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Labour: Lions or Pussycats?

Labour: Lions or Pussycats? Reflections on the Future of Work conference

As Guy Standing wound up his speech to the Labour Party’s Future of Work conference yesterday, he drew on Shelley’s poem The Masque of Anarchy and its call to people to “rise like Lions after slumber / In unvanquishable number”. Behind me, whispering fervently, left-wing columnist Chris Trotter recited the lines along with Standing. The rest of the audience applauded wildly. But this was not a poetry recital but a policy conference, a hui hoping to solve the problem of how to ensure that the new world of work, with its relentless pace of change and rising robot army, actually works for everyone. And so the question inevitably arose: when it comes to new policies in this area, will Labour prove to be Lions – or pussycats?

So far the debate generated by Labour’s conference has been about the universal basic income (UBI), a guaranteed annual payment to every adult regardless of status. It’s probably the big new idea in this field (albeit, like all new ideas, it’s been around for centuries), and has proponents across the political spectrum. But Labour won’t actually go there soon: a pilot project is the most we can expect. And that’s no surprise. A basic income paid at $19,000, a level that would guarantee people a life of participation in society and some dignity – something that Labour’s Grant Robertson, leading the Future of Work commission, often stresses – would cost $68 billion a year, minus savings elsewhere in the welfare system, and Labour has little money to play with, having ruled out a capital gains tax last year.

If the basic income is made more affordable and paid at the $11,000 a year that people like Gareth Morgan recommend, and it replaces other benefits, it’s not clear how pensioners on $19,000, DPB recipients on $15,500 and sickness benefit recipients on $13,500 are supposed to cope with their incomes being slashed. But the basic income does have powerful attractions in terms of giving people security, recognising the inherent worth of their spending time caring, volunteering and making art, and in preparing us for a world in which the robots take our jobs. So it’s good that Labour has turbocharged that debate.

During the conference, Labour released a list of the ten big ideas from the commission’s work so far. Much of them tread familiar, if important ground: giving kids a clear path from high school to the job they want; investing in R&D; ensuring that we assist those made unemployed by the shift to a smart green economy. At the conference itself, the keynote speakers apart, there was also a dearth of new ideas. The panel on how the world of work was changing provided the worst examples of magical thinking and the way that a focus on technology can blind people to the real issues.

One of the panellists, Frances Valintine from the Tech Futures Lab, said that after high-speed internet access appeared a decade ago, “For the first time in the world, we could collaborate.” Really? No collaboration happened at any point in human history before 2006? It was one of those moments so disconnected from reality that it was hard to know what to think. Equally, none of the panellists wanted to confront square-on the fact that, since socio-economic factors determine 60-80% of children’s achievement at school, the most important thing we could do to improve the education system and prepare people for the future of work is to tackle poverty.

Fortunately those harder-edged questions had been traversed by one of the conference’s overseas superstars, Prof Robert Reich, who was formerly Bill Clinton’s secretary of labour and has been the author of multiple best-selling books on the economy. (He also went out with Hillary Clinton while they were at university, he said, to much hilarity. “We dated. Once.”)

Reich, uniquely in my experience of keynote speakers, talked for just 20 minutes in order to take as many questions as possible. But even in that short space of time he captured perfectly the challenge we face. The three key trends shaping work, he argued, start with globalisation, which these days is less about trade and more about large companies shaping the rules of the economy.

The second is technological displacement – robots taking our jobs – and the fact that it’s happening “faster than we can educate [people] – and that’s new.” That doesn’t mean there will be no jobs, but the ones available will be in poorly paid service sectors like retail and hospitality.

The third is the change in corporate attitudes since the 1980s: their shift away from trying to balance the interests of staff, shareholders and communities, and towards a relentless focus on maximising profits – which includes screwing down workers as much as possible. Taken together, these trends point towards a frightening future in which, if nothing is done, we will all be working in a “spot auction”, our pay changing from second to second according to the whims of the market.

But as Reich points out, “Most people don’t live in a world in which they can exist with no security.” So governments must fund lifelong learning and, ultimately, a basic income, but perhaps more importantly must push back against corporate power and the attempts by companies like Uber to avoid all responsibility to their staff. Reich delivered perhaps the conference’s most important line when he said: “So much of what we are talking about is dancing around the issue of power.”

