In her opening remarks, she suggested that the new wave of automation is here and, for a movement with work at its core, presents us a series of difficult challenges. Part of this is understanding the intertwining of opportunities and threat, of understanding that new, exciting businesses can dissolve existing power structures and offer the potential of greater autonomy for workers, such as self-determination of work hours and control over work/life balance. The positives, however, cannot be fully harnessed if we ignore the fact networked workers face new forms of exploitation, a fragmentation of solidarity, and new levels of precarity - Yvette cited a report that stated up to 15 million jobs could be at risk, concentrated primarily in white collar occupations. With a two-tier workforce pretty much a reality already (and the subject of much forecasting in the 80s), the policy and organising challenge is looking at new laws, the use of investment, and thinking about what constitutes new, fulfilling jobs (and how to encourage their creation).
Frances noted that our discussion about change is nothing new. In the 1930s there was talk about leisure-based societies in which the fruits of technology are shared out. The 80s saw a different kind of industrial change driven by political calculation, and one in which our communities were left to rot. What's worrying now is not just the pace of change, which seems to be intensifying, but how they're multiplying exploitation and unjust working practices. The new business models are all too often about increased surveillance at work, zero hours, and making workers slaves to their apps. This is just not sustainable. From the standpoint of social security, how can people access support when their incomes are so unpredictable? And what happens when workers can neither pay into a pension, nor acquire a property that could later be sold to provide care in their old age?
Asked whether demand would be enough to create new jobs and this is an ado about little, for Yvette the problem is the pace of change is so fast that workers cannot acquire skills fast enough. And where is the opportunity for them to do so? We've also seen that left to its own devices, the market prefers to churn out lower paid, insecure jobs in greater numbers. However, where there is one area of work that will appear resistant to automation for some time is care - it is massively undervalued and needs to undergo a huge expansion. On the perennial question of training, Frances notes that we already have an over-trained, over-educated workforce. If there was an industrial strategy in place, the kinds of mismatches whereby graduates are undertaking unskilled work because there's nothing else on offer can be overcome.
Other unintended consequences of the new economy is the concentration of these kinds of businesses in cities, not towns, even though they could be done anywhere. As such towns are getting left behind, and this was one of the feeders into the Brexit vote. Another consequence is the combination of old school with new organising techniques. Citing the example of North Sea divers, who recently won a hefty pay hike from the employer, this variegated and otherwise atomised group of workers networked and discussed matters through Facebook. Likewise, social media was and is a useful adjunct to organising in Sports Direct.
There followed a number of questions about education at school, the nationalisation of robots, industrial democracy, care, and our old friend the basic income. For Frances, the robots question forces us to focus on where the state should intervene and where it shouldn't: if infrastructure is essential, be it digital or automotive, then isn't there a case? On industrial democracy, having elected workers on boards would only bring Britain into the mainstream of European policy, and it has a proven track record of ensuring businesses make more rounded investment decisions that tend to benefit the company as a whole. On the basic income, for Frances it's pretty clear the jury is out. While passed at the latest TUC congress, it was with the proviso of undertaking a detailed consideration of what it would mean. Yvette was more dismissive. Acknowledging the problems raised by the sceptical questioner (she noted how it wouldn't address unpaid domestic labour, which still falls heavier on women, nor how the poorer would lose out), she didn't think it would be helpful for the party of work "to give up on work". i.e. Because there won't be enough jobs to go around doesn't mean Labour should give up and opt for what amounts to a welfare solution instead. As far as I'm concerned, while there are difficulties attached and more work has to be done about the level it should be set at, affordability, impacts on existing social security recipients and so on, I don't think leaving millions at the tender mercies of the DWP and capricious employers is much of a starter.
Overall, a very interesting discussion. It seemed to me Frances showed greater awareness and radicalism than our future-facing Yvette, perhaps because her bread and butter is organising and attending to the concerns of working people. For Yvette, unfortunately, while absolutely right on care and the creative destruction wrought by the new technologies, her unthought dismissal of the basic income shows she's not just strait-jacketed by the old politics, she's grown snug and comfortable in it.