Labour can’t ignore automation – the party must listen to workers

Olivia Bailey

“Let us be frank about one thing. It is no good trying to comfort ourselves with the thought that automation need not happen here; that it is going to create so many problems that we should perhaps put our heads in the sand and let it pass us by. Because there is no room for Luddites in the Socialist Party. If we try to abstract from the automative age, the only result will be that Britain will become a stagnant backwater, pitied and condemned by the rest of the world.”

Harold Wilson’s speech to Labour Party conference, 1 October 1963

The Labour Party has always been successful when it sought to shape rather than resist change. Harold Wilson understood that, and so did New Labour. The third way, in the words of one of its architects Anthony Giddens, sought to apply left-wing values to the new world. But as quickly as the Labour Party has caught up, new technologies have always sped off at exponential speed. And as our economy has transformed, it has become harder and harder for the state to shape the future.

The left now finds itself at a turning point once again. The rapidly changing labour market is deepening social and economic divides, and fuelling the rise of populism in our politics. People are crying out for the industry they have lost, and the temptation for politicians is to promise they can recreate it. In America, Trump is promising to reopen shuttered factories. In the UK, the Leave campaign promised people that they could take back control in the face of dizzying change.

The Labour Party has a series of sensible policies that would help a Labour government respond to technological change. The National Education Service, for example, could transform skills provision for workers whose jobs are threatened. But there are also warning signs. There has been too much utopian future gazing about a world with endless leisure, and there has been a mistaken willingness to embrace populist protectionist policies, like the procurement announcement in Jeremy Corbyn’s recent Birmingham speech.

The answer to insecurity is not to promise things that aren’t possible to deliver. It is to embrace the change that is already happening, and in doing so understand exactly how it is possible to shape the future. That is why the Fabian Society and Community have launched a new Commission on Workers and Technology, which will be chaired by Yvette Cooper MP.  

The first task for the left is to understand that most people like their work and feel positive about the changes that are coming. A new survey released today shows that 73 per cent of people are confident they can update their skills as technology changes the world of work, and more than half are optimistic that change will be good for their working lives. People are also positive about their work in general. This echoes previous Fabian Society research from 2016, which showed that four out of five people think that their work is interesting and enjoyable.

But despite this positivity, people also think politicians and business leaders are failing to keep up with technological change. Just one in ten workers think that the government is taking steps to prepare them for new workplace technologies. Just one in four think their employer is taking action, and only one in six per cent of employees with a trade union in their workplace think unions are providing support.

This failure to respond to automation and technological change has clear consequences. We are seeing a surge in insecure work, and new opportunities are clustering in cities and amongst those who already have wealth and power. We are also seeing the darker side of new technologies. The use of wearable tech in distribution warehouses is one example of humans being forced to work as if they were machines.

Today’s survey shows that these consequences are already being felt. A significant minority of people are anxious about the impact of automation over the next ten years: 37 per cent of workers are worried their job will change for the worse, and 23 per cent are worried that their current job may no longer be needed.

Insecurity, exploitation and job losses are not a necessary by-product of technological innovation. They are the consequences of politics that is unable to shape the powerful forces of the market. The Commission on Workers and Technology understand this. Its driving aim is to set out how technological change can deliver a better working life for all. Taking a ‘workers’ eye view’, it will focus on how to create good jobs, how to support workers to adapt, and how government, employers and trade unions can work together to rise to the challenge.

As the commission goes about its work, Labour must listen. It must once again construct a vision for the future that is positive about change but uncompromising about risk. If it does that, the new automative age will lead to better jobs and a stronger economy, and the Labour Party will be in tune with the hopes and fears of British workers.  

Olivia Bailey is deputy general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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