Britain’s problem is not too many robots – it’s too few

Britain, the nation that led the first industrial revolution, is an also-ran in the fourth. 

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Harry Bridges was the legendary president of the American dockers' union who won his spurs organising through the bloody strike of 1934. But it was the mechanisation revolution of the Sixties that really put him to the test. Bridges knew he couldn't turn back the tide. So he set out a different question: how to win for his members “a piece of the machine”. The challenge, said Bridges, was how to get the machines working for the workers and not against them.

That question – the “Bridges test” – is once again the challenge for progressives as we face the future of work.

There is much to alarm us. Think of James Bloodworth's chilling account of life in an Amazon warehouse, where ubiquitous monitors have become what my friend Clive Efford calls the digital “butty man”; deciding who gets paid what at the end of the week. Or the death of DPD driver Don Lane, who worked himself to death in fear of the firm's penalties for slowness. Or Deliveroo's court-won freedom not to pay minimum wage or holiday pay.

The statistics behind the stories are even worse: 10 per cent of UK jobs are at risk of significant change. But the sectors hit fastest and hardest – retail and transportation – are those that employ the majority of the British working class. We could lose more working-class jobs than during the shutdown of coal, steel and shipbuilding combined.

So, how do we make sure that workers get a piece of the machine, and not the other way round?

Well, first we need to recognise that we in fact need more technology, not less. Britain's problem is not too many robots, it's too few. In the long term, the key to any country's wealth is its productivity and right now ours is terrible. Indeed, it is worse than at the end of the 1970s, when we used to call it the “British disease”.

Right now, Britain, the nation that led the first industrial revolution, is an also-ran in the fourth. We spend too little on research and development; lagging behind countries like Israel, South Korea, Singapore, Estonia and the United Arab Emirates, which race ahead with the infrastructure of the future – 5G networks, public e-identity schemes, ubiquitous ePayment technology. This has to change.

Secondly, we need to move to help the sectors and spaces hit hard and hit first. Back in 1944, when Ernie Bevin published the famous white paper on full employment, there was a clear recognition that we needed a plan to help what the paper called “sunset industries”. That meant the state stepping in to help – not simply leaving communities to the tender mercies of the marketplace, as Mrs Thatcher did in the 1980s. So we need to start identifying areas at risk today, and begin planning for the huge skills surge needed to insure against the future.

Third, we need to make sure that the wealth we generate from this investment is shared fairly. We need to restrain the smash and grab elites of the 21st century from behaving badly.

Tackling this means re-regulation not de-regulation, creating the incentives for firms to share fairly with workers and take an interest in raising their skills levels. This will need tougher competition policy to breakup new monopolies, new minimum wage rules, stronger collective bargaining and corporate governance reform to make sure new skills earn the pay they should.

Crucially, it means creating a progressive supply side strategy: economic growth that is driven not by increasing the supply of capital, but by boosting the supply of innovation. For instance, today the UK spends about 0.5 per cent of GDP on tertiary education – that's about a third of what digital leaders like Estonia spend.

The nationalist right are already enjoying electoral success by exploiting the concerns of working-class voters, creating a geography of discontent – where self-confident cities vote one way, and anxious towns, which still hold the balance of power, vote another.

If progressives hold their nerve – step in to support sectors at risk, fully embrace technology and change our politics to share the growth that results  – we can turn that tide.

Liam Byrne is Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill and Shadow Digital Minister. He is the author of Dragons: Ten Entrepreneurs Who Built Britain.