There was a buzz of excitement as the audience took their seats for Debate Tech. Being the first ever debate between London Mayoral candidates focused on technology, the very fact of #DebateTech is testament to the size and importance of the sector and the role it’s expected to play in London’s economy going forward. This significance was not lost to the event organisers (a roll call of who’s who in the London tech scene), or the Silicone Roundabout types tweeting away in the audience, or indeed the candidates.
Each fell over themselves to display their personal tech credentials, and convince the room they would be the best friend of this growing sector. Peter Whittle’s attempt: ‘I spend my whole life on my phone, and never use any other platform!’ was met by a muted snigger. As UKIP’s candidate though, his was the highest mountain to climb with this crowd. Sian Berry of the Green Party at least spoke the right language, being the only candidate to have worked for a tech startup, which meant she of course understood the ‘real challenges’ the sector faces.
Helpfully, Tech London Advocates, Tech UK and Centre for London, who organised the hustings, have laid out the sector’s concerns in their ‘Mayoral Tech Manifesto 2016’. Their proposals formed the basis of every candidate’s contributions, and a substantive discussion was had on key priorities ranging from upskilling the 18% of Londoners who have no basic digital skills, to tackling notorious ‘notspots’ and providing superfast broadband throughout London.
Sadly, however, there was a sense that the hustings failed to serve its primary purpose, helping the tech-minded voter choose their most appropriate candidate. Michael Hayman MBE, the compere for the evening, had opened with a joke about there being more thickness to an East End hipster’s rolling paper than difference between the main candidates’ positions. And indeed, this still seemed the case by the end of the hustings.
Each, to a man (and woman), pledged to create a London Chief Digital Officer and guarantee investment in tech. Labour’s Sadiq Khan promised to protect commercial property, while increasing residential supply to tackle London’s housing crisis. On the other hand, Conservative Zac Goldsmith promised to build more houses for the tech workforce of the future, while making sure no commercial property was turned residential without specific planning permission.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, only on the EU, immigration and visas was a big difference felt between the candidates. Both Zac and UKIP’s Peter Whittle proposed curbing immigration from the EU in favour of a global migration policy. Lib Dem candidate Caroline Pidgeon argued strongly against this, and the room seemed to agree that European migrants help make up for the shortage of available home grown talent, one of the tech sector’s greatest complaints. However, as Swiftkey co-founder Jon-Reynolds later confirmed, the strict visa regime for non-EU citizens remains a major challenge for tech businesses.
In my opinion, there was no clear winner, and a panel of ‘experts’ following the hustings seemed to confirm this. While Zac Goldsmith had the best delivery and most personable manner, his view that Uber represented ‘unfair competition to taxis’ and should be regulated more effectively was not well received. It exemplified a feeling that Diane Perlman of Masschallenge put quite simply: “do they get it? Or are they all just paying lip service? Of course tech presents unfair competition, that is the point of disruptive industries!’
If only by a process of elimination, Sadiq seemed to win the day with London’s Tech crowd.