Automation and the Future of the Labour Party

Photograph: Pexels

Last week’s intervention by Jeremy Corbyn was depressing on a number of levels. First, that at a time when vulnerable patients are spending hours unattended on hallway gurneys he chooses not to mention the NHS at all. Second, that at a time when the central political cleavage has become people’s attitudes to immigration, he fails to offer either a full-blooded defence of freedom of movement or unequivocally comes out against it. Third, and most heartbreaking of all, that the argument he does make is one plank of what one commentator has quite witheringly labelled as ‘reheated Bennism”.

It is this last issue that, in the grander scheme of things, presents the greatest cause for concern. In his most recent, marathon blog on Leave’s victory in last year’s referendum, Cummings makes the well-worn, but oft-forgotten point that moments like our decision to leave the EU are by their nature over-determined, the product of a confluence of personalities, freak occurrences and, he admits, underlying forces that brewed beneath the surface for decades. He is of the view – contrary to many quite popular interpretations of the referendum – that if one or two different decision had been taken by either side, then the result could easily have been very different indeed. Our propensity to falsely retrospectively project narratives and patterns on to historical events is one that has been covered by the likes of Nassim Nicholas Taleb and has been borne out by the work of Daniel Kahenman and others.

But what does this have to do with Jeremy Corbyn?

When we apply this way of thinking to the plight of social democratic political parties in the UK and on the continent, it is tempting to lay the blame at the feet of inept leaders or bad luck – but I fear the problem runs deeper. While I accept that the unpopularity of social democratic parties – at home and abroad – is the result of a variety of different forces, I do think that they each may have one in common: a failure of ideological renewal. What if all across Europe – and even in the United States – social democracy has run out ideas? Will posterity view Jeremy Corbyn as a symptom of a deeper, and much more profound malaise within the centre-left? If so, what are the implications of this? Should we be worried?

In the current climate, Labour’s current slide into semi-irrelevance is not hard to understand. For one thing, Labour was established to represent and fight for the interests of labour against capital; it was concerned with delivering economic security. What it was not established for was the battle for cultural security. Further, in its reluctance to change, the Labour party is in some ways more small c conservative than the Tory party; as a party that has historically – and admirably – fought for the rights of minority groups, attempting to reflect the cultural insecurity – which the white majority seems to be in the clutches of – is never going to be a pose that Labour is comfortable holding. For another thing, freedom of movement presents a fundamental strategic problem; namely, and this is a point well made elsewhere, that while the Party’s historical post-industrial constituency are firmly opposed, its voters in larger cities and university towns are firmly in favour.

But all is not lost. I am of the view that, in time, we will need a party with a tradition of fighting for the economic and political right of labour vis-à-vis capital. We will need a Labour Party.

While the causes of Donald Trump’s victory in November will likely be picked over for years to come, there is a reason to think that technological change deserves a place in any explanation. It was in the states of the Democratic ‘firewall’ that huge swathes of white working class workers in post-industrial workers turned out for Trump. In those areas, industrial jobs that provided a good living for non-college graduates have been decimated by automation; and this is a trend that is only going to grow more prominent. In 2013, a well-publicized paper concluded that “47% of workers in America had jobs at high risk of potential automation”.

In his book Homo Deus, Yuval Harari predicts that the emergence of super-intelligent, non-conscience algorithms will produce an enormous “useless class”. Taking the example of uber drivers, he also argues that such automation will result in the concentration of economic and political power into fewer and fewer hands.  Today, within the class of ‘uber drivers’ – if we suppose for a moment that such a class exists – political and economic power is diffused fairly evenly. In a future of driverless cars, however, where one company or individual controls an algorithm that controls all driverless ubers, the political and economic power concentrated into their hands would be staggering.

In a future such as this one, social democratic renewal becomes more important than ever. In a future such as this one, where dissatisfaction is dwarfed by the disappearance of entire industries, a Party’s whose founding mission is the leavening of economic and political inequality becomes very relevant very quickly. While for now it is hard to see Conservative hegemony, it was equally hard to see past New Labour hegemony in the early 2000s. As governing parties are forced to make the compromises inherent in governing, their popularity will incrementally ebb away; as with the White Cliffs of Dover, it is hard to see, but it is happening all the time. Typically governments are finally ejected by some sort of economic crises; in this country it, has been the ERM crisis and the banking crisis of 2008. Usually concurrent with these trends is a kind of ideological exhaustion. By the end, the major post-war governments have completed their governing projects; this may not be why they lose office, but it does seem to happen alongside it. That being said, there is no guarantee that, once the Conservative Party completes its governing project – whatever that might be – and once their popularity has steadily flaked away, as it historically has done, will the electorate turn to a party of the centre-left? Only if it has a vision of the future; only if it has answers.

For the moment, anything but a new Conservative century is hard to foresee; but the paucity of new ideas on the left should still give us reason to worry. It was only this week – with Theresa May talking about making markets work for all – that we got further evidence of the centre left’s ability to make the political weather even outside of government.

To this end there has been a disappointing lack of thinking on the centre left. While people like John Cruddas and Tom Watson have signalled that they understanding the coming importance of issues like this one, more widely it seems the Labour movement does not. Yuval Harari makes the further, somewhat chilling thought that the political consequences of technology are not deterministic. Put another way, there is no guarantee that the development of the technology he describes will make for a more just and liberal society. The example he uses is that the internal combustion engine was used in the creation of liberal democracy in the UK, but was also harnessed to establish the Third Reich and the USSR. So while the coming changes represent a historical opportunity for social democracy, if it is not up to the task then we all might pay a price. In the absence of a positive vision that seeks to harness technological change to build an inclusive and socially just society, voters may choose a bitter, nostalgic populism. For all sakes, let’s hope social democracy renews itself.

 

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Chris Pluck 2 Articles
A former teacher and now a consultant, since university I have missed getting my thoughts down on paper. I am an avid follower of politics and the arts. I live to read.

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