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Vision, not nostalgia, about work

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This speech was delivered at Progressive Britain conference in May 2022.

It’s fabulous to be here at Progressive Britain conference. We are here, and under Keir Starmer’s leadership we are going to move the country forward – so thank you. Thank you for your belief in what, at times, felt impossible.

I fully endorse what Andrew said, it should be obvious to us as members of the Labour party that trade unions and union activism are crucial today, and really proving their worth.

Today, I want to make an argument about the underlying principles of how we should think about modern work, mention two policy cul-de-sacs that we should avoid, and outline our best hope for changing the world of work.

As I said, this is Progressive Britain conference, I consider myself to be a progressive politician and so I want to make a progressive argument.

Therefore, the first point I want to make to you, is that nostalgia about work is bad – not good.

We hear a lot of nostalgia about the world of work in Britain – this is very tempting because the situation that British people are in today is abysmal and we are right to be angry about it.

Whether it’s that some of the hardest-working care workers throughout the pandemic only get paid the legal minimum, or the disgraceful fire and re-hire culture where P&O bosses happily confess to breaking the law – we are right to be angry.

But when you look at what the hard-right champions of Brexit offer us, about taking Britain back to the 1950s, I think you understand how illusory nostalgia can be.

Sometimes, when we think about unions and what has gone before, it can be tempting to say that we should aspire to the 1970s. But my response is, “a time when women had barely any rights in the labour market and nor did people with disabilities?” So, no thank you very much to the 1970s.

As a progressive, I look at how the Labour government intervened in the late-1990s and, whilst I’m full of admiration for those policies, that was when our labour market was riven with long term unemployment. Parts of the country, like mine in Merseyside, simply hadn’t even begun to recover from the Tories’ economic damage and the Labour government did an incredible amount to lift people out of that malaise.

We’re not in that situation now, and it would be a huge mistake to just regurgitate the policies of the 1990s.

Nostalgia is deceptive – we need to look at the world of work today, not as it once was. Even worse, nostalgia at its root says that traditional power structures of work were a good thing.

Honesty is crucial, especially for manufacturing and other critical industries that form our base across the country particularly outside London and the South East.

These days, manufacturing and engineering jobs are high tech, requiring huge amounts of skill, intensive training and long-term development.

When we talk about the future, we need to be honest and offer genuine hope about today’s jobs – not what features in our political imaginations of years gone by.

Returning to women, the journey of our changing place in the labour market continues. Unless we think about the future, we’ll continue to neglect the critical issues like unpaid caring. We need to build the right support structures so everyone can move on and move up in work.

My second point is about technology; good, not bad.

Pre-pandemic, we had massive discussions about automation and whether it would abolish all these jobs and we would see the return of huge and problematic unemployment as a result.

Well, the country is currently in a huge vacancies crisis where businesses are crying out for staff, so I hope that argument has been knocked firmly on the head.

In fact, new technology always creates employment rather than reduces it.

Technology has never really been our problem, as long as we ensure that technology shifts the economy towards our values, rather than increasing inequality or diminishing people’s autonomy.

As we develop our economy through new technology, we need new rights and new working cultures to give people a sense of autonomy and creativity.

But right now, we have a cost of living crisis. The big challenge for us as a Labour movement is to put money in people’s pockets.

People might be surprised to know that, since 2015, we’ve seen a huge shift in how people are using their skills to earn an income.

Before 2015, more people worked in a job where they still needed training. Now, more people are employed below their skill level. In fact, 1 in 5 workers in Britain are over skilled for their job.

A fifth of workers could be earning more, but they’re not, so we see real wages falling and productivity through the floor. What is going on?

We know that caring responsibilities are not supported properly, so people are taking the jobs that are easier and more convenient. People are stuck scraping together just enough hours, without the time to find the right job.

We need to set out our principles for what work should really offer people, I would just suggest three.
Firstly, we need workers to feel genuine creativity, autonomy and job satisfaction. Secondly, we need to share the gains from technology in an inclusive way, especially for those employed in person-to-person professions like care workers. Finally, let’s ramp up fair working flexibility – I’d point to the TUC’s excellent ongoing campaign here.

Ultimately, how can we really shift our economy so that more people have access to good work and we can genuinely level up? This week, Lisa Nandy said that ‘levelling up is really about jobs, it’s really about work’. If you want people to be able to afford their shopping, pay their bills, live their lives, then you’ve got to put money in their pockets. It’s all about jobs and work.

Nationally, we have an incredibly diverse map of employment, but all the relevant economic policy is made centrally – and the Tories have made that worse.

Under the last Labour Government, we had regional development agencies which understood that regional economic, design and investment strategies build good quality jobs right across the country.
Today, Tory schemes like Kickstart, Restart or the Towns’ Fund underdeliver and fail because they simply don’t have proper local labour market knowledge.

You end up with these mad and poorly designed schemes which bear no resemblance to local needs, often because the DWP only wants to see numbers recruited.

Our Shadow Government colleagues are working across the Levelling Up team, DfE and DWP to change that.

There’s a huge number of jobs out there, and we can do more to understand how to get people who are furthest from the labour market into work.

What we’re after here is genuine, full employment. That’s what we want.

We want every person in our country to have a chance to do a job they find satisfying and puts money in their pockets so that they can support their family.

We want to live in a country where full employment includes everyone with a disability, including adults with learning disabilities.

We have a local and creative vision, which recognises the economy as it is, for every single person in our country – no matter their background, no matter their barriers – rather than a few politicians stuck in London.

That is what, I think, we’re after.

 For more on the future of work, see our paper Labour and the Past Present and Future of Work.