May in Florence

Poor* Theresa May. Upstaged in her long-trailed traipse to Florence to talk substantially to the UK media and her own immediate Cabinet colleagues (no-one from the EU actually being there) about her ‘vision’ for the future, firstly by her own Foreign Secretary [firewall] and secondly, and far more importantly, in Rome the day before by Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, this was a speech whose prospective import was, as it turned out, far greater than the actual substance.

Apart from the rolling political theme of May’s evident lack of domestic authority amongst her Cabinet and her lack of judgment wrapped up in her (absent) treatment of Johnson’s own, reverse Churchillian, two-fingered salute to her, I doubt that history will be too kind on the Florence speech. Critical assessments abound already, not the least David Allen Green’s erudite Twitter feed, InFact’s own observation of May as flip-flop queen and Michel Barnier’s own measured, polite but oh-so-critical response pointing, essentially, to the all-too-evident reality gap.

Barnier is absolutely correct in observing that May’s speech needs to be turned – and urgently – into substantive negotiating points which the respective teams can tackle in the next, and subsequent, weeks. The obvious point to make is that, six months into a (maximum) two-year negotiating period for exit (which encompasses the time to secure the necessary approvals, including from the European Parliament), this is no time to be (re-)setting out a vision for the future. If the UK needs a two-year extension to the negotiating period, this is symbolic only of its own lack of preparation prior to triggering the Article 50 withdrawal process, and the absolutely shambolic domestic political process which has succeeded it. Furthermore, May’s observation that ‘throughout its membership, the United Kingdom has never totally felt at home being in the European Union’, and that the EU ‘never felt to us like an integral part of our national story’ was both rude and ignorant. What – never at home despite all the opt-outs which the EU granted the UK, on adopting the Euro, on Schengen and on the European Social Charter? Never at home despite the single market being the singular idea of Lord Cockroft, Thatcher’s own EU Commissioner? Never at home despite the maths of the referendum vote failing to provide any sort of endorsement for such a view? Personally speaking, I’ve never felt less at home in the UK in the period since the referendum – based, substantially, on the petty nationalism that has come to mark our national political discourse, bank checks on immigration status being but the most recent example. If we’d made more effort to integrate, to understand the EU’s political processes and, more so, to involve ourselves in them, such an observation might have been better founded. But, we did not and, therefore, it is not. We never even tried.

More to the critical point, we still have no strategy for Brexit, no graspable endgame. it’s not so much that the UK government isn’t levelling with people on the trade-offs that will be required to make any sort of a purse out of the sow’s ear of Brexit, it’s that – as the TUC’s statement in response correctly observes – we have no realistic negotiating strategy at all. Quite simply, we don’t know what we’re doing.

I wanted, however, to make one critical observation of my own. For a speech whose title was ‘shared history; shared challenges; shared future’, May spent an awful lot of time talking about ‘me’. The section on citizens’ rights – so critical to the lives of so many people here in the UK and in the rest of Europe, and so important to the EU’s negotiating agenda – was just 255 words long but featured the pronoun ‘I’ no fewer than nine times, and the pronoun ‘we’ no more than five (and some of those being part of May’s attempt at rhetoric). (Aside of no fewer than three references to ‘I want’, which would have got me short shrift as a child!) In the rest of the speech, May referred to herself in the first person singular no fewer than forty times. An odd thing, don’t you think, in the context of a speech whose text was ‘shared’? And in the context of seeking a deal in the best interests of the UK, not to speak of favours, with the skilled, expert, well-prepared negotiators sat on the other side of the table? Unless, of course, May was indeed using the occasion to rehearse her speech to the Tory Party Conference next month, and to support her ever-declining level of authority in her own Party. But, then again, that is really what Brexit is about, isn’t it: the Tory Party’s own attempt to settle its own internal politics regarding the UK’s relationship with the EU. Our own domestic politics – and despite the outcome of the election – has become simply subservient to the selfish interests of the Tory party whose packing of House of Commons committees is simply the most obvious symbol of the failure that our democracy has become.

* Sympathy somewhat limited, obviously.

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Knowing which way the wind is blowing

There was some interesting news on electric cars this week with Volvo announcing that all its new cars will be at least partially battery-powered from 2019; and France announcing, one day later, that it will ban the sale of cars with an internal combustion engine by 2040. There’s a plethora of links in these two articles – on a side note, blogs seem to have become media articles these days while media articles seem to have become blogs – which are well worth exploring, too.

On top of this, the Queen’s Speech promised legislation to ‘ensure the United Kingdom remains a world leader in new industries, including electric cars‘, with the accompanying notes referring to an Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill whose purpose would be – among others – to improve the national charging infrastructure. With the government being supported by the DUP, whose own green credentials leave something to be desired and whose programme features a strong element of climate change scepticism, this is an interesting inclusion in a Queen’s Speech which doesn’t otherwise feature a lot else of substance, Brexit apart.

Volvo will, of course, still be producing existing models with internal combustion engines after 2019; and it will continue to produce a range of hybrids (cars with some level of electric/battery input alongside an internal combustion engine, which can be as minimal as simply managing fuel efficiency); while a policy announcement that takes full effect in 23 years time is, perhaps, little more than virtue signalling given shortening policy timescales. We were all, after all, an awful lot younger in 1994.

