I’ve always been fascinated by the clout that the IT industry has over US politics, particularly around election time when would-be Commander-in-Chiefs assiduously court the technorati for their approval - and their campaign cash of course.
Given the scale and the contribution to the GDP of the US this is entirely understandable of course.
In the UK, we’ve never really seen IT’s influence on the electoral process.
Oh to be sure, each general election campaign would usually involve some contrived photo-shoot in a hi-tech environment with aspirational Prime Ministers-in-waiting staring myopically at a computer screen and making bold pronouncements about turning the nation into a technological powerhouse.
The first such commitments were made back in the 1960s by Harold Wilson, but his famous ‘white heat of technology’ never really got past the vaguely warmed-up stage.
Latterly, Tony Blair was immensely fond of having the likes of Bill Gates stepping over the Downing Street threshold, while David Cameron’s fondness for Google executives has landed him a fair bit of criticism from various quarters.
But it’s starting to look as though IT might become an electoral issue next time around in 2015 with Ed Milliband, leader of the opposition Labour Party trying to position his party as taking a lead on addressing the UK’s digital deficit and over-dependence on skilled overseas workers.
“IT and digital is now worth more than £100 billion a year to the UK – and this figure could rise by half as much again over the next parliament, it is a key player in Britain winning the race to the top in which rising national income generates a prosperity shared by working families"
To that end, he has hired a woman called Maggie Philbin, to lead a taskforce that will work closely with schools and colleges and come up with solutions to bridge the skills gap.
This is an interesting appointment.For the benefit of overseas readers, Philbin is best known in the UK as a presenter of a now-defunct BBC television show Tomorrow's World, which in the 1970s and 80s weekly predicted that by now we’d all enjoy innovations such as flying cars, snooker-playing robots and plastic grass.
To an older generation, she’s also the kids TV presenter on Saturday morning telly who encouraged us all to swap our unwanted toys on Swap Shop. (Sorry, I can’t even begin to get into trying to explain what that was all about, beyond recalling a heady mix of bad knitwear, a purple dinosaur called Posh Paws - possibly a cousin to Barney? - and a force of nature called Cheggers - to whom Philbin was once married.)
Now none of this is to suggest in any way that Philbin is not qualified for her new role. Far from it. She’s a very savvy individual and CEO of TeenTech which has already been doing admirable work to build a next generation of digital entrepreneurs across the UK.
But the cynical observer will be unable to avoid memories of other ‘celebrity taskforce leaders’ which has become something of a meme in UK political circles.
The Conservative Party under Cameron hired a woman called Mary Portas - TV's so-called Queen of Shops - to try to deliver a strategy to save Britain’s high streets, for example.
But Philbin is approaching this with the correct ambitions certainly:
"Britain has led the world in new technologies for decades but we need to make sure we do everything to maintain that success by training and developing the talents that our country needs.
"I would like to emphasise that this is a completely independent piece of work which will be shared with all political parties to inform future policies as they see fit."
Coming over here, taking our jobs
More controversial is the ‘ending dependence on foreign workers’ angle. Cameron came in for a lot of flack from all sides when he visited India earlier in the year.
To be fair, one lot of critics said he was encouraging more skilled immigrants at the cost of UK jobs while others said he was trying to restrict access to the UK to skilled immigrants to protect UK jobs.
Cameron’s back off to India this week, making the timing of Milliband’s statements opportune (if not opportunistic).
One commitment the Labour leader has aired even before Philbin gets to work on her report is that any UK IT firm will need to take on a full-time UK apprentice for every skilled worker sourced from India or elsewhere outside the EU free movement zone.
He’s also given IT firms a warning that he’s going to make their sector a show case for the need for more apprenticeships across industry, arguing that the number of IT and digital apprenticeships in the UK has declined by a quarter over the past year.
Official government figures show that the number of people starting apprenticeships in the IT sector fell by 26% last year.
Over the same period, there were 7% more tier 2 high skilled migrant visa applications, of which the largest single group was in the IT space.
So Milliband pledges:
"We'll say to big firms who want to hire skilled workers from outside the EU, you can, but you will have to offer apprenticeships too so that we equip young people in this country and businesses with the skills that they need to succeed.
"We'll say to firms who want a government contract, you will have to have offer apprenticeships."
Is that legal?
Now he’s certainly correct that there’s a skills issue in the UK. Research firm GfK recently published some findings that 77% of companies operating in London’s Tech City investment and innovation area said their growth is being held back by lack of skilled workers.
That, some will argue, is the reason why we need to import those skills. If we don’t, then those firms who can’t expand here will simply up sticks and set up in San Francisco where they can get a hold of the workers they need.
It also has to be questioned whether, under European Union law, any Labour government would be legally able to force UK firms to take on apprentices as Milliband threatens.
The Labour group in the British Parliament is - by and large - very pro-Europe and unlikely to challenge existing edicts out of Brussels.
But when you’re in opposition, you can make these pronouncements comfortably in the knowledge that you don’t actually need to be able to put them into practice and can worry about the small print later.
Milliband is treading a fine line here. He’s making this report from Philbin freely available to all other political parties prior to the election because:
“It is vital that whoever forms the next government makes giving young people the tools they need to succeed in the digital world of tomorrow.”
Of course the political reality is, no matter how cogent and intelligent Philbin’s recommendations turn out to be, no party is going to be seen to adopt a rival’s policies and say ‘thank you’ in the months running up to an election.
But this ‘one nation’ gesture pitches Milliband as having the nation’s best interest to heart, not just his own party’s policies, although the point scoring will of course go on, viz:
“We hear a lot from David Cameron about the global race. But the truth is that he is letting down Britain’s businesses and our young people.”
That said, despite all my qualifications above, I do welcome anything that puts digital investment and innovation on the UK political mainstream agenda and I look forward to seeing what Philbin comes up with by way of recommendation.
But coming up with the recommendations are the easy bit. Having the political will to put them into action is the harder bit. I’ve yet to notice the UK high street get the boost it was supposed to get from the Portas report…