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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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The government has quietly shut the door on vulnerable child refugees

The government has tried to halt the Dubs Amendment, a scheme designed to save thousands of vulnerable child refugees.  

The "Dubs Amendment" to the Immigration Bill of last year, in which the government begrudgingly promised to accept 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees from other countries in Europe, was halted this month after only 350 children had been admitted.

It has since become absolutely clear that the government is wriggling out of its obligation to accept child refugees, shutting the door on the most vulnerable. 

The amendment was named after my Labour colleague in the House of Lords. Alfred Dubs, who grew up in Britain and was saved from the hands of the German Nazi regime by Nicholas Winton, who rescued 669 children virtually single-handedly from Czechoslovakia.

The decision – announced at a time when the media was mainly concentrating on Brexit - has since been the source of much outcry both within Parliament and beyond. People across Britain are clear that the government must end these efforts to prevent refugees arriving here, and this is not who we as a society are.

Labour simply cannot accept the government’s decision, which seems to breach the spirit of the law passed with cross-party support. I have challenged Home Secretary Amber Rudd on the issue. 

The government's actions have also been criticised by Yvette Cooper, who heads Labour’s refugee task force and the Home Affairs select committee, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, who called it “a clear dereliction of the UK’s moral and global duty”. 

Then at the recent Bafta awards, a number of those in attendance including the actor Viggo Mortensen, also wore lapel badges reading “Dubs now”.

And we have seen more than 200 high-profile public figures including Ralph Fiennes, Keira Knightley, Sir Mark Rylance, Gary Lineker, Michael Morpurgo and the band Coldplay write to Theresa May calling on her government not to close the scheme, decrying the decision as “truly shameful” and adding that “the country we know and love is better than this". 

As the letter states, it is embarrassing, that this government cannot match even Winton’s total. As his own daughter put it in her letter to the Prime Minister, “I know we can’t take in every unaccompanied child in Europe, but I suppose there was a sense when the government accepted the Dubs Amendment that they would make a bigger contribution than they have.”

We need to be clear that where safe and legal routes are blocked for these children, they are left with a terrible choice between train tracks on the one hand, and people traffickers on the other. These children have been identified as the most vulnerable in the world, including girls without parents, who are susceptible to sex traffickers.

The government’s decision is particularly disappointing in that we know that many local authorities across Britain, which assume responsibility for the children once they are admitted to the country, are willing to accept more refugees.

Yet the public outcry shows we can still force a change.

Interestingly, former Conservative minister Nicky Morgan has argued that: “Britain has always been a global, outward-facing country as well as being compassionate to those who need our help most. The Conservative party now needs to demonstrate that combination in our approach to issues such as the Dubs children.”

Let’s keep the pressure up on this vital issue. The internationally agreed principles and the Dubs Amendment were never conceived as a “one-off” - they should continue to commit to meeting their international treaty obligations and our own laws.

And on our part, Labour commits to meeting the obligations of the Dubs Amendment. We will restore the scheme and accept some of the most vulnerable children in the world.

 

Diane Abbott is Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, and shadow home secretary. She was previously shadow secretary for health.