The recent controversy over the Uber taxi service has led to searching questions on the impact of technology on traditional industries and its effect on employment. It also challenges the centre-left to find meaningful ways to react to these changes. Every day we see the impact of technology on businesses, in apps like Uber, and even in our relationships with apps like Tinder. In retail, well-known supermarkets are expanding their use of technology at the expense of on-site workers in order to maintain profits.
Strands of the left may argue that this sort of disruptive technological progress should be rejected, but this would be a grave mistake. The suggestion that any future government can persuade the electorate to resist modernity is a false and ultimately impoverishing choice. The challenge for Labour and the left is to help people manage the process of change by showing people that the party understands and will help them to achieve their aims and ambitions. In a recent speech, Tristram Hunt MP was right to say that we must start by “instilling a sense of history and shared fate; encouraging cultural literacy and reflection… community, nation and place”. In my view, it is essential that - whilst we are proud of past - we must be both optimistic and prepared for the future.
However, we should not attempt to predict the uncertainty that lies ahead. When it comes to the future, the only certainty is uncertainty. As a result, it is critical that we continue to diversify the economy and create robust and resilient foundations for economic prosperity that can help mitigate unforeseen structural changes. Governments cannot afford to be ambivalent and a strategic approach is needed to develop businesses with an emphasis not only on their ability to create wealth but also employment. To maximise employment, governments should help to build additional jobs in the creative industries, interpersonal relations and social care that are resilient to the disruption of ever improving technology.
As Chuka Umunna mentioned in his landmark Agenda 2030 speech, the goal of the Labour Party is to help create a “high-productivity, innovation-led economy, helping Britain succeed in the world, creating new opportunities for people to make the most of their potential, driving up living standards”.
In the short-term, this calls for an active government and industrial diversification in order to support changing demands for skills, education and capital alongside labour market regulation to prevent a ‘race to the bottom’. The government’s role will be to ensure alignment between public and private investment in order to maximise the creation of jobs and to foster an environment that allows people and businesses to innovate and compete on the global stage.
I further argue that Labour must emphasise how technology can be harnessed as a great engine of social improvement. We must embrace the positive freedom it offers citizens to lead lives of their own choosing. After all, technology can be a great way of distributing power to those who lack it. Often technological progress and mechanical invention has freed people from toil, constant manual labour and drudgery that had allowed humanity to grow and flourish. By using technology to our advantage and not treating it as an enemy, we can reconcile economic progress and social justice to the benefit of all.