This year, party conferences were all about values. Conferences are the chance for party leaders to speak to their members, as well as the rest of the country. They can lay out the dominant values defining a party, outline a larger vision for the country, or launch big policies – and this often tells us how prepared each party is for an election. With the pandemic cancelling in-person conferences for two years, this was the first opportunity for the UK’s two major parties to meet since the last election. And each tried to make traction in setting out their values.

My colleague wrote that Labour’s big test would be in defining what the party stands for, especially against a Conservative Party willing to spend public money. Labour leader Keir Starmer’s closing speech set out to do just this and reviews from commentators were mixed on its success. Yet polls revealed he did better than Prime Minister Boris Johnson in his conference speech.

Meanwhile, H+K’s review of the Conservative Conference concluded that while it was policy-lite, there were the beginnings of a grand narrative moving the party towards the centre-ground. The defining issues are obvious. Practically half of all fringe events had ‘levelling up’ in the title with ‘net zero’ as the focus of close to a third.

For technology policy, it was equally true that values dominated conversations. For every mention of ‘digital’, the word ‘democracy’ wasn’t far behind. That’s not a surprise given the current atmosphere.

Aligning tech regulation with values 

Globally, and particularly in the US and Europe, there is a push to redefine our relationship with technology so that it aligns better with our principles. In the US, numerous anti-trust investigations of tech giants are ongoing and the testimony of a Facebook whistle-blower has been making international news headlines, claiming the company puts profits over people. The EU’s Digital Markets Act and Digital Services Act are underway. And the US-EU Trade and Technology Council recently held their inaugural meeting.

Amidst this backdrop, one of the most covered topics in fringe events was the UK’s developing Online Safety legislation, which would be the first to mandate a duty of care for internet platforms and regulate legal but harmful content. Interestingly, delegates and attendees at both conferences brought up similar concerns; the most popular of which was freedom of speech. There was broad agreement that this legislation was a good thing but that we still have a long way to go, both in defining parameters as well as enabling regulators to keep up with the speed of technological change. Speakers at these fringes, including members of the bill’s scrutiny committee, argued that key decisions needed to be made by Parliament or the public – someone other than tech executives who don’t always base their decisions on our shared values.

Work, levelling up and local appeal

Another defining topic was the future of work. At Labour, the chat focussed more on workers’ rights and the unions’ role in our evolving economy, While there was a more defined business push from the Conservative fringe programme. New DCMS Minister Chris Philp outlined the ambition to provide greater support for unicorns and a regulatory market that makes scaling up in the UK easier (which is one of the aims of the Government’s Plan for Digital Regulation).

Following this conference season, we’re expecting a wave of Government strategies defining their policy priorities on levelling up, net zero, and a DCMS review of cyber security – as well as the budget and a spending review which could contain a digital sales tax. Each of these will have tech and values-driven dimensions. For example, tech skills and the digital divide is likely to be a key component of the Levelling Up White Paper.

While this year’s conferences were largely speaking to the parties’ membership, we can expect a lot more pitching to the public going forward. Brexit and then COVID both put constraints on what the parties could talk about. Both are now anxious to draw a line. The next year will be crucial in taking the values outlined at these conferences and creating a vision for the country.

Technology is driving economies and creating good for many in the world, particularly throughout the pandemic. But now the conversation is turning back towards values. Who creates and manages the technology we all rely on will be one of the biggest questions going forward. Tech is starting to walk the tricky tightrope of keeping everyone connected globally, while at the same time appealing to each country’s values. How successful tech companies are at finding this balance will define tech regulation for the next decade.