As the Conservatives victoriously marched back to No. 10 last week, the FTSE 100 immediately soared and the pound leapt. Investors, then, are pretty certain that the result is good for business, but we can’t help but wonder what this means for the UK tech industry?
The consensus from industry seems broadly positive: an overwhelming 82% of UK tech entrepreneurs believe they would fare well or very well under the Conservatives, according to a survey published by TechWorld. Their three week old manifesto is packed with digital content aplenty, including promising to move more government services online, tackling digital exclusion and rolling out cross-government technology platforms, as well as pledges to deliver better mobile phone and broadband internet connections (whether these actually happen is another story). But it’s not all positive, so be warned.
It’s been on the agenda for a long time, but the Tories are confident that they can get 95% of the UK on superfast broadband by 2017. In addition, they’ve pledged £790 million of further spending to extend superfast broadband into rural areas as well as committed to leading the way in the development of 5G.
In their manifesto, the Conservatives boldly vowed to make the UK the ‘technology centre of Europe’ and pledged to continue to support the ‘rise of UK tech startups’. Digital startups in the UK are thriving, in no small part due to a positive policy environment. Their manifesto is packed with policy pledges, including bolstering growth by ‘backing the financial technology revolution’, rolling out their Help to Grow scheme, tripling the availability of start-up loans and offering tax reliefs for small to fledgling companies to help them find their feet. They will also expand the creation of new “tech incubators” – funded catapult centres which will help research and development thrive.
The Conservatives have already created 20 digital services and it looks like they will pursue roll out across government technology platforms to cut costs and improve productivity. The Coalition’s decision to open up government procurement to small companies has created huge opportunities for startup businesses and it’s reassuring that this looks set to continue.
A day after victory, returning Home Secretary Theresa May has already confirmed her intention to bring forward the Communications Data Bill as part of the Government’s radical first 100 days agenda. Commonly referred to as the Snoopers Charter, it’s essentially a carte blanche for government agencies and the police to have a look at pretty much whatever is said or done online or over the phone. As well as being (by definition) anti-privacy, the draft legislation is also arguably anti-business. The rules which any business operating a communication system will need to follow are likely to be voluminous; ranging from new standards, specified equipment and data collection techniques – so much for the so-called bonfire of red tape.
In order to assuage a potentially restive right wing, David Cameron has promised an in-out referendum within two years. It hardly needs saying that this is bad news for business; likely ushering in a period of protracted operational and regulatory uncertainty. What’s more, it comes at a time when the EU has unveiled a strategy to build a digital single market by harmonising cross-border taxes and regulation, opening up access to goods and co-operating on digital infrastructure investment.
So, what’s the verdict?
Tech companies will be encouraged by the signs of political certainty provided by the election’s outcome. The previous Coalition demonstrated a solid track record on tech and the digital economy across the UK. It’s comforting that the Conservative manifesto points towards a government which not only understands the benefits of tech but also supports industry. A new government brings with it a chance for industry to take the lead in shaping meaningful policy and ensuring tech remains high on the government agenda. So far so good.
But the task now – for industry and government alike – must be to build on this momentum. Civil servants and politicians need to be closely guided by industry on the needs of a fledgling tech world. For example, whilst it’s great that government is on the right path in terms of investment; at the same time, they run the risk of getting it wrong when it comes to the Snoopers Charter and civil liberties. It’s therefore imperative that companies work intently with government to explain what they do and how they operate – only then can we ensure that legislation is appropriate and proportionate. Clearly, the challenges which lay ahead are significant. There is no greater challenge than the European Question – a decision to leave could fell the UK’s standing as the digital leader of Europe in one stroke. Ultimately then, what the tech industry is presented with is an opportunity to engage: the fight to save our place in the single market (however imperfect it may be) will be long and exhausting – and UK tech must be poised on the frontline.
Photo Credit: Peter Macdiarmid, Getty Images Europe