Nevertheless, the direction that the wind is taking is clear and it is, on the whole, a good one in terms of reducing carbon emissions. It is worth pointing out that international agreements on carbon reduction have provided an important impetus to the development of the electric vehicles market, not least in the light of the role in total carbon emissions played by aircraft travel and the more readily available technology that battery-powered cars provide in terms of achieving the necessary reductions targets.

Much remains to be done, however: globally, sales of electric cars total no more than 2m, about 30% in China and Japan and a further 25% in the US. Within Europe, the Netherlands and Norway look to me be leading the way. In the light of this, it it no wonder that progress is slow, and incremental. It does need a bit of a kick and the toes being dipped in the water by Volvo and the French government simply aren’t sufficient. Better instead, to do more in the way of encouraging manufacturers to bring end prices down.

Drivers of electric cars are likely to continue to be worried about the availability of charging stations – especially, for longer journeys, the availability of rapid chargers which allow the current generation of electric cars to be fully charged in about 45 mins (30 mins to about 80%). The focus of the UK government’s initiative on electric vehicles – that petrol re-fuelling stations would be compelled to offer electric charging points – is thus an interesting one. The Bill will indeed require the installation of charge points for electric vehicles at motorway service areas and large fuel retailers, and on the basis of a common set of technical and operational standards.

Precisely what will be required, and where, and the cost regime that is envisaged along with any subsidies on offer, remains to be seen. If electric cars do take off, then petrol stations would need to change their business model anyway and, while it is easy to see a conversion of some facilities to coffee shops (and hopefully something more welcoming than just the coffee areas to the side of existing facilities that is currently substantially the provision), it is a lot harder to see the profit in selling two or three cups of coffee and possibly a cake or two while people wait for their cars to charge against a £30 fuel sale (by the end, a full tank on our BMW was costing £70). We might see this as the government providing a bit of a nudge to service station providers ahead of the deluge that will otherwise befall them, but the better option, if the government wants to get involved, would be to facilitate the provision of charging points away from petrol stations but put them in car parks, park and ride facilities. The smart move, if we’re talking about town centre regeneration, would be to put a mass of charging points in, or very close to, town centres, too. There’s absolutely a role there for councils and it would be good to see the government working closely with local councils instead rather than nudging petrol stations to do what the market will force them to do anyway.

The other major issue of course here is, as with anything else, Brexit. Renault-Nissan has a 20%+ market share of 2m electric car market (and hence the Macron government’s lead on this); and the UK claims to be the largest market for electric vehicles in the EU (though the Netherlands looks larger), while one in five electric cars sold in the EU in 2016 were made in the UK. Nissan does, of course, have a plant in Sunderland – our new Leaf was made there, and on the basis of an internal competition within Nissan to be a site featuring production lines for the higher-output models. The leading role of Nissan-Renault in the global electric car market – on the back of the EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement announced this week – will clearly be a major feature in the Brexit negotiations. Precisely what Carlos Ghosn (who has now moved on from Nissan) got out of Theresa May when they met last October – a discussion that we know encompassed electric cars (Q112-Q115) – continues to be a highly-relevant point for discussion. It is to be hoped that the new Chair of the Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, when elected this coming week, will see it as a priority not only to pick up the threads of its inquiry into the electric car market but also to recall its earlier desire to get to the bottom of that infamous letter.

[18 July edit: a letter has also been sent in highly similar circumstances to Toyota. The Committee – with Labour MP Rachel Reeves in the chair – has an urgent task in keeping the activities of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy under review as Brexit talks get underway.]

[18 July update 2: it’s actually the Treasury Committee which is taking charge here and, by the look of it, it is on the case.]

Brexit and EU citizens: A practical note

The UK government’s announcement yesterday of its plans for EU citizens in the UK post-Brexit contained one or two nasty surprises, not least among them that EU citizens will be forced to hold some sort of documentation proving the right to stay and work in the UK after 2018 – a prima facie case of discrimination vis-a-vis UK citizens who do not – and should not – have to carry any such documentation.

Aside of the understandable outrage here, and here, that May should consider such discrimination to be ‘fair’, and that many EU citizens have already gone through a lengthy process of securing permanent residence documents only for these now to be useless, as well as that this is not a situation of fact, simply an opening ‘offer’ in the Article 50 negotiations process, one of the interesting issues around this reference is the practical logistics around documenting 3m people in the time available. Those who have gone to the trouble of securing permanent residence rights, via the infamous 85-page form, are promised a ‘streamlined’ and ‘user-friendly’ application process but there are clearly doubts about the ability of the appropriate government departments to be able to deliver on that, not least stemming from the bureaucratic delays that as few as 150,000 people experienced in applying for PR to government departments that were simply overwhelmed. Let alone 3m (+).

There is little detail on the document as to what the government means by ‘streamlined’, although there are vague (and inevitable) references to it being ‘digital’ and the days of the 85-page form seem to be numbered.

However, there are doubts about the ability of the UK to deliver on this score, too. Eurostat, the EU’s statistical office, publishes a continually-updated scorecard on the digital single market – which, of course, we are leaving – called the ‘DESI composite‘ (this is the Digital Economy and Society Index, not this one). Overall, across the five components of the index, the UK is above average – it’s actually in seventh place among the EU-28. However, one of the constituent components is ‘digital public services’, which measures a country’s ability to deliver e-Government services, including the provision of pre-filled forms and online service completion. Here, it might not be a surprise to learn, the UK is doing rather less well – not only is it below the average for the EU-28, it’s actually fallen as far as 18th place.

