Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The new ‘white heat of technology’

Only Labour will create the new institutions to democratise the fourth industrial revolution, argues Liam Byrne

It was 54 years ago that Harold Wilson proved technology could win elections. 

On a dry, sunny autumn day in October 1964, Wilson swept the Tories from office with a political sizzle crafted from the prospect of harnessing the ‘white heat of the technological revolution’ to create a different kind of country. 

It was an electrifying moment as Wilson sought to cast out the privileged old boys’ club running the show and put in its place a government prepared to drive through the reforms Britain needed to win a race to the top.

That is the spirit we need today. 

This year we celebrate the 100th anniversary of Tony Crosland’s birth. All anniversaries prompt a bit of reflection, and this one is special. It should remind us of Crosland’s great lesson written through his masterwork, The Future of Socialism: revisionists revise. And today we need to revise. Labour, a party born in the great transformation of industrialisation must now rethink how we democratise wealth and opportunity in the fourth industrial revolution. 

📖 Innovation where it is most needed 

That requires from us new solutions to grow the numbers of great jobs. In addition, we must harness the power of new technology to both extend and yet safeguard our democracy. 

But first we are bound to ask: how is Britain currently set to thrive in this new world? On current trends, not well. 

New data which I have published shows that the parts of Britain hit hardest by Brexit are exactly the places that are worst equipped to thrive in the digital economy – with digital download speeds that are nearly three times slower than the best equipped parts of the country. Nationwide, we now have an incredible quarter of adults without basic digital skills. And in 2016, fibre-to-the-premises broadband reached just two per cent of British premises – compared to 70 per cent in Japan and 60 per cent in South Korea. 

Crucially, our government is simply not doing enough to build online the world of trust that is so vital to accelerating take-up of new technologies; cybercrime costs the country £29bn a year – and the police tell me they simply do not have the resources to tackle it. Yet the number of cyber-attacks on critical national infrastructure is increasing and the National Cyber Security Centre reports around 60 ‘high-level’ cyber-attacks a month.

We have to do better than this. I think there are three great challenges that we now must work through if the next election is to prove another 1964 moment. 

First, we have to set out just how technology could transform the challenge of stagnating wages. 

Today, the ‘knowledge economy’ is around one third of gross domestic product, one third of businesses, but only 20 per cent of jobs. If the knowledge economy made up a third of jobs, there would be over a million more high paying jobs in Britain. That is a great way to give the country a pay rise. So, we have to set out a plan for growing the digital, knowledge economy. In practice, this means driving the digital revolution through services and industry, new and old. 

Some think of manufacturing as ‘old industry’. But a Jaguar XF has more code in it than an Airbus. The infotainment in a Range Rover is worth more than the engine. That means great automotive firms need both great engineering and great digital skills. Two strategies are key here: first, mobilising new investment in new firms with new tools, like the National Investment Bank, and second, harnessing public procurement to help small, innovative firms – especially in ‘industries of the future’ like healthcare, smart cities, cybersecurity and automated vehicles – scale-up to a world-competing size much faster. 

Second, because we are Labour, we have to set out just how digital technology can help us tackle the profound social injustices of today. 

The five giants that William Beveridge described as a prelude to his famous report in 1943 look a little different today. We are still scarred by ‘want’, principally, hunger, homelessness and debt. The soup kitchens of the 1930s may be gone but the food bank and the loan shark are features of every poor place. Disability is now a more important driver of poverty than ‘disease’. We would probably talk about ‘inability’ rather than ‘ignorance’, ‘poor places’ rather than ‘squalor’ and the ‘exploitation’ of the gig economy rather than ‘idleness’. 

Unchecked, a laissez-faire digital economy could make all of these problems worse, not better. So, Labour has to establish how we use new technology to cut down the five giants of today – the challenges of poverty I see everyday in my constituency of Hodge Hill which is the most income deprived constituency in Britain. 

Our new local government digital taskforce will help us find answers here, tackling questions that trouble us all. How do we ensure towns are not left behind cities in this new economy? How do we maximise inclusion? What does technical education look like for the fourth industrial revolution? At the heart of our offer should be the proposal for a new bill of digital rights for the 21st century, checking the power of the ‘fearsome five’ American data giants and setting out our ambition to ensure the digital revolution is for all, not the lucky few. 

📖 Automation for the people

Third, Labour has to be the party that harnesses new technology to transform the quality of our democracy. We are about to spend a fortune stopping the houses of parliament slipping into the mud of the Thames. But why are we not spending a fraction of the budget to deliver e-voting, as they do in Estonia, where a third of ballots are cast online? Why are we not harnessing the power of technology to open up decision-making? Around the world, new parties and city governments are doing exactly that. What some call ‘open source local government’ is creating a new way of transforming the way citizens shape the work of the people who serve them. Look at the way Wikipolitica emerged out of Mexico’s version of Occupy Wall Street. It recently won its first member of parliament. Look at the way Podemos has emerged from the 15-M ‘indignados’ movement to now govern the cities of Madrid, Barcelona and Zaragoza. It runs both participatory planning and budgeting online. Often inspired by an ambition to develop new ways to cooperate or to build an economy for the common good, citizens across Europe are building new parties and now new governments to change the way we work together in cities. We could learn from this. 

My final point is a call for confidence. Only Labour can manage the change we need in the years ahead. Why? Because history teaches us that for all the palpable advances that technology brings, it brings too dislocation, disruption and disquiet. What is quaintly called ‘creative destruction’. In the past, that turbulence often spilled into violence – because technological progress comes at a cost.

As we navigate the fourth industrial revolution, with its driverless cars, drones in our skies, 3D printing, and all of the other brilliant, baffling innovations, how do we make sure technology is our slave and not our master? 

The Tories will always treat those left behind by change as unfortunate – but undeserving. It is only Labour that ever thinks through the new institutions needed to democratise progress. We are now at the beginning of that change. Just as some 17 legislative factory acts were required over the course of the 19th century, so a host of new laws will be needed for this century to ensure that new possibilities power a revolution in social mobility, creating both new jobs and new ladders to those jobs for anyone, everyone, no matter what family, what community, what school, you grow up with. 

Once upon a time, Britain was the superpower of the steam age. The challenge now is to cut through the confusion of Brexit and set out a plan to become a great power of the cyber age. I think Harold Wilson – and Tony Crosland – would approve. 

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Liam Byrne is member of parliament for Birmingham Hodge Hill. He tweets @LiamByrneMP 

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Liam Byrne MP

is member of parliament for Hodge Hill

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