Jeremy Corbyn & The Robots: Why Only Radical Ideas Will Make Both Labour & Britain Fit for the 21st Century

corbynBy Pete Kennedy / @PeteKennedy121

Ours is essentially a tragic age so we refuse to view it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins…we’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen. — D.H. Lawrence

Following his election in 1932 Franklin D. Roosevelt is said to have met with Sidney Hillman and other socialist union leaders who he had worked with prior to his election. Hillman and allies came to the meeting with plans they wished the new president to enact, to which he replied, ‘I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.’

With Jeremy Corybn having secured re-election as Labour leader and polls showing public support for economic restructuring, it’s unlikely his supporters will again enjoy such a precipitous climate in which to argue for radical change.

Yet Corybn’s policy platform as outlined on the website of his leadership campaign comes in the most vanilla flavour of social democracy imaginable. Not only would Ed Miliband likely agree with every one of the ‘pledges’ listed, there is also very little at which Angela Merkel would raise an eyebrow.

It is a depressing sign of exactly how far down the neoliberal cul-de-sac Britain has travelled that anyone could tar such proposals ‘radical’, without being met by incredulity. In the real world, it is questionable whether such policies would go anywhere near far enough in loosening the neoliberal noose around the neck of the British economy.

As I have argued previously, nothing short of a programme of massive economic restructuring will help tackle inequality, reduce the probability of environmental catastrophe and best manage the automation of work. Such a project is essential if we are to secure basic living standards, let alone prosperity.

Inequality: The Urgent Need to Re-Empower British Trade Unionism

The UK has some of the highest rates of income inequality in the industrialised world, impacting myriad socio-economic outcomes including health, education, social mobility, economic growth and levels of crime. Over the previous two decades, the cumulative UK growth rate has been six to nine percentage points lower than it would have been had income disparities not widened to the extent at which they have.

If the Labour leadership is serious about reducing inequality, this will not only involve redistributive policies through the tax system, but addressing Britain’s anti-union culture and championing the social benefits of collective bargaining agreements.

Support for collective bargaining was British state policy until 1979, when coverage stood at 87% of the workforce. It is not a coincidence that levels of equality were at their greatest at this time. In both Belgium and France, current levels of inequality are significantly lower than the UK, even though union membership differs greatly (relatively high in Belgium, very low in France). What both nations’ workers enjoy is the greater coverage by collective bargaining agreements.

Since the dawn of the neoliberal counter-revolution, there has been a concerted attack on the ability of British trade unions to defend their members’ pay and conditions. Anti-union offensives have come in the form of state violence, as witnessed during the miner’s strike and the imposition of stringent anti-union legislation.

It is in such a climate that 1.63 million people are left without work and the means by which to sustain a decent standard of living, bullied and harassed by state agencies against taking up the pitiful welfare legally theirs (with sometimes fatal consequences). Safe in the knowledge that workers are easily replaceable in an era of mass unemployment, employers are more likely to offer low wages and poor working conditions. Compounding this situation has been the rise of a ‘precariat’ moving in and out of part or full-time temporary work. Zero hours contracts and the abuses exposed at Sports Direct have become the exemplum optimum of the dominance of capital over a workforce with little to no recourse in the face of unscrupulous employers.

Mandatory wage bargaining for all companies with over 250 employees as pledged by Jeremy Corybn would be a key tool in the fight against inequality and worker exploitation. A reversal of anti-union laws introduced during the Thatcher government and mostly upheld by New Labour will be critical in any attempt to shift power from capital, in favour of workers. Employees would be better positioned to demand improvements in pay and conditions, bargaining collectively as part of their constituent union and protected by law.

Greater empowerment of trade unions and increased collective bargaining would not only improve the likelihood of greater economic inequality, but also help prepare for a future of great technological change.

Universal Basic Income: No Longer a Utopian Pipe-Dream

The future of work looks set to involve less workers and ergo, less income via wages. If we are to make the most of automation, trade unions and other progressive social forces, including the Labour Party, need to develop an economic transition which maximises the positive potentials of technological revolution. Such a transition will rely on numerous economic tools, including a Universal Basic Income.

