Have the political parties really grasped the ways in which innovation is transforming the UK’s economy and society? We examine the SNP Manifesto to find out.
The long-term challenges facing the UK – low productivity, increasing inequality, declining trust in politics – are all closely linked to the knowledge economy. To address them, the next government needs to change how the knowledge economy works – building an inclusive economy, preparing people for the future and transforming democracy, in particular by giving more people the power to shape the direction that new technologies and innovations take.
In a UK General Election, the SNP only stand in Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats. Nevertheless, the SNP could once again be returned as the third largest party in the UK parliament, and as such have influence across the UK. In addition, many of the policy areas relevant to the knowledge economy sit within the devolved powers of the Scottish Parliament or the Scottish Government.
Much of the SNP manifesto is focused on the big constitutional issues in relation to exiting the EU and the potential for a second referendum on both this and Scottish independence. As a document setting out what the SNP will do in Westminster, it mainly talks about policies that the SNP will ‘press for’ or support, given that many of their primary areas of policy interest are devolved matters. It sets out an economic vision that reflects several of the ideas that Nesta has argued for the next government to focus on, but is short of detail. The SNP could have made a stronger case for devolution of R&D spend - especially as this is picked up by Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats - and could have taken the opportunity to advocate for greater participation of the public in political life.
The SNP’s overall messaging on the economy chimes well with the vision that Nesta sets out for a more inclusive knowledge economy. They note that ‘The starting point must be that prosperity and economic justice are not in conflict’ and, importantly, ‘It is no longer enough to address economic injustice through redistribution using the tax and benefit system alone. Injustice needs to be tackled at source’. The party says that their economic strategy aims to address inequality and ‘improve participation’ as well as increasing productivity and tackling the climate emergency.
The manifesto is short on detailed proposals, however. Among the specifics are a commitment to ‘press the UK government to introduce fit for purpose sector deals, including manufacturing’ to support productivity, which aligns with arguments we’ve made on designing innovation policy for the whole economy. Similarly, the call for an ‘ambitious Islands Growth Deal’ suggests a move towards spreading the benefits of an innovation-led economy beyond Scotland’s high tech hubs in the Central Belt and North East. The manifesto also references the SNP’s existing initiatives in Government to establish a National Infrastructure Mission and Scottish National Investment Bank, both of which could help open up access to productive opportunities to more people and places. The same could be said of the manifesto’s commitment to ‘press the UK Government to invest in digital connectivity including superfast broadband and 5G technology’. The manifesto asserts the importance of the creative industries, but there are no new proposals on how to support them.
The announcement to create a supervised Drug Consumption Facility (SDCF) in Glasgow is an example of a bold idea that needs investment and to be rigorously tested and evaluated. We welcome the intention to pilot and test social innovation in health, but it is important that this good intention is backed by real leadership and resources if it is to tackle Scotland’s growing health inequalities in a meaningful way. Nesta is calling for a radical shift in investment, infrastructure and evidence to build our collective understanding of how to create and sustain the best conditions for good health, through a step-change in investment for evidence-based solutions.
Notably the SNP manifesto doesn’t say anything about R&D spend, even though the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats have all said they want to increase public investment in R&D. This would seem an opportunity for the SNP to argue for more devolution of power - we propose that 25% of an increased pot should be devolved to the nations and regions of the UK.
There’s a nod to issues around diversity in the knowledge economy through a commitment to ‘argue for greater representation of women and minority communities on public and private sector boards’. However, Nesta’s work shows that diversity in innovation isn’t only an issue in senior leadership, but at all levels, including among researchers and innovators themselves. We would have liked to see more thinking about how to extend participation in the knowledge economy to under-represented groups and to build on existing strengths in Scotland around participation and engagement. Our research suggests that Scotland does particularly well in giving young people opportunities to get hands-on experience of innovation - pupils there are 3.5 times as likely to take part in innovation schemes compared to their peers in England.
Like the other party manifestos that we have reviewed, the social economy and alternative forms of company ownership like social enterprises and cooperatives are overlooked; this is notable given Scotland’s strong social enterprise sector. However, the SNP say they will support moves to increase worker representation on company boards – a proposal also put forward in the Labour manifesto - and will ‘consider proposals to ensure fairer pay by ensuring that the balance of salaries of all employees within a company or organisation are considered when senior pay packages are decided’.
