Three of the UK’s biggest long-term challenges - low productivity, high inequality and a declining trust in politics - have their roots in the way our knowledge economy works. The most innovative parts of the economy, while highly successful, are cut off from most people. Nesta believes that the next government needs to take action to address this.
Our study of the party manifestos shows that while they have made promises towards some of these goals, the main political parties have failed to address a lot of important questions about the future.
It’s encouraging to see all the major parties making innovation a priority. All want to see overall public and private investment in R&D increase to at least 2.4% of GDP. Reaching the 2.4% target will require a big injection of public funding, potentially doubling the current annual spend to £20 billion. None of the parties have promised this level of investment in their manifestos, but all commit to some increase in public investment.
Encouragingly, there is a recognised need to spread innovation investment and/or participation in innovation more widely. The Liberal Democrats talk about challenging the dominance of the London-Oxford-Cambridge triangle, while the Conservatives highlight the need to support more women and ethnic minority-led businesses. Labour makes significant proposals to spread ownership of companies and assets. We look forward to seeing how this kind of ambition might be achieved.
All the parties make proposals to help people prepare for the future. This includes significant commitments to upskilling and lifelong learning, as well as more apprenticeships. Support to the education system is to increase too, although the degree of focus on the skills needed in future jobs (creativity, socio-emotional skills, problem solving and critical thinking) varies across the parties. All give some space to workers’ rights, with the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives promising a new enforcement agency, and Labour intending to set up a new Ministry for Employment Rights. Many of these proposals are consistent with Nesta’s own ‘future of work and skills’ manifesto, setting out the measures required to respond to the challenge of jobs change.
Arguably, none of the manifestos really get to grips with how innovation is changing society and how to ensure that new technology benefits as many people as possible. The Liberal Democrats come closest with their proposals for ‘ethical, world leading technology’, but while the intention is positive, the policies probably aren’t the right ones. For example, rather than developing a ‘mechanism to allow the public to share in the profits made by tech companies in the use of their data’, we think there’s more potential in mechanisms that would allow people to pool their data into a commons to benefit everyone.
The Liberal Democrats also propose a citizens’ assembly to consider the use of algorithms in government decision-making - again, this proposal is along the right lines, but goes nowhere near far enough to really empower people by involving members of the public in shaping the direction of innovation. Labour’s main proposal in this area is a new legal right to collective consultation on the implementation of new technology in workplaces. Overall, though, the manifestos take few steps to give people more of a say in how technology affects them.
The manifestos also have very little to say about how communities and civil society might play an active role in innovation, and in creating a more inclusive economy. There are fleeting mentions of cooperatives and social enterprises across all the manifestos that we studied, but overall there’s no real recognition that problems like climate breakdown can’t be tackled through technological innovation alone - they demand social innovation too.
Looking at Nesta’s agenda for a more inclusive knowledge economy, there is a need to create a ‘high-energy democracy’ - a much higher level of organised popular participation in political life. This aspect is least well addressed. Although both Labour and the Liberal Democrats propose some far-reaching changes to increase the electorate (lowering the voting age and extending the franchise to all UK residents), there is virtually nothing on steps to promote participatory and deliberative democracy.
By the time the next general election rolls around, we also hope to see more people given the power and tools to deliberate the challenges of the UK economy and society at scale (something our Centre for Collective Intelligence Design is exploring), and shape policy ideas and proposals, as well as the direction of innovation more broadly - the last piece of Nesta’s vision for an inclusive knowledge economy.
Look out for a new podcast featuring Nesta’s policy team discussing the manifestos reviewed in this General Election series. It will be released next week.