Sunday, 4 August 2013

Labour needs to find its Inner Geek

Austerity is not the only thing happening on the high street, or to people’s jobs and public services. This decade will see massive change as the ‘digital revolution’ accelerates and impacts on citizens, the state and businesses in fundamental ways. Traditional methods of distribution, communication and exchange are all changing, in often unpredictable ways, creating significant opportunities for innovation and growth – but also the potential for greater uncertainty and alienation.

As Paul Krugman has argued in an important series of articles, we live in a decade where more than ever we need to talk about robots and robber barons. Yet if we were to look at Ed Miliband’s most recent speech to a tech-savvy crowd at Google, we have lots to say on monopolists but less to say on how technology impacts the Ordinary Joe.

Whether through the promotion of Tech City, intellectual property reform, ‘Open Data’, tech entrepreneurialism and online advocacy – in opposition and in power the Conservative party has developed a distinctive sales pitch on technology, focused around the ‘small state’ deregulation and ‘elite entrepreneurialism.’ They have framed a meta-narrative shaped a view about the ‘Global Race’ and future growth.

Now there are many holes in this approach – not least whether the coalition has an aversion to developing active industrial strategies – but, working in the tech sector, it’s less clear to me whether Labour has distinctive or joined-up enough world view on digital change reaching right across shadow departments.

In its absence, the Conservative versus Labour narrative is in danger of being presented like this:

These dividing lines matter because how everyone responds to digital change is now mainstream within the business community and in the public sector.

Being able to understand and articulate its dynamics is seen as central to a credible and forward-looking economic strategy.

It is vitally important that the Labour party develop a wide approach based around promoting growth, skills, opportunity, and collaboration – and ensuring that no one is left behind.

Labour needs to find its inner geek and articulate a more values-based view of digital change which:

•    challenges the status quo and is radically changing how we operate in the 21st century, enabling new solutions for old social and economic problems – especially in the public sector;
•    is inherently progressive: the internet and new devices connected to it are empowering to individuals and communities, acting not just as lone challengers to the ‘big state’ but working collectively and collaboratively together;
•    requires an active policy approach which ensures that education, skills and support for everyday entrepreneurialism are at the heart of our response to these radical changes to the production and distribution of goods and services.

Digital change will raise three key public policy questions for a Labour government:

•    How can everyone benefit, not just the elite?
•    How do we identify those who stand most risk of missing out and how do we mitigate against growing inequality?
•    How do emerging technologies create new risks and how do we mitigate against them?

These questions go to the heart of the Labour movement’s values and approach: when citizens are faced with risk and uncertainty (inability to access healthcare, better education) we provide assurance (creation of the NHS free at point of use, education investment for all).

When we talk about Labour’s historic policy goals – for example, full employment as a response to welfare reform – will also need to discuss the sizeable shifts in the labour market caused not only by austerity but by digital change.

Previous Labour administrations had a comfortable relationship with technology when preparing for power. In the 1960s, a period of significant social and industrial transition, Harold Wilson successfully associated his government with technological innovation – in contrast to perceived old-fashioned ideas in the Conservative party. Today’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is the distant relative of Tony Benn’s Ministry of Technology – or ‘Min Tech’ – a manifesto pledge to create a super-coordinating body for technology in Whitehall.

Similarly, New Labour had a strong emphasis on new technologies throughout its administrations, and we are doing a lot in local government.

As we develop our manifesto for 2015 there is an opportunity for the leadership to set out a narrative which would bring assurance to a wide audience, one which can:

•    Create a One Nation Labour story about the digital revolution across successive administrations
•    Rebut the attempted fit between the principles of ‘the internet’ and neo-Conservative philosophy
•    Acknowledge, where appropriate, past policy failures (eg ‘big IT’ procurement) and have a clear view on how a progressive Labour policy would address these issues in the future
•    Develop a nuanced and distinctive approach to change and job insecurity arising from it
•    Engage the hitherto-dormant wider Labour movement in responses to digital change
•    Provide assurance to the tech sector and business community that it will have a central voice in the new administration

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