…research suggests that as many as 45 percent of the activities individuals are paid to perform can be automated by adapting currently demonstrated technologies. In the United States, these activities represent about $2 trillion in annual wages. Although we often think of automation primarily affecting low-skill, low-wage roles, we discovered that even the highest-paid occupations in the economy, such as financial managers, physicians, and senior executives, including CEOs, have a significant amount of activity that can be automated. —

For these reasons a Universal Basic Income is no longer a utopian pipe-dream, but a socially necessary tool by which to manage the transition to a work(er)-less society.

The practicalities of implementing a UBI are up for debate and it has the capacity to act as a Trojan horse for the right, who regard it as cut price welfare. A UBI would need to be piloted (as is planned in Finland and The Netherlands in 2017) and likely combined with shorter, more productive Swedish style working hours.


UBI and automation also offer the opportunity to debate and reshape society’s approach to work. Creative work and that which relies on human emotional interaction (such as teaching and design) are at present, much less likely to be automated, relying as they do on essential aspects of human creativity difficult to replicate. In the US a mere 4% of work activities across the economy require creativity at a median human level of performance (the percentage is slightly higher in the UK) and only 29% require median human performance levels in sensing emotion. As the McKinsey study concludes, such findings offer an opportunity to re-imagine work and how people spend the majority of their waking lives,

While these findings might be lamented as reflecting the impoverished nature of our work lives, they also suggest the potential to generate a greater amount of meaningful work. This could occur as automation replaces more routine or repetitive tasks, allowing employees to focus more on tasks that utilize creativity and emotion. Financial advisors, for example, might spend less time analyzing clients’ financial situations, and more time understanding their needs and explaining creative options. Interior designers could spend less time taking measurements, developing illustrations, and ordering materials, and more time developing innovative design concepts based on clients’ desires.

Whilst most politicians and political parties across the industrialised world say little to nothing about the coming socio-economic changes which will be wrought by automation, Labour should develop a clear narrative around turning a potential crisis into opportunity. Precarious, low-skilled and uninteresting jobs can and should be automated, allowing for greater individual freedom and creativity.

A UBI should be part of such a narrative. Rather than a utopian dream, it should be sold as a hard-headed economic necessity, with its opponents viewed as unable to grasp social, technological and economic changes. This should be undertaken in close conjunction with the trade unions, for whom automation constitutes an existential threat across many sectors.

The practical socio-economic necessity of a UBI should, in the long run, help undermine the ideology of ‘hard work’, which in recent decades has been the intellectual ballast upon which attacks to the welfare state have rested,

…to be ‘hard working’ means to work many hours in a traditional waged or salaried job. How ‘hard working’ you are is linked to value, which is linked to money. It plays in to the traditional notion of the harder you work, the more successful you are.

We can see links here with forms of stigma, such as welfare stigma. If you work hard, you won’t need to be on unemployment benefits. So if you’re on benefits you’re likely work-shy or lazy. — Dr Matt Donoghue

Such an ideology, combined with stringent welfare policies pushes millions into a lifetime of meaningless work, in what anthropologist David Graeber labels ‘bullshit jobs’,

…technology has been marshalled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.

UBI, combined with a humane welfare system and the end of ‘bullshit jobs’ can contribute to a context in which we value people for their innate human worth, rather than their wealth or potential to create profit for others. People would have more time to undertake creative, entrepreneurial and voluntary work, in the process transforming society’s attitude to work and perception of what constitutes social ‘usefulness’.

In response to the publication of a report by the Fabian Society, John McDonnell claimed he can win the argument for introducing a Universal Basic Income. If he is right, it will be a major coup in shifting Labour’s thinking on the economy and overcoming one of the key challenges facing social democratic parties across Europe — the end of work as we know it.

