Where’s my Taxi (Driver)?

First published on Huffington Post on May 23rd 2016 here

HM The Queen announced the Modern Transport Bill in her speech at the State Opening of Parliament last week.

Electric, automated vehicles — the Government suggests — will be on our roads within a matter of years.

As a green-y tech geek I can’t wait. Cool new cars powered by renewable energy (hopefully) no doubt whizzing me around for a payment I approve on my mobile. I don’t have to own a car, I don’t have to pay tax or insurance and I don’t have to worry about those failed MOTs that cost a fortune to sort replacing bits of the car you’ve never heard of. Brilliant.

But is it? I might be a green-y tech geek type, but I’m also a Labour Party type. For the past few years my alter egos have collided — technology lawyer by day and, from 2012 to 2015, a prospective Labour MP in my home city of Bristol.

I started to think about the impact of digital technology on people’s lives. There’s lots of good stuff to look forward to but there’s also a few things that feel a bit scary. Today, HM The Queen reminded me why.

It’s really not that difficult to imagine a world where a company (Uber, for example) invests in automated vehicles. The Modern Transport Bill will help. It will increase investment in the technology required to make it happen and it’ll make it mandatory for insurance companies to provide the insurance cover needed to get automated vehicles on the road.

I agree with the Government. We should be taking an active industrial policy approach to encouraging investment in the technology research and advanced manufacturing of tomorrow. I want that to happen in Britain. But what’s the down side?

Let’s go back to the automated Uber cars example. I can request an automated vehicle using my mobile, enter the destination and pay for it electronically. All seems normal, doesn’t it? Apart from one missing piece of the puzzle — where’s the taxi driver gone?

The taxi driver is at home. He’s unemployed and on social security. He tried to get another job using his skills as an experienced driver — as a bus driver, as a delivery driver, as a train driver — but had no luck. It turns out that all of those vehicles are automated now too. Having my taxi driver at home, not working, not paying tax and receiving social security is expensive. I’m also pretty confident that it’s not what he wants to be doing, either.

How we invest in and embrace the so-called fourth industrial revolution without allowing the mass unemployment that comes with industrial revolutions is, in my view, the most pressing political question of our time.

As a Labour activist I want my party to be the storytellers of tomorrow. I want it to reassure the British people that by being in Government it can manage the risks of the future, whilst opening up the opportunities it brings for people right across the country.

That means investing in the fourth industrial revolution to ensure we maintain and grow our economic advantage in the digital world, but it also means regulating the market in a smart way. Smart regulation means not over regulating and squashing innovation (i.e, “all taxi’s must be driven by a human”) but it does mean regulating the market and investing in education and adult skills training to prevent the potential of mass unemployment as a symptom of the success of the current and future digital economy.

This is a long-term strategy. The most obvious jobs might start to become redundant in only a few years — the taxi driver example being the most obvious — but the next generation will see a changing workplace for everyone (including lawyers!), especially with the advancement of artificial intelligence and increased interest and confidence in systems such as the blockchain.

It’s my view that this needs to be one of the top three strategic concerns of the Labour Party. We mustn’t get scared and over regulate and if we leave it to the free-market Tories, we know from recent history what will happen. For Labour, this is traditional values in a modern setting. It’s being the voice of workers in a fast changing modern world. It needs to be at the heart of our offer to the British people.

Darren Jones is the Director of Future Labour, a volunteer powered platform to debate the future of work within the digital economy, which will launch later this year.

He was the prospective Labour MP for Bristol North West at the 2015 General Election and works as Legal Counsel at a FTSE15 communications company.