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24 February 2016

The world of work is changing, so Labour must too

Technology opens up new opportunities - but new avenues for exploitation, as well.

By Yvette Cooper

Airbnb, Uber, TaskRabbit, Upwork – names none of us had heard of just a few years ago. But now five million people in Britain work through platforms like these.

The world of work is changing fast – with some amazing new opportunities, but also new injustice, new exploitation and widening inequality.

As technology, business, globalisation and families all change we are likely to see more profound consequences our economy and society than anything since the industrial revolution.

Yet politics is being left behind. Policy makers and politicians are analogue in a digital age, task rabbits caught in the headlights.

That’s why the new Changing Work Centre that we are launching this week between the Fabians and Community trade union is so important. We will need major action by government if everyone is to benefit, rather see inequality get much worse in a digital age.

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Already jobs are changing. There are more new high tech and professional jobs. In Somerset, they are developing Facebook’s new solar powered drone technology. In Manchester they are pioneering the use of graphene. Hewlett Packard is recruiting data scientists to develop new ways for public services to analyse big data.

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Meanwhile the combination of mobile computing, social media, data analytics, and cloud computing means it’s easier for anyone with a good idea to start up new successful businesses in the back of a garage, a bedroom or an internet cafe.

But the truth is Britain isn’t creating enough good jobs and too many people never get the chance of them.

New start-ups are far too concentrated in cities, while towns get left further behind.

Changing Work Centre research shows that tech start-ups in just one narrow London post code last year were higher than all the start-ups in Yorkshire towns put together – creating a new digital divide.

Despite the great work by Martha Lane Fox through Dot.Everyone, the Government is doing far too little to make sure everyone has the skills they need. 90 per cent of coding is being done by men. And workforce retraining through FE Colleges has been heavily cut back.

Overall, jobs in the middle are disappearing and the workplace is starting to polarise as the economy hollows out. Skilled manufacturing, administration and trade jobs are all going, but there are more low paid, low skilled jobs instead.

Coming down the track may be the biggest challenge of all. The next wave of artificial intelligence and robotics could replace even the most skilled jobs with algorithms, even the new Uber drivers with driverless cars. Yet no thought is going into what this means for future jobs.

At the same time job security is falling. Over half the new jobs created since the financial crisis are either temporary or self-employed.

Inequality is widening too. Corporate short-termism has increased rewards for shareholders and top management at the expense of investment in skills. Franchising and subcontracting are fracturing workplaces and driving down wages. At the same time the richest 62 people in the world own as much as half of the world’s population.

And while crowd sourcing and self-employment can provide flexibility and innovation, they also mean more people without maternity leave, sick pay or pension schemes. And it is much harder for trades unions to provide support or prevent exploitation among fractured workforces too. Union membership is down and trade union rights are being cut.

Laissez faire Tories aren’t bothered – they see changing work or widening inequality as a matter for the free market. As a result they have no answers to the challenges of the new economy.

For Labour it really matters. Work has been at the heart of our movement since we started. Trades unions were forged in the furnaces of the industrial revolution – amidst the rise of the great cities and the smoking factories, a powerful response to the brave new opportunities and the terrible exploitation and injustice.

The parliamentary socialism Labour fought for in the first half of the twentieth century focused on full employment, good jobs, an end to exploitation, collective bargaining and a living wage – and the NHS and welfare state needed to provide security and opportunity for an industrial workforce.

When work changed, Labour and the trade unions adapted too. By the second half of the twentieth century a white collar revolution was underway driven by new technology, increasing globalisation and the campaign for women’s equality.

So Harold Wilson championed the white heat of technology; Tony Blair education, education, education. Barbara Castle brought in the Equal Pay Act and Gordon Brown child tax credits.

But in the digital revolution neither of those old approaches are enough anymore.

The economy is hollowing out. Help to climb up the skills ladder isn’t enough when someone has taken the middle rungs away and those jobs have disappeared.

Strong employee benefits mean nothing to the freelancer working from their bedroom, or the contract-worker ricocheting from one low-paid job to the next.

We cannot get lost touting yesterday’s solutions to tomorrow’s problems. Nationalising the power industry doesn’t do anything to help people get the jobs of today.

Much as we may argue amongst ourselves about whether we are too right wing or too left wing, the right question is whether our whole labour movement is being left behind.

The Changing Work Centre is starting a major programme of work and it has thorny issues to tackle. We must ask how Britain can create more good jobs in a digital age. How we build a fairer and more equal society that empowers everyone and stops exploitation. How we encourage new shared enterprises, and new ways of building common purpose. How trades unions can support working people when the old collective workplaces decline.

We cannot be either Luddite or romantic about the new technology. Or to join narrow conservatives who look inwards and backwards, when our only future is to look forward and out.

Over a century ago, the Fabians and trades unions came together to stand up for working people and to found the Labour Party. Now the Fabians and Community are coming together again to found the Changing Work Centre, and renew the Labour Party as the Party of Work in the next century.