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20 November 2015

“Socialism with an iPad“ isn’t as ludicrous as it sounds

Technology is changing the labour market faster than ever before. John McDonnell argues that it's the state's responsibility to make sure the outcome is fair for everyone. 

By Barbara Speed

The speech shadow chancellor John McDonnell gave at Imperial College earlier today started fine. As my colleague George Eaton points out, McDonnell was valiantly attempting to reframe the economic debate – to show how investment, especially in technology research and infrastructure, could reinvigorate the economy in ways austerity can’t. 

But then he got to the last line. “It’s socialism,” he summed up, “but socialism with an iPad.”

The clunky slogan sailed a thousand The Thick of it references (Bat People and App Britain featured prominently), and its use as a soundbite across the media made McDonnell’s argument look out-of-touch and embarrassing. But in the context of his argument, the line isn’t as nonsensical as it sounds.

Buried in the speech were a number of important arguments about how we let technological advancement come about. It’s lazy to assume that technology is inherently democratic, and will necessarily bring about a fairer society – as things stand, it’s deepy embedded in capitalism. But it’s also changing the labour market faster than ever before: automation and robotics will soon mean that most tasks can be carried out  by machine, making those who control those machines vastly more powerful than those who don’t. 

In his speech, McDonnell pointed out that automation will replace low-paid workers first:

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Technological advance is forcing the pace of change. Bank of England research suggests that 15 million jobs could be at risk of automation over the next decade or so. And those most at risk from automation are the lowest-paid.

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He added that technological advances, and the changes they’ll make to the labour market, must be managed by the state so that workers don’t lose out. Technology contributes to the wealth gap, and could well make it worse, unless, as McDonnell says, the government “understands and accepts the strategic role it has to play in our new economy”. This sounds woolly, but it’s an important point – Tory policy on issues like tax or the Transatlantic Trade Partnership (TTIP) has been remarkably hands-off in ceding power to large corporations. 

McDonnell implied that a large and involved state is crucial in a globalised, technological world, to ensure that workers’ rights don’t fall through the cracks and inequalities don’t widen. A large welfare state would help cushion workers in a changing economy –  tax credits, as McDonnell explained earlier, can help make up for low wages in small, start-up businesses. 

Corporations have a poor record of improving working life and helping out those unable to work, or whose skills become redundant. These safeguards will become ever-more important as technology changes the labour market forever. And it’s here, McDonnell argued, that a bit of socialism will be needed. Even if it’s carrying an iPad.