(As an aside, I can recall a previous government vowing that the UK would have the best superfast broadband in the EU by 2015: we don’t – on the DESI composite’s ‘Connectivity’ sub-index, we are sixth, rising above only Finland among the other nations above us on the overall list – which are Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, Denmark and Sweden. We were sixth in 2015, too.)

So, there are some quite deep-rooted capacity issues which need to be resolved. We can well imagine that these ought to have been resolved before the UK government could even make such an offer – since it is not doing so from a position of strength – and certainly by the time any agreement may be implemented. Perhaps the UK government might look to other EU governments for advice on how to deliver the sort of ‘streamlined’ digital public service that would be required to document 3m EU nationals in the way this proposal envisages – perhaps from other countries which are higher up the DESI list than the UK. Perhaps we might ask Poland, for example.

Brexit faultlines still apparent in UK politics

Like many others, I pulled an all-nighter on Friday morning to watch the election results come in – the first I’ve done for a while, the most recent plebiscites having left me running screaming from the living room well before 1am. The exit poll was, this time, remarkably accurate – and there were a number of positives to take from the election itself, including a well-run, positive Labour campaign on the back of a good manifesto that didn’t quite get the result it deserved; as well as the fruits of a successful registration/get the vote out drive among young people that has, at least anecdotally, brought up the electoral participation of the young to the point where it was actually above the average. Long may that contine (and, indeed, be extended).

And, of course, the loss of a Conservative majority in the Commons is a bonus. Firstly, the Tories really ought to have remembered the old adage that the great British public tend not to like exercise of any type, including of their franchise, and that they therefore tend to punish the parties who do make them turn out; and secondly we should note that a minority government may well lose the benefits of the Salisbury Convention, under which the Lords is duty bound not to over-rule the manifesto commitment of a successful party.

The departure of Theresa May’s two senior advisers today, two bauernopfer [Edit: now on p. 4 of the link @ 14:28) taking the rap for their boss’s disastrous personal and campaigning style, simply papers over the cracks in what is clearly a lame duck government – and may also hasten the timing of May’s own, inevitable, departure. One can only hope, though she who we may well dub ‘Teflon Theresa’, with the arrogance to deliver the same speech yesterday from Downing Street as if she had not lost – in her own terms – the election that she surely intended to deliver had she won it, may well yet turn out to be a survivor.

Meanwhile, the joining of the DUP’s ten, er, ‘socially conservative’ MPs in the business of government has, rightfully, raised plenty of comment, not least in the context of the contribution of Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, to the number of MPs the Tories did win. Scotland now has 13 Tory MPs – something of a modern record, leaving the Tories up here as no longer the stuff of legend.

What the comment has missed so far – unless someone can point me differently* – is that the DUP is also famous for a bit more than just its hateful stance on gay rights (or its misconceived renewable heating incentive, its intransigence over which brought down Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive earlier this year). Not only does it have a strong stance in favour of Brexit, but that it allowed itself to be used – I’m paraphasing somewhat – to channel more money into the pro-Brexit campaign last year. The source of the DUP’s funding on this was eventually, through solid journalistic endeavour, revealed as the Constitutional Research Council, an organisation that is so secretive about its research that it has – still, as at today’s date – no website on which to publish the results of the research it supports.

Any agreement between the Tories and the DUP clearly needs, as a minimum, to be publicly available, and in full, in terms of exactly what the DUP will do – and for what – as a price for keeping the Tories in power, especially if Davidson is correct in her view that there is no suggestion ‘the Conservative government would be dependent on the support of the DUP‘, whatever the nature of the ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement which underpins and rationalises the deal.

In the meantime, however, we can no longer wonder whether the results of the election imply a softer approach to Brexit, or any voluntary granting of civil rights to EU citizens in UK limbo, or even a second referendum. There is no doubt that Brexit is not under any theat: Theresa May and her new-found BFFs in the DUP will go ahead with just as hard a Brexit as if the election had not happened. There will be no softening of approach not only from the perspective of negotiating stance but because those driving the government firmly believe in the rightness of what they are doing.

We can usually point to several instances in public life that, had x not happened, y would be impossible. But it is clearly true that, had the Scottish Tories not won these 13 seats, the DUP’s ten MPs would make little difference to the Tories’ parliamentary maths. I’m not a nationalist voter, for reasons not least that the SNP in practice is not as progressive as it makes out in its literature, but it does strike (even) me that the loss of 13 SNP MPs to the Tories is a retrograde step, not a positive one. And I’m not just referring to the loss of good parliamentarians like Angus Robertson and, indeed, Alex Salmond. We will need to wait for psephologists and researchers of other types to tell us how quite so many people who voted SNP just two years ago are now prepared to vote Tory – aside of cheap ‘Tartan Tory’-type comments. It’s likely that quite a few will be independence supporters who also want to be out of the EU and who now see support for the Tories as the more worthwhile means of ensuring Brexit in the current context. Clearly, the sorts of people who swallowed Theresa May’s line about the need to strengthen her hand in the negotiations. I don’t necessarily agree that the election has killed indyref2 – but we might, however, legitimately wonder about the type of independent Scotland such voters would want to see delivered in an iScotland.

The 2017 election will no doubt turn out to have more twists before its history can be written – but the faultlines in our domestic politics that Brexit has written continue to have deep resonances. And, by the way, it’s well worth keeping in mind here that the chair of the Constitutional Research Council is a former vice-chair of the Scottish Conservative Party. I wonder if we’ll ever find out if the CRC commissioned any research prior to this election into the electoral success of the Tories in Scotland, and the DUP in Northern Ireland…

* A kind reader points out that a journalist in the Indy, and others, are researching the issue, post-election. There’s not a lot new in the report in the Indy – and I’m guessing that the Saudi trail is a red herring – but I’m glad to note that someone is on the case.

