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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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To beat the Trump hype, we need a return to old-fashioned political virtues

If we want to resist the Trumpification of politics, what we need is restraint, duty and incorruptibility.

After the 1992 US presidential election, Alistair Cooke’s celebrated BBC radio series Letter from America struck a poignant note. Cooke described Bill Clinton’s worn jeans and checked wool shirt, contrasting them with George H W Bush’s buttoned-up Wasp manners and buttoned-down Ivy League shirts. Clinton’s style, Cooke argued, was a rebuke to a tired social and political establishment. His casualness was the new America.

Cooke, then 83, was honest enough to admit unease about this departure from the old, patrician modes and manners. “Along with the passing of George Bush,” he said, “we shall see, I fear, the passing of the blue blazer.” Cooke seemed right at the time. But don’t write off the blue blazer just yet. As ruling elites change, so does the appropriate counterpoint. To topple Bush’s stuffy golf club elites, Clinton picked up his saxophone, took off his tie and felt everyone’s pain. And now? The subtext of these turbulent months (the inevitable second question, prompted by “How do you beat Donald Trump?”) is: “What should ­tomorrow’s leaders, the leaders we crave, look and sound like?”

My conjecture is that, to beat Trump and his type – bling, shiny suits, dodgy deals – we should push towards centre stage an underestimated set of political virtues: restraint, duty and incorruptibility. If it weren’t for the gender associations, I would be tempted to call this quality gentlemanliness. Aside from personal virtue – signally lacking in the Clinton camp – how might decency inform public debate as it comes under attack from maverick showmen trained in the media circus? How can the middle ground regain its confidence?

First, level with the public. Maybe liberalism hasn’t failed so much as its messaging has failed. Instead of smashing the electorate over the head with the idea that everything is just great, make the case that not everything can be for the best in all possible worlds. As populists reach for empty slogans, a new space has opened up. Accept and exploit those asymmetries: more people are ready to hear uncomfortable truths than politicians imagine.

Kingsley Amis once argued that a writer’s voice should stay close to his speaking voice: not the same, but close. Adapting that idea, if politicians stayed closer in public debate to the truths that they articulate in casual conversation – some things are impossible; almost every policy creates a losing as well as a winning side; there really isn’t any money – they would be surprised how many people are ready to hear that not all problems can be evaporated into thin air. Stray too far from awkward truths and elections become about simple lies v tricksy lies.

Second, centrists do more harm than good when they rush to categorise dissenting opinion as not only wrong, but unacceptable. “Any suggestion that liberal values are not humanly universal,” as John Gray wrote in a recent NS essay, “will provoke spasms of righteous indignation.” Instead, we need to be more tolerant in our tolerance.

Third, stop pretending that everything desirable can be shoehorned into the “progressive” agenda. “I really care passionately about persevering with the common-sense middle ground and doing it quite well” is a problematic political sales pitch, but not for the reasons that are usually given. The gravest difficulty may come at the beginning, with the faux passion, rather than with the substance – public service and competence – underneath.

It is revealing that those closest to David Cameron expended so much energy trying to persuade us that he was not an updated version of Harold Macmillan. That is why the gay marriage reforms, though admirable, were accorded too much significance. Ah, Cameron was a natural crusader! But he paid a price for dressing up as a “radical” when greater challenges arrived. It weakened some of his strongest cards – calmness, perspective, proportion – just as politics was coarsening. Aren’t Tories supposed to understand the virtues of yesterday? In other words, as an electoral strategy to beat Trump (or Nigel Farage), I’d put up a Macmillan type over a Clinton type every time.

Fourth, cut ties with “messaging experts”. It’s a fraud. They teach that everything must be asserted with powerful conviction. Yet ideas unworthy of powerful conviction are best left shorn of them. The electorate has endured a communications version of crying wolf. As a result of the messaging game, when something genuinely important crops up, it sounds simply like the same old shtick.

Fifth, ditch the bogus quantification. Few things signal untrustworthiness more reliably than fake precision. Something shifted in me when George Osborne argued that Brexit would leave households £4,300 worse off. What, no decimal point? Voters understand uncertainty better than politicians imagine. Precise quantification used to sound professional. Now it sounds suspicious.

Finally, think about tone. Conventional wisdom holds that the mainstream must fight the Trumpian revolution on its own terms: a simple solution, memorably expressed, a guiding vision for the country or the world. If anyone has a good one to hand, I’m all for it. But what if – after decades of ­sophisticated argument and counterargument, as politics has solved the easy problems while parking the difficult or insoluble ones – we have reached a state of such evolved equilibrium that no such easy answer can exist?

Pretending otherwise is no longer a point of difference. It takes you towards the lowest common denominator. As Trump has shown, that is well-occupied territory. Perhaps wooing the angry mob is not the solution. Instead, the admirable and successful politician of the future will have to win back the support of moderate, sensible but disillusioned voters. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage