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Matt Warman MP on Governing the Digital Economy

We live in a period of unprecedented technological change – from Uber drivers’ new ways of working to fields that are in the near future likely to be worked even more by robots, the digital economy is more physical than ever. So what is government’s role in smoothing a huge transition, catalysing it and also protecting workforces from potentially unintended consequences?

It is an easy, if slightly lazy, trope to suggest that just because every previous industrial revolution has created jobs rather than destroyed them, so too will this fourth one. While it is likely to be true in the medium to long term, it may be a bumpy process in the immediate future. The path to tread surely sits somewhere between resisting the calls of a new generation of Luddites who want to see robots taxed and letting ‘progress’ run riot. To take a totally laissez faire approach risks fuelling a bubble that might not do the economy much good, while also storing up problems for the future that will only have to be fixed anyway once the dust has settled.

In the 70 years from the beginning of the industrial revolution that began in 1760, wages rose a measly 22 per cent, according to the Journal of Economic History. Much was going on at the time to muddy those figures, but it is as we think about today too. With some economists already claiming working age people in 1969 were better off than their equivalents today, there is plenty of evidence that regulators and policymakers need to tread carefully. And counter-intuitively, meanwhile, workers’ rights saw unprecedented improvements, alongside the beginning of the first notions of leisure time for workers as well as employers.

There are, therefore, a number of vital topics to address: how does government best foster growth, protect workers and promote industries that will make the most difference without falling into the trap of picking winners.

I do not think, as some do, that we lack the tools to tackle these challenges. Indeed, the changes are very often data driven, meaning they can be measured in more ways than ever before. That provides an opportunity to focus tightly on those issues that will make the most difference to Britain’s historic productivity challenges: rural robots should allow us to tackle food security, safety and a post-Brexit approach to unskilled migration; driverless vehicles and drones may yet show that congestion, safety and a host of other related issues can be tackled relatively quickly; digital taxation will challenge the nature of accountancy.

What each of these examples reveals, however, is both that no profession is safe from the digital onslaught, and that in the intermediate period there will be some peculiar consequences. Amazon is often criticised for creating a host of hard, tedious jobs in warehouses where workers’ rights have been scrutinised at length. What those doing the scrutinising often ignore is that if Amazon (and others like it) could replace those human pickers and packers with robots of course they would. So might the best balance to strike be both to protect those workers like anybody else while also providing Amazon with incentives to invest in the research and development that encourages the building of those robots?

It is, indeed, in upskilling workers that the future lies – the successors of super-profitable companies such as Google, Apple and others will be the engines whose taxes fund the kind of investment in education that will need to be just as unprecedented as the changes through which we are living now.

Finally, therefore, a thought on that tax challenge: a global, searchable index of tax laws and regulations is not that far away. The assumption is that such a thing is in the interests of tax avoiders and those who make money from advising them. The reverse is of course the real case: how else can we encourage the kind of cooperation that means everybody fairly pays what is due other than by understanding what the complex interactions truly are, rather than leaving it to mere human beings to spot loopholes and then seek to close them? That, more than drones or driverless cars, will empower legislators to deliver the world for which we all so often campaign.

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 James Johns of HPE and Labour MP, Angela Eagle’s view last week. Next week will be SNP MP, Calum Kerr’s take on how he responds to the challenges of governing the digital economy.

Matt Warman is the Member of Parliament for Boston and Skegness & former Technology Editor at the Daily Telegraph.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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