Starmer on Brexit

Interested to hear Sir Keir Starmer, Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary, on this morning’s Today programme on R4 (@2:12) and, later in the day, setting out Labour’s policy on Brexit in a speech at the Institute of Civil Engineers (no direct link currently available: but Julia Rampen’s report in the New Statesman is about as good a source as any to start with). This has, by the way, been an impressively bright, confident start to this pre-election pre-campaign by Labour in a number of different policy arenas, not just on Brexit, which will pay off in terms of the (eventual) vote.

In addition to Sir Keir’s four benefits of a positive relationship with the EU outside of membership – no tariffs; no new customs burdens; regulations presenting no difficulties; and having a common platform for workplace rights so one country cannot undercut another in a race to the bottom – he made essentially two points of substance: Labour would unilaterally guarantee the right of EU citizens in the UK to remain; and that the UK Parliament would be able to reject the deal in a vote once negotiations had been concluded. In the process, as he made clear in the ICE speech, Theresa’s May’s Great Repeal Bill would be scrapped and a replacement White Paper issued (which doesn’t give the ‘Henry VIII‘ powers to legislate by proclamation that May is seeking and which really ought to be confined to the dustbin of history).

On the first, this is absolutely the right thing to do – in simple human terms, it resolves some of the anxiousness, as set out by the the3million.org on their website and FB page, felt by EU citizens who have made their lives in the UK without needing to take out UK citizenship (but who were denied a vote in the referendum). Sir Keir has said similar previously. In getting the tone and the approach right as negotiations kick-off, he is absolutely correct. People are not bargaining chips. And, in providing an appropriate and precise degree of differentiation, to coin a topical phrase, from the starting point of the Tories, it’s a very welcome position to take.

On the second, it is absolutely right that parliament has not only a meaningful say over the outcome of the negotiations but gains the ability to reject it and ask the negotiators to improve on it. Within a parliamentary democracy, it is impossible to deny parliament such a role – though of course many seek to do so (including the Tories – and here comes that ‘d’ word again). I understand the arguments around negotiating strategy, but this is a position faced by many democratically accountable organisations – trade unions, for example, in negotiating pay deals – and it hardly presents a unique set of problems. (In essence, no responsible negotiator who is to be held democratically accountable will conclude a deal that he or she thinks their constituency might not later uphold and will take regular private soundings as negotiations progress.). Not one that is sufficient to withhold from parliament its primary role, anyway, or which support Theresa May’s rigid, take-it-or-leave it autocratic approach. (I’m tempted to argue here that a parliament – or indeed a Labour Party – which was composed more of trade unionists would understand that instinctively.)

Labour is caught here in a maelstrom in which coherent policy becomes hard to define. The UKIP vote is collapsing and, if polls are to be believed (and there evidently are a few reasons why – outside the French elections – recent opinion polling is not to be believed), seems to be heading to the Tories; while there is the reality that large parts of the core Labour vote outside London lives in areas that voted more strongly for Brexit. At the same time, the Party is caught by the failure – of course not unique to Labour – to develop a more positive narrative about the achievements of the EU which, in contrast to the easy headlines (the EU can be its own worst enemy sometimes), would have encouraged a more open, evidence-based debate about the EU and the UK’s international role in the run up to the referendum. There are strong analogies with the first Scottish independence referendum here, too – a failure to develop a positive, convincing narrative about the benefits of pooled resources within the context of the UK, and what needs to be done to improve the distribution, has left Labour and the Labour voice squeezed between the independence and the unionist votes: a polarised debate which leaves little room in the centre.

So Sir Keir – and the rest of Labour – is facing an uphill task in seeking to protect the Party’s position by not alienating core voters while developing a coherent response to the impractical realities of the policy issues, including on immigration and free movement, raised by Brexit (and which, by themselves, raise major issues of threat to the working class in terms of health, social security and employment). On freedom of movement, I would rather have seen a policy position developed out of the genuine concerns over investment and skills, the impact of neoliberalism and free market economics on people’s jobs and livelihoods, and on poverty and inequality, and the impact of robotics – the sort of issues confronting European capitalism that we hold in common with our EU neighbours and with whom we might have been able to work out a common position were it not for the ludicrous situation in which we find ourselves as a result of this ridiculous referendum. But that’s of course not where we are.

In that context, it is instead about reaching for the principles and values that will help us define a new future for our ourselves. Humanity, dignity, openness and co-operation and collaboration with others, as set out by Sir Keir today, look a good start to me. Ones to vote for, in fact.

IndyRef 2 becomes a reality

Nicola Sturgeon made the call this morning for a decision at the Scottish Parliament ‘next week’ to open discussions with the UK government on a new referendum on independence for Scotland.

Following the recent Ipsos MORI opinion poll putting support for (and against) independence at 50:50, such a move was likely on the basis that the largest party in the Scottish Parliament believes in independence and whose Green partners believe likewise. The SNP does not have a majority of the 129 Scottish MSPs but, with the support of the Greens, Parliament will approve the motion seeking such authority when put to it next week.

