Darren Jones: The answer to globalisation? It’s not nationalising the economy

Below is the full speech given by Darren Jones MP at the launch of Labour Digital’s technology innovation competition.

It was here at Labour Party conference, 55 years ago, that Labour leader Harold Wilson delivered the speech ‘Labour’s Plan for Science’ – more colloquially known now as his “white heat of technology” speech. Many of the arguments put forward by Wilson are as relevant today as they were then. Not just in the field of scientific exploration, but also in the quick and mass adoption of technologies supplemented by big data, cloud computing and artificial intelligence.

Today, as we launch Labour Digital’s Technology Innovation Competition, I will remake the case that Wilson made but in the context of our current revolution: that of the so-called fourth industrial revolution. Some of my comments will probably be controversial – and I should add the Labour Digital is a broad church that welcomes debate, and that my comments this evening are mine alone. And if anyone wants to challenge me this evening, please do – because it’s OK to debate the solutions to the challenges we all want to solve.

As Labour presented its plan ‘Labour and the Scientific Revolution’ 55 years ago, we too need to develop a new plan: ‘Labour and the Technological Revolution’. Because Wilson understood that it wasn’t the history of Empire or the holding of nuclear arms that would secure Britain’s prosperity – but its ability to be agile and flexible enough to respond to change that is happening in the real world around us. Back then, Britain was dealing with the decline of Empire. Today, we’re grappling with Brexit. Then, as now, we must recognise that our role and influence in the world is driven only by our merit and our own success – not just our history.

55 years ago, Wilson noted that the period of technological change between the 1960s and 1970s was of a scale greater than the entire 250-year period of the first industrial revolution.  Today, we’re working in a world where Google was born and has dominated in the same period, and Facebook didn’t even exist at the turn of the millennium.

Mobile phone ownership, design and use has transformed in that same period. The speed at which new technology is being adopted means this speed is only set to get quicker, and that’s even before we move from the comparatively slow computing skills of today into a world powered by quantum technologies.

Back then, the challenge was automation – but automation based on replacing human muscle with robotic might. Today it is artificial intelligence: replacing the capacity of the human brain with the far superior capacity of AI. The conclusion, however, is the same: that to put our heads in the sand and let all the problems pass us by is the wrong answer.

The combustion engine replaced and multiplied the power of the horse – from two horses to 50 horse power. Today, the driver’s human brain and its connecting two eyes will be replaced by hundreds of eyes and a cloud-connected decision-making algorithm able to process data far better than we can.

As Frances O’Grady, the excellent President of the TUC, put it only a few weeks ago: we in the Labour movement must have the answers to re-skilling and re-training, and it is only us that can make sure that the inevitable increase in profits is shared with workers, be it in pay or a reduced working week.

55 years ago, Labour was discussing the need for a university of the air – now known as the Open University, and probably not with the foresight of cloud computing. It was seen as a key way to train those who missed out on going into higher education in the first place. Today, the OU is struggling to make ends meet. But for those workers who will need to be retrained, the OU is vital. It needs to be revitalised and invested in, to act as a renewed legacy of a Labour government at the heart of Labour’s cause.

Technology is driving change at a speed never seen before. And in a globalised market, we as politicians need to get to the right answers to show that politics still matters and can make a difference. Failure to do so will, in my view, lead to a continued lack of faith in democratic systems across the world – something that I’m sure we can all be concerned about. Because the angst that led to Brexit and Donald Trump was a reaction to an increasingly ineffective state trying to deal with the challenges of a globalised market place.

In the face of globalisation, where multi-national companies aren’t answerable to one government, where jobs are relocated to lower cost locations, where goods are made in other parts of the world and where taxes are paid at nation state level – the easy answer is to move to populist nationalism.

For the Conservative Party, that means “take back control” and the promise of Brexit resulting in national renewal. For the Labour Party, it means renationalisation and the promise of national government taking back control of multi-national companies and global markets. This is a global issue: from Trump’s successful claim to make America great again and Putin’s renewal of the Lenin vision of a superpower Russia.

