A finely tuned ear for change

"The right policies change, but the right attitude does not. With a modern agenda for change, promoted with a clear message from a strong leader, Labour can be unstoppable."

20 years ago, Labour won a landslide victory as the party that owned the future. I would argue that key to this was a finely-tuned ear to social and technological change. At the time this change was rapid, but arguably it is even faster now, and government is falling even further behind.

Technology in the 90’s was dominated by new inventions in computer science; smartphones, memory cards, webcams and digital cameras. The World Wide Web was invented and Google quickly followed. It was the beginning of the information age, bringing the world closer together. This meant culture, images, information, and money began to rapidly flow across borders.

There was also rapid social change as issues of climate change and sustainable development climbed to the top of the international agenda. Society’s values had liberalised, with the WHO removing homosexuality from its list of diseases in 1990, meanwhile market liberalisation had cemented itself as the dominant global policy. Young people embraced entrepreneurship and environmentalism. Feminism also entered a new wave, with greater demands to see women represented in politics, as well as the top of the public and private sectors.

Labour won because it understood these changes and made the case for them as positive – while also reassuring that they would be changes that the country could handle. The Party responded to this with employment rights in the social chapter, the equalities act, international development, tackling climate change collaboratively and civil partnerships, among other wide-ranging reforms.

Today we face a different set of challenges, but by understanding them and applying our values differently to different circumstances, Labour can once again be the party of change.

The pace of technological change has only increased in the last 20 years. The digital revolution has brought new threats in cybersecurity – we need a comprehensive new strategy with the supporting institutions to keep our country and economy safe. In the 90’s Google had just begun, now, it has developed the world’s first self-driving car. This will have implications for our transport networks.

The biggest technological change Labour must develop answers to however, is automation. With 15 million jobs at medium to high risk of being automated – there will be a growing tax gap and unemployment in many sectors. Technology currently adapts much more quickly than the labour force can.

Labour must reform the tax system to keep up with these changes, focus on who reaps the rewards from automation, and build an economy which distributes these gains fairly.

In the economy, increasingly jobs are insecure; with a rise in zero-hours, self-employment, and agency work. This has caused in-work poverty and represents fundamental problems with the structure of the economy. Perhaps it is worth considering a form of compulsory profit sharing so that employees can share in the success of their companies, and supporting companies to switch to cooperative forms of ownership.

Reforming corporate governance can encourage the private sector to invest in its workforce, and invest for the long-term. Putting workers on boards is a first step towards this. The government must also invest in a modernised skills programme, delivered locally through devolved bodies to prevent automation leading to unemployment.

The welfare system needs to be far more active; pairing with investment in training and vocational education so the workforce remains mobile. This can be part further devolution, building on the current powers held by city-regions and creating a network of regional banks to empower local entrepreneurship.

Changes in technology and the economy are rapid and fundamental, but Labour must also have a finely-tuned ear to social change to be the party of modernity and the future.

New Labour understood the issues of the time and engaged with difficult questions like crime and justice. It also looked beyond the traditional tax-and-spend model, to pursue social justice in new ways.

Most baby boomers are coming into retirement age, putting new pressures on pensions, the NHS and social care. As part of building a healthier society, Labour must put in place policies to decisively reduce inequality as a priority across government. This will help people live longer, happier, and more productive lives. Investing in public health to address issues in smoking, housing and diet, will also deliver for the public purse.

Politically, the population is polarising; divided along the new attitudes towards globalisation of open vs closed. This has fuelled resentment towards immigrants, Islam, and refugees.

Sometimes the current Labour party looks uncomfortable dealing with issues such as immigration and the deficit, almost appearing to clap off rhythm with the choir. Inauthentic engagement with difficult issues is obvious to the public. Ed Miliband was forced to say immigration and spending were too high, when he didn’t believe it. That was because he lost these arguments long before the election. A winning party must put forward its key message from the first day of the parliament.

A modern Labour party should make the case for globalisation while promoting the government as a reformer of business and partner in wealth creation. While nearly every issue becomes an international issue, it is time to share sovereignty in a responsible way. Brexit was a massive setback in this trend towards integration, but that does not mean we cannot keep building close international links and reforming global institutions.

By starting with looking at how the world has changed, Labour can then think about how the party and its policies must evolve with it to stay at the forefront, just as any competitive business would do. However, while it is key to learn from the past, we must deal with the world as it is, not as it was 20 years ago. The right policies change, but the right attitude does not. With a modern agenda for change, promoted with a clear message from a strong leader, Labour can be unstoppable.

Alex Brindle is a Young Fabians member and contributing writer at Future Labour. 

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