I’ve stated before – and this blog’s comments on Brexit highlight passim – that I’m not instinctively in favour of any approach to a country’s affairs rooted in the national as opposed to the international. I can’t see myself voting next time in any referendum any differently to the last one – although it does depend significantly on the question that is put to me in the voting booth. The difference this time around is the context of Brexit which is leading – apparently inexorably – to the break-up of the UK, as Ian Dunt successfully argues. He’s not right in everything (I am a Yugo-nostalgist, but it can’t be only me to notice that this is clearly not the first ‘active dismemberment of a country against itself’). More particularly, I don’t blame those voting ‘Leave’ last June for the break-up of the UK – this is, as Dunt also points out, quite clearly the fault of Theresa May and those others backing a hard Brexit. Arrogance, an anti-consultative tendency and a totally un-nuanced approach to the questions posed by the referendum – even to the point of government ministers claiming that parliament should reject the opportunity re-given it by the Lords to maximise its role in the process (EDIT: as indeed, and shamefully, happened tonight) – were always likely (and with evident justification) to see a Scottish government feeling its active marginalisation to kick back. You would expect that of any government in an active, engaged democracy and the Scottish Government is right to raise the question as it has done. The vote to leave the EU changes everything.

Consequently, I won’t – yet – be joining any ‘Together Stronger’ campaign. Indeed, one may not be necessary should Theresa May take this signal from Nicola Sturgeon for the final warning that it is, and change tack on the hard Brexit that she is relentlessly pursuing. David Allan Green in the FT notes the constitutional connections between Brexit and future of the UK; while it appears clear that the UK government has yet to learn the importance of listening to the priorities of the Scottish Government, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Welsh Government, as Stephen Tierney also argues. I’m not holding out any hopes of that, however: and, indeed, the early signs are not good with May having already criticised the move as ‘deeply regrettable’: a sign that she has surely missed, or otherwise ignored, the signal entirely.

Meanwhile, the dark days for those who believe in a UK where resources are pooled and shared for the greater good of all – as much as for those who believe similarly on a pan-European scale – just got that little bit darker.

“I’m sorry Bill; I’m afraid we can’t do that”*

Crossing my Twitter feed quite a lot in the last few days has been snippets of information contemplating the future of work in the context of the growth of applications of artificial intelligence. Frequently, the recent debate uses the somewhat ancient terminology of robots, but the focus of the analysis is mostly the same: robots have already stolen the futures of much of the now left-behind working class; and are now coming again to steal the futures of much of the middle class, leaving behind in employment only artists, carers and supervisors. (And, probably, (Polish) plumbers.) The result of that is, of course, sheer panic among the chattering classes much of whom were either fairly silent first time round or otherwise insistent that people had simply to adapt to market forces and get on with it.

The spark for these thoughts here in this post was firstly a brief report of UNI Global Union’s contribution to the Trade Union Advisory Committee of the OECD (hat-tip: Denise McGuire), which was recently considering the issue under the somewhat more sophisticated title of ‘digitalisation and the future of work’; together with a thoughtful post on ToUChstone from the TUC’s own Tim Page (hat-tip: Sue Ferns) (and building on top of Helen Nadin’s earlier series of posts).

The threat posed to employment by new technology is of course a very real one – even if it is not one that is particularly new. Trade unions have been grappling with issues of applications in the workplace of new, computer-aided technology, initially in manufacturing industry, since at least the 1960s. The issue of ensuring how a just transition can take place is not only a reasonable, entirely rational call, as Page argues, but is also likely to continue to dominate the approach typically adopted by trade union negotiators faced with local arguments for change.

Whether the threats now being posed by AI do represent a quantitatively-different series of scythes through our employment base and structure than what we have seen before of course remains to be seen. I’m a little sceptical: capitalism is, by force of necessity, endlessly creative at establishing new forms of work (and, indeed, so are workers) and has been since the days of the Luddites and Captain Swing; the list of jobs unheard of ten years ago is fairly legendary (in the World Economic Forum’s list or that of many others) and, of course, all these robots will need servicing and maintaining not least to prevent them from going wrong. And software can, as we all know, be notoriously buggy. Some future jobs will be very well-paid, others less so – pretty much as now – but I tend to share less the fairly apocalyptic vision that this level of disruption will lead to mass unemployment and bankrupt states.

Enter Bill Gates, with his ‘robot tax’. To be fair, though, it’s not just Bill, as Market Watch‘s excoriating and mostly on-the-button review illustrates. Gates’s concern is really two-fold: to slow down the process of automation; and to prevent the process of automation becoming discredited. The obvious news on the first is that ‘well, you can’t’, although I am with him a bit more on the second. But a robot tax is not the right solution. That it’s so against the zeitgeist in the UK and in the US, among others, is neither here nor there in terms of its value as a policy prescription, although this does reduce its likely potential for adoption; the key here is actually in persuading the likes of Google and Amazon to pay their fair share of the current tax take rather than be endlessly creative around the tax laws, as well as in persuading right-wing governments not to engage in tax competition policies. (If only there was an international bloc to which we could belong that made tackling both of these a little easier: you know, like a Union of Europe, or something.) Secondly, automation should lead to improved productivity, and the UK needs a lot more of that, so anything that has the potential to inhibit investment has to be rejected; here, the major policy issue lies in narrowing the growing gap between wages and productivity and in addressing the share of national income taken by wages. In short, ending inequality. And thirdly, taxing a robot for taking someone’s job – and precisely how difficult would that be in the detail? – tends to lead to workers affected allocating the blame for that job loss on the robot rather than on the manager who has actually taken the decision to automate it.

