UK General Election

What does the UK general election 2024 mean for digital and data policy and the TMC sector?

Published on 26th Jun 2024

What we know so far on what the main political parties would do if they win power on 4 July 2024

TMC election

To date, the two main political parties hoping to form the next government (Conservative and Labour) have been relatively quiet on their plans for digital and data policy. However, a few snippets of information have been revealed in their manifestos and along the campaign trail and the TMC sector can expect some changes to digital and data regulation in the UK at some point, certainly if Labour wins on 4 July 2024, although they may not happen immediately.

As for some of the other political parties, all fighting for as many seats as possible in the House of Commons, their manifestos also contain various policies that could affect debate in the next Parliament and, ultimately, the TMC sector.

'Wash-up' – media and consumer

With Parliament due to be prorogued on 24 May 2024 and subsequently dissolved on 30 May 2024, a critical two-day "wash-up" period began on 22 May 2024, in which the government pushed through those bills it deemed essential or that were subject to minimum debate. Any bills not enacted during this time lapsed.

As far as digital and data are concerned, two significant pieces of legislation were enacted: the Media Act 2024 and the Digital Markets, Competition, and Consumers Act 2024 (DMCCA).

The Media Act 2024 overhauls the UK's legal framework for public service broadcasting, video on-demand, streaming and online radio, as well as the platforms and devices used to access those services. It brings on-demand and streaming services into the regulatory framework while promoting UK broadcaster content and protecting audiences from potentially harmful content (see our Media Act hub for more detail).

The DMCCA introduces reforms to competition in digital markets and consumer law. It puts the Digital Markets Unit on a statutory footing and gives it regulatory powers over businesses designated as having "strategic market status". It also creates new consumer protection regimes for subscription contracts and fake online reviews, and gives the Competition and Markets Authority stronger consumer enforcement and sanction powers (see our Insight for further information).

The only consumer/DMCCA-related reform mentioned in the parties' manifestos appears in Labour's manifesto, which announces plans to bring back provisions inserted into the DMCCA by the House of Lords (but rejected by the House of Commons) to protect consumers in relation to ticket resales. However, it gives no further detail on how or when it would achieve this or whether this relates to offline or online sales, or both.

Data – the DPDI Bill

The Data Protection and Digital Information Bill (DPDI Bill) did not pass during the "wash-up" period. The stated aim of the bill was to simplify obligations under the UK GDPR and was seen by the current Conservative government as a way of showing the UK moving away from what it considered burdensome EU regulations. It also introduced "smart data" provisions (in essence, a framework for specific secondary legislation) aimed at opening up consumer data flows in various sectors (similar to the UK's "open banking" scheme in the financial services sector), as well as provisions on digital identity verification.

The future of the DPDI Bill depends on the new government.

The Conservative Party manifesto, however, does not mention the bill, nor does it address "smart data" or digital identity verification. What it does say, nonetheless, is that "only the Conservatives will keep on removing EU laws from our statute book" and, on public data sharing, that a Conservative government would legislate to deliver "comparable data across the UK so the performance of public services can be accurately compared".

As for Labour, the party was opposed to much of the DPDI Bill, seeing it as an erosion of privacy rights. However, broadly speaking, it supported the "smart data" and digital identity verification provisions. If it wins office on 4 July, it may well bring those elements back. There is no specific reference to either set of provisions in the Labour manifesto, but it does say that a Labour government would support innovation and growth in the financial sector through supporting new technology, "including Open Banking and Open Finance".

However, it is difficult to see a Labour government resurrecting other parts of the bill. That said, Labour does say that it would bring back the provisions that would give families of children who have died, as well as coroners, access to the child's social media data. It was reported that this, together with "smart data" and digital identity verification provisions, would be included in a new AI bill. Labour has since indicated that, if it gains power, such a bill is unlikely to make it into the King's Speech, currently scheduled for 17 July 2024 (see our AI Insight for more detail).

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Data – other policies

The only other data-related policy in the Conservative manifesto is that a Conservative government would give the police new crime-fighting powers and tools, including facial recognition technology.

As for Labour, the manifesto also includes plans to reform planning laws to make it easier to build data centres, and to create a new National Data Library to bring together existing research programmes and make it easier to access public data for research.

Digital - technology and infrastructure

Labour's manifesto proposes a new industrial strategy that would include a competition and regulatory framework that "supports innovation, investment and high-quality jobs". The Labour Party's new digital chief, Peter Kyle, has also said that the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology would "become the digital centre for government" to ramp up the use of technology and data throughout the public sector and boost the adoption of digital technology, including AI, by businesses across the economy.

As for the Conservatives, the manifesto commits to increasing R&D spending, maintaining R&D tax reliefs, investing in large-scale compute clusters, and supporting innovation.

On digital infrastructure, both parties commit to rolling out gigabit broadband to achieve nationwide coverage by 2030. Labour also commits to national 5G coverage by this date, whereas the Conservatives say that its ambition for 2030 is for "all populated areas" to be covered by "standalone" 5G mobile connectivity.

Digital - online safety

Unsurprisingly, the Conservatives acclaim the Online Safety Act 2023 (OSA). The manifesto also says that more needs to be done to protect children and young people. Before the election was called, the government was, in fact, considering launching a consultation on whether young teenagers should be banned from social media and/or owning smartphones. However, this was abandoned at the end of April, in part due to pushback from various groups.

