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Darren Jones

MP for Bristol North West and director of Labour Digital

If Britain fails to embrace technology, we will become a poor island – but global standards are essential

This speech was delivered at Labour Digital’s fringe event at the Labour Party conference on Monday 24 September.

It was here at Labour Party conference, 55 years ago, that Labour Leader Harold Wilson delivered the speech “Labour’s Plan for Science” – more colloquially known now as his “white heat of technology” speech.

Many of the arguments put forward by Wilson are as relevant today as they were then – not just in the field of scientific exploration, but today, in the quick and mass adoption of technologies supplemented by big data, cloud computing and artificial intelligence.

Today, as we launch Labour Digital’s Technology Innovation Competition, I will re-make the case that Wilson made but in the context of our current revolution: that of the so-called fourth industrial revolution.

Wilson understood that it wasn’t the history of Empire, or the holding of nuclear arms, that would secure Britain’s prosperity

So as Labour presented its plan “Labour and the Scientific Revolution” 55 years ago, we too need to develop a new plan, “Labour and the Technological Revolution”.

Because Wilson understood that it wasn’t the history of Empire, or the holding of nuclear arms, that would secure Britain’s prosperity but it’s ability to be agile and flexible enough to respond to change that is happening in the real world around us. 

Back then, Britain was dealing with the decline of Empire. Today, we’re grappling with Brexit. Then, as now, we must recognise that our role and influence in the world is driven only by our merit and our own success – not just our history.

55 years ago, Wilson noted that the period of technological change between the 1960s and 1970s was of a scale greater than the entire 250-year period of the first industrial revolution. Now it’s even quicker, and politics must keep up.

To put our heads in the sand and let all the problems pass us by is the wrong answer

Back then, the challenge was automation – but automation based on replacing human muscle with robotic might. Today, it’s artificial intelligence: replacing the capacity of the human brain with the far superior capacity of AI.

The conclusion, however, is the same: that to put our heads in the sand and let all the problems pass us by is the wrong answer.

So where as the combustion engine replaced and multiplied the power of the horse – from two horses to 50 horse power – today, the driver’s human brain and its connecting two eyes, will be replaced by hundreds of eyes and a cloud connected decision making algorithm able to process data far greater than we can.

As Frances O’Grady, the excellent president of the TUC, put it only a few weeks ago: we in the Labour Movement must have the answers to re-skilling and re-training, and it is only us that can make sure that the inevitable increase in profits is shared with workers, be it in pay or a reduced working week.

The Open University needs to be revitalised and invested in

55 years ago, Labour was discussing the need for a university of the air – now known as the Open University. It was seen as a key way to train those who missed out on going into higher education in the first place.

Today, the OU is struggling to make ends meet. But for those workers who will need to be re-trained, the OU is vital. It needs to be revitalised and invested in, to act as a renewed legacy of a Labour government at the heart of Labour’s cause.

Technology is driving change at a speed never seen before. And in a globalised market, we as politicians need to get to the right answers to show that politics still matters and can make a difference. Failure to do so will, in my view, lead to a continued lack of faith in democratic systems across the world – something that I’m sure we can all be concerned about.

Because, in my view, the angst that led to Brexit and Donald Trump was a reaction to an increasingly ineffective state trying to deal with the challenges of a globalised market place.

In the face of globalisation, where multinational companies aren’t answerable to one government, where jobs are relocated to lower cost locations, where goods are made in other parts of the world and where taxes are paid at nation state level – the easy answer is to move to populist nationalism.

For the Conservative Party, that means “take back control” and the promise of Brexit resulting in national renewal. For the Labour Party, it means renationalisation and the promise of national government taking back control of multinational companies and global markets.

 All of our macro problems today are global, and can’t be fixed by any one nation state 

But in my view, it’s the wrong answer to globalisation to just nationalise the economy. Trying to drag the world back to the good old days will result in a failure to revitalise our politics and our institutions to be ready for the future.

Because to think that nationalism can solve globalism is just incorrect. As Wilson set out, if we think looking inwards and drawing up the drawbridge will result in anything other than Britain becoming an isolated, poorer backwater of the world is to be misplaced.

So what’s the alternative? The alternative is to embrace globalisation – to globalise our politics. 

Without agreeing the global standards of what is and isn’t acceptable, the poor will suffer

There is no question that artificial intelligence and robotics will displace millions of jobs across the world. If Britain decides to not embrace technology, we will become a poor island, no longer leading in the world.

But if we adopt it without agreeing the global standards of what is and isn’t acceptable, and how we share power with governments across the world to ensure these standards are enforced, then the poor will suffer.

Retail, transport and low skilled manufacturing are the most at risk sectors from technological transformation today. Labour must have an answer to that, and renationalisation without adaptation and investment and innovation is not the answer. Legislating to stop the pace of change is not the answer either.

This is because profits and taxation are now a global problem. As the Archbishop of Canterbury rightly said, why should Amazon contribute so little to Britain when it is us who has to educate, house and keep healthy its workforce?

And with traditional questions about the ownership of capital and monopolies in the market: those who own the data, the data centres, the algorithms and the robotic assets will – through productivity gains – see enormous profits awarded to them. The Conservatives will delight in that outcome: improved productivity, increased GDP, higher profits. But that’s where their aims end: what about workers? And what about public services?

This friction between global markets and national politics is at the heart of the challenges I’m setting out today.

You can either nationalise the economy or globalise our politics

So you can either nationalise the economy – only locally owned shops or a state-owned e-commerce platform with UK only supply chains is allowed – in which, by the way, consumer choice will go down and price will go up.

Or you can globalise our politics – by working in current and new ways to coordinate, for example, tax policy across countries.

This is yet another reason why Brexit will cause so much harm, not just on day-to-day trade but on our ability as the British Government to influence global markets to the benefit of British citizens. Brexit will not only make British consumers poorer, but it will make them weaker consumers and subject to the whims of global markets.

I’m a politician of the left – I prioritise people and I believe Government has a role to play. And while I’m a supporter of the market, and want to do all I can to ensure a successful market based economy, it is simply obvious to see that the market can’t solve these global issues either.

So Labour Digital – the home of technology and digital policy for Labour Party members and supporters – is not about networking between coders, or a forum just for technology entrepreneurs.

Labour Digital must seek to understand these challenges and debates what Labour’s solutions will be.

We must show why technology is at the heart of every area of government policy, and we must support and educate our colleagues to understand these issues and to embrace the exciting innovation and thought leadership that happens outside of Westminster and bring it into our politics.

That’s why we’re proud to be launching our Technology Innovation Competition – where anyone can pitch a tech idea into a government department category. Where we will exhibit the best ideas across all government departments and where – through a Dragon’s Den style set of finals – help the best ideas become reality.

And it’s why we’re excited about our work going forward, in policy areas such as skills, the future of work, policing and crime, energy and the environment, digital rights and so much more.

So thank you for joining us this evening, please sign up and support and please get involved.

We need the best ideas possible to renew traditional Labour causes in a modern setting. And we can’t do it without you.

Thank you.

Darren Jones is Labour MP for Bristol North West and director of Labour Digital