Applications of new technology in the UK have, as they were supposed to, led to a continuing reduction in working time – at least, at the average level. What has happened is that this reduction has led to increasingly precarious forms of work being introduced for some workers (involuntary part-time working; bogus ‘freelance’ employment or self-employment); while others, in the ‘core’, tend to be working even harder, and longer. The rewards of lower working time have not only been unfairly distributed; but management has found a way to make that reduction actually seem like a penalty; and on both those who have too little work as well as on those who have enough of it. There is a debate to be had on the introduction of a basic income such that the rewards that automation has brought are better distributed (and, indeed, valued). And, of course, workers in precarious forms of employment need to be better protected – which includes treating those who are clearly workers as such.

The question nevertheless remains of how to ensure a just transition.

Firstly, and remembering that people in cities in northern England feel that they have been ‘left behind’ substantially because there was no serious, concerted attempt to deal with the impact of manufacturing job loss in the 1980s, we need to have a proper national industrial strategy which approaches digitalisation recognising the benefits of automatisation but which also systematically attempts to deal with the impact. The lesson we should be learning about areas like Stoke and Copeland is that it is the market solutions that we tried in the 1980s and 1990s that do not work. It is precisely the market, not politicians, that has left people behind (and if people need any arguments about the disconnect between people and the policy process, just look at the turnout in Stoke – just 36.7%). Reinvesting in areas of decline will take money, and substantial amounts of it – of course, one of the arguments behind the uses to which a ‘robot tax’ could be dedicated although the drawbacks sketched above still lead me away from it.

Secondly, the collective, societal issues sparked by automatisation require collective solutions. Individual responses often lead to the expressions of political frustration that we are seeing because individual voices appear incoherent. Consequently, we need to find ways of re-collectivising our society around establishing a meaningful and coherent social dialogue around the variety of issues raised by digitalisation. At company level, this means a re-focus on establishing proper collective bargaining in the interests of a fairer workplace; and it probably means worker directors, and in the form perfectly encapsulated in the fifth paragraph of Janet Williamson’s piece for ToUChstone (and nothing other than this). At national level, establishing collective social dialogue in the interests of a fairer society means changing the language around trade unions, such that effective industrial action is not immediately demonised by the government either in parliament or in terms of reaching for the statute book; and it means inviting trade union leaders into specific dialogue, and with a view not just to listening but to reaching agreement. Brexit, and the plethora of issues that will be raised once the process of withdrawal has been triggered, represents an important test of the realism of the government’s intentions n this respect.

Giving effective voice to people demands that we listen, however uncomfortable that might be and however inconvenienced we might be by it. The alternative – around automatisation as well as any other aspect of the national dialogue that we might consider – is that we create (or that we entrench) pathways for nationalism and for extremism.

 

* Of course, an adapted quote from HAL9000, the computer whose sentience continues to influence our thoughts and fears about the dangers of AI.

Workers’ rights under the Tories: the slow reveal

This week has seen the publication of the Brexit White Paper, one day after the vote in the Commons on the Second Reading of the EU withdrawal Bill. As is clear from these pages, I’m resolutely opposed to withdrawal from the EU, but – in this immediate context – I do worry about the ability of the Commons to stand up for itself to the vocal, and evidently in charge, little Englanders when it allows itself to be abused in this way.

Anyway, my more immediate concern here is the issue of workers’ rights, which the government has trumpeted in its 12-point plan. I blogged about the dangers in reference to May’s Lancaster House speech just below, but I’m returning quickly to the issue here because – as we all suspected – things are turning out to be not quite as they seem.

I’m not referring here to the infamous (and now corrected) chart 7.1 which, originally, suffered from an incorrect labelling of the axes and which, as a (surely coincidental) result, made the position look much better than it actually is. Nor am I referring to the contents of workers’ rights themselves – though I do note, firstly, that holiday entitlement, paid maternity leave and parental leave, as the major issues being featured in the White Paper, have come in under recent Labour governments (annual leave, in 1998; extension of paid maternity maternity leave to 39 weeks in 2007; and parental leave (i.e. the extension of the right to fathers) in 2003); and, secondly, that Tory governments, where they have focused on workers’ rights at all, have usually had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the well (and, largely, as a result of developments in the EU) on the grounds that such rights were a ‘burden on business’.

Now, I’m firmly of the view that leopards are not capable of changing their spots. To illustrate what I mean, the relevant section of May’s Lancaster House speech is worth quoting in full:

‘And a fairer Britain is a country that protects and enhances the rights people have at work.That is why, as we translate the body of European law into our domestic regulations, we will ensure that workers rights are fully protected and maintained.

Indeed, under my leadership, not only will the government protect the rights of workers set out in European legislation, we will build on them. Because under this government, we will make sure legal protection for workers keeps pace with the changing labour market – and that the voices of workers are heard by the boards of publicly-listed companies for the first time.’

We would be making a bad mistake were we to see the White Paper as the Lancaster House speech writ large. In the interim weeks, this commitment has been – already – watered down to the point that the White Paper, away from the headlines and in the detail of section 7.3, now commits itself to strengthening rights only ‘when it is the right choice for UK workers’.

