We Must Own the Future

By Yue Ting Cheng / @wisepapertiger

Harold Wilson’s often quoted parable about the “The white heat of technology” provides a signpost that the current leadership and party can and must revisit. His famous 1963 speech at Labour Conference in Scarborough points to one thing – that to reshape the future to a fairer and more equal society, the party which will win must also carry the identity, hopes, and dreams of a future Britain. National renewal and the future-reflecting on technological change and innovation that reshapes our economy is a theme that transcends party and ideological lines and should be owned by Labour and not the Conservatives. Wilson famously uttered “Replace the cloth cap [with] the white laboratory coat as the symbol of British labour”, and it has never been truer today than it was then.

The Labour Party of 2015 has yet to find a clear narrative on how we adapt socialism or social democracy to this ever quickly changing world. In 1948, manufacturing (including utilities and oil and gas extraction) made up 48% of the UK economy. By 2013, the percentage of manufacturing in the economy (including utilities, and oil and gas extraction) had fallen to 13%. The industrial base of the country and its once core support has fragmented in a range of directions and we now have a legion of self employed, casualised people in the digital age. We are lacking both a regulatory framework as well as a government infrastructure which can properly support this. To win the general public’s support again we need solutions that are rooted in how the world is changing, but also a will to shape the world in the longer term – investing in and nurturing the right industries, technology and ensuring the workforce is equipped with the right skills to take these jobs.

We also need to be able to identify the right questions to be able to seek an end goal. What are the technological and industrial innovations, or the investment strands that will create jobs? Which industries will grow or shrink, and how will they be effected by global capital movements and prices? And how do put in place an active industrial strategy to support this? What are the trends and where will the next industries emerge from? How do we ensure human capital is valued and that growth, productivity and personal wellbeing and happiness are recognised as part of an interdependent circle? We must be able to answer these questions to be seen to be able to own the future.

Ultimately we need to be clear what the end goal is, how do we redefine the economy to suit a majority of citizens? Being pro-business is not the same as kowtowing to corporate interests. We want businesses to thrive, but also help regenerate our communities and provide opportunities. Can we redefine the relationship between employee and employer further than the corporatist model of the 20th century? How do we give employees more of a say in the workplace and in new startups? How do we equip and train people for the future, so that the vast majority have the opportunities, the confidence, and the belief that they are valued in the economy and not chess pieces at the whim of globalisation? We want a model of industry which is not low-skill, low-pay casualised labour such as SportsDirect use – firms should value human capital and the long term worth of their workforce.

To receive the tax receipts we need to build and maintain the public services we want will require investment, and diversification of our economy and industrial base. The recent devastating plight of the steelworkers on Teesside has further highlighted how globalisation can damage industry when a country like China can produce tonnes of cheap steel and damage our markets by making them uncompetitive.

The growth of the internet, and new media means that information exchanges at an ever growing, cumulative rate. Businesses now die quicker; jobs disappear. Things done by people several decades ago can now be automated by machines or computers. Wilson himself said in 1963, “there will be no room for Luddites in the Socialist Party”.   It is true that we cannot just halt time and technology, but in every case we must mitigate to create new jobs, retrain people. Government can and must be more proactive in working with businesses, and employees when they are facing the cliff edge.

When change comes quickly, communities must be given a future rather than being left on the scrapheap as they were in the 1980s when Mining communities were left to waste and an entire generation was left to the dole. To place investment in human capital as a priority as much as industry and business, if firmly in the interests of the country; people are not just automatons or a name and a number designed to make a profit, but they are equipped for the future to be able to control their own circumstances. We must seek a new political economy that harnesses a mixture of dynamism, opportunity, but fairness and not one built on exploitation.

I once heard a businessman say, “In the new world, you will be paid in knowledge expertise”. It’s an interesting concept – why can’t we move towards a society where everyone is highly-skilled, and productive, but happy and not overworked? A study conducted at Warwick University in 2014 found that well treated and treated individuals have approximately 12% greater productivity. Job satisfaction, wellbeing and happiness are intrinsically linked; something which is also missing from the national narrative, and which the party should link and make a primary theme – more and better jobs yes – but a happier and healthier workforce leads to increased productivity; one is a long term strategy, the other is a short term one.

We also need to diversify the base of our support in order to be able to be able to shape the future. Who are the innovators of the future? Who is already doing what we need to know? We need to go beyond the abstract and academic and be out there in the startups and tech hubs, talking to the talking to people on the frontline creating things. Form personal experience there is also a significant overlap between social entrepreneurs, social activists and some of the businesses of the digital age who want to innovate but also want to positively change their communities and create opportunities for others.

To be relevant to the future we must understand the present, and encouragingly Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has said he wants to make the UK one of the world’s great technology centres and (reported in the Guardian, Nov 19th 2015) “provide security for the army of new workers, many self-employed, who have been casualised by the internet”. As a party and movement we need to flesh this out and bring together everyone who has the will, knowledge, and above all expertise and experience to shape it.

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