Election 2017: Labour’s manifesto promises digital ambassador but is silent on government tech
Leaked manifesto focuses on boosting digital investment and connectivity with pledges for 30Mbps universal broadband, free wi-fi and 5G roll-out
Corbyn's leaked manifesto is light on digital - Photo credit: PA
The Labour Party’s draft manifesto - which was leaked prior to a meeting to finalise its commitments - includes plans to establish a digital ambassador and improve connectivity.
However, there is no mention of digital government - something that was a key feature in the party’s 2015 manifesto when it was led by Ed Miliband, which said it would use technology “to create a more responsive, devolved, and less costly system of government”.
This included plans to to improve government communication, collaboration and data-sharing between services, as well as making all public sector performance data open by default.
In the version of Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto seen by PublicTechnology, most of the digital and technology pledges are contained within the section on industrial strategy.
Indeed, nearly all of the measures set out in this section are related to digital infrastructure, connectivity and start-ups.
Among these is the idea to create the position of digital ambassador to “liaise with technology companies to promote Britain as an attractive place for investment and provide support to startups to scale world class digital businesses”.
The manifesto says that the UK “lags behind” other countries on scale-ups, and that the digital ambassador would “help to ensure businesses are ready to grow and prosper in the digital age”.
Labour also aims to position itself as the party that will tackle “inequality” in the UK’s regions, which it puts down to an “over-reliance” on the financial sector and an underinvestment in infrastructure.
A Labour government, it says, will give every part of the UK the “resources and support to succeed”, by delivering better connectivity and improving digital infrastructure.
The minimum universal broadband speed - to be reached by 2022 - will be set at 30Mbps. “Few things are more crucial to businesses and our economy than a fast and reliable internet connection, but 3 million households and businesses have been left incapacitated by slow internet,” the document says.
Labour also takes aim at the Conservative government’s decision to commit to 10Mbps in the recently-passed Digital Economy Act, despite the House of Lords calling for the higher speed.
At the time, the digital minister Matt Hancock said that the government had “serious concerns” over the feasibility of 30Mbps, and that it would be “counterproductive...because of the risk of legal challenge and the delay that that would cause”.
But Labour says that the lower speed would “see the 400,000 small businesses and nearly two million homes left with substandard broadband well into the next decade”.
'Business held back'
Meanwhile, Labour says that businesses are also held back by poor 4G coverage, as “more and more of our economy requires a connected workforce” - a position that Corbyn set out in his manifesto for digital democracy, launched during his 2016 leadership campaign.
The draft manifesto promises free public WiFi in city centres and public transport, as well as plans to improve 4G coverage and ensure all urban areas and major roads and railways have 5G coverage.
The Conservative government last year announced a £1.1bn investment plan for the roll-out of both full-fibre and 5G connections across the UK, while its recent 5G Strategy focuses on testing the technology, including £16m for a research hub and a 5G innovation network.
Corbyn’s manifesto also commits to lifelong training for people, in recognition of the way technology is changing the workplace and demands on the workforce.
“At a time when technology is changing demand for different kinds of skills, and evolving patterns of work mean that people are more likely to pursue several careers over a lifetime, it is crucial that our education system enables people to upskill and retrain over their lifetimes,” the document says.
On data, the manifesto says merely that 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”.
Meanwhile, the document lacks any reference to cyber security, or to a number of pledges made by Corbyn in last year’s digital manifesto, including plans for a digital citizen passport and a system to encourage people to debate policies online.
Analysis: In a manifesto filled with eye-catching commitments, Labour fails to make radical suggestions for digital
According to this morning’s polls, (writes Rebecca Hill) many of the leaked manifesto’s pledges seem to be crowd-pleasers, but there is little on to make it stand out on the digital front.
The target of a higher broadband speed will be welcomed, but the feasibility of the proposal has been called into question, and is lower than its previous pledge of 1Gbps (although the costings of this were heavily criticised).
Meanwhile, the proposed role of digital ambassador will need a lot of fleshing out, and it’s hard to see how it will make any real difference.
Tech ambassador positions are ten a penny, and can only make a real difference if they are given some solid financial and political backing - otherwise they will remain a cheerleader on the sidelines.
Labour also missed the opportunity to properly set out its position on data privacy or cyber security, or indeed on mass state surveillance and encryption, especially given the planned expansion of the measures in the highly controversial Investigatory Powers Act.
Of course, a manifesto can never include a position on everything, and this is one that has its focus on making a different point entirely. (Nor is everything in a manifesto acted upon, or even stuck to.)
But, amid comparisons with Michael Foot’s 1983 manifesto, let’s hope that those in the modern-day Labour party have an altogether less retro understanding of digital.
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