This watering down has been pointed out elsewhere – for example by Professor Steve Peers in a particularly good analysis (in spite of the picture credit!) – although he generously attributes this observation to unnamed ‘others’. But it is worthwhile emphasising. A government under intense economic and political pressure, and desperate for a trade deal with a Trump-led US, is, on top of Liam Fox’s deregulatory-inspired views on the issue of workers’ rights (as Peers points out), unlikely to see this as a particularly propitious time in which to be strengthening workers’ rights. I wonder also as regards the precise source of this watering down – i.e. the identity of the minister (Fox, as Business Secretary? or was it May herself?) who was responsible. Most importantly, however, it has given itself a clear reason not to abide by the commitments it appears, on the surface, to be espousing. Weasel words for a weasel government.

Much will depend on how far the withdrawal Bill is amended next week in Committee. It is to be hoped that the Bill will reflect as much of the concerns over workers’ rights of UK trade unions – in my view quite evidently the best judge of what is the right choice for UK workers – as possible. Some sign that the government will actively and meaningfully liaise (and not just consult) with the TUC on this as this ridiculous, undesirable process moves forward would indeed be a good test of the seriousness of its intentions in this regard. But I’m not exactly going to be holding my breath.

Workers’ rights after Brexit

Following Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech to ambassadors earlier today, the text of the speech has been released (official gov.uk version; alternatively from EurActive.com, including some commentary and reaction).

Part of the text included a section on workers’ rights – indeed, the protection of workers’ rights is principle no. 7 of the government’s 12-point plan in defining the ‘global’ role of a post-Brexit UK; one of the issues which will define the ‘new, positive and constructive partnership between Britain and the European Union’ which our negotiators are tasked with delivering. (Whether, of course, that sort of partnership can be had by making very specific threats about the tax position of what will happen if we don’t get what we define as a good deal is an open question.)

On the face of it, a commitment to protecting workers’ rights is very welcome, and no doubt former colleagues in the trade union movement in the UK will have taken careful note of the text as a means by which to hold Theresa May to account in the future. Here, I have noted the hostage to fortune of the commitment not just to the ‘full protection’ of those rights but also to their maintenance. Whether such a commitment is actually delivered in practice – in addition to the legal aspects of workers being cut-off from the judgments of the European Court of Justice – is a different point and, I suspect, none of us are likely to be taken in by it for very long. Certainly, the STUC has been sceptical; as indeed has the TUC. It is, at least, a desire to keep workers on board with this process as it gets underway; whether it amounts to any more than that is another thing entirely.

Firstly, whatever the esoterics of belonging, or not belonging, to the Single Market; or being a member, or not being a member, of a customs union – any situation in which the terms of trade for goods and services can be accessed more easily or more quickly from other suppliers elsewhere (and that is the point of the Single Market) is likely to lead to workers paying the price in terms of jobs. That may be transitional, or it may be long-term; but the real price being paid by men and women in the UK is likely to be severe. And any loss of jobs is likely to have knock-on effects on others as that spending is removed from the economy. Make no mistake, there will be a cost to GDP of our exit from these things.

Secondly, a rejection of free movement represents a backwards step for the personal and professional development of people everywhere across Europe; as well as a rejection of the economic benefits which freedom of movement has brought to this country (remembering not least that our labour market has managed to absorb the impact of free movement quite easily). There is, perhaps, a debate to be had around the extent to which the UK is a low-wage, low-productivity country because of migration – that creating low skill jobs is an easy way to absorb labour when inwards migration is high – but that (a) represents a number of ‘fallacies’ which I won’t go into here; and (b) free movement and the absorption of refugees doesn’t seem to have affected Germany’s position as a high-wage, high-productivity country.

Thirdly, people with memories of the 80s and 90s will remember that advances in social rights under Conservative governments came only as a result of the EU being willing to stretch its own rules. Such memories die hard, and this is the primary reason for casting doubt on May’s (perhaps sincere) words today. Tory governments which were, in many respects, less hard-right than this one rejected workers’ rights during those periods and, looking at the records of this lot (here, in terms of workers’ rights; here in terms of the NHS), you wouldn’t trust them with the keys to the chicken coop, let alone with workers’ rights. And remember that the promise to have workers on the board, which May featured in campaign interviews, has now been dropped in favour of a right for workers to be heard by the board. Codetermination for workers it ain’t.

Some might argue that the global institutions are waking up to the need for workers to have a pay rise, for example, and that workers’ rights might thus be on a more solid footing than under Conservative Government hitherto; I’ll believe that when I see it and, as long as I see Conservative politicians attacking trade unions – the organisations fighting for a better deal for working people – I don’t see that.

Fourthly, and slightly in extension of my third point, I’m amazed at the tortous process that May must have gone through in order to be able to argue that the defence of workers’ rights should be one of the defining principles in establishing that new partnership with the EU. Protecting workers’ rights can be done really rather easily by staying in the EU – for all the reasons expressed above – but also because social democracy and social consensus lays very much behind the ethos of (other*) European states. The language of workers’ rights comes much more easily to continental Europeans, even to centre-right parties, than it does to a party rooted in adversarialism and zero sum philosophies. You might recall that Cameron took his MEPs away from the centre-right European People’s Party in 2009 (‘happy neighbours’ – hmm: how did that go again?). If we wanted to protect workers’ rights, we have no need to leave the EU and its inclusion in May’s speech today, when workers’ rights are jeopardised by the simple fact of seeking to withdraw from the EU, thus sits very, very oddly.

