The future of the left since 1884

Stepping up

Without the creative construction of a new politics, we risk a populist tidal wave, writes Liam Byrne MP.



Ask an expert about the rise of the robots and you hear lots of reassuring noises. New technology, they say, always creates lots more jobs than it destroys. In the long run.

That ‘long run’ is why you get a different answer if you ask, not experts, but voters. In fact, polling now shows 55 per cent of working-class voters feel automation will make it harder for them to earn a decent wage or land a secure job in the years ahead. People are fearing the future. And in a democracy, anxiety is not abstract – it shows up on polling day in votes for populists.

That is why it is time for a ‘project hope’ for the rise of the robots – and it needs to start with big debate about a new social contract for the twenty-first century.

To get the ball rolling, we have published a new book with contributions from politicians around the world about the 10 big changes we need to get automation ‘right’, along with polling from Opinium that reveals what the British public thinks. It is a fascinating insight into how Britain now wants big changes to government, business, the education system and trade unions.

Nearly half of Brits now think they will need to retrain at some point before they retire – and two thirds are anxious about the prospect. People are right to worry. My calculations show that here in the UK, automation could wipe out five times more working class jobs than the shutdown of the coal and steel industry put together.

Worryingly for the future, half of teachers do not think today’s education system equips children for the future of work – and a majority think more emphasis is needed on critical thinking, creative skills and financial literacy.

Sixty-one per cent of voters think that business should pick up the bill for retraining workers who lose their jobs due to automation, and 71 per cent say non-permanent workers – such as gig economy or agency workers – should be treated the same as permanent staff.

Most believe government should guarantee a job to those who can’t find work, with most voters backing a universal basic income – and 66 per cent saying government should ban zero-hour contracts.

Finally, most voters think that stronger trade unions will be needed in the future. Just 18 per cent think that is a bad idea.

We cannot wait for the smoke of Brexit to disappear before getting stuck into these ideas. We now live, as the saying goes, not in an era of change, but a change of era. The prizes are extraordinary. PwC estimate that artificial intelligence alone could add $15.7tn to global GDP by 2030.  But, 600 million new jobs will be needed in the next decade just to keep levels of unemployment level with today – and some 1.4 billion of the world’s 3.2 billion workers will be affected by automation in some way.

How will these workers retrain? Who will create the jobs? And will they be good jobs?

My fear is that unless we step up the effort to create a ‘project hope’ for automation, we risk today’s waves of political populism surging to become a veritable tidal wave, with untold risks and dangers. If you thought globalisation promoted populism, well, to borrow a line from Ronald Reagan, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Capitalism’s creative destruction is about to go into overdrive. Without the creative construction of a new politics to help share new risks and new prizes, I guarantee we will look back on the instability of today as some kind of golden age.

Liam Byrne MP

Liam Byrne is the Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill.


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