Labour has to set out an optimistic post-Covid vision for the country – one that recognises the way our lives and our jobs are changing following the pandemic, and which is bold about the better future we need to build. Technology and jobs must be a central part of that vision. As families and businesses have coped with the pandemic, there has been a huge acceleration in the use of technology that won’t stop once the crisis is over; and that will have profound implications for our working lives. Rapid changes in technology can bring amazing new opportunities for jobs, for the way we live and for the environment. But it can also bring dislocation, new injustices, inequality and exploitation unless we act.
The Covid-19 pandemic has upended our lives. Millions of jobs moved online. Automation and innovation accelerated to keep working practices safe. Changes that otherwise might have taken years happened within months. I had never imagined I’d be making a speech in Parliament from our sitting room, but even the most archaic institutions had to adapt.
Many new trends in flexible and remote working may be here to stay, giving employees more power to determine how and where they work, with rising productivity. Recent surveys find many employees want a hybrid model once the pandemic is over, working sometimes from the office and sometimes from home, reducing the daily commutes and making it easier to manage family responsibilities.
But while some workers benefit, for others the picture is much harder. Millions are still furloughed in industries that haven’t fully restarted, and where their jobs may never return as a result of automation. Some high street shops aren’t re-opening as customers move permanently online. Fewer office cleaners are needed when staff work from home. Businesses switching to less labour intensive plant or machinery won’t need all the furloughed workers back.
Last December, a report by the Changing Work Centre’s Commission on Workers and Technology, which I chaired, found that the acceleration in the use of new technology risks widening inequality unless we act. We warned about a dangerous potential double whammy for low-skilled and low-paid workers in sectors like high street retail who were hit heavily by the Covid crisis, but who are also at the greatest risk of losing their job to technology in the coming years. The Commission’s research found that 61 per cent of jobs furloughed in the first half of 2020 were in sectors at the highest risk of automation. Those workers are also least likely to have access to the training or skills they need to get the new jobs of tomorrow.
That’s why Labour – and Tribune Labour – need to set out how our party and our country should respond to the new technology revolutions, just as our party did in response to the industrial revolution. In generations past, faced with both the huge opportunities and also huge injustices and inequalities caused by the industrial revolution, we saw the creation of the trade unions, the establishment of the Labour Party as a voice for change, new legislation and Factory Acts, and the creation of the welfare state – all ways to ensure that the benefits of new technology and growth could be more fairly shared by all. We need the same ambition again.
It means making the case for active government working in partnership with employers and unions to make sure everyone gets a fair deal. The Commission on Work called for a new industrial policy to focus on high employment industries, like retail, hospitality and leisure, where staff and employers may need most help to adapt. We need a revolution in adult skills, not tinkering at the edges as the Government plans to do. It means overhauling job centres so they can help people to re-train with guaranteed jobs for all young people. And it means giving workers a say over technology change, including through proper consultation and greater collective bargaining. Many of the the key worker jobs that have kept our country going through Covid have been undervalued and underpaid for too long. Jobs like care workers will be ever more vital in future, so we need to value them and give workers greater status and pay not dismiss them as low skilled.
And we have to make sure places and communities can adapt too. Many ex-industrial towns and coastal communities didnt get the support they needed to adapt to previous upheavals in industry and technology. We need devolution to towns, not just cities, supporting different areas to have their own industrial strategies for future jobs.
The pandemic has changed work in unprecedented ways. But it has also demonstrated how radical it is possible to be when we need to be. In previous eras of major technological and economic change, it took decades for new legislation and institutions to emerge to tackle new injustices. We cannot afford to wait that long this time.
Yvette Cooper is the Labour MP for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford.