Leon Emirali is an entrepreneur and investor.
A week ago today, just before the Conservative Party conference kicked off, the Party’s dedicated conference app found itself at the centre of a major data breach. Amongst the various implications of this cock-up, perhaps the most pertinent was how it highlighted a wider problem within the Tories when it comes to technology.
There is unanimous consensus amongst future-gazers that developing technologies will touch and transform almost every facet of life. From health and education, to defence and diplomacy, the digital revolution we are living through today will change our world forever. Yet, we are constantly being given clues that Britain’s governing party is woefully underprepared for what lies ahead.
It would be hard to ignore the make-up of the party’s membership when looking at why that might be. Many thousands of words have already been written about the age of the Conservative Party membership. This website reported that the Tories have 14 per cent more older (65 plus) members than both Labour and the Liberal Democrats, and the lowest proportion of young members (aged 18-44). Whatever your interpretation of the numbers, the reality is that the bulk of Tory members are not digital natives who have grown up in tandem alongside the evolution of innovations such as social media, artificial intelligence and blockchain.
Regardless, it is vital that the party’s rank and file steps outside its comfort zone to safeguard the future of our economy and society. It would be irreversibly reckless to simply allow the Left to shape the ideas about our future as a result of the Conservative Party hiding away from debate about issues it does not entirely understand or is uncomfortable discussing.
Worryingly, Labour are taking the initiative in this space. With plans to create a state-owned Facebook rival, levy punitive taxes on tech firms and slap more regulations on the gig economy, Corbyn & co are aiming to use technology to create a future that turns to stifling restriction and over-regulation as default. It’s time for the Tories to wake up before it’s too late.
Of course, there are some high-profile Conservatives who are making the case. Matt Hancock was well received by the tech sector when he held the DCMS brief and has laid out an ambitious vision for a tech-driven NHS. Liz Truss has made inroads with the generation of “Uber-riding, AirBnBing, Deliveroo-eating freedom fighters”. A number of 2015 and 2017 Tory intake members, the likes of Bim Afolami and Heidi Allen, have shown they understand the sheer seriousness of this debate. But each of them will fail to make real progress unless they can rely on the overwhelming support of the Party’s membership.
Perhaps another explanation for Conservative reluctance to embrace tech stems from our party’s risk aversion. For generations, this party has been known as competent fixers and a safe pair of hands for the country to rely on. Whereas, by their very nature, new technologies are imperfect, unpredictable and can only be improved by making mistakes. Have no doubt, accidents will happen because of driverless cars, and medical diagnoses will be missed through artificial intelligence. But we cannot allow ourselves to muzzle innovation in an unrealistic quest for short-term perfection.
Whilst we are Conservatives, we must not simply exist to conserve the status quo. For Britain to succeed, our future lies at the sharp-end of innovation. We should be proud that businesses in this country are already amongst world-leaders in the key pillars of the future; including artificial intelligence and machine learning. However, as a country, we risk being seen as the scrappy ‘early adopters’ that simply drifted away once the big boys began to compete.
The onus is on this party to continue to champion disruptive enterprise, preserve freedom of expression and empower individuals. Thanks to digital technologies, we have never had a better opportunity to achieve these fundamental ideals. Tellingly, organisations in the private sector are wholeheartedly adopting technological innovation for one simple reason; it cuts costs. From enabling patients to have a video conversation with their doctor via an app to automating the process of bin collections, widespread and bold adoption of technology will reduce public expenditure, improve services and slash taxes. In other words, the technologies that are developing before our eyes are means to Tory ends.
Despite this, the Conservatives have showed a worrying lack of technological ambition since getting into government in 2010. Looking abroad for inspiration, Estonia allows anybody to become an ‘e-citizen’, attracting location-agnostic entrepreneurs, such as software developers and writers to register there. The average internet speed in South Korea is 26.1Mbit/s, 40 per cent higher than the UK’s. In Israel, 35 per cent of the country’s exports are technology-related, and the country boasts one of the most technologically advanced militaries in the world. We can’t allow ourselves to be left behind.
It is of paramount importance that the party dedicates sufficient airtime to creating a bold and ambitious vision for the future, powered by innovative technologies. Whilst the big issues of the day will always be keenly debated in Conservative Associations up and down the country, we must look forward with one eye firmly on tomorrow. After all, the future is there for the taking.