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Angela Eagle on Governing the Digital Economy

The Labour Party has been at the heart of the struggle to bring social justice and fairness to our economy and society since its inception. For over a century we have addressed problems in our economy by bringing to bear the experience and insight from our roots in organised labour and the pragmatic democratic socialism that unites our broad church.

Our economy today is undergoing fundamental changes, as technology transforms the way we work in profound ways. Automation and changes in the nature of the workplace, such as the rise of atomised virtual workplaces and platforms for exchanging labour, bring about new challenges for social democracy on an organisational and political front. However, the changes we are seeing today are nothing new.  The emergence of the Labour Party itself was a response to a radical reshaping of technology, work and workplaces in the Industrial Revolution.

We have had to deal with change before and we will do so again. And there are historical precedents in the changes that are happening. Quite often I look at Uber and see similar activity, tools of production, distributions of labour and organisational challenges to a time before the invention of the spinning jenny, when cotton was spun in living rooms around the country by a similarly geographically-atomised workforce. The truth is it’s far easier for us now to manage the challenges of such working patterns given modern communications technology.

So to what extent is our economy changing? The truth is that the scale of the disruption, especially by automation, is hotly contested. In 2013 Frey and Osborne produced research arguing that 47% of jobs in the US will be threatened by automation over the next two decades. A more conservative estimate from the OECD puts the figure at around 9%. But whatever data we rely on, there is no doubt that the threat is real, and that the repercussions for our workplaces and communities will be considerable.

The jobs at most immediate risk from automation are routine ones in the service and manufacturing sector. It is these middle tier jobs which are already disappearing, while we witness a growth in well-paid professions at the top and poorly-paid, menial work at the bottom. This phenomenon of ‘hollowing out’, or the ‘hourglass economy’, has contributed to the unacceptable levels of inequality we see in Britain today, levels that will likely be exacerbated  if disruption continues and the Government accepts no role in mitigating the rise of inequality.

It would be a mistake to view automation solely as a threat: historically technological change has boosted jobs and living standards, as new forms of employment have emerged to replace old ones. Indeed automation could do much to improve the UK’s woeful productivity levels. But politicians and governments cannot afford to sit back and leave this to chance, blindly hoping that the market’s invisible hand will deliver a fair society. 

A recent White Paper from the German Government contained a raft of innovative policy suggestions on how the state might support workers in the future. It included setting up ‘personal work accounts’ to provide young workers with initial capital for skills enhancement or starting their own business, an Act on ‘working time choice’ giving workers greater choice over working hours and ‘time sovereignty’, and measures to ensure that self-employed workers have the same access to statutory pension schemes as everyone else.

One reason the German White Paper feels so refreshing is its recognition of workers not simply as productive robots, but as citizens with a stake in society. It contains an implicit understanding that work must be invested with meaning and instill a sense of identity, something which this country’s machine-like narrative of ‘hard-working people’ neglects. Crucially there a recognition that the workplace thrives in tandem with the social security system, rather than in opposition to it as our own government often seems to believe.

In the UK there also needs to be a reconfiguration of the relationship between work and social security. The system designed by Beveridge was grounded in models of employment and family life that have transformed beyond recognition. Much as it is tempting to be nostalgic for the employment frameworks of the past, we need to recognize that the world has changed, and instead to think creatively in applying our values to a modern setting.

There is no sign that the Conservative Government has the will to do this. I have been surprised by the eagerness of many voices in the media to take Theresa May’s rhetoric of social reform and state intervention at face value. In reality there is no indication that this administration will be any more interventionist than the previous one, no sense that the state will be used as a lever to iron out growing inequalities. While the Government’s commitment to an ‘industrial strategy’ is welcome, there is little to suggest that it will contain the radical measures needed to address the challenges posed by automation and systemic insecurity in the workplace. 

The current direction of travel - with rising levels of inequality and an almost normalised state of insecurity at work - is simply incompatible with the aims and values of social democratic movements. The increasingly atomised nature of the workplace has destabilised the idea of work as a collaborative endeavour, something which has historically underpinned the labour and trade union movements, and the communities that were intertwined with them. The urge to reverse these trends transcends the confines of the workplace. It relates to what sort of society and country we want to be, how we build communities that citizens feel a gravitational pull towards. These are monumental challenges, and the success of social democratic parties in the twenty-first century will hinge on our ability to come up with solutions.

In January, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the New Statesman convened a discussion on this topic with parliamentarians from each of the three main political parties and other experts.  This article is one of a series from three of the MPs who took part, with an introduction from introduction from James Johns of HPE.  Next week will be Conservative MP, Matt Warman’s take on how he responds to the challenges of governing the digital economy.

Angela Eagle is the Member of Parliament for Wallasey.

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Rarely has it mattered so little if Manchester United won; rarely has it been so special they did

Team's Europa League victory offers chance for sorely needed celebration of a city's spirit.

Carlo Ancelotti, the Bayern Munich manager, memorably once said that football is “the most important of the least important things”, but he was only partly right. While it is absolutely the case that a bunch of people chasing around a field is insignificant, a bunch of people chasing around a field is not really what football is about.

At a football match can you set aside the strictures that govern real life and freely scream, shout and cuddle strangers. Football tracks life with such unfailing omnipresence, garnishing the mundane with regular doses of drama and suspense; football is amazing, and even when it isn’t there’s always the possibility that it’s about to be.

Football bestows primal paroxysms of intense, transcendent ecstasy, shared both with people who mean everything and people who mean nothing. Football carves out time for people it's important to see and delivers people it becomes important to see. Football is a structure with folklore, mythology, language and symbols; being part of football is being part of something big, special, and eternal. Football is the best thing in the world when things go well, and still the best thing in the world when they don’t. There is nothing remotely like it. Nothing.

Football is about community and identity, friends and family; football is about expression and abandon, laughter and song; football is about love and pride. Football is about all the beauty in the world.

And the world is a beautiful place, even though it doesn’t always seem that way – now especially. But in the horror of terror we’ve seen amazing kindness, uplifting unity and awesome dignity which is the absolute point of everything.

In Stockholm last night, 50,000 or so people gathered for a football match, trying to find a way of celebrating all of these things. Around town before the game the atmosphere was not as boisterous as usual, but in the ground the old conviction gradually returned. The PA played Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an Ajax staple with lyrics not entirely appropriate: there is plenty about which to worry, and for some every little thing is never going to be alright.

But somehow the sentiment felt right and the Mancunian contingent joined in with gusto, following it up with “We’ll never die,” – a song of defiance born from the ashes of the Munich air disaster and generally aired at the end of games, often when defeat is imminent. Last night it was needed from the outset, though this time its final line – “we’ll keep the red flag flying high, coz Man United will never die" – was not about a football team but a city, a spirit, and a way of life. 

Over the course of the night, every burst of song and even the minute's silence chorused with that theme: “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester”; “Manchester la la la”; “Oh Manchester is wonderful”. Sparse and simple words, layered and complex meanings.

The match itself was a curious affair. Rarely has it mattered so little whether or not United won; rarely has it been so special that they did. Manchester United do not represent or appeal to everyone in Manchester but they epitomise a similar brilliance to Manchester, brilliance which they take to the world. Brilliance like youthfulness, toughness, swagger and zest; brilliance which has been to the fore these last three days, despite it all.

Last night they drew upon their most prosaic aspects, outfighting and outrunning a willing but callow opponent to win the only trophy to have eluded them. They did not make things better, but they did bring happiness and positivity at a time when happiness and positivity needed to be brought; football is not “the most important of the least important things,” it is the least important of the most important things.

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