In a welcome twist of events, the May government adopted Labour Party policy this week. Described as more “Balls than Osborne”, Chancellor Philip Hammond announced that Conservative economic policy = fiscal discipline + investment for growth.
Whilst this positively Keynesian economic approach is welcome, two things need to happen.
Firstly, Government borrowing should stimulate economic growth through an active industrial policy focussed on the future digital economy. With hard Brexit now on a timer, Britain can’t afford to fall off the European Digital Single Market without a coherent vision of a Digital Britain.
And secondly, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell need to set out how Labour’s economic strategy will deliver on Jeremy’s promise of bringing the Keynesian economic approach of the 20th century into the 21st century.
At Labour Party conference last week, I chaired a fringe on the future of the Brexit Digital Economy. Former Business Secretary Chuka Umunna said that the digital future of the British economy is an agenda that Labour “needs to own”. Here at Future Labour we couldn’t agree more, because a future digital economy led by the Tories would be one in which an unfettered capitalism would further divide the haves and the have nots. Labour should be making it clear that digital equality, investment in education and skills, protection of workers rights, the civil liberties of the digital age and an active digital industrial policy supported by appropriate Government borrowing, is proudly at the heart of our approach.
Britain is one of the world’s leading digital economies today. We have some of the best connectivity in Europe and a technology and innovation scene which rivals the silicon valley. But as Theresa Griffin pointed out at the Future Labour fringe, 12.6 million adults in the UK today don’t have the skills to use a computer and 5.8 million adults have no access at all. With the so called “uberisation” of the workforce, a Government approach of digital first to public service deployment and a Brexit Britain competing with California and Berlin for talent, we have no time to lose but to invest in education and skills – not just at school but for workers up and down the country.
Unfortunately, the Government shows little vision for a bold policy approach to Britain’s role within the fourth industrial revolution. The Digital Economy Bill currently before Parliament was rightly described by Bristol West MP Thangam Debbonaire as a “christmas tree covered in balls balls but full of holes”. At our fringe, TechUK’s director of policy, Charlotte Holloway, noted that the UK digital economy grew from £120bn in 2010 to £180bn in 2015. The Boston Consulting Group, which originally reported these figures, showed that this huge growth resulted in digital contributing 12.4% of GDP in the UK – compared to a mere average of 5.8% of GDP within the G20.
A policy fringe on the final day of any party conference is always at risk of failing to fill the room, but the Future Labour fringe had standing room only. The labour movement has a crucial role to play in ensuring the future British economy is one that works for the many and not the few, and the Labour Party must set out a new political vision of the left that’s fit for the next century. This isn’t just about access to the internet or the ability to shop online, it’s about showing how a strategic state can work in partnership with reformed public services and an entrepreneurial and innovative private sector to ensure our collective future success. One audience member somewhat flatteringly said that the Future Labour fringe might have been the last on the agenda, but it was the most important.
As Britain embarks on a new chapter outside of the European Union, now is the time to invest in its digital future.