Alan Mak is MP for Havant and Founding Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Later this year, the international commission that oversees the official geological timechart will meet to debate and decide whether the world has entered a new epoch. The “Anthropocene”, named after the humans that have had such a profound influence on our planet would, for example, sit alongside the Upper Jurassic and Pleistocence (Ice Age) periods and represent the biggest turning point in history for over 500 million years.
Advocates for the Anthropocene say this new distinct era started in the 1950s, identifiable from the radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons tests, the appearance of fossilised plastics, the rise in carbon pollution from the global post-war economic boom, the pervasive use of concrete, and the rise of mechanised agriculture. Opponents feel none of these changes has been sufficiently impactful to merit a new phase in history – and the debate continues.
In contrast, the start of a new Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) in the late 2000s is not in dispute. My previous ConservativeHome series on this topic outlined the historical background and economic importance of the 4IR – the fourth phase of industrialisation after previous eras defined by steam, electricity and then the internet. This latest series of articles, which begins today, outlines its political implications, and argues in particular that adapting conservatism to the politics and society of a Britain radically re-shaped by the 4IR is our Party’s biggest challenge in the coming years – not Brexit.
Like many activists around the country, I spent time during the local election campaign knocking on doors and speaking to voters. I found an electorate keen to talk about a range of topics, not just Brexit: the economy, schools, defence, the NHS. Brexit is certainly the focal point of our national discourse for now, and while it will continue to be the fundamental, short-term issue our new Party Leader must deliver on, a moment will arrive very soon where the Party must pivot to the future – and look beyond Brexit.
As the leadership contest begins, our next Prime Minister, who will take us into a second decade in power, needs to turbo-charge our domestic policy agenda post-Brexit.
The next general election, whenever it comes, will be fought against a Labour Party that has coalesced around a hard-left agenda with clear messages on austerity, state-aid, taxation and the state ownership of utilities. Worryingly, these big state, anti-capitalist arguments have gained traction for the first time in 40 years. Just as Margaret Thatcher defeated Michael Foot’s hard left ideology in the 1980s, today’s Conservatives need to re-win the argument for free markets and stamp out Corbynista thinking before it takes hold.
The battlegrounds for the next election are being shaped by the new, disruptive technologies of the 4IR, sometimes visibly, sometimes not. The underlying forces shaping the contours of our new society and economy – the automation of jobs, the creation of new businesses, regional growth and decline, the skills base in each community – are all driven by new technology. As our lives become ever more digital, our country faces a series of unique challenges that only Conservative values can fully address.
Our Party has to adapt to this new landscape – and develop a new set of positive policies that allows us to deliver on the changed aspirations of voters in this new setting. From helping people secure the new jobs that the tech revolution will create to tackling the downsides of growth such as preventing environmental degradation, we need to develop Conservatism 4.0 – conservatism for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Previous Industrial Revolutions saw Conservative leaders grasp the opportunity to reshape our Party as the country changed. Robert Peel repealed the Corn Laws, heralding Britain’s rise as a champion of free trade, and Thatcher drove forward reforms that enabled the City of London to renew itself and flourish through the “Big Bang” of technology. Our next Leader must consider how the Conservatives will remain relevant to a new generation of voters whose lives, workplaces and communities are being shaped by artificial intelligence, robotics, big data, drones and a new phase of globalisation.
We Conservatives must adapt to this rapidly-changing social and economic landscape, just as Thatcher and her predecessors did. These four guiding principles should shape the next leader Conservative Leader’s thinking.
1. No community can be left behind
Young people thinking of careers after leaving school or university are now entering workplaces in every sector shaped by artificial intelligence and automation.
Just take the supermarket industry, a sector that employs 1.1 million people in the UK and which faces radical change. Ocado, for instance, has developed a warehouse in Hampshire dubbed “the hive” that sees robots processing 3.5 million items every single week. Meanwhile in America, the first trials have begun of “Amazon Go” – checkout-free shops where consumers walk-out with whatever goods they like bypassing traditional tills or scanners. Instead, camera-based tracking technology identifies the shopper visually, and the goods bought, and charges their credit card automatically. There are no staff in the “shop” – a radical departure from the high street shop my parents ran which relied heavily on human labour (including mine).
What do these innovations mean for shop workers, and the millions of others who will likely be displaced in similar ways in other industries? Just as in previous Industrial Revolutions new jobs will certainly be created, from app designers to data scientists to robot maintenance workers. Past experience also suggests more jobs will probably be created than are lost as the economy grows. But our challenge is ensuring we equip workers with the right skills to fulfil their potential and secure these new jobs.
That means a renewed focus on STEM skills and a wider strategic long-term plan for skills in our country. I’ve previously set out my belief that we should introduce a Future Skills Review, a big picture analysis of the skills needed for our economy over the next five years – akin to the Comprehensive Spending Review or Strategic Defence Review.
