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27 December 2016

Preparing for the future of work is where a real Labour revival starts

A perfect storm of events offers a path to relevance for Labour if it can provide answers to job insecurity, automation and a looming Brexit skills crisis.

By Simon Danczuk

Looking back through the mists of time long ago when Labour enjoyed positive polling figures, I seem to remember the party once had a catchy slogan to signify its priorities. “Education, education, education,” it went, in the days before all slogans immediately induced a bloodcurdling groan.

As a statement of purpose, it’s something the Labour movement would do well to return to now, albeit for different reasons.

The collapse of social mobility, combined with the problematic Brexit fallout and looming threat of automation, means job insecurity, a critical skills shortage and reduced opportunities are becoming a much bigger problem.

Brexit is undoubtedly fueling this, but it offers opportunities as well. The OECD Pisa rankings show Britain pitifully lagging behind other countries in education. Trailing the likes of Vietnam, Estonia and Poland, we’re ranked 27th in maths and 22nd in reading.

This abject failure has been covered up for too long by a policy of importing immigrant skills to compensate for a domestic failure to properly train our own people.   

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That policy is no longer sustainable or, as Brexit has shown, politically palatable. When plugging skills gaps with cheap migration is off the table, the only option is to transform our education system. The migrant sticking plaster solution may have kept our economy ticking over, but there was a social cost to pay.

Almost ten years ago, Gordon Brown recognised this when he said he wanted to create “British jobs for British workers” at Labour’s annual conference in 2007. He was alive to a long-running sore of resentment with people ill-equipped to compete in the jobs market. But he was unable to deliver a solution.

This time we must deliver and start unlocking the vast amount of untapped potential in Britain to make sure a better future is within everyone’s reach. A starting point would be to increase spending on education and training from the current level of 4.5 to 5 per cent of GDP. A world class education system comes with a price tag and we need to demonstrate ambition to meet the country’s future needs.

The problem is that the current system doesn’t properly understand these needs. That’s because the threat of automation is largely being ignored. As a recent report by Deloitte has noted, thousands of students are currently being trained for jobs that won’t exist in the near future because they’ll be carried out by robots and computers. Bank of England Governor Mark Carney offers a more frank prognosis, warning that technology will mercilessly destroy millions of jobs.

For years now, organisations like the Confederation of British Industry and the British Chambers of Commerce have bemoaned the fact that young people starting out in the workplace haven’t got the skills employers want.

Given that young people currently in education could soon be entering a world of work where industries that don’t yet exist are springing up, this skills crisis could soon get a lot worse. Preparing people for a changing world of work is going to require radical thinking, a much more dynamic syllabus and a closer relationship between education and employers.

That’s why the Commission on the Future of Work set up by Tom Watson is so critical. I’d argue it’s the most important work being carried out by Labour – and it could well be the driving force that determines our priorities and direction of travel for years to come.

The huge challenge that Watson faces is not only to look at how we understand and prepare people for the changing contours of work (and a decent Troubled Families programme needs to be another consideration), but ultimately to look at how we can best marry growth with security. We need to ensure innovation doesn’t erode employment rights and start mapping out a new social contract for tomorrow’s technology-powered workforce.

This won’t be easy. But there is no other political party out there that has the history, appetite or founding mission to properly deliver on this challenge.

The stakes are certainly high. A Pricewaterhouse Cooper report on the future of work has already predicted that rioting will sweep across university campuses by 2020, as students lose patience with a lack of job opportunities. This is not unfeasible, and yet this remains a low priority for government.  

Amid the turbulence of Brexit and the absence of any clear plan from government, this mission needs to be heard. After all, when dignity is replaced by hopelessness, communities pay a heavy price. “There is no worse material poverty,” Pope Francis reminds us, “than one that does not allow for earning one’s bread and deprives one of the dignity of work.” If we’re going to heal the divisions in our country, we should make restoring this dignity our defining mission.