The Bytesize Briefing: Manifesto Special


With the general election only 18 days away, the four leading political parties launched their manifestos last week: Liberal Democrats (Monday), Conservatives (Tuesday), Green Party (Wednesday) and Labour (Thursday). 

Although all four commented on the future of tech, and its ambitions for what the sector should look like in the UK, the parties’ manifesto commitments can be grouped intro three key areas: AI, Online Harms and Research and Development (R&D). 

Below is a breakdown of the policy commitments and comments from the main four parties’ manifestos, focusing on these three areas: 

Bold promises, blurry roadmaps - what’s next for AI?

In a rare demonstration of policy consensus, all major parties were largely singing from the same song-sheet about the importance of harnessing the benefits of AI and the need for considered regulation. Labour plan to “ensure the safe development and use of AI models” via new regulations on the companies developing the highest-powered AI models. The Liberal Democrats were not as harsh but did promise a “cross-sectoral regulatory framework” which would promote innovation and establish transparency and accountability. Similarly, the Conservatives outlined its plan to invest £1.5 billion in large-scale computer clusters to “take advantage of the potential of AI.”  

The Liberal Democrats also committed to negotiating participation in the EU-US Trade and Technology Council, which serves as a forum to coordinate approaches to key global issues – as such strengthening the UK’s role in the crafting of future international AI standards. 

The Conservatives and Labour are also both betting on AI to improve efficiency and effectiveness of the strained public service, with the former vowing to double “digital and AI expertise in the civil service”. The technology is specifically referenced by both parties as a key tool to resolve critical NHS backlogs, with Labour planning the rollout of AI to help “transform the speed and accuracy of diagnostic services”, and the Conservatives pledging to use it to “free up doctors’ and nurses’ time for frontline patient care.”

Despite the positive sentiments towards AI from the Conservatives, the reaction from industry was more muted, with OpenUK chief executive calling the manifesto a “missed opportunity”. Whilst cross-party support for AI will be welcomed, the lack of details of how exactly this will be implemented remains a source of frustration for industry figures.

Leading parties look to build on Online Safety Act

Online safety appears to be back on the agenda for the Department of Science, Innovation and Technology under any future Government, with the Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Green manifestos all referencing the need to ensure the wellbeing of internet users. 

The Conservatives outlined the party’s intention to consult on introducing further parental controls over access to social media – an issue it highlighted as being of a “complex” nature. In doing this, a next Conservative government will be looking to build on the landmark Online Safety Act, the passage of which has been noted as being one of Rishi Sunak’s most significant achievements from his tenure. Labour similarly issued a pledge to build on the Online Safety Act, saying it will be “bringing forward provisions as quickly as possible”, with the party additionally acknowledging the serious increase in online harm against women. 

Policy on protecting women and girls online was also pledged by the Liberal Democrats, with the UK’s third party saying it will require social media companies to publish reports setting out how it addresses abuse against groups with protected characteristics. 

There was, however, a clear divergence on online harms between the major parties around the issue of bereaved parents being able to access data held by technology companies after a child’s death. The Conservatives failed to make a pledge on the matter, whereas Labour explicitly said it will give coroners increased access to this information – a separation noticed by industry voices, including the Molly Rose Foundation, which issued concerns about the Conservatives’ omission, calling it “disappointing”. 

Although not explicit on how the party would tackle online harms, the Green Party referred to the market dominance held by Big Tech and how companies’ irresponsible practices promote harmful online content. This comment, however, comes without any significant commitment or detail.

Sector voices disappointed with R&D offerings

Research and development (R&D) may be a crucial part of the UK economy, but there was a sharp difference in the level of attention paid to it across the manifestos. The Conservatives were the most explicit, promising to increase spending to £22 billion a year, maintaining tax relief on these projects and distributing £1.6 billion of funding towards similar plans as the Catapult Network, which is a network of technology centres established by Innovate UK.

Labour was thinner on the ground in terms of manifesto announcements related to R&D, with their main announcement on the topic committing to developing an NHS innovation and adoption strategy. This would aim to establish “reformed incentive structures to drive innovation and faster regulatory approval for new technology and medicines.” Similarly, the Liberal Democrats were light on details, promising to develop an industrial strategy, in an effort to “invest in new technologies to grow the economy, create good jobs and tackle the climate crisis.”

The Wellcome Trust, a charitable organisation focused on health research, will likely be unimpressed with these commitments, as they called for the next incoming Government to “include a plan to sustain and steadily increase R&D funding” as well as increasing “funding settlements for R&D from between one and three years to 10 or more years.” With only the Conservatives offering clear pledges to boost R&D funding, it appears that industry demands for more attention, and crucially cash, will go unanswered.

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