Automation will inevitably impact different areas of the country disproportionally. So our next Prime Minister needs to prevent widening regional inequality. The impact of the decline of heavy industry, especially in the North, is still felt to this day in areas that have struggled to fully recover. As the Fourth Industrial Revolution accelerates, we need to help every community adjust and prosper, getting a fair share of the fruits of economic success. Leeds re-invented itself as a hub for digital innovation, whilst Sunderland is home to Nissan’s highly productive car plant. So a new Northern Technology Powerhouse would be especially welcome in the years ahead, ensuring that it isn’t just the “Golden Triangle” of Oxford, Cambridge and London that benefit from the 4IR.
2. Public services should be more productive, more digital and more accessible
The smartphone generation demands services that are available at their fingertips, whether that’s ordering a taxi or making a bank payment. The average smartphone user can choose from around 2 million apps to download – everything from games to social media.
Technology means life is moving faster, and people’s expectations of similarly fast-movement and responsiveness from their government are rising too. Voters want a Smart State, not Big Government. And because we Conservatives are in office, we are expected to use new technology to deliver better, more efficient public services.
Perhaps one of the least recognised achievements of the Government since 2010 has been the digital transformation of our public services. The UK is currently fourth in the UN e-government league, having delivered more than £2 billion in efficiency savings through digital transformation since 2014.
But we shouldn’t rest on our laurels. We must strive to deliver more efficient public services by fully-digitising them in line with consumer demand. A poll by POLITICO in swing election seats showed that our Party still trails in the core issues ranked as the most important outside of Brexit – crime, housing and health.
We need to consider how we can use artificial intelligence to solve crimes; automated construction techniques to build much-needed homes; online courses to improve further education; and how we deploy apps to transform the NHS into a paperless service, so patients have their test results and medical records on their phones.
As a Party we need to harness technology to improve the delivery of public services and offer better outcomes, recapturing the initiative from Labour politicians whose focus on nationalisation and uncosted (yet endless) spending commitments often drives the debate.
3. Technology can help us become more relevant to younger voters
The age divide in our politics is now well-documented, with a recent Onward report showing 49 per cent of Conservative voters are now over the age of 65.
Yet as separate polling for the Centre for Policy Studies found, young people are still more likely than the general population to think that the Government spends and taxes too much and are not inclined to back nationalisation.
Instead, they want more control over their lives, and that includes over the money they work hard to earn.
In the age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Conservatives need to deliver the same message of economic freedom that propelled Thatcherism to unprecedented electoral success. By embracing tech, and making Britain a global tech superpower, we will create more opportunities for young people to start their own business and have a stake in our society by owning capital and generating wealth for themselves and others.
Our next Leader must position Britain as low-tax, high-innovation, pro-tech economy. We must cut corporation tax to attract inward investment – Jeremy Hunt’s proposal to cut our rate to match Ireland’s 12.5 per cent rate is very welcome – and be pro-active in creating a regulatory environment that gives tech companies the freedom to innovate. We must not follow Labour’s example by trying ban Uber in London and Brighton. Platforms used by younger people should be smartly regulated, not shutdown.
We win back younger voters by proving that we are a Party that believes in the future – and that means embracing technology, and the benefits it brings to everyday life.
4. Green growth must be at the heart of Britain’s Fourth Industrial Revolution
The fossil fuels that powered previous industrial revolutions left a dirty legacy which we are only now coming to terms with as we take decisive action on climate change.
The 4IR will be the first industrial revolution that offers the tantalising prospect of clean growth, with renewable energy and the next generation of batteries potentially signalling the end for dirty fossil fuels.
Similarly, carbon capture and storage technology has the potential to limit CO2 in the atmosphere; blockchain to improve accountability across far-flung supply chains; “smart boats” to help fishermen manage their catch effectively; and biodegradable plastics to protect our oceans.
These are just a small number of the environmental technology breakthroughs that will soon become pervasive.
Britain should be an advocate on the world stage for green growth, helping us bolster our credentials at home as the Party of good environmental stewardship too. The current Government’s 25-Year Environment Plan and commitment to biodiversity has been one of our most popular policy areas since 2017. By committing to ensuring that this new industrial revolution leaves the planet cleaner we can turn green growth in the 4IR into a new source of electoral strength.
All four policy areas matter regardless of Brexit or our future relationship with the EU. The current Brexit debate has meant they are not getting the focus they deserve, but our next Leader should put these principles at the heart of our Party’s response to the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
By doing so, we can successful help our Party adapt to the new political and economic landscape that technology-driven change is creating, so voters continue to trust us to govern for generations to come.
This article is the first in a three-part series explaining why adapting to a society and economy shaped by technology is key.