Is automation Theresa May’s miners moment?

With concerns over the impact of automation on jobs already mounting news that Amazon will employ fewer casual workers in its warehouses this Christmas due to increased robot utilisation will come as a concern for leaders across the world.

Citing cost-cutting and increased productivity, Amazon will be at the forefront of a revolution that has already seen retailers such as JD.com move to fully automated warehouses in the US. Closer to home the British Retail Consortium (BRC) estimates that over the next 20 years 60 per cent of jobs in retail will be at risk due to automation. Walmart-owned Asda recently announced it is looking to cut almost 2,500 jobs over the next year owing to a similar evolution, and some cities predict they could lose more than a fifth of current jobs by 2030.

Just 30 years on from the collapse of the mining industry which left hundreds of thousands of workers out of employment early indications that a similar downfall is on the cards are undeniably there for all to see. The question is, how will the ruling Conservative government respond this time around given all they know about the legacy of Margaret Thatcher?

The conundrum Theresa May faces is eerily similar to that of her predecessor. As The Spectator’s James Forsyth wrote here, “the Tories need to have a message for those workers fearful about automation and what it means for their jobs”, but also need “to present themselves as the pro-consumer party who are instinctively comfortable with a more diversified economy in which the state is less powerful”.

But which side will the Tories ultimately favour? Well, Tory MP Matt Hancock seems to make it quite clear here. Rather than pursuing what he describes as a “backwards-looking, top-down, socialist ideology” that is the “anathema to the principles of the tech revolution”, the Conservative Party should embrace the changes with free economic principles that support business and attract higher paid jobs.

Yet there is little or no mention of the hundreds of thousands of workers that could potentially be displaced by the revolution, which was Thatcher’s mistake in the ‘80s. Contrary to the common myth that Labour created “benefits Britain” it was actually Thatcher who did away with an industry that supported towns and cities-worth of jobs without putting anything in its place. As John Bird wrote here, “Thatcher churned out benefits rather than training and opportunity, then Tony Blair took up her lead”.

The crucial question should therefore be, what does a transition look like, and how can we up-skill workers before work out-modernises them? According to the IPPR paper ‘Managing automation: Employment, inequality and ethics in the digital age‘, the answer is multi-faceted. Author Carys Roberts notes, “options on the table should include ensuring all sectors and areas invest in and benefit from technology that raises productivity, reforming the skills system to make sure good jobs that are created are accessible to all, strengthening trade unions to enable workers to bargain their wages upwards, and spreading capital ownership so that returns to capital benefit everyone in the economy”.

Her conclusion effectively disproves Matt Hancock’s claim that a tech revolution is a Tory revolution, because it goes to show that our government’s dealings will require a degree of compassion and an edge of humility. Something that is in short supply within the Tory ranks these days.

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