As the main political parties unveil their Election manifestos, diginomica/government will be picking out the main digital highlights, starting today with the Labour Party.
Broadband for all
Broadband Britain is still on the agenda, as well it might be given the appalling track track record of development to date. Labour commits to universal super-fast broadband availability by 2022. With the current government pitching the base level at 10 Mbps, Labour will be looking to 30 Mbps as a guarnateed minimum. It also says:
On day one we will instruct the National Infrastructure Commission to report on how to roll out ‘ultrafast’ (300Mbps) across the UK within the next decade.
Labour will improve mobile internet coverage and expand provision of free public wi-fi in city centres and on public transport. We will improve 4G coverage and invest to ensure all urban areas, as well as major roads and railways, have uninterrupted 5G coverage.
There’s no detail in the manifesto about how Labour will deal with the inevitable blockers to such plans, most notably BT. While there are plans to reverse privatisation of key industries, there is no intent to try to regain control of the UK network infrastructure, so Labour’s plans will be subject to the willingness of the likes of BT to co-operate.
Getting tough on social media firms
As expected, Labour doesn’t venture far from Tory intentions when it comes to social media and keeping children safe online, although while the Conservatives have been talking tough about big fines on providers who don’t comply, the Labour line more generically states that it will:
ensure that tech companies are obliged to take measures that further protect children and tackle online abuse. We will ensure that young people understand and are able to easily remove any content they shared on the internet before they turned 18.
That’s not as firm a stance as Theresa May and Amber Rudd will be talking up, although it’s likely that the likes of Labour’s Yvette Cooper and Diane Abbott will match their rhetoric as the campaign proceeds. But there’s no detail at all about how this assurance to keep tech firms in check will be implemented or policed.
The Labour Party has been very critical of the Industrial Strategy outlined by Prime Minister May last year. For its own version, it says it wants to build on:
objective, measurable missions designed to address the great challenges of our times. In meeting these challenges, we will move beyond the narrow approaches of the past, and mobilise the talents and resources of our whole country to deliver an economy fit for the future.
That’s a grand aspiration, but the devil will be in the detail. There’s a lot of focus on reviving older industries, such as manufacturing in the Labour heartlands. From a digital perspective, there’s a commitment to:
create an innovation nation with the highest proportion of high- skilled jobs in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development by 2030. We will meet the OECD target of 3 per cent of GDP spent on research and development by 2030.
The most interesting digital component of the Industrial Strategy is the idea of creating a new role at senior level:
We will appoint a Digital Ambassador to liaise with technology companies to promote Britain as an attractive place for investment and provide support for start-ups to scale up to become world-class digital businesses. Our Digital Ambassador will help to ensure businesses are ready to grow and prosper in the digital age.
Inward investment v tax regimes
When it comes to attracting tech businesses to set up in the UK, the current government has made great play – and will continue to do so in the coming weeks – of investments by the likes of Apple, Amazon and Google in expanding their footprints in the UK.
The Labour Manifesto commits to increasing the rate of corporation tax and generally getting tough on what the party sees as tax evaders:
Corporation tax in the UK is the lowest of any major developed economy. Our new settlement with business will ask large corporations to pay a little more while still keeping UK corporation tax among the lowest of the major developed economies. In turn, we will meet the business need for a more skilled workforce with extra corporate tax revenues while contributing to education and skills budgets.
Selling to government
For tech providers selling into the public sector, there would be changes coming if a Labour government is elected on 8th June. The Manifesto notes that national and local government spends £200 billion a year in the private sector procurement:
Labour will put that spending power to good use to upgrade our economy, create good local jobs and reduce inequality. We will require firms supplying national or local government to meet the high standards we should expect of all businesses: paying their taxes, recognising trade unions, respecting workers’ rights and equal opportunities, protecting the environment, providing training, and paying suppliers on time.
When it comes to what it calls a “war on late payments”, Labour plans to insist that any provider bidding for government business has to commit to paying its own suppliers within 30 days. It will also put forward a version of the Australian system of binding arbitration and fines for persistent late-payers for the private and public sectors.
That’s a very SMB-friendly message, with late payment regularly cited by smaller providers as a reason why they don’t compete more in a public sector dominated by the so-called Oligopoly of large suppliers. It might not play quite so well with the accounts payable teams of those large suppliers, some of whom can take up to 6 months to process invoices.
Post-Brexit, Labour would also rejoin the Government Procurement Agreement, whilst safeguarding the capacity for public bodies to make procurement decisions in keeping with public policy objectives.
Life after Brexit
Post-Brexit, there will be critical questions to be answered by whoever makes up the new Government, not least around free movement of (a) data and (b) workers. For its part, Labour says:
Labour is committed to growing the digital economy and ensuring that trade agreements do not impede cross-border data flows, whilst maintaining strong data protection rules to protect personal privacy.
But in a move that hasn’t played well with some in the Party over the past 24 hours, the Labour Manifesto states bluntly:
Freedom of movement will end when we leave the European Union.
That’s an issue that has been on the Brexit ‘worry list’ from commentators of all political complexions since the vote to leave the EU last year. Labour’s solution to tackle this is, inevitably, pretty vague given the current uncertainties around Brexit:
Whatever our trade arrangements, we will need new migration management systems, transparent and fair to everybody. Working with businesses, trade unions, devolved governments and others to identify specific labour and skill shortages.
It does see a post-Brexit Britain still participating in EU research however:
A Labour government will ensure that the UK maintains our leading research role by seeking to stay part of Horizon 2020 and its successor programmes and by welcoming research staff to the UK.
Tackling the Gig Economy
With the nature – and indeed, very defintions – of work evolving, fuelled by the ‘Gig Economy’, the Labour Manifesto concedes that “rapid changes to the world of work are rendering existing employment categories outdated”. To tackle this, it plans to set up a dedicated commission to modernise the law around employment status. New statutory definitions of employment status would reduce the need for litigation and improve compliance, it says. The commission will be led by legal and academic experts with representation from industry and trade unions.
One work-status issue that will be of concern to IT freelancers is the plan to clamp down on what the Manifesto calls “bogus self-employment”. Under Labour plans, the “burden of proof” will shift so that every worker, including contractors, is assumed to be a full-time employee, with all the tax and National Insurance implications attached, unless the contracting company can prove otherwise. It would also banpayroll companies, which the Party says create:
a false structure to limit employers’ tax liabilities and limit workers.
Under the current Tory government, HM Treasury and HMRC have been making noises about changes to the IR-35 tax status, something which experts have warned would adversely impact on public sector organisations ability to hire contractors to complete vital digital transformation initiatives. This in turn, by implication, could well result in more business going back to the Oligopoly in order to ‘keep the lights on’. Labour’s plans are more explicit around its intentions here and likely to fuel those concerns.
Reacting to the publication of the Labour Manifesto, Antony Walker, deputy CEO of UK tech industry association techUK, said:
We are particularly pleased that Labour have backed our call for the next Government to ensure cross-border data flows are a key part of the Brexit negotiations and future trade deals. Allowing personal data to move swiftly and security across borders is vital for the future of the UK’s tech sector. The Labour Manifesto also adopts techUK’s call for a new Digital Ambassador. This is a positive recognition of the importance of tech to UK global trade post-Brexit.
We also welcome their recognition of the importance of lifelong learning. techUK has called for an Independent Commission to radically rethink our education system to ensure everyone is able to obtain the skills they need for the future and that our workforce remains creative and adaptable to change. As we face up to the challenges of a changing world of work, the ability of people to reskill throughout the careers will be key in building a successful economy.
Image credit - YouTube