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Tom Morrison-Bell

head of public affairs at techUK

What does the election mean for tech?

As with almost every major poll in the last two years, politicos across the board have been caught out yet again.

Despite a Conservative majority comfortably looking like the favourite outcome, the UK finds itself with a hung parliament as the Conservatives fall eight seats short of an outright majority. The Prime Minister will remain in post for now, supported by an agreement with the DUP, but here we look at what the election result means for UK tech.

The Conservative manifesto contained an unprecedented focus on the digital economy devoting an entire chapter to the topic. There were some positives in there, particularly around public sector digital transformation and data ethics, however, it was also accompanied by strong interventionist language on various aspects of internet regulation. While the overall ambition to place digital at the heart of the new legislative agenda is welcome, techUK previously warned of the fine line between supporting a thriving digital nation and over reaching regulation that constrains the creativity of businesses and citizens.

The failure to secure a majority raises significant question marks over which parts of the Conservative manifesto the new minority government will attempt to deliver on. The manifesto has been cited by many commentators and Conservative MPs as a significant factor in the failure to win a majority. As such, significant parts will be rowed back on to placate backbenchers and other parts will be watered down, or jettisoned altogether, in the attempt to get legislation through a hostile parliament.

But where does this leave the digital agenda? In her speech on the steps of Downing Street the day after the General Election, the Prime Minister again reiterated her commitment to shut down the “safe spaces” for extremists. As one of the few policy commitments she mentioned in that speech, it seems safe to say she will be pursuing her online regulation agenda. This is indeed politically expedient as it is likely to gain support from large swathes of the House of Commons. No coincidence then that the PM has followed this up with briefing on her joint proposals with French President, Emmanuel Macron, to tackle online extremism. The sector is still getting to grips with the extensive new powers in the Investigatory Powers Act (the ink is still drying on the vellum) and companies are developing further initiatives with the Home Office to tackle this most pressing of issues. Expect online safety to feature prominently in the coming weeks.

There is much speculation as to what the result will mean for the new government’s Brexit approach. While the Remainers in the Conservative Party will feel emboldened, the key architects of the referendum, David Davis MP, Boris Johnson MP and Michael Gove MP, are all in the Cabinet. The tone has certainly softened but as long as the narrative remains fixed on limiting freedom of movement, a deal that keeps the UK in the Single Market remains unlikely. Remaining in the Customs Union may look more appealing, and is a known priority for the DUP, however, that would mean a considerable U-turn in closing off the UK’s ability to make its own trade deals (and the establishment of an entirely new Department for International Trade). There’s the possibility for some softening but perhaps not as much as some Remainers may hope for.

The Conservative commitment to reduce immigration to the tens of thousands was repeated in its 2017 manifesto alongside a pledge to double the Immigration Skills Charge. There are rumours in The Times that the net migration target will be dropped but it remains to be seen. This is something the tech sector, along with many others, has called on the government to drop. Tech is creating jobs faster than the UK can currently produce the talent to fill them. Unless we want to risk this talent going elsewhere, the new government must commit to a flexible migration system that allows high-value sectors, such as tech,to keep growing.

TechUK hopes to see the commitments on the digital transformation of government acted upon, many of which echo calls in techUK’s own manifesto, Inventing the Future. It’s vital that the new government remains committed to the Smarter State agenda – with a growing population placing increased demands on public services, it’s the only state we can afford. Another positive development techUK urges the government to continue with is the establishment of an independent Data Ethics Commission to help develop the norms that underpin the responsible use of data. As data is the lifeblood of the digital economy, it is right to establish just such a body in the digital age.

It is hard to give more specifics. Things will become clearer after the Queen’s Speech, when we have a better sense of the government’s agenda, and we start to see how much trouble parliament gives the minority government.

Tom Morrison-Bell is head of public affairs at techUK

This blog was originally published on techUK.org

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