UK tech bosses urge focus on AI skills and growth in high-stakes election — no matter who wins

Technology

U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (left), leader of the incumbent Conservatives, and opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer of the Labour Party. The politicians traded barbs in their first head-to-head debate on Tuesday ahead of the July 4 General Election.
Pa Images | Getty Images

LONDON — British technology executives and entrepreneurs want the next government to focus on promoting skills around the development and use of artificial intelligence and growth-oriented fiscal measures.

Brits are set to head to the polls on July 4.

The business community has been calling on the two main political parties to push for economic growth, a regulatory environment that is accommodating to technology innovation and a long-term vision that can cement the U.K.’s position on the world stage.

They say that, whether it’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak or Labour leader Keir Starmer that makes it into Downing Street, the next government is likely to be one that keeps high-growth tech businesses’ interests at heart.

Upskilling in an AI age

One thing U.K. tech executives are pushing for is fostering innovation in artificial intelligence and cultivating citizens’ grasp on AI-centric skills — across multiple generations.

Skills that help us feel better equipped with large language models and other next-generation AI tools rather than losing our grip on these tools and becoming controlled by them should be a key focus of any government, top tech executives told CNBC.

Innovation is heading very quickly towards autonomous AI. We need to have the skills in this country … to be able to adopt and use it in a responsible way, with the right controls and protocols.
Zahra Bahrololoumi
U.K. and Ireland CEO, Salesforce

At Salesforce’s World Tour London, a tech conference where the U.S. enterprise software giant hosts several major customers and partners, promoting growth and prosperity with new technologies like AI was a key theme.

At a press conference on the sidelines of the event — away from the mascots with full-body suits of Einstein and Astro, the raccoon character that guides users around Salesforce’s customer relationship management tools — the firm’s U.K. boss spelled out what she wants from the next administration.

“With any government, I will be specific and I will bang this drum: one in 10 of us feel equipped with AI. Innovation is heading very quickly towards autonomous AI. We need to have the skills in this country … to be able to adopt and use it in a responsible way, with the right controls and protocols,” Zahra Bahrololoumi, Salesforce’s U.K. and Ireland CEO, said in response to a CNBC question.

 ”Any government appreciates that, most of the major parties do,” she added. “That would be my wish list — if there was one thing just to prioritize, [it should be] digital skills.”

Matthew Houlihan, senior director of government and corporate affairs for U.K. and Europe at U.S. enterprise tech firm Cisco, said the next government should seek to make the country a leader in innovation and emerging technologies like AI and quantum computing.

“It should also be an excellent time to review approaches to essential aspects of the U.K.’s digitising economy such as digital skills, tech adoption support and approaches to security to ensure that the benefits of digital technologies can be felt by as many people across the country as possible,” he added.

Political leanings

Many technology executives remain coy about which candidate will secure their vote come July 4 — but a growing number are beginning to make their political affiliations publicly known.

Last month, dozens of business executives, entrepreneurs, and investors signed an open letter stating their support for Labour in the upcoming election. “We, as leaders and investors in British business, believe it is time for a change,” they said in the letter.

Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and Deputy leader, Angela Rayner, attend an event to launch Labour’s election pledges at The Backstage Centre on May 16, 2024 in Purfleet, United Kingdom. 
Leon Neal | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Signatories included several influential names in the world of U.K. tech: Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, Founders Forum co-founder Jonathan Goodwin, and Atom Bank CEO Mark Mullen.

The writers of the letter say that the U.K. economy has suffered from a decade of stagnation amid a lack of both political stability and a consistent economic strategy.

Britain’s Sunak has said it will “take time” for the general population to “really feel” upward momentum in the economy.

Data released earlier this year showed that U.K. gross domestic product rose by 0.6% between January and March after slumping into a shallow recession in the second half of 2023.

An end to uncertainty

The past four years have seen the U.K. undergo particular adversity and economic instability — from the Covid-19 pandemic and Ukraine conflict’s impact on global supply chains, to the rising cost of living for both consumers and businesses.

Add to that the disastrous “mini budget” in September 2022 under Sunak’s predecessor Liz Truss, what British tech bosses say they are looking for now is stability and certainty.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (L) and Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt (R) during a visit to BAE Systems on March 25, 2024 in Barrow-in-Furness, England.
Danny Lawson | Wpa Pool | Getty Images

“In the last two years, both parties have materially converged in terms of the fact that businesses are important for the country’s growth — business is important, fintech [financial technology] is important, entrepreneurship is important,” Rishi Khosla, CEO of British digital bank OakNorth, told CNBC.

“The strong desire is for whichever party that comes into power to stay the course on that, to make sure that they stay the course on the narrative but also on what they do, whether it’s immigration, whether it’s tax, and they don’t create environments that go against that for populist measures,” Khosla said.

Big on statements, short on detail

One current source of frustration for U.K. tech leaders remains the fact that neither of the major political parties have yet explained how they’ll boost business — let alone the entrepreneurial community and high-growth technology industry.

Tech bosses CNBC spoke with found themselves unable to point to specific policies and plans from either of the main political parties.

British Finance Minister Jeremy Hunt recently unveiled a spate of new tax breaks and investments which he said would help to establish the U.K. as a world leader in high-growth industries.

Hunt hinted he’ll introduce new tax cuts if the Conservatives are re-elected, saying in an interview with The Telegraph that the priority will be “business taxes that boost investment,” as well as growth. He has refrained from offering further details on his plans, however.

Labour has previously committed to capping the headline rate of corporation tax at its current 25% rate, and confirmed it will maintain certain tax reliefs including for full expensing and research and development (R&D).

Labour says it will publish a roadmap for business taxation, if and when it is elected.

— CNBC’s Jenni Reid contributed to this report

Articles You May Like

Love Island star calls for nut ban on planes after ‘extremely scary’ allergic reaction
Elon Musk claims Tesla’s new AI supercluster will grow to over 500 MW, record AI chip
Investment in UK ‘rock bottom’ of G7 nations for third year in a row
Biden to open citizenship pathway for ‘around 500,000’ undocumented spouses of US citizens
Putin’s trip to North Korea underscores growing relationship – but China will be watching