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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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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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