The manifesto makes several specific commitments on consumer protection, reacting to issues affecting Scottish consumers as a result of UK policy, such as changes to EU roaming charges. However, the manifesto is largely silent on issues relating to emerging technologies, digitisation, artificial intelligence and data. This is a missed opportunity, particularly as there is currently good work underway in Scotland both in terms of developing a citizen-focussed AI strategy and looking at issues relating to digital ethics.
Similarly, there is very little in the manifesto about how societal issues relating to emerging technologies might be addressed, apart from a series of ideas on how to tackle online harms. These include a demand for new duty of care on social media, gaming and technology issues and a new Online Regulator, paid for by a levy on technology companies. We would welcome more detail about the proposal to introduce a legal duty of care to protect our children online, specifically around the scope of harms considered and mechanisms of enforcement. Whilst it is important that children should not be discouraged from digital innovation and online activity by potential online harms, this should be appropriately balanced with additional requirements placed on digital businesses and additional personal data being collected.
There are few new or detailed proposals in the manifesto relating to preparing people for the future of work. The core of the response to expected skills shortages is the Climate Emergency Skills Action Plan. The Future Skills Action plan (of which this forms part) rightly focuses on a broader range of skills, as well as retraining and upskilling in the context of job change. Nesta’s manifesto for work and skills sets out specific ideas for innovating within the skills system, for example, through the design of learning interventions that motivate people to keep learning, as well as through connecting and sharing data on skills to help people navigate career and learning pathways. These ideas could be applied in particular to accelerate action around retraining workers to take up new roles in the green economy sectors.
The manifesto itself has a particular focus on workers’ rights and working conditions, under the Fair Work agenda. The SNP is proposing this for adoption across the UK. The dimensions of Fair Work are consistent with Nesta’s ideas on increasing the quality of work in the UK and some of the proposals expressed by the three main parties. Unlike other parties however, both the Skills Plan and the new proposals in the manifesto are much more explicit about expectations placed on employers to support Fair Work. While pledges and additional corporate reporting requirements go in the right direction to improve the quality of work, these often reach only the larger employers. We would like the next Government to experiment with innovative mechanisms for incentivising employers to adopt practices of Fair Work, such as WorkerTech.
Nesta believes that a ‘high-energy democracy’ - where there’s a much higher level of organised popular participation in political life - is a prerequisite for a more inclusive knowledge economy. The SNP manifesto goes some way towards that, echoing the Liberal Democrats’ proposal to replace the first-past-the-post system with the Single Transferable Vote, and giving 16 and 17-year-olds a vote in all elections (as they already do in Scottish Parliamentary elections and Scottish local government elections currently). The SNP manifesto also echoes Labour’s proposal of committing to extend the franchise for Westminster elections to include EU citizens and all those with a right to remain in the UK. There are also some proposals on how to make Westminster more gender-diverse and more inclusive of disabled people and people from a range of backgrounds.
Like most of the other main parties however, and despite the Scottish Government having recently launched a major national Citizens Assembly initiative, the SNP manifesto says nothing about participative democracy, failing, for example, to offer ways to leverage new technologies to create opportunities for more people to participate in decision-making. We would have liked to see some consideration of creative ways for involving the public in making decisions about matters that affect them and in shaping visions of the future. We have also argued that the next Government should take a more strategic approach to anticipating how new technologies might impact society more broadly, an issue of particular relevance in Scotland with its distinct geographical and demographic challenges.
The principles set out by SNP are aligned with Nesta’s vision for a more inclusive knowledge economy, but instead of detailing how this might be achieved, the manifesto focuses on constitutional issues. It does not contain many new practical ideas on aligning economic prosperity and social justice, and offers little beyond continuity in the current skills and work policy (although we recognise that these are devolved policy areas in Scotland). While there are some proposals on participation in voting, we would have liked to see more on how they would meaningfully involve more people in making decisions that affect their lives.
This is one of Nesta's responses to the manifestos from the main parties. How far do they each grapple with the challenge of changing how the knowledge economy works? We've been analysing how each party responds to the three key challenges we have outlined, as well as suggesting ways that the next government can use innovation to make the knowledge economy far more inclusive.