The transition to a highly automated economy, less wasteful of human creativity and natural resources can reinforce the development of a low carbon economy vital to avoiding climate catastrophe. Yet it remains to be seen whether Labour Party and trade unions are ready to accept the full ramifications of such a transition.

Global Warming: The Jobs v Economy False Dichotomy

There’s a pointless argument between economists and ecologists over which crisis is more important — the ecosphere or the economy? The materialist answer is that their fates are interlinked. We know the natural world only by interacting with it and transforming it: nature produced us that way. Even if, as some supporters of ‘deep ecology’ argue, the earth would be better off without us, it is to us that the task of saving it falls — Paul Mason, PostCapitalism

As a social democratic party committed to raising prosperity via infinite GDP growth, the Labour Party has, at best, an ambiguous relationship with environmental concerns. Whilst Corbyn pledges increased investment to stimulate growth, it is unclear how this will be reconciled with the urgent need to de-carbonise the economy. Universal Basic Income and re-skilling for those working in environmentally destructive industries offers one route out, but sustaining politically acceptable levels of growth will be difficult during the transition to a zero carbon economy.

It also remains to be seen exactly how the leadership will square its goal of an environmentally friendly economy with some of the party’s own backers.

The government recently confirmed the go-ahead for the controversial Hinkley C nuclear power plant, regardless of the astronomical rise in the predicted cost to the taxpayer. The could be as high as £37bn, according to an assessment published by the UK government, a shocking rise on the energy department’s estimate of £14bn 12 months earlier. Worryingly, experts have said the extra money would have to come from the taxpayer, or be shaved off other DECC budgets available for different energy projects, such as wind farms and solar arrays.

GMB, Unite, UCATT and Prospect trade unions have all backed the plant’s construction, as has the TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady. All have warned of the jeopardisation of up to 25,000 jobs in skilled engineering and construction if the build were to be cancelled.

As was the case with Trident, the trade union leadership is taking the short approach to investment and UK energy policy. Jeremy Corbyn has been labelled an ‘anarchist, not a socialist’, by Prospect rep and erstwhile Momentum organiser Rachel Garrick following the leader’s criticism of Hinkley C. Yet, According to EDF Energy, only 900 direct permanent jobs will be created at Hinkley C. Such a figure is a likely overestimate, as on average, UK nuclear power stations only employ about 600 workers. Although about 4,500 jobs will exist each year during the construction, EDF have admitted most would be temporary and filled by overseas workers.

Whilst it will be said projects such as Hinkley C are low carbon, there are major security, cost, geo-political and waste storage issues issues surrounding the technology. More innovative, flexible, cheap and secure renewable options are entirely feasible.

The TUC already supports massive investment in renewables, but needs to accept the likely loss of jobs in sectors which are environmentally destructive. This should of course take place in a context of investment in re-skilling and support for those workers whose industries cannot be made environmentally friendly. With public support for renewable energy standing at 81%, Corbyn and his supporters have public opinion onside when making the case for the scale of transition required to union leaders and members. If British politics was in any way influenced by facts, this would be an easy task considering renewable energy already supports 43,500 jobs as opposed to 15,500 in the nuclear industry.

Facing the Future With Confidence

Britain faces myriad challenges in the early 21st Century, but these also provide bold and creative political leaders great opportunities to create a better society. The collapse of outmoded political and economic models and the intellectual exhaustion of their proponents in all major parties opens the door for a new generation to reshape the British political economy. This will be achieved through policies which are more humane, environmentally friendly and prepared for the massive technological changes we are likely to witness in coming years. Such radical restructuring of the economy is more likely to appeal to the public than ever before.

In the wake of Corbyn’s re-election as Labour Party leader, supporters need to shift focus from fighting off attacks from within the party and gently guide the leadership toward a credible, radical policy platform. We have to ‘make him do it’, in the same manner in which the US labour movement had to pressure president Roosevelt into making their platform his own.

Get it right and Labour can arrest the slide into the sort of irrelevance experienced by its European sister parties. Get it wrong and both Labour and Britain face very bleak futures indeed.

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