One Nation Labour needs digital reboot

11th March, 2013 12:19 pm

This decade is witnessing a fundamental shift in how information is gathered and communicated – for want of a better phrase we are undergoing the ‘digital revolution’, a phenomenon which threatens to change almost every aspect of our lives.

Yet even with our recent discussions around One Nation Labour there hasn’t been much of substance on how we deal with these changes, now or really since the heavily critiqued Digital Economy Act in the last months of our last administration.  Too often discussions about ‘digital’ in our circles relates to the latest State-side campaigning techniques rather than a reflection of anything deeper.

Meanwhile, with the Conservative Party’s embrace of new technologies – whether through the promotion of Tech City, copyright reform, ‘Open Data’, tech entrepreneurialism and online advocacy – has developed a distinctive political angle, focused around the Small State and a perspective of digital change as a proxy for deregulation and the free market.

We need a much more advanced and integrated world-view about the drivers and impacts of digital change than we have now:  as Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna recognised at Labour’s Entrepreneurs Network in February, it is vitally important that the Labour Party develop an active public policy approach based around promoting growth, skills, opportunity, collaboration and access.

The first reason why this is important is obvious – as pointed out by the European Commission in its digital job initiative this week:  the digital economy will be the key driver of growth and jobs in direct and indirect ways.

In the UK, the software sector counted for 10% of market share of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), vitally important for growth.  Software creation, development and maintenance were the second highest sector for investment in Europe, accounting for 10 per cent of all European FDI projects and 4 per cent of all European FDI jobs.

The UK has one of the leading Games, VFX, pharmaceutical, electronics, R+D and IT services sectors in the world.   The tech workforce is forecast to grow at 1.62% per annum, nearly twice as fast as the average employment growth of the UK for the coming decade.  There is a need for an average of 129,000 new entrants a year into IT & Telecoms professional job roles if we can train enough people.

Growth in this area is not limited to London and the South East, but is particularly strong there.

Secondly, digital change is transforming how business work generally.  Any organisation that provides services, distributes goods, designs products or is involved in retail will have to respond to digital change or risk ever depleting markets.

Change needs talent and skilled employees, something the UK currently lacks owing to a serious decline in tech skills and qualifications experience over the last two decades.  Due to poor curriculum and  even worse career articulation only 3420 A-levels (or 0.4%) taken last year were in Computing, with numbers having fallen off a cliff since 1998 (12529).  This has had a knock-on effect on university graduates and created a bona fide ‘war for talent’ in digital industries.

Conservatives have recognised this, and started to reform learning from primary school onwards – Labour needs to take this to the next level by developing a strategic push, for example as undertaken in Israel in the 1990s, throughout the education system to make us a world-leader.

Third, public services have to respond to the digital revolution and digital threatens to drive even more change than repeated austerity budgets.  By the end of the decade customers of universal public services will expect to be able to access what they want 24/7, by a variety of means – mobile, TV, computer, console.   Workforces will need to radically up-skill to meet these higher expectations from service users, as well as develop new solutions to problems.

Change in public services in not all threat – the use of interactive tools, games and online resources is radically transforming learning and with the appropriate support could really assist in personal and complex care.

Fourth, Labour’s concern about the consequences of inequality should relate to the emerging digital divide.   As technology changes significant disparities in access and opportunity emerge.  The speed of change is such that the UK is in danger of creating digital elites ready to exploit this new environment, while the majority remain locked out from the benefits of change and exposing individuals and communities to greater uncertainty.

As with any major shift, the Labour Party should be confronting the uncertainty that people face in their work and their lives and seek to help them navigate these changes.  Initiatives like Go Online – started under Labour – and NESTA’s digital maker movement need to be embraced as we discuss policy.

The union movement needs to recalibrate its approach to technology, acting as a force for further reskilling across the workforce and combatting digital exclusion at work and beyond.

Responding to change has been a strength of Labour where in power.  Labour administrations have long championed digital inclusion initiatives, notably SunderlandLiverpool and Barnsley: they lead the way when others are content to ‘leave it to the market’.

Camden, home to some of the leading digital and tech firms in the country, is an example where Labour developing a wider active digital policy to spur growth and ensure that residents are not left behind.

In Wales, Education and Skills Minister Leighton Andrews has developed some impressive interventions to boost digital and tech skills.

Digital polarisation – in the economy, jobs, skills, public services – will only grow without intelligent and agile solutions – which themselves rely on an active state as well as the market and civil society.

Labour must confidently reject attempts to mould the internet to neo-Conservative paradigms which strongly identify the Digital Revolution and the politics of hyper-individualism, deregulation and the Small State.

It’s time that we bring some of our thinking together, from Labour councils through to supporters in the tech world, to articulate a more Labour view of digital change: a ‘One Nation’ approach which recognises that digital change:

  • is inherently progressive: the Internet and new devices connected to it are empowering to individuals and communities, acting not just alone but collectively
  • challenges the status quo and is radically changing how we operate in the 21st Century enabling new solutions for old social and economic problems
  • requires an active policy approach which ensures that education, skills and entrepreneurialism are at the heart of our approach to radical changes to the production and distribution of goods and services.

These issues are important to our movement, because it isn’t just austerity which is happening to our economy and society over the next decade and we need to start talking about them.

Theo Blackwell is Cabinet member for Finance at Camden Council and a founder of the Labour Digital Group.  He works for the video games industry

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