2024 General Election: what are the implications for UK technology policy?

Lydia Marshall

23 May 2024

With a UK general election confirmed for July 4th, the UK technology sector is keeping a close watch on any potential change in Government – as well as signals for a shift in policy direction. 

For our clients looking for newsjacking opportunities, keeping an eye on the news agenda is important. But having a weather eye on the UK technology policy space helps us advise on how to tell their story. And when more so than in an election year?

At the time of writing (May 23), the latest BBC poll tracker shows Labour with a chunky poll lead with 45% of the vote to the Tories’ 23%. There isn’t likely to be another reshuffle of the Labour frontbench before the general election (it could happen, but the more time passes, the less likely it is as there’s less room for Labour manoeuvre). 

Technology companies – from startups to enterprise tech behemoths and social media platforms – generally want to know from politicians: will they make our lives easier? Will they help us get to where we want to go? Will new regulation impact our go-to-market strategy or spook our customer base? 

The short, accurate answer is that until the main parties publish their manifestos, we can’t answer these questions for sure. Still, if we’re speculating about the direction of travel for Labour tech policy, there is a sensible place to start. 

Assessing the potential decision-makers for UK technology policy – and who to watch

After the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology was created in February last year and Michelle Donelan was appointed Secretary of State, the tech brief was taken from Culture, Media and Sport – so Labour needed to shadow this accurately. 

Peter Kyle was a surprise appointment to Shadow Tech Secretary in September – he wasn’t widely considered to be in the running. He’s seen by some as a rising star in the Labour Party and representative of the new Labour segment (he was elected MP for Hove in 2015). 

Since then, he’s held a handful of shadow ministerial positions – minister for schools, minister for victims and youth justice – and he was the Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary before his latest move into the shadow tech brief.  

Before parliament, he held various charity exec roles and was at one point a special advisor in government on social exclusion policy. He’s a former member of various All Party Parliamentary Groups including New Technologies and the Fourth Industrial Revolution. His previous youth focus could impact his approach to things like digital skills (where I suspect he’ll be quite vocal), as well as encryption and online abuse.

He’s also already had exposure to tech policy through his participation in the Business and Trade Select Committee (but not since 2020), where he was part of an inquiry on automation and the future of work.

What would a potential change in Government mean for UK technology policy?

Five ‘missions’ will likely form the basis of the Labour manifesto. None of them centre on tech specifically but the general message seems to be one of driving growth and working with business. We can assume, at least at first, that Labour will be keen to be seen as hand-in-hand with businesses (including those in the tech sector) rather than immediately pro-regulation – particularly if their approach to cutting regulation for the financial services sector is anything to go by.

AI is of course our industry’s favourite topic at present. The current government has recently created the AI Safety Institute – which sees them exploring how far this body might be tasked with light-touch regulation, as well as an announcement on a UK/US safety partnership for testing AI models. 

Keir Starmer spoke at London Tech Week last summer about responsible technology and said regulation around AI was too slow.

He said: “An incoming Labour government will be a government that… works with business to make ensure we harness the great benefits of AI… if there are to be changes in jobs [we can] make sure we retrain and reskill the workforce in other areas.” He also said that of their drive for economic growth (one of the ‘missions’) “AI will be part of the story.”

At TechUK’s policy event in London last month, we saw some further details filled in. Peter Kyle’s rhetoric was similar – all about using tech for growth. Kyle’s headline claim was his aim to boost productivity growth by 0.5% as a consequence – something he’ll deliver “by hook or crook”.

He said the Labour Party would create a ‘regulatory innovation office’ to balance regulation with progress. A new strategy deploying everyday AI throughout the public and private sectors to help build trust was also announced. Kyle has already been in the US this year meeting big tech focusing on how AI can improve public services.

Earlier in May, he also teased plans for an AI strategy with an audience of business leaders, reports ITPro. “We are formulating a plan for government that will harness your innovation and your insight into the economy, the drive that you have,” he said.

Meanwhile, in the current government, Michelle Donelan recently announced a partnership with the US agreeing to work together to test the safety of AI tools.

Where UK technology policy meets politics

Technology is not usually an issue where people are neatly divided along party lines. 

Labour Together, an influential think tank, made policy proposals which included a legal ban on dedicated nudification tools that allow people to create explicit content from uploaded photos of real people. Developers of general AI tools would need to take steps to make sure they’re not involved in the creation of images like these. Peter Kyle has said they’re “considering proposals carefully”.  

The Guardian’s Alex Hern recently questioned in his TechScape analysis whether this kind of AI regulation could be that issue that divides the two parties – with Labour focusing on regulating the ‘here and now’ (like these tools being used to create explicit content) and the Tories on ‘existential risk’. If this happens, the former seems like more of a solid, vote-winning campaign platform.

Another perspective came from Benedict Evans’ tech industry newsletter, which recently suggested that people working in tech don’t care nearly as much as you’d think about regulation. Instead, it’s more about fundamental, structural industry-wide changes that affect their day-to-day (think AI and productivity software). 

Elsewhere, Sifted has compiled a run-down of the ‘brains behind UK Labour’s tech policy’ which covers who some of the other key players are in this space. Sarah Dawood at the New Statesman also ran an in-depth piece looking at the potential for the tech landscape under Labour. In this piece, Associate Director of Policy at TechUK Neil Ross is quoted as saying: “Tech had fallen between the cracks for Labour, but since the appointment of Peter Kyle, it’s a good sign for the industry.”

Everything the opposition says now is with an election mindset, so should be viewed as fighting talk. 

However, the shadow cabinet is showing a clear aversion to making promises they can’t keep – see their rowing back on the £28bn green pledge. The accompanying rhetoric says the party wants to be honest about what they can and can’t deliver in the economy they’d be inheriting. 

They are very much singing from the same hymn sheet and we’re not likely to see Peter Kyle saying anything Rachel Reeves, the Shadow Chancellor, wouldn’t endorse. 

Whatever the rosette colour of government that triumphs later this year, we expect the discussion around UK technology policy to ramp up before voters head to the ballot box. 

Beyond politics, examine the technology trends shaping this year in Harvard’s 2024 Tech Moves report.