Many commentators agree that, among the myriad causes of Brexit, one of the most important factors is a deep-rooted sense of economic anxiety for many traditionally working-class people. Matthew Goodwin and Rob Ford coined the term “The Left Behind” to describe this group of voters. But this term is not quite as self-explanatory as it seems. Why are more working people feeling left behind?

Part of the picture, certainly, is that despite high employment figures, wages in the UK remain worryingly stagnant. After the worst decade for real wage growth in 200 years, average earners today still make around £20 a week less in real terms than before the financial crisis. It is therefore no surprise that we have seen a simultaneous growth in in-work poverty. But the sense of economic malaise in the UK goes deeper than this.

The fact is that UK workers risk feeling left-behind because the entire UK economy risks being left-behind. A range of new technologies from AI and robotics to cloud computing and blockchain, collectively dubbed the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ are starting to upend entire industries. Many traditional low and medium skilled jobs are disappearing; before long driverless cars will threaten the one million hauliers, bus, taxi and delivery drivers in the UK. To be sure, new jobs will be created to fill the gaps, but the sense of dislocation and anxiety is only going to get worse unless workers are properly supported to retrain and transition between professions.

The effects of technology also bleed through into changing forms of workplace organisation. Full time, permanent jobs are declining; in their place are rising levels of part-time, temporary employment and self-employment, as well as the growing gig economy. Those on the left are right to be concerned by some of these trends which leave workers shouldering more of the risks of work with fewer of the benefits. This growth of atypical working also makes it much harder for trade unions to organise, further eroding employee voice and bargaining power.

But tempting as it may appear, there is no magic bullet such as banning zero hours contracts or the entire platform economy outright that will solve these problems. The underlying causes are global and technological, beyond the control of any individual country. What those on the hard-left and the Brexiteer-right both get wrong is that they think they can turn the clock back, returning the UK to the post-war world with large numbers of heavy industry jobs and workers all having full-time, on-site jobs for life. But this is a fantasy.

Instead a forward thinking and progressive industrial strategy needs to consider how to make the most of the trends shaping the world of work, while mitigating their excesses and steering them in a more positive direction. Digital platforms, for example, can be used not only by companies such as Uber but also could be used for labour organising – new versions of trade unions for the digital age. In the US, for example, Starbucks workers used the Shyft app to wrest more control over their work schedules from their employers.

As for the threat of automation, governments can no more fight against this than hold back the tide. However, what they can and must do is take steps to prepare the workforce for the disruption ahead. Reskilling and adult education must become national priorities. Children today may be expected to change careers eight or more times during their lifetimes – gone are the days when we can simply teach people skills up to the age of 18 or 21 and trust they will serve them well for the rest of their lives.

We also need a strong focus on local communities and regional investment. It is no use having new tech jobs being created in London if the old jobs being destroyed by technology are in small towns in Wales and the North of England. Yet this is exactly what is most likely to happen. The towns most at risk from the fourth industrial revolution are the same places that were most hit by the deindustrialisation of the 1980s.

Finally there is a major threat to progressive politics from the inequality that new technology and globalisation are enabling. The labour share of income is declining across the globe as more wealth flows to the owners of capital. Increasingly we see the growth of winner-takes-all markets that fuel the growth of new global monopolies – corporations such as Facebook, Google and Amazon that risk becoming more powerful than national governments. Regulating and properly taxing these giants will require more, not less, cooperation between countries.

Throughout the 20th Century, workers had to fight hard to secure employment rights and a fair share of the economic pie, yet never doubted that they had an essential role to play in the economy, or that they were valued by society. Indeed it was precisely the indispensable value of human workers to the capitalist system that gave workers the tools with which to fight – when they withdrew their labour in strike actions it had a real impact. Today, in contrast, the future seems increasingly in the hands of algorithms, AI, blockchain and other concepts that sound alien to most ordinary workers. The legitimate fear of many working people is that the future has no place for them. As acclaimed historian Yuval Noah Harari has argued, the greatest threat to workers in the 21st Century might not be economic exploitation, but economic irrelevance. Addressing this alienation and ensuring that workers still feel valued and listened to in the future world of work is perhaps the most important and most difficult challenge of all.


A longer version of this article first appeared in Progress Magazine March 2019


Patrick Briône is Head of Policy & Research at the IPA

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