The conference’s second keynote speaker, Guy Standing, gave his standard talk based on his seminal book The Precariat, which charts the rise of a class of workers in low-paid, unstable work, doing vast amounts of unpaid labour such as filling in forms and applying for jobs, and wracked by anxiety, anomie, alienation and anger. Like Reich, Standing argued that there would still be plenty of jobs in future – but unlike Reich, he didn’t advocate a massive push back against new forms of work. “We are not going to be King Canute. We are going to accept those things as part of business doing business. But in return we need security and we need part of the gains and we need voice to determine what is done.”

Standing then introduced his Precariat Charter, noting in passing that writing such a document required “some strong drink … or some good sex”, advice which, delivered with high drama and in a thoroughly posh English accent, sounded more than a touch seedy. The charter argues for giving people more control over their time, a renewed ‘commons’ and quality public space, and above all a basic income, Standing’s signature issue. Unlike Reich, he argued that the basic income was an issue for now: “We have to act and speak as if it’s tomorrow we are going to have it. We have to fight for tomorrow, not kick it into touch.”

But that’s precisely what Labour is doing, of course. And they don’t look like they’re following the Reich line of tackling global capital: the ‘big ideas’ document has nothing more than a passing reference to trade union bargaining. But that doesn’t mean that they’re taking the pussycat option entirely.

One line in the ideas document that has so far attracted little attention is the possibility of providing “free and mandatory training for those who lose a job, to help them develop new skills or retrain to a new profession”. It’s a policy whose basic logic is sound. It sits at the heart of the fabled Scandinavian ‘flexicurity’ model, in which flexible labour laws – making it easy to hire and fire – are cushioned by the security of huge investments in skills and retraining programmes.

It’s an attractive direction for Labour, since it’s arguably a better fit with New Zealand’s culture than other parts of the progressive agenda. But it raises some big questions. Pursuing a flexicurity agenda, Labour could emulate John Key and swallow the ‘dead rat’ of, say, 90-day trial periods in the same way that Key decided not to slash Working for Families and interest-free student loans; they could compromise, in other words, to get into power. But Labour’s union base hates 90-day trial periods far more, I think, than Key’s business base hates Working for Families (which, in some respects, helps them get away with paying insupportably low wages). But would the party go there?

The training idea also raises the question of cost. Something like 200,000 people suffer ‘involuntary’ unemployment each year. If a training course costs several thousand dollars, as it would have to if it were meaningful, the costs of such a policy would rapidly rise into the hundreds of millions – and Labour, as previously pointed out, has precious little money to play with.

So the big ideas are going to come in for some pretty serious testing if they’re ever made into definite policies. But some of the others wouldn’t cost much, and were just as interesting. One of the big ideas is ‘building wealth from the ground up’, through encouraging social entrepreneurs and cooperatives. These ways of sharing the returns on work, and aligning business with more communal forms of organisation, are an excellent fit with the values that have always made Labour distinctive – community and equality. Regardless of whether one agrees with these policies, parties tend to do best when they are applying their eternal values to the problems of the present. (Listening to focus groups telling you to be tough on immigration is not, in contrast, part of Labour’s core values, which is why the party sounds so unconvincing, not to mention discriminatory, when it goes into those areas.)

All the above policies are, of course, concerned with the world of work, and sit within conventional economic thinking. But one of the conference’s panellists, Jane Bryson of Victoria University, issued a powerful challenge to this focus when she made a “cry from the heart” to urge the audience: “We should start thinking about things from the assumption that people are members of communities and a society. We don’t live in economies.”

This thought was touched on in some of the basic income discussions, and elsewhere. Grant Robertson had opened proceedings by citing the recent viral video of a man dancing with his grandmother, whom he was caring for. The “sheer joy and kindness” captured by the video, Robertson said, raised the question: “Isn’t it time that we valued that kind of work?” In other words, don’t we need to redefine what counts as work, and with it the whole apparatus of the economy, how we measure it, and what purpose it serves?

The Future of Work commission could and probably should be addressing these questions, but the focus of the conference itself was pretty narrowly working within the conventional economic framework. Was it due to a lack of intellectual ambition, the capacity of those involved, or the fact that one can’t solve all the problems all at once? It’s hard to know – but it does seem as if the chances of Labour answering Shelley’s call, and proving themselves to be the Lions he envisaged, rest at least in part on a boldness of thinking that they have not yet quite grasped.

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