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Views from Conference 2018

05 Oct 2018

CaSE’s Executive Director and Deputy Director give their reflections on Labour and Conservative Party Conference.

Executive Director Dr Sarah Main attended the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham

Business was to the fore at a Conservative Party Conference that seemed more buoyant than this time last year. Even before the ABBA entrance, the atmosphere felt more energised and perhaps a little less fractious compared to last year’s rather dismal and divisive air. 

Brexit still stirred the most debate, with ‘Chuck Chequers’ the protest badge of choice. But these badges were not widespread and, in the main, delegates seemed more interested in probing approaches to international trade, with Europe and beyond. 

The Chancellor was in a confident mood on Monday evening, receiving a warm response to his speech from Carolyn Fairburn during the CBI / BVCA panel discussion. I was able to prompt the Chancellor and the Science Minister, with whom he shared the panel, to discuss the Government’s strategies to maximise the UK’s science strengths. The Chancellor’s recognition of science as a strength of the UK economy was tempered with the assertion that the UK is not good at ‘applying it’ – echoing the Prime Minister’s foreword to the Industrial Strategy. This view is certainly apparent in the direction of science funding from the Treasury towards ‘grand challenges’, but I wonder if it is really true. Picking the subject up with the Science Minister at a National Academies event the next day, Sam Gyimah told me it could in part reflect a ‘lag’ in political thinking with science and innovation reality, citing the Oxford venture capital and spin out environment as an example, and in part a ‘could do better’ mentality shared by all research-intensive economies.

CaSE Executive Director Dr Sarah Main at Versus Arthritis conference stand

I think the Science Minister’s personal reflections on his time at Oxford are telling. He described how his undergraduate PPE experience would have formed the basis of his view of the university today, had it not been for a visit to see its research and innovation activity as a Minister. So, for those who organise them, do take heart that Ministerial visits really are worthwhile! 

The conference slogan, ‘Opportunity’, applied to the many fringe events on transformative technologies, with the emphasis on considering the opportunities of these rather than, say, societal impact or contingencies. Artificial Intelligence was by far the most frequent topic at fringe events, both when in the title of the discussion and when not. It was also prominent on the exhibition floor, where a number of CaSE members, particularly some of our research charities, attracted the attention of many politicians. A ‘Top Gear’ style leader board challenge by CR-UK attracted much attention, with Science and Technology Committee member Vicky Ford MP in pole position when I looked. I understand the Chancellor took a private tour of the exhibition stands but, if he played, his top score was not on display.

The week previously, Deputy Director Naomi Weir headed to Liverpool for the Labour Party Conference

Liverpool put on its best face for Labour Conference. The sun shone on the Mersey and the docks looked beautiful with the blue sky beyond. And compared to last year, there was much more confidence and coherence at conference. In terms of science and engineering, there was a strong showing of events on AI, including my first experience of having a robot on the panel, with a particular focus on the effect of AI and other new technologies on jobs. There were questions raised surrounding the ethical implications of technology being involved in more decisions, for instance algorithms involved in recruitment, or healthcare decisions and the impact of human bias and prejudice being hardwired into decision making processes.

At one such event, Liam Byrne, former shadow science minister and now shadow minister for digital economy set out his plans for a digital white paper later in the year stating there will be a consultation at (currently not live). Its purpose is engage people in the big questions that fourth industrial revolution raises to support the development of major social policy to ensure the UK is ahead of the curve. It sounded like a well thought through proposal.

Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell speaking at a Labour Party business reception

However, this was just one example of many where the Shadow Ministerial team set out their plans for the UK when Labour gets into Government. In speeches and panel events, each one, from John McDonnell down talked about what they will do when they are in government, and that it’ll happen soon. The concern I left with was that what happens in the interim?

Sometimes opposition parties constantly challenge Government plans but are slow to come up with ideas or solutions of their own. Conference left me feeling like Labour are busy making up plans of their own but aren’t actively engaged in challenging Government with the aim of sharpening Government decision making right now in the interests of the public. The backdrop of Conference was Brexit, and with ideas flowing about other areas of policy, Brexit seemed to be a particular sticking point. The general tone was that the current Government were making a mess of it so let’s change the Government. Not an unepected line at an opposition party’s conference. But, there’s a lot of holding Government to account that needs to happen between now and whenever there is a change of Government and, amid the confidence and show of unity from the shadow team, I didn’t get the sense that Labour were armed and ready to take that task on.