National security emerges as early priority for the Conservative and Labour Parties in the election campaign

As Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer hit the campaign trails last week, both emphasised the importance of protecting the UK’s national security as a top priority for their respective party’s plans.  

In speeches delivered over the past two weeks, a key theme emerged in recognising the difficult world the next Government will find itself in. The cost-of-living crisis, recovery from a global pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine were all noted as challenges for whichever party wins the election.  

As the leaders set out their differing approaches for bolstering the UK’s national security, there was also an acknowledgement from both that technology is significant in underpinning matters of national security. 

In the first speech of his general election campaign, speaking in West Sussex, the Leader of the Labour Party Sir Keir Starmer stated that “the very foundation of any good government is economic security, border security, national security” and that these pillars will be the “bedrock” of the first steps of a Labour Government.  

Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper later announced that a Labour Government would carry out a 100-day “security sprint” to identify all threats facing Britain. The 100-day review would involve the UK’s Security Service MI5, the Police, and departments across Whitehall, and would be modelled on the recent US Homeland Security review of the US’s vulnerabilities relating to China. 

This follows on from the Prime Minister’s speech, the week before the election was called, at Policy Exchange where he focussed on security and protecting the UK from threats. Whilst not the focus of the speech, technology was mentioned several times throughout.  

In the speech, Sunak referenced the significance of emerging technologies, suggesting that “Technologies like AI will do for the 21st century what the steam engine and electricity did for the 19th” and said that technology will be the UK’s “new national purpose”. He also committed to “investing in the new infrastructure of the future - not just roads, railways, and buses, but gigabit broadband, research and development, computing power” to “lead in the industries of the future and help you and your family become wealthier and more economically secure.” 

The first weekend of the campaign was dominated by the Prime Minister’s announcement that a future Conservative Government would introduce a new national service for all 18-year-olds. The work would include either placements in the military or a commitment to volunteering once a month in a community-service role. On the campaign trail, there was recognition that such military placements could help to train younger people in areas such as cybersecurity and follows a Conservative Government commitment in April to grow the UK defence budget to 2.5% of GDP by 2030. 

Overall, the UK’s security and resilience sector makes a significant and growing contribution to economic prosperity and national security in the UK. In 2021/2022 the sector generated £12.8bn in value add for the UK economy, created 145,000 direct jobs and achieved £9.5bn in export sales. This comes against a backdrop of consistent growth, with a 203% increase in turnover between 2012 and 2022. It is in this context that techUK continues to advocate for a security prosperity agenda, which is fundamentally a recognition that the Home Office has a dual role in promoting prosperity alongside its core national security tasks. By supporting the innovative, SME-heavy security and resilience sector, the Home Office of any incoming Government can contribute to the UK’s economic growth, competitiveness and global influence, while also ensuring that the UK has the capabilities to address current and future threats.  

In our UK Tech Plan, published in June 2023, techUK has called for a deeper strategic partnership between the incoming Government and the complex and disaggregated security and resilience sector. In this way, the Home Office and other security-related agencies and departments act as an intelligent customer and, in turn, industry acts collaboratively in support of national security.  

techUK’s National Security policy recommendations:  

  1. A more collaborative and agile approach to procurement which can effectively deliver solutions that meet national security requirements, whilst also providing value for money, transparency and opportunities for SMEs.  

  1. An emphasis on the importance of greater collaboration and co-creation in national security R&D, by facilitating access to funding, expertise, facilities and end-users, and by promoting a clear ecosystem and encouraging a culture of innovation across Government and industry.  

  1. A whole systems approach that brings together the Home Office and UK Defence and Security Exports to target priority market opportunities, which would strengthen the UK’s domestic industrial base, underpin resilient and safe communities and enhance our international reputation and influence.  

  1. Ensuring that the security sector has the necessary workforce to meet demands by promoting clear pathways and other activities that attract, retain and develop talent, diversity and inclusion.  

  1. A commitment to transforming the UK’s security vetting process.  

  1. Greater horizon scanning on ‘deep tech’ areas such as quantum computing and its impact on current security arrangements. This closer engagement between the Government and the UK tech industry will facilitate opportunities for the UK to lead on the development of advanced capabilities and tap into new growth opportunities – especially those presented by emerging technologies.  

  1. Continued engagement with the UK technology industry on policies such as the Foreign Influence Registration Scheme under the National Security Act and the National Security and Investment Act to ensure that developments around this legislation and emerging guidance is proportionate, pragmatic and not burdensome for industry to comply with.  

Daniel Clarke

Daniel Clarke

Policy Manager for International Policy and Trade, techUK

Alice Campbell

Alice Campbell

Head of Public Affairs, techUK