Click here to save social democracy. Photo: Flickr/Marcie Casas
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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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Political video has come full circle in Obama and Clinton’s mockumentary-style films

Political campaign videos are increasingly mimicking the specific styles of filmmaking created to mock them.

This week, Hillary Clinton released a campaign video featuring Barack Obama, in an attempt to persuade her supporters to vote early. It revolved around Obama’s self-professed earliness. “I’m always early,” he tells us, cheerily. Aides chip in to explain this irritating habit, which becomes progressively more exaggerated, his approach to timing absurd. “You know how you beat LeBron James one-on-one? Get there 45 minutes early. Then it’s one-on-none.” A former staffer sighs. “You try telling the President of the United States there’s no such thing as a one-on-none.”

This is an instantly recognisable mockumentary style – deliberately shakey camerawork, complete with lots of zooming in and out, as absurd corporate behaviour is interspersed with incredulous talking heads and voiceover. It has its roots in the Office UK, taking the States by storm with The Office US, 30 Rock and Modern Family, and developing a political subgenre in The Thick of It, In the Loop and, most recently, Parks and Recreation. (Vague comparisons between Clinton and Poehler’s Leslie Knope abound.)

The content, too, seems familiar – a politician talks to camera about a personality quirk that is broadly a strength for someone in government, but exaggerates it to create a geeky, optimistic goofball, and a pretty likeable character. Take Leslie Knope on never smoking weed:

In terms of style and content, they’re fairly indistinguishable. And this not the only Clinton campaign video influenced by mockumentary and comedy tropes . In March, the Clinton campaigned released a “mean tweets” video with Senator Al Franken in the style of a Jimmy Kimmel Live talking head. Three days ago, a video campaign starring “Fake Lawyer” Josh Charles, an actor on The Good Wife, was released. It borrows heavily from mockumentary styles as well as self-mocking celebrity cameos in advertising. Even some non-comic videos, like this lighthearted one about Clinton’s granddaughter, have the exaggerated camerawork of the genre.

Of course, we can trace these campaign videos back to Obama again. His campaigns have always been heavily video based, and he’s taken the piss out of himself for Buzzfeed to promote campaigns. But the White House’s official channels are also in on the joke. In 2013, they released a mockumentary starring Steven Spielberg and 30 Rock’s Tracey Morgan, in which Obama plays Daniel Day Lewis playing Obama.

Earlier this year, the channel released another mini mockumentary, featuring Obama preparing for the end of his time as president. (The film even ridicules a less self-aware style of video – Obama posts a misjudged Snapchat about Obamacare, and asks “Did it get a lot of views at least?”)

A politician whose ideal evening consists of children’s movie marathons with colleagues? Where have we seen that before? Yes, political video has come full circle. Personally, I’m waiting on the Hillary Clinton break dancing clip

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.