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Social democracy in a digital era

The digital revolution presents an opportunity for the left.

The shadow business secretary, Chuka Umunna, made headlines recently by highlighting that employees in France and Germany completed work by Thursday afternoon that would take the entire working week in Britain.  The purpose was to underline one of the UK’s chief economic weaknesses – its poor productivity performance – and to attack the current government’s approach to long-term investment and inclusive growth.

As a new Policy Network and ITIF book on Sharing in the Success of the Digital Economy shows, improving the adoption of ICT across the UK economy can drive-up productivity. The US has been more successful at adopting ICT than Europe, to the extent that if the EU-15 and US had swapped productivity growth rates from 1995 to 2013, it is estimated that GDP would be €2.2 trillion larger than the United States, instead of €1.6 trillion smaller.

The economic evidence shows that ICT-induced innovation – the development and adoption of new products, services, processes and business models – is vital to support rising living standards. But making the political case for the progressive power of innovation, and the digital economy, can be more challenging. The forces of “creative destruction” threaten incumbent firms, jobs, and the way people work and live, creating strong incentives to oppose change.

Confronting these hard realities is one of the defining challenges for progressive politics in the 21st century as we enter a “high opportunity, high risk society”. The danger is that under the short-term pressures of the election cycle, and at a time of widespread economic insecurity, progressives will shirk long-term decisions that will support and shape the environment for radical innovation and thus reinforce the low-growth, low-productivity cycle that consumes many European economies. If stuck defending the status quo, votes will continue to leak to new political competitors and populist insurgents. Electoral coalitions risk being further splintered by those who feel they benefit from technological change and those who do not. 

Voters may, of course, hanker for quick fixes if that is all that is offered to them. But, equally, as voters’ livelihoods become increasingly risky they may value new institutions that provide them with greater security and the means to succeed. The big policy responses to the industrial revolution – welfare states, public health services and education – developed into institutions with widespread public support, albeit challenged somewhat in recent times. Similarly, new institutions that reflect the new political realities – not least a more individualistic society and one less trusting in the state to spend taxpayers’ money – can flourish.

So how should progressives respond? First, all of the above opportunities and risks underline the need for progressive politics and a rethinking of the role of the state. There is a new purpose in navigating and supporting capitalist models through their next phase of creative destruction and in leveraging technology to tackle the great societal challenges of our times.

Second, progressives need to embrace the potential of innovation and technological change to reduce the number of low-wage, unsafe and unsatisfying jobs and transform public services. Promoting innovation by investing in science and R&D is the easy part politically but dealing with the impact of innovation on specific industries and local communities is more challenging, not least for the left when this impacts on the jobs and practices of public sector workers. The short-term “losers” from change are typically easier to identify and louder, but the benefits can be spread across society and over time. Politicians need to be straight with voters that these headwinds will have both positive and negative consequences, and be careful not to champion incumbents and rent-seekers in the name of social justice.

Third, a radically new concept of social investment is required which renews welfare edifices for the 21st century. Gone are the days of a job, or even a career, for life. Government, trades unions and businesses need to collaborate on new forms of protection, investment and flexibility, as well as on lifelong learning. People from all backgrounds need to be enabled to harness technology and meet the demands of rapidly changing labour markets, whether they work for themselves or for someone else.

Fourth, progressives need to work together to forge a European innovation agenda, built around an EU digital single market, and make the case for international cooperation to develop new institutions, regulatory approaches and tax systems that are fit for the digital age.

Innovation is about the constant transformation of an economy and its institutions. By its nature some industries and firms will lose out to new challengers. Rather than trying to stop this perennial gale, managing the transition into new work and creating new forms of social investment should be the key mission of progressive politicians in the 21st century. Labour should be the party concentrating on how to make these changes work for the population as a whole and thinking about how they can be directed to tackle structures of inequality.

Michael McTernan is acting director of Policy Network and Alastair Reed is a researcher at Policy Network.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.