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Policy / Big Tech

London’s mayoral candidates united by their lack of tech strategy

The four main contenders "missed opportunity" to address the pledges in the new London Tech Manifesto.

The four main London mayoral candidates did not impress attendees and panellists with their proposals for the tech industry during yesterday’s launch of London’s Tech Manifesto for the 2020s. The lack of detailed responses to the ideas raised in the manifesto, particularly relating to diversity, suggests that, despite the UK capital’s status as a global tech hub, the quartet are not prioritising the sector ahead of the election on 6 May.

London Tech Manifesto
The four main London mayoral contenders missed an opportunity to address the pledges in the new London Tech Manifesto, it has been claimed. (Photo by S.Borisov/Shutterstock)

The manifesto, a 19-page document with 12 policy recommendations for the next London mayor on issues such as digital skills, tech investment, diversity and cross-city collaboration, aims to put the city at the heart of a post-pandemic recovery and cement its status as a global tech hub. It has been drafted by main trade organisations and think tanks, including Tech London Advocates, techUK, London First, Here East, Plexal and Centre for London.

During the online launch, incumbent Labour mayor Sadiq Khan, Conservative candidate Shaun Bailey, Green contender Sian Berry and Lib Dem Luisa Porritt, shared pre-recorded messages where they had a chance to address their position on the manifesto and what they would do for the technology industry if appointed to office.

However, candidates did not elaborate on any of the pledges and did not offer concrete strategies for the sector’s future. Expert panels and presentations, which included speakers from companies such as KPMG, UK Black Tech, Beauhurst and Founders Forum, delivered an undivided feeling that the interventions had been “fluffy” and lacked a strong proposition for London’s tech future.

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“I think this was a missed opportunity for the mayoral candidates,” Russ Shaw, founder of Tech London Advocates, told Tech Monitor. He added that the manifesto was sent to the candidates weeks ago in preparation for their eight-minute presentations. “Each of them had good ideas about certain aspects of the manifesto but I didn’t hear any of the candidates really articulate a clear vision of why the London tech sector is so important for the overall London economy and society and how they were really going to try and embrace that as part of their plan for becoming mayor of London.”

Although London mayors do not have direct powers to change many policies, Tony Travers, visiting professor at the LSE Department of Government and director of LSE London, said they could have centred their speeches around lobbying on two issues: a migration regime that allows highly skilled but relatively low-paid tech experts to work in the sector, and tech investment. But he adds that technology’s role in London’s future goes beyond economic growth and employment, and should also be central to the city’s image as a welcoming hub for post-Covid-19 recovery.

“You might have expected candidates to go beyond the lip service of just being generally friendly to the tech sector,” says Travers. A reason for this lack of concrete policies, he said, is that mayoral candidates have got used to fighting these elections on a limited number of topics, including policing and crime, transport and housing. In this discussion, technology is taken for granted.

“Tech doesn’t have any enemies, it’s just that it is not powerful and salient enough and it is one of the things that candidates sort of take for granted because it’s successful, rather than thinking what policies might we pursue to cement its success?” This is surprising to Travers given the latest ONS figures showing London as the unemployment capital of the UK, hitting a rate of 7.2% in the three months to February 2021.

A tech ‘diversity tsar” for London

One of the manifesto’s pledges is the introduction of a “diversity tsar” responsible for diversity – a long-standing issue in tech. According to analysis by BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, women employed in IT currently make up 20% of the total workforce. In the case of black women, that figure is 0.7%.

What’s more, the vast majority of VC funding is pumped into businesses with white founders.

Shaw recognises the use of “tsar” was not very thoughtfully chosen (tsars being the white, male, despotic monarchs of Eastern Europe), but was hoping it would resonate at City Hall, where the terminology is commonly used.

“Maybe a better expression for this would be to use what other organisations are doing: an equality, diversity and inclusion officer,” Shaw told Tech Monitor. “That role should not only be internally focused in terms of the Mayor of London’s office and the GLA [Greater London Authority], but I think what we hope to achieve through this is to have an individual really outspoken in communities across the capital about why equality, diversity and inclusion is so important, specially for the digital and tech economy.”

None of the candidates alluded to this manifesto pledge or offered a strategy to solve the tech industry’s diversity and inclusion problem. Of the four candidates’ presentations, only Bailey’s included closed captions which allow hard of hearing or deaf people to access the content of the videos.

Ideally, this diversity officer would follow the example of Theo Blackwell, London’s first chief digital officer for London, Shaw said. “[Blackwell] does a really good job externally, getting out there, focusing on the importance of data in the London economy, the importance of digital infrastructure. And I think we want this officer-type role to have a similar impact as it relates to equality, diversity and inclusion.”

Tech Monitor approached all four candidates for comment on the manifesto launch, but has so far only received a response from Khan, who said he welcomes the proposals and “looks forward to delivering many of the ideas contained within it if he is re-elected”.

Cristina Lago

Associate editor

Cristina Lago is associate editor of Tech Monitor.