promising voters a green industrial revolution that comes with research and development (R&D) funding that would support newer technologies like hydrogen and carbon capture and storage.

To further “usher in a Green Industrial Revolution,” the Labour manifesto also promises to turn the UK into an “innovation nation” – setting a target for three percent of GDP to be spent on R&D by 2030.

Elsewhere, the SNP promises that its MPs will pressure the UK Government to “accelerate deployment of fully operational carbon capture utilisation and storage facilities in Scotland,” enabling the country to become a leader in the fields.

Like every issue being raised in this general election, the climate crisis is not immune to the uncertainties that Brexit brings with it. Many climate campaigners have expressed their concern that, after the UK has left the EU, a potential Conservative government would not align its climate change targets with those currently set out by the European Union. An analysis by the Guardian revealed that the Conservatives mention the word 'climate' just 10 times, a huge contrast with Labour and the Lib Dems, which both use the word 59 times.

Currently, the EU is a global leader in the number of patents registered for low-carbon technologies. The bloc deploys more low-carbon and energy-efficient technologies in new sectors, such as renewable energy, and traditional industrial sectors, such as automotive, than almost anywhere else in the world.

In their manifestos, the Tories and the DUP have pledged to make the UK carbon neutral by 2050, a target this is currently in line with EU targets. Other parties however have chosen to be more ambitious with their carbon neutral targets, with the Lib Dems pledging to meet the target by 2045, Labour “within the 2030s” and the Green Party with the most ambitious target of all: making the UK carbon neutral by 2030.

The SNPs have pledged to make Scotland carbon neutral by 2040 whilst the Brexit Party’s only climate related policy is “planting millions of trees” and promoting a global initiative at the UN. Plaid Cymru haven’t made a commitment to net-zero carbon emissions, instead pledging to cut emissions by at least 55 percent by 2030.

What’s missing?

For the Conservative and Brexit parties, what’s clearly missing is any significant detail on how their pledges will become a reality. The Conservative manifesto continually talks about investing in technology and innovation but says little more about how this investment will benefit the country long term.

Promising “investment in education, infrastructure and technology, to create a high-wage, high-skill, low-tax economy” might sound appealing, but the manifesto is light on details around how this would work in reality. Technology is such an umbrella term that it’s simply not viable to make sweeping statements like this and expect them to stand up against scrutiny.

Coalfire's Andy Barratt agrees, stating that he doesn’t think the Conservative Party manifesto offers anything of substance, “other than to embrace the adoption and use of new technologies”.

While there may be fewer digital promises in the Labour manifesto, the party has at least managed to take a more nuanced approach, rather than simply using “technology” in lieu of an answer to some very real and challenging problems.

However, Andy Cotgreave, senior director and technology evangelist at Tableau believes that reinforcing the importance of digital literacy needs to be higher on the agenda for all the political parties.

“Other than the Liberal Democrats' promise to set a UK-wide target for digital literacy, it is disappointing that there are no meaningful mentions in any of the other main parties’ manifestos,” Cotgreave says.

And while the resource-strapped NHS might be in dire need of a technological refresh, there's little mention of performing basic software and infrastructure upgrades for the institution's IT systems, many of which are still running on a soon to be unsupported Windows 7.

Cotgreave also has questions over the practicality of wide-scale roll out of emerging technologies – for example, the ability to turn the data it produced from machine learning into valuable outputs is still a specialist skill held by a minority of qualified individuals.

“The reality is that almost every job function in every sector will be touched in some way by data,” Cotgreave notes. “Everyone – from the HR department through to the boardroom – will need to be able to read, understand, and communicate data as information.”

Questions also remain over whether, post-Brexit, data protection laws in the UK will continue to align with GDPR. The Liberal Democrats are the only party who have made significant promises around data protection, including boosting the powers available to the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation allowing the public to share in the profits made by tech companies using their data.

The Green Party has promised to end the sale of personal data, while Labour will ensure NHS data and patient information is protected and not exploited by international technology and pharmaceutical corporations. No other party has included any data protection proposals in their manifesto.

So who’s the digital winner?

Whilst it’s fair to say that some of these manifesto promises will quietly be crossed out or have their deadlines pushed back by whichever party ends up in government on 13 December, the pre-election pledges set out by the main seven political parties certainly give a good flavour of the policies we can expect to see making their way through the Commons in the event Brexit is ever completed.

The ‘snap’ nature of this election perhaps means that some policies are not as fleshed out as parties might have liked and, reading through the manifestos, there is room for improvement across the board.

The Liberal Democrats certainly appear to have the most radical policy proposals with regards to issues surrounding data privacy and tech ethics; both issues that would perhaps be higher up voters’ list of priorities if we weren’t still talking about Brexit.

Despite this, undoubtedly the biggest tech talking point of this campaign has been Labour’s free full-fibre broadband policy. It’s by far the most ambitious digital pledge on offer in this election and has sparked a very real debate about digital inequality across the country.

While most people might take their broadband and mobile phone connectivity for granted, there’s a reason improved broadband coverage is the one policy that appears in all eight manifestos: as of September 2019, only eight percent of UK premises had full-fibre broadband connectivity.

The lack of detail on offer from the Conservative party is astonishing and yet also unsurprising, considering their party leader has spent his entire career as prime minister avoiding scrutiny at every turn. From an ambiguously titled startup visa that will sit alongside “new rules for those of exceptional talent” to “technology” as a silver bullet for every problem currently facing the country, you might be forgiven for thinking the Tories don’t want to "get Brexit done" otherwise they might actually have to think of some policies.