Fifthly, I was against withdrawal from the EU from the perspective of workers’ rights for pretty much the same reasons that I am against Scottish independence – I’m yet to be convinced that a retreat into isolationism caused by nations defining themselves more narrowly makes any sense in a globalising world when it is nations coming together that will provide the tools to tackle the multi-nationals. A ‘global Britain’ is a ridculous notion should its desire to isolate from its neighbours allows it to be picked off easily either because it is desperate for trade, or investment or because multinationals choose to play nations off against each other. That’s as true now of dealing with the tax affairs of Amazon, Apple and Google (for example), and other increasingly large ‘platforms’ of ‘self-employed’ workers in the gig economy as it ever was in more simpler times: all of whom must be rubbing their hands with glee at the threats that May has made today.

Tackling those problems is key to workers’ rights in the next decade. Not only do we not achieve that that by a desire to ‘go it alone’, but our unwillingness to recognise the implications for workers’ rights of our threats if we don’t get what we want is symptomatic that workers’ rights were actually, and despite today’s profession of them, never particularly important to May’s strategy in the first place.

* Fog in the Channel, Continent isolated (again)

The EU referendum: what precisely did it seek to settle?

The EU referendum. So 2016, I know.

But crossing my Twitter timeline several times late yesterday evening were references to this post, from a blog also hosted on WordPress, by Dominic Cummings, whose most immediate former guise was the Campaign Director for Vote Leave. (Just for posterity, here is his car-crash appearance before the Treasury Committee back in April, being comprehensively ‘kebabed’, to use a word from a former political generation, by the Chair, Andrew Tyrie, not least on the words written in his campaign’s leaflets as well as on that bloody bus.) My post here is not intended to be a response to Cummings – I haven’t read the post, only glanced through it – and no doubt he highlights some important lessons which political campaigners will be taking into account in future campaigns.

I’m not a particular fan of 20,000-word blog posts, for a number of reasons, especially when they seek to dress up barely-disguised revisionism with the use of cod-history. However, Cummings’s latest effort is noteworthy for a couple of reasons and I did want to contribute a few thoughts about the important issues he raises.

Firstly, he spends a lot of time distancing himself from the events of the summer. Apart from the thoughts of writing about the referendum making him ‘feel sick’ (though he seems to have overcome that now: a catharsis, of a type), Cummings confesses to having kept no diary and to having a ‘lousy memory’ – both of which make him something of an unreliable witness, even at this short distance (as indeed does his desire to put the knife into others at frequent intervals). Most importantly, we should not lose sight of Cummings being politically closely associated with Michael Gove, and that his work (not least here) is informed fundamentally by that relationship. Cummings also comments that ‘by far the best’ book on the referendum thus far otherwise encourages people ‘to exaggerate greatly my importance’. For the person who was the Campaign Director on the winning side of the referendum, this is quite an astonishing admission. It doesn’t seem to stem from false modesty, and neither is it in any way an apology for it (at least, not yet). But if Cummings is indeed attempting now to minimise his role in the campaign, or distance himself from it, why on earth would he do that?

Secondly, this led me to wonder about Cummings’s own motivations to get involved at such a senior, strategic level with such a potentially-disastrous campaign (as he himself initially sets out): what burning views did he himself have as to why the UK should leave the EU? There is, buried among the ramblings and the political knifings, a brief section on ‘why’ about three-quarters of the way through, containing four views of his own. Cummings’s view seems to be that we should indeed leave the EU, but his reasons for doing so, as set out here, are, quite frankly, half-formed, incoherent and contradictory. I don’t actually want to repeat or respond to them here (although responding would be very easy). Unsurprisingly, perhaps, giving the money that we spend on the EU to the NHS doesn’t feature among these reasons (although Cummings does report elsewhere in the piece that spending some of it in this way was his own view about what should happen).

But my point here is that this, by itself, is also quite astonishing. Cummings is a professional campaigner and a political activist: acting by a set of principles and values, and believing in the things that you espouse when you campaign for things, probably comes more easily in one of these roles than the other; and professional campaigners, like lawyers, have little reason to inspect too closely the morals of those for whom they work. But for a Campaign Director of one of the two designated EU referendum campaigns not to have a clear, coherent and robust view on the major political issue of the day, which will shape this country’s future over the next century, is notable.

For me, Cummings’s post simply re-emphasises and reinforces the existing view that the referendum was about the divisions within the Tory Party and not about the EU and, in Cummings’s case, designed to elevate the political ambitions of Gove in particular. We all knew or at least suspected that so, in this respect, he has done us all a bit of a favour. Having – and importantly – secured the official ‘anti’ campaign designation from the UKIP-dominated Leave.EU, Vote Leave never expected to win the campaign, or to have actually to deal with the aftermath of a referendum which emerged with the result it espoused; it thought this was its best chance to do serious damage (in internal party political terms, and acknowledging that not all in Vote Leave were Tories) to Cameron. Hence the sclerosis in government now on the issue (and, indeed, in Labour: compare this, today, with this at the time of the development of the – actually, very good – Conference policy): the government is scrambling around to address a policy outcome that was actually a side-issue to the main reasons why the campaign was run and which few of the individuals now in government actually wanted. No wonder Brexit seems to mean no more than Brexit. Or a red, white and blue Brexit. Or a hard Brexit that is, honestly, not really a hard Brexit. Clarity is, indeed, not only long overdue but really, one would think, quite important. (And that, by the way, is one of the reasons why parliament – not government – must instigate this process.)

Using the EU to further Conservative Party politics, and juggling so lightly with this country’s economic, political and social future in consequence: no wonder the thought of his role in retrospect, given subsequent events, makes Cummings ‘feel sick’.