Conferences are quiet on the UK's start-up nation

Syndicated in the Sunday Telegraph 'Voice of Business' section

The party conference season has finally ended and despite some grand plans put forward, notably a national house building scheme, the technology sector felt overlooked this year in a way it hasn’t been for decades.

In the past, leaders as diverse as Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher have heralded new waves of technology as catalysts for change. Wilson famously used his “white heat of technology” speech in 1963 to champion technological innovation as a progressive force. While Mrs Thatcher, a chemist, said in 1979 “New technology is the true friend of full employment, the indispensable ally of progress, and the surest guarantee of prosperity.”

While there was plenty of discussion at fringe events on the impact of technology, from debates on universal basic income in Brighton to talks on cyber security and artificial intelligence from the Minister of State for Digital in Manchester, no party chose to claim the digital revolution for their side from the main stages. There was little from party leaders on how technology can shape our society for the better, create productive, well-paid jobs and provide careers and opportunities, as yet undreamt of, for our children and their children and only the occasional focus, notably from the Home Secretary, on reining in the big tech giants.

One reason for this was the dominance of Brexit, the biggest issue facing the Government today. But Brexit could be a ripple compared to the impact on our jobs and welfare that automation, artificial intelligence, robotics and cyber security will have over the next few decades. Against the backdrop of TFL's decision to withdraw Uber’s operating licence, it was a glaring omission. This was an opportunity to debate and dissect the immense impact that technology is having on our society and the threat and opportunity it presents for our economy and our future prosperity

And in a conference season where both main parties tried to court the younger vote, this seemed especially odd. In many cities around the UK, the digital sector is creating an explosion in high quality, well-paid work for the under 30s, and not just in London. Newcastle’s tech sector is the fastest growing in the country, meanwhile Manchester is now the UK’s second biggest tech hub, after London, with more than 62,000 jobs. As 17 and 18 year olds currently decide where they want to study, the Good University Guide showed that computer science degrees are a straight route to the best post-university salaries. Some 1.7 million people are now employed in the digital tech sector, in the UK, which is growing at twice the rate of the wider economy.

But while the explosion in startups is providing new and exciting opportunities, it is also undermining our traditional model of work. Younger people are more exposed to this transition because it is they, largely, who are working in the gig economy where job security can be precarious and pay low. And it may be them whose jobs are taken by robots and for whom traditional employee rights are being withdrawn.

Historically parties on both sides have advocated the virtues of an ownership economy, encouraging people to buy shares in public companies and promote ownership of their homes. In future, young people could have shared ownership of assets such as cars and houses, and are far more likely to own shares in the companies in which they work as part of their employment package. Yet there was little debate about how you build an economy around a society where wealth is held in different ways and where many people aspire first to start their own business, even if it puts buying a home out of reach.

Other political leaders haven’t been so shy. President Macron swept to power promising to turn France into a Startup Nation. Angela Merkel made championing Industry 4.0, the future of manufacturing, a key part of her platform and Bernie Sanders had unlikely support from the tech communities of Silicon Valley, despite his focus on employee rights in a fast changing workplace.

The lack of debate about technology was also disappointing because this is one area in which the Government has plenty to crow about. A Patient Capital Review is working on how the UK can build on its lead in important fields such as of genetics and robotics, the Tech Nation visa scheme, copied by the French, has been helping skilled tech entrepreneurs to come from all around the world to work here and the UK’s tax breaks for investing in small companies and their approach to building tech hubs through publically-funded organisations like Tech City UK is being copied around the world.

There’s no doubt that this Government realises how important the sector is. Perhaps next year we will hear a rallying cry to ‘Let the Lion Code’.