The e-revolution becomes last year's political fashion

The recent party conferences suggest that attempts to gain political ground by being IT-friendly are on the wane. Bill Jacobs...

The recent party conferences suggest that attempts to gain political ground by being IT-friendly are on the wane. Bill Jacobs reports

As Labour sweats it out in the opinion polls, the Internet and the e-revolution are obviously not quite the buzzwords they once were for Tony Blair. And neither do they have the same glittering attraction they hadheld for the opposition.

Nevertheless, the prime minister repeated his commitment to making the UK fully electronically connected and IT-literate as a key part of his agenda for Labour's second term. Blair put the issue first in his assessment of what the Government was achieving - it was just a pity the figures were not new.

The chancellor Gordon Brown announced new tax breaks to lure high-tech companies to inner-city areas and deprived parts of the UK - and then trade and industry secretary Stephen Byers announced them again. These will be heavily skewed towards high-tech firms in fields such as electronics, IT and communications, although Byers was vague as to exactly what these incentives might be. Byers also promised a raft of measures to boost IT and other high-tech industries in the regions.

But perhaps the most significant contribution came on the conference fringe, where e-commerce minister Patricia Hewitt said civil servants will have to change their attitude to modern technology.

She told lobby group the Parliamentary Information Technology Committee that the bureaucratic mindset of top officials in Whitehall would have to go. They see paperwork as a way of regulating the flow of information and keeping ministers under control.

But a new knowledge network that will link 22 government departments and agencies, due to go live next month, could change all that, Hewitt said. Its aim is to allow ministers and civil servants to "extract information from other government departments without having to go through other lengthy channels'' and provide ministers with information "immediately instead of several weeks later in red boxes''.

Calling the current paper system "a nightmare'', Hewitt promised "powerful incentives'' for people to use the new network and meet the prime minister's "pretty heroic'' target of 2005 for e-government.

So it seems that Labour's attempt to get political currency by being IT-friendly is on the wane. Just a year ago Blair wrote in Computer Weekly that IT is vital to UK business, following a flurry of Internet-related initiatives and targets. The issue, if not quite pushed to the fringes, is certainly no longer centre stage.

But for the Liberal Democrats the world of IT and e-commerce scarcely existed at all. In as far as it did impinge on their Bournemouth conference - the opening event of the seaside silly season - it was seen as an opportunity to work up a lather about civil liberties. The Government's Regulat-ion of Investigatory Powers Act was an attack on people's rights to be as liberal as they like in the privacy of the World-Wide Web.

To end the party conference season, the Tories made attempts to be more IT-friendly than their rivals. William Hague mentioned the electronic and IT revolutions twice in his keynote speech, which was Webcast to the world.

Hague said, "Our language is the global language of the new economy.'' It turned out that this rather meaningless phrase was in any case just a hook to launch into why Britain must keep the pound, oppose European integration and "stay British".

The other reference was more instructive of where the Conservative party is going on the e-revolution.

Attacking the Govern-ment's stealth taxes, the Tory leader referred obliquely to the IR35 row. "Wanting to pay less tax isn't greedy. The young software consultant that I met who shook his head as he talked of his plans to move abroad because of the stealth taxes he now faces wasn't being greedy," Hague said. "He just can't understand how this country can ever succeed if he is being taxed out of work in an era when business can go anywhere in the world and we need innovators so badly.''

Once again, high-tech was being used as a peg - this time to attack Labour on tax.

But the substance behind Hague's political rhetoric was made clear when David Heathcoat-Amory, promoted to shadow trade and industry secretary in one of the least noticed front-bench reshuffles in political history, refused to give any details of what a Tory government would do on the issue.

While the party clearly wants to give the impression that it will scrap IR35, the reality is that shadow chancellor Michael Portillo has vetoed such an announcement while he works out his tax policies in detail. They will be revealed nearer the general election, leaving Heathcoat-Amory on a very sticky wicket as he was tackled on the issue time and again at fringe meetings.

Heathcoat-Amory did come up with one major Ann Widdecombe-style policy blunder, floating the idea of merging the Inland Revenue and Customs & Excise to reduce the regulatory burden on small businesses.

This caused astonishment among high-tech experts because of the huge problems that would result in merging the two bodies' computer systems - the Inland Revenue's is run by Texan services giant EDS and the Excise's by Andersen.

Heathcoat-Amory limited himself to just one IT reference in his main conference speech when he said, "There are huge opportunities for this country from the electronic revolution, the Internet and e-commerce. These technologies are outward looking, tariff-busting, distance conquering and they all use the English language. They are not just liberating technologies themselves, they also reinforce Britain's position and history as a global trader.''

It was left to Heathcoat-Amory's deputy Alan Duncan to do the detailed work on the new electronic, communications and IT age. He demanded deregulation to allow the new industries to prosper and preened the party's feathers on its success in curbing the Govern-ment's worst excesses by action in parliament.

At one major high-tech fringe meeting, Duncan said, "Last year, despite being heavily outnumbered in the Commons, we forced the Government to publish its e-commerce bill in draft.

"Thanks to us, businesses in the new economy were able to be consulted properly instead of having legislation imposed on them by an arrogant government. Thanks to us, Labour was forced to cut the Bill in half and concentrate on the bit that mattered. Thanks to us, the Bill was improved significantly in committee.

"The development of the Web ranks with those major milestones which have shaped our civilisation. E-commerce is dramatically changing the face of business. As far as we are concerned, the Internet did not need government to get it going - and the last thing it needs is government to get in the way. We favour the minimum of intervention and the maximum possible freedom.

"On taking office, we will review the state of local Internet connections and the charges that go with them. We will speed up the DTI's procedures for granting licences to new telecoms operators. We will consider establishing a single regulator for digital broadcast and telecoms."

Despite his valiant efforts, the phrase that comes to mind after the entire conference season is Hague's magnificent piece of tautology regarding the once-trendy New Labour. "Nothing is more unfashionable than a fashion that's out of fashion," he declared.

And the new world of IT and the related high-tech industries are now clearly last year's political fashion.

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