Conor Pope reviews Alison McGovern and Wes Streeting debating technology and the future of the labour market
Many progressives are uncertain. Not inherently – there is nothing about our politics that suggests we should be any less sure of our beliefs than anyone else. But the past few years have been a bonfire of the certainties, and it feels as though it has been our ideas on the pyre.
People are reaching for old solutions to new problems, and we are trapped between the populist insurgencies of nationalism and nationalisation. What is left is doubt about which of our beliefs are popular, and which of our achievements we can continue to believe are successes.
We defined ourselves so much by the modern, and the future, that we ended up taking the brunt of feeling for any ill-effect of change.
The result of 2016’s referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union was the culmination of that.
We had been at the front of the push for globalisation, believing it would help make enormous progressive change that did not stop at our own borders. It was a paradigm shift that suddenly lifted the boundaries for where we could enact social justice. For that reason, it was exciting: potential solutions to the world’s biggest problems, from climate change to global poverty, were comprehensible. We just needed to embrace the change, and ‘own the future’.
And, despite being long out of power, we still owned the future when the referendum happened. The future that we owned, however, was claimed by David Cameron, and rejected. It was rejected in the last two Labour leadership contests and, through its absence on ballot papers, it was rejected in the 2017 general election too. The long march of progress was halted.
Of course, this provokes ideological soul-searching – as it should. For people on the centre-left to second-guess our instincts is perfectly normal and, in examining enormous technological change, is a perfectly healthy political approach too. We cannot lay claim to a monopoly on wisdom.
Now, our uncertainty about politics is felt keenly in our uncertainty around changes in technology. With entire industries’ worth of jobs potentially at risk from automation over the next generation, technological advancement could seriosuly exacerbate the downsides of 20 years of globalisation.
Members of parliament Alison McGovern and Wes Streeting represent the two sides of progressives’ approach to new technology and its effects on the labour market. At Progress political weekend in March, we brought them together to debate the topic.
For Streeting, this issue ‘is just like globalisation … we wholeheartedly embraced globalisation as a positive force for good in the world and overall, that was the right position to adopt – not least because you look at the millions of people that have been literally lifted out of real abject poverty across the world through globalisation. It’s something that we should defend and champion and hopefully in the future, continue to advance in spite of the challenges. But globalisation also had big challenges; not least exacerbating inequality within, and between, nations.’
He contends that ‘indifference to the excesses of globalisation is one of the reasons why we are where we are now in terms of the growth of populism and the sense of people feeling left behind.
‘I’m afraid the centre-left and third way politics has to own some of that and has to take some responsibility for some of the problems that our politics created. And not just taking responsibility for the excesses of globalisation and seeking to address it, but now thinking about this new industrial revolution and how we make sure that this is genuinely a positive thing for humanity.’
McGovern, however, takes the view that we risk letting electoral discomfort drive us to conclusions that are fundamentally unprogressive. ‘This fearfulness about technology is really a conservative fearfulness about the future’, she explains. For her, it is the job of the labour movement ‘to make sure that whatever happens to our economy, our values are still upheld’.
She represents a much more bullish – even confident – attitude that, perhaps, many of us now shirk away from. Rejecting the notion that the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ encompasses ‘change at a pace we have never seen’, she argues that ‘the process of technological change that we’re seeing now is basically the same process and technological change that we’ve seen before’. For her, the suspicion towards robots is ‘actually [based on] an emotional argument that plays into people’s fear of the future’.
Streeting hits back at the idea that it is conservatism that drives his approach, rather than a common driver of leftwing politics: ‘How do we avoid a race to the bottom?’
‘My fear is that whether on the centre-left or the centre-right, people just go: “Technology’s great. Isn’t it fantastic? It’s changing the world. It’s brilliant.” But I think people may wake up too late to the dislocation, the disruption and the inequality that this technology has the potential to create.
‘What’s different about this industrial revolution’, he claims, ‘is that with artificial intelligence … we’re going to have technology doing jobs or functions that were previously thought to be quintessentially human.’ ‘I think that’s just a misreading of our history’, McGovern responds, citing Alan Turing’s work developing the computer – which was breathlessly reported at the time as an ‘artificial brain’.
But Streeting also dislikes the characterisation that his is an ‘emotional argument’, contending that ‘it is fundamentally an economic argument’.
‘We’ve seen more and more of the wealth of this country and around the world concentrated in the hands of fewer people … the technological revolution that we’re going through risks exacerbating that even further,’ he claims. He says that his ‘only fear about technology isn’t technology itself but it’s the indifference to the excesses of the technological revolution’. He points to a recent IPPR report that found it likely that ‘ethical norms and regulatory architecture that respond to these issues will be shaped not by democratic debate and decision but by leading technology companies’, as well as warning of the risk of ‘granting excessive and undemocratic influence to a small number of private companies to shape the rules governing the use of emerging technologies’.
McGovern remains unimpressed. ‘Technology is politics neutral’, she says. ‘We can create technology to do whatever we like.’
She has a rallying call for people who want change in society, which – judging by recent political earthquakes – is quite a lot of people: ‘My objection is the idea that somehow technology is a force that we don’t control. We can get technology to do whatever we want. The power is in our hands.’
Neither does the idea of the economic argument – both MPs sit on the Treasury select committee – escape her eye. ‘Inequality from the point of view of wealth in our country is driven by one factor almost entirely, which is the housing market, and there ain’t nothing technological about bricks and mortar.’ The potential for rapacious capitalist excess is a reason for redistribution, not opposition. ‘It will always be the case that rich, wealthy people who want to invest in new technology will do so in a way that helps them accrue more wealth … and the job of our movement is to make sure that the wealth that is created through new technology is held as widely as possible.’
Some of this disagreement is simple analysis. Streeting thinks technology will be more disruptive, quicker, and McGovern believes that nothing will happen faster than can be legislated for.
But much of this dispute, it appears, comes down to tone and the prioritisation of language, rather than policy. That we on the centre-left can have the debate – free of a specific, arcane and cumbersome doctrine – is a sign of strength. That the answer is not obvious to so many of us, and that our reaction to the split path of the future is indecision, is merely a result of our brow-beaten present.
Conor Pope is deputy editor of Progress. He tweets @Conorpope
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