Looking behind the Digital Manifesto Bingo

I have been reading the Tech UK responses to the party manifestos. Their caution reflects the concerns of their larger members, particularly of currently dominant ISPs, telcos, suppliers and service providers.

Some of these could seriously lose out if the post-Brexit political programme really does lead to a market-driven transition to a “gigaplus” world in which:

  • SMEs get 33% of government spend,
  • the same legislation/regulation/taxation applies on-line as off-line and
  • those who move IT offshore or import talent are “encouraged” to help train the natives.

But those who expect to “win” are also cautious. Implementing the pledges, so as to deliver the visions, will not be easy. As the Prime Minister says in her forward: “They do not offer a quick fix”.

Moreover, success requires large multinationals, (as well as the pension and sovereign wealth funds investing in those who will challenge the current market leaders over the next decade or so), to decide that post-Brexit UK is a good place in which to invest in profit-taking (and therefore tax-paying), global (not just pan-EU) production and service hubs.

What the manifestos mean

Tech UK has produced a great, judgement free, summary of the party manifestos: simply count the number of times that key words appear in them:

Keyword  Conservative    Labour    LibDem

Digital           66                    9                  8

Technology  66                  15                 23

Data              33                    2                  6

Cyber            12                    4                  2

But what do the words actually mean?

The interpretations of the technology commentators are largely based on what the industry lobbyists want or fear them to mean. We should also look at what the authors of the manifestos meant them to mean. Manifestos are produced much faster than laws but, as Bismark said of the latter , the process is best not observed too closely. They are always compromises between pressures from ideological and sectoral interest groups, including the factions within the parties. Some of those mounting pressure are well organised, well known and articulate. Some are well-funded and/or politically well-connected. But the referendum saw the  revolt of “middle England” against the Westminster Village and the Metropolitan Elite. London and those City complexes with Russell Group Universities voted remain. The rest of England and  Wales voted leave. I have not looked at the split in Scotland but suspect it is similar.

The Parties have responded to that revolt in different ways. Labour has gone back to its roots. The LibDem are in denial. The Conservatives are looking for a new consensus.  The slogan may be “Strong and Stable” but the Conservative contains a vision for the market-driven use of technology to help bring about a transformation of society as a whole – to make post-Brexit Britain a globally competitive, socially and geographically inclusive digital hub. That vision includes using gigaspeed infrastructure to spread high tech jobs, innovation and wealth creation across the whole country. It is, for example, about slashing the cost of using new technology to support “assisted living” for an aging population, without the need to suck in ever more immigrants and depress wages for care assistants.

But the manifesto also reflects an awareness that some of the players in the “gig” economy have behaved very badly to both customers and employees, denying both the rights and choices they expect in the real world economy and displaying a patronising contempt for the digitally excluded and those worried about on-line safety and security. We should therefore recognise that behind the qualified support for the references to technology initiatives, there is very real opposition from those in the IT industry who fear the they will be left behind or whose current business models are threatened. To quote Machiavelli: “There is nothing more difficult … than a new system. For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old institutions and merely lukewarm defenders in those who would gain by the new ones

Even where there are cross-cutting visions behind the party manifestos, these will have been cut into pieces to meet the concerns of the focus groups assembled by polling gurus, before being stitched back together in rhetoric to which the gurus think swing voters will respond. Back in 1979 one of my roles was to produce sound bites, for which I could produce robust peer-reviewed back up, to be used by two of Mrs Thatcher’s most trusted script-writers. Over recent years my main role has been to help those 40 years younger than me to understand the issues – hence much of the material I have publicised in this blog. I have never, (because I am a “dangerous enthusiast”), been trusted to actually help write a manifesto – as opposed to suggesting or commenting on content.

Over the next couple of days I plan to approach the task of helping readers understand what the Conservative Manifesto means to those interested in matters IT/Digital (users, technicians and professionals not just suppliers), in three main ways:

  • a canter through the manifestos in the order in which topics appear
  • a look at how they reflect the visions of those who sought to influence party policy
  • a commentary on the challenges of getting the tribes of Whitehall to co-operate in implementing joined-up, cross-cutting policies in time to make a success of Brexit.

Among the topics I expect to highlight, on the way, are:

The need to enlist support from those who want to see change brought forward, in order to cut through the regulatory and other obfuscation that will be used by those who want to delay it.

The need for the supporters of change to work together, publicly and openly, to help put flesh on what are inevitably outline proposals, to ensure that the objectives are met in ways that benefit the country as a whole, not just their own sectoral interests.

The need to motivate short, medium and long term investors, because the UK may now be heading in the direction of solvency but is in even more debt than seven years ago.

I will. however, begin today with a few thoughts one of my own hobby horses: the need to transform our education and training system to give the skills of the present and future to the many, not just the few. A century long focus on academic excellence has given us world class universities and research centres but is also one of the main reasons we are so dependent on imported technicians. Those who wish to remain free to import world class post-graduate talent (not just from the EU) need to be seen to help use the doubled revenue from the Tier 2 skills levies to rapidly expand the use of, for example, blended learning “boot camps” to turn native talent into billable technicians, within months not years.

The Digital Policy Alliance has been asked to look at how to encourage employers to engage with those looking at how to ensure the new linked skills and immigration policies are implemented in ways that really do reflect their needs, bearing in mind the need for co-operation across Government Departments and Agencies who are not used to co-operating with each other.  The headline questions remain as specified when I took charge of the relevant Conservative Technology Forum studies. I am in the process of handing those studies over the next generation – to refine and implement the answers on an all-party basis, with many more employers engaged alongside training providers at all levels to show that they work. Before the election was called I was told that ministers from at least two departments were planning to look at STEM Plymouth, to which the first all-party, local digital skills pilot is coupled. The idea for such pilots was first announced shortly after the 2015 election . It have taken two years to get the first under way but I understand it will be ready for public announcement in mid-July – and hope that the new ministers will be able to attend and/or otherwise welcome the progress made during the election purdah.