But in my view, nationalising the economy is the wrong answer to globalisation. Trying to drag the world back to the good old days will result in a failure to revitalise our politics and our institutions to be ready for the future. To think that nationalism can solve globalism is just incorrect. As Wilson set out, to think looking inwards and drawing up the drawbridge will result in anything other than Britain becoming an isolated poorer backwater of the world is to be misplaced.

So what’s the alternative? The alternative is to embrace globalisation – to globalise our politics. Now many people will say I’ve lost the plot, that to embrace the trend that has caused so many people to be left behind is to make the situation worse not better. A failure to understand the real issues. I respectfully disagree. Because all of our macro problems today are global, and can’t be fixed by any one nation state alone.

Climate change is the obvious example: not just reducing our carbon emissions around the world, but preparing for climate migration, radically changing geopolitics through inhabitation of current lands and having to radically change how we develop our living arrangements and – more importantly – our global agricultural system.

There is no question too that artificial intelligence and robotics will displace millions of jobs across the world. If Britain decides to not embrace technology, we will become a poor island, no longer leading in the world. But if we adopt it without agreeing the global standards of what is and isn’t acceptable, and how we share power with governments across the world to ensure these standards are enforced, then the poor will suffer.

Retail, transport and low-skilled manufacturing are the most at risk sectors from technological transformation today. Labour must have an answer to that, and renationalisation without adoption and investment and innovation is not the answer. Legislating to stop the pace of change is not the answer either.

Profits and taxation are now a global problem. As the Archbishop of Canterbury rightly said, why should Amazon contribute so little to Britain when it is us who has to educate, house and keep healthy its work force? And how can it be that its workers are paid so little, so that we must top up their income through the taxes paid by others?

And with traditional questions about the ownership of capital and monopolies in the market: those who own the data, the data centres, the algorithms and the robotic assets will – through productivity gains – see enormous profits awarded to them. The Conservatives will delight in that outcome: improved productivity increased GDP, higher profits. But that’s where their aims end: what about workers? And what about public services?

This friction between global markets and national politics is at the heart of the challenges I’m setting out today. You can either nationalise the economy – only locally owned shops or a state-owned e-commerce platform with UK only supply chains is allowed – in which, by the way, consumer choice will go down and price will go up.  Or you can globalise our politics – by working in current and new ways to co-ordinate, for example, tax policy across countries.  

This is yet another reason for which Brexit will cause so much harm, not just on day-to-day trade but on our ability as the British government to influence global markets to the benefit of British citizens. Brexit will not only make British consumers poorer, but make them weaker consumer and subject to the whims of global markets.

I’m a politician of the left – I prioritise people and I believe government has a role to play. And whilst I’m a supporter of the market, and want to do all I can to ensure a successful market based economy, it is simply obvious to see that the market can’t solve these global issues either.

Labour Digital – the home of technology and digital policy for Labour Party members and supporters – is not about networking between coders, or a forum just for technology entrepreneurs. Labour Digital must seek to understand these challenges and debate what Labour’s solutions will be. We must show why technology is at the heart of every area of government policy, and we must support and educate our colleagues to understand these issues and to embrace the exciting innovation and thought leadership that happens outside of Westminster and bring it into our politics.

That’s why we’re proud to be launching our Technology Innovation Competition today – where anyone can pitch a tech idea into a government department category. Where we will exhibit the best ideas across all government departments and where – through a Dragon’s Den-style set of finals – help the best ideas become reality.

And it’s why we’re excited about our work going forward, in policy areas such as skills, the future of work, policing and crime, energy and the environment, digital rights and so much more. So thank you for joining us this evening, please sign up and support and please get involved. We need the best ideas possible to renew traditional Labour causes in a modern setting. And we can’t do it without you. Thank you.

Darren Jones is MP for Bristol North West and director of Labour Digital. 

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