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27 September 2016

Labour is getting very, very scared about robots

Forget Brexit, it's the march of the automatons you should be worried about. 

By Julia Rampen

Labour is worried about getting exterminated – and not at the polls. One of the preoccupations of this year’s party conference is robots, and the possibility that mechanical devices will soon be replacing Britain’s workforce. And fast. 

Norman Pickavance, a Grant Thornton consultant who advised Ed Miliband on employment policy, warned that three different futures loomed, including a “world of extraction” where humans are commoditised, or a “world of robotics and anxiety” (his preferred world was the third, an “age of connections”). Speaking at a Fabian fringe event, he said: “On robotics, I think the changes are coming really quickly.”

Yvette Cooper, a former Cabinet minister, concurred. She said: “None of us know quite how fast this could happen, but it could rip through certain areas or sectors.”

Next it was the turn of Chuka Umunna, the former shadow business secretary. He may have made headlines at conference for his comments on integration, but it seems he wasn’t just talking about the human kind. “There are communities which have a high concentration of a particular industry that we know automation and robots are going to fundmentally impact,” he said during a Resolution Foundation event.

So is Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet going to shrug off Brexit and focus on robot wars? The Staggers asked Jon Trickett, shadow secretary of state for business, innovation and skills. And if anything, his view is even more apocalyptic. 

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“It is part of the reason we can’t go on in the same way,” he said. “There are things that have happened to our country that make it difficult to sustain the status quo. Now we have got this innovation process which is about to accelerate. I think thousands of thousands of jobs are under threat.

“I think it’s important we don’t become Luddites, because this can emancipate people from the drudgery of labour, but at the same time it is important people are not left on the scrap heap.”

As for why everyone’s talking about it? According to Trickett, this is simply because “it is literally about to happen”.

In the age of the robots, politicians must seize power in more ways than one. “Technology can either be our master or our servant,” he told The Staggers. “I think we will have to make it our servant.”