Where do we go from here? Labour and #changingwork

This week, I was fortunate enough to attend the launch of the Changing Work Centre, a partnership between the Fabian Society and Community to be chaired by Yvette Cooper, calling for a mature conversation about the changing nature of work, and how the Left should respond. Meanwhile, Tom Watson addressed the EEF Conference to discuss the challenges facing employment in the UK. Both Cooper’s launch speech and Watson’s address began with the same premise; if the machines are taking over and changing the world of work beyond all recognition, what side of history does Labour want to stand on?

The benefits of technology for an individual’s everyday life are easy to identify. We can live like a local in any community around the world through Airbnb, we can call in additional help for our arduous life admin through TaskRabbit, and we can do all of this from the backseat of our driverless car.

But land of the free it is not. Many utilise the additional revenue that the sharing economy provides, but could you make a living by driving for Uber? Could you make a living driving for Uber without statutory sick pay, were the worst to happen? Could you support a family were your job to be automated out of existence? This isn’t scaremongering for scaremongering’s sake, but simply the unintended consequences of technology pushing the boundaries as to what constitutes living well. It’s not like the Industrial Revolution didn’t cause human misery, with poverty wages, industrial injury and child labour coming to the fore in a new way. But the human impact wasn’t enough to stem the tide of industrial advances then, and it won’t be enough now.

These are issues that the Government isn’t addressing, for fear of driving investment away. So let’s be mature about how Labour responds, embracing the potential that technology provides, whilst being sufficiently robust in our plans for protecting workers in the new age, (which as several studies have shown, in turn drives up employee satisfaction and loyalty). Both Watson and Cooper identified that we don’t need to have all the answers, four years out from an election. What we do need to have is an open mind, a willingness to engage not only within the membership but with the millions who need a Labour government. These are the millions who are concerned about how automation will leave them unemployed within five years, but for whom platform work could not provide a stable income. Do these people need to hear a Labour Party offering both prosperity and security, informed by the lessons of government, or braying over the merits of a nuclear deterrent, and collective amnesia about the progress we made after 10 years in power?

Much as the Government is wrong to frame the majority of its policy making in the context of the global crash and exercising fiscal control, Labour cannot make policy solely for the benefit of Islington North. It is heartening that senior Labour figures are acknowledging the need to change the tune, and are directing policy discussions towards issues like the future of employment that reach far beyond where our membership currently is. Good employment makes for good business, and if the party of work can’t make that argument, who will?