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Anna Thomas

Co-founder and director of the Institute of the Future of Work

Why vulnerability to automation is linked to how people vote

With yet another election campaign underway, all eyes are on the seats where people voted to leave the EU in 2016, to see how they will vote now. The character of a constituency has become a major factor in analysing how political candidates will fare. Is it urban or rural? What is the average age of residents? Is there a university?

But at The Institute for the Future of Work, we’ve identified another major factor in determining voting patterns: the vulnerability of a local area to automation.

Our new analysis shows that the risk of automation to people living in a particular region was a better predictor of someone voting for Brexit than the more commonly discussed factors, such as ethnicity or age.

As part of our research into the impacts of technology on work – and knowing that the relationship between technology, work and politics has shaped British history through four industrial revolutions – we noticed similar patterns in the local authorities managing a higher risk of automation and the EU Referendum vote. Wanting to identify the key challenges driving voting behaviour, we began to examine these patterns more closely.

We found that areas with the highest Leave vote, clustered in the North East, South West and Midlands, were also top of another table – the list of areas most vulnerable to automation. In places like Boston and Mansfield, the risk of jobs being lost due to advances in technology is well over 50 per cent.

This has significant implications for understanding people’s experience and perception of workplace transformation. It also gives us a steer on predicted voting behaviour, and the associated risks for political parties, as the UK heads to the polls. But, most importantly, it reminds us to focus on the underlying challenges faced by people across the country who feel left behind by policy-makers. Our analysis indicates people have good reason to feel this way.

For instance, the former mining area of Mansfield was represented by the Labour Party for a century, before changing hands in a shock victory for the Tories in 2017. To explain such a political earthquake, many looked at the Brexit referendum of the previous year, showing that 71 per cent voted leave.

Our analysis is the first to show how this correlates with the risk of automation to jobs in Mansfield. Mansfield is joint-first on the list of “at-risk” areas, alongside Boston, which saw the largest Brexit vote in the referendum. In both these areas, there is a 57 per cent probability of jobs being automated.

Living in an area subject to this level of labour market disruption – and anticipating more – it is perhaps unsurprising that voters feel socially and economically insecure and may be prepared to vote for radical change.

Political parties have been careful to look at policies that help the “squeezed middle”, the “just about managing”, and now the “Workington Man”.

But our research has found an additional category of voter that deserves their attention, which is growing as automation increases: the “invisible outsider”: an addition to the traditional economic label of “insider” and “outsider”: people who are in stable employment versus those who are unemployed.

“Invisible outsiders” may be in work, but it may be precarious or poor quality. They fear economic insecurity and social decline through job losses and diminishing employment prospects linked to automation, and are more likely to have voted to leave the EU. With record levels of employment, and impacts of technology on work increasingly pervasive, a sharp division between insiders and outsiders no longer makes sense. Instead, we should think about the impacts of automation through a spectrum ranging from labour market inclusion (secure and good quality work) to exclusion (long term unemployment with poor prospects). What is key is the growing number of people working across different sectors, business models and contract types who anticipate significant change as work is transformed and feel their labour market status and prospects are precarious. They may technically be insiders but they feel and behave like outsiders. And it has been shown that voting patterns and preferences of labour market insiders and outsiders differ substantially.

Currently these voters may not immediately identify automation as a worry when asked. But against the background of our analysis, you can read between the lines when they cite concerns about immigration or lack of local of opportunities. These are typical concerns of someone who is feeling excluded. Some recent polling showed that workers’ optimism about future career prospects is low, especially among the sectors most likely to be impacted by automation such as retail and admin, where people are more likely to think any changes to their work will be negative. These workers are aware that things have changed, and feel they are heading in the wrong direction, so they vote in a way they hope will turn that around.

The Institute for the Future of Work strongly believes that automation is a source of prosperity in the long term but as this research shows, it also presents pressing challenges which have been ignored for too long. Active policy intervention is needed to ease the transition of workers into good jobs, increase resilience to change, and spread the gains of technological innovation.

Parties can start with some manifesto pledges for a “Work 5.0 Strategy” – a holistic set of policies to promote socially responsible, human-centred automation – drawing on the German government’s excellent Work 4.0 Strategy which has made strong headway here.

It should include measures such as targeted investment and experimentation in retraining, developing the National Retraining Partnership, use of data-driven tools to match people with jobs according to their talents and interests, and an update of the Equality Act to require equality audits and new protections against socio-economic disadvantage.

Every step of this policy process should involve social partners and thorough consultation and transparency about the use of technology through the cycle of automation. People should come first.

We urge politicians of all stripes to incorporate these recommendations into their policy programmes, to provide a strong plan for the future of work that will reassure the new excluded. This will help build a future of better, fairer work across the UK after the general election. It may improve prospects at the polls too.

Anna Thomas is the co-founder and director of the Institute of the Future of Work