The Conservative manifesto commits to putting the current guidance on banning mobile phones in schools on a statutory footing, but waters down the idea of banning social media and/or smartphones for young teenagers. Instead, it sets out alternative plans to consult on introducing further parental controls over access to social media and on developing age verification technology.

Both parties say that they would "build" on the OSA. The Labour manifesto goes further, saying that it would bring forward provisions "as quickly as possible" and that a Labour government would "explore further measures to keep everyone safe online". It does not, however, specify what these "further measures" would be.

In any event, the indications are that the emphasis of Labour's online safety policy would in fact be on implementation of the OSA by Ofcom (as the new online safety regulator), rather than on significant changes to the legislation itself, certainly to begin with. To assist with this, Labour has said that it will create a new Regulatory Innovation Office, focused on the tech regulators, to help them update regulation, speed up approval timelines and coordinate issues where there are crossovers among the different regulatory areas.

Digital - online crimes

Another casualty of the general election announcement was the Criminal Justice Bill, which did not make it through "wash-up". Both parties have, however, committed to resurrecting the provisions that would create new criminal offences for the generation of non-consensual sexualised deepfakes. The Conservative Party also commits to making revenge porn an offence.

Labour also sets out plans to tackle online fraud, strengthen rules to prevent the online sale of knives, update the rules on countering extremism (including online), and give women the right to know the identity of online stalkers.

Other political parties

The digital and data policies contained in the other political parties' manifestos are also interesting as, depending on the number of seats each party wins, they may affect future Parliamentary debate. In fact, the manifestos from the Liberal Democrats Party and the Green Party each contain more digital and data policies than either of the two main parties.

For example, both the Liberal Democrats and the Greens say that they would introduce a Digital Bill of Rights, in the case of the Liberal Democrats to protect online rights including privacy and free expression, and in the case of the Greens to ensure independent regulation of social media providers and to give people greater control over their data, thereby ensuring that data protection in the UK is "as strong as any other regulatory regime". Both parties would also halt the use of facial recognition technology. The Liberal Democrats would, in addition, introduce stronger regulation for biometric surveillance and end the bulk collection of communications data and internet connection records. Both parties also have online safety policies: the Greens would amend the OSA to "protect democracy, and prevent political debate from being manipulated by falsehoods, fakes and half-truths" and the Liberal Democrats would set up an independent advocacy body for children's safety online and create a new online crime agency to tackle illegal content and activity online. Both manifestos also contain commitments for the media sector, including implementing Leveson-compliant regulation for both print and online media and reinstating part two of the Leveson inquiry.

As for Reform UK, it would introduce a British Bill of Rights to "codif[y] and guarantee" people's freedoms and to protect data and privacy. It would also promote child-friendly app-restricted smartphones and launch an inquiry into social media harms. It would then review the OSA because, in its view, social media "giants" should "have no role in regulating free speech".

The Scottish National Party (SNP) says that it would "[p]rotect people, particularly children, by ensuring the [OSA] comes into force on time". It would also press the government to ensure that tech firms "cannot escape their responsibilities for the content on their platforms through full enforcement of the Act and prompt strengthening of these laws when required". The SNP would also call for the government to devolve broadcasting powers so that public service broadcasters can "better meet the interests of Scottish audiences" and, in the meantime, the SNP would push for more TV production in Scotland. It would also push for statutory parity of esteem between Gaelic broadcasting and Welsh language broadcasting and for major Scottish national team matches to be included in the listed events regime.

The Plaid Cymru manifesto focuses on digital connectivity, particularly in rural areas. The party says that it would invest in digital infrastructure and "guarantee a high-speed connection to every home and business". It would also push for the establishment of a Welsh Broadband Infrastructure Company and for more Project Gigabit money from the government.

It remains to be seen how much influence any of these ideas will have on evolving policy in the next Parliament, but depending on the number of seats won and the new government's legislative agenda, we may well hear at least some of these arguments being raised in both Houses of Parliament.

Osborne Clarke comment

From a data perspective, major change seems unlikely, regardless of the outcome on 4 July. The DPDI Bill did not make significant changes to privacy rights, but it did contain some (limited) relaxations, which businesses in the UK will now be unable to take advantage of – any steps already taken on the assumption that they would be available will now need to be reversed. On the other hand, we remain hopeful that the smart data provisions will come to fruition in some form. These could provide opportunities for data-oriented businesses, and encourage businesses to make better use of data as an asset.

As for digital regulation, the Media Act, the OSA and the DMCCA are three significant pieces of legislation (in terms of impact, but also in terms of size and complexity) which increase the divergence between the positions in the UK and the EU. While any hiatus in new law-making will surely be welcomed by businesses and give them time to get to grips with compliance, all three pieces of legislation require further consultation, guidance, and/or secondary legislation to be enacted. The general election has thrown the timelines for these into doubt, leaving in-scope businesses with a degree of uncertainty.

From a more general perspective, according to the opinion polls, if the general election was held now, at the time of writing, Labour would win. Peter Kyle has said that a Labour government would "place a premium on partnering with the technology sector to create the massive opportunities and benefits for working people that the new technological revolution represents". If the electorate votes in line with current opinion polls, the TMC sector can expect an emphasis from the next government on disseminating the use of technology and data throughout the UK economy, as well as on innovation and advancements, including in relation to AI and emerging technologies.


* This article is current as of the date of its publication and does not necessarily reflect the present state of the law or relevant regulation.

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