Alan Mak is MP for Havant and Founder of the APPG on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
To secure the Blue Wall, Conservatives must invest in the Fourth Industrial Revolution
Our new voters will judge us on whether we deliver new jobs, rising wages and better infrastructure by making the most of new technologies.
Winning former Labour-held seats in the North, the Midlands and Wales was key to our success in last month’s general election, creating a new “Blue Wall” from Wrexham to Wakefield, Bolsover to Bishop Auckland, and beyond. “Get Brexit Done” and “stop Jeremy Corbyn becoming Prime Minister” were two messages devised by Boris Johnson that cut through with voters, enabling the Conservatives to win seats we had either not held for decades, or never held before at all.
At the next general election (and in local, county and Mayoral elections before then) Corbyn and Brexit will not be the dominant doorstep issues. Instead, we Conservatives have to deliver rising wages, new jobs, better living standards and economic renewal if we are to hold on to our Blue Wall seats.
This will only happen if the economy is growing, new businesses are starting or expanding, and new industries are replacing those that have left or are in decline. The only policy that delivers all these outcomes is investment in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) – the new, advanced technologies that are already changing our economy from clean energy and advanced manufacturing to driverless vehicles and precision medicines. Our future electoral success across the Blue Wall will be inextricably linked to driving up productivity, creating new high-wage jobs and bringing dignified work back to communities that feel disaffected by globalisation.
A pro-Leave electorate that has backed another party for so long will need to be reassured that we Conservatives are on their side for the long term, not just whilst Brexit is being delivered. They will be looking to the Conservatives to ensure they are not left behind by the next big technological revolution. As I said in a previous article, this commitment must be a central tenant of Conservatism 4.0 – Conservative ideology for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
The last time our country went through a technological revolution we had another strong leader with a large electoral mandate. The computing revolution of the 1980s powered Britain to economic success – and political success for Thatcherism. The City of London prospered from the Big Bang, and our economy was transformed into a services-based powerhouse. In the North, Nissan was incentivised to open its first UK factory in Sunderland in 1986 whilst other international car makers would establish bases in Britain – another example of a Conservative government securing the jobs of the future.
Today’s Conservative Government has a similar opportunity – and responsibility – to harness the 4IR for the benefit of communities across the Blue Wall as artificial intelligence, big data and automation transform our economy and society beyond recognition. To keep our majority at future elections, we cannot allow the positive impact of the 4IR to be absent from any region or for its benefits to be inaccessible to any social group.
The 4IR will radically change how we work, regardless of sector or industry. Instead of dockers and miners being at risk of automation, in the near future it will be call centre operators, shop assistants, lorry drivers and factory workers. With a path to electoral victory that increasingly runs through industrial towns, every factory closure or job lost to robots without alternatives emerging, will make a majority harder to retain. As the 4IR accelerates, today’s Conservative Government already recognises that it must act quickly, working through the Northern Powerhouse, Midlands Engine and Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) to re-industrialise those regions, creating new jobs and more prosperity.
The policy interventions needed to make a success of the 4IR across the Blue Wall will be diverse, ranging from the installation of full-fibre broadband to every home and business to the local retention of business rates. However, three areas of focus should include:
- Better transport within – and between – Blue Wall towns and cities. Local economies are more productive when people can get to work efficiently within their own town or city, and when travelling around their region, especially using public transport. However, our biggest cities outside London such as Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham are less productive than almost all similar-sized cities in Europe, and less productive than much smaller cities such as Edinburgh, Oxford, and Bristol. Poor transport links are an important factor in dragging down productivity in our regions outside London, and European cities and large towns are often more productive than our own in large part because they have better infrastructure. Leeds is the largest city in Western Europe without a light rail or metro system. Manchester and Lyon (France’s second largest city conurbation) have similar-sized tram systems with about 100 stations each, but Marseille (three tram lines) and Lille (two tram lines) have substantially more than Birmingham (one line) and Leeds (no lines). Likewise, trade between Northern towns is hampered by poor inter-city connectivity. One study showed that services from London travel at average speeds of 65-93mph, compared with 20-60mph elsewhere. That includes routes such as Liverpool Central to Chester, which takes 41 minutes to make a 14-mile journey. Meanwhile, passengers travelling from London Paddington to Reading cover a distance more than two-and-a-half times longer in 17 minutes less, at 93mph. Blue Wall towns and cities – and areas around them – need funding to upgrade their bus, tram and train services to make them as good as London’s, with more electrification and smart ticketing. If people cannot move around easily, we will be unable to match skilled workers to new businesses which is key to creating jobs and prosperity in the 4IR.
- Local 4IR technology adoption funds. Local Enterprise Partnerships need to help Blue Wall businesses adapt to the 4IR. Only by rapidly adopting 4IR technologies and embedding them into everyday business life across every community and region can we ensure that these areas will not fall behind. Every LEP should come up with a regional Industrial Strategy that sets out how that region will embrace the 4IR. The Liverpool City Region 4.0 programme operated by the Liverpool LEP is an example for others to follow. The LCR 4.0 project provides assistance to manufacturing SMEs wishing to adopt new and emerging technologies to improve their productivity and develop new products and services using 4IR technologies. By helping traditional manufacturers upgrade their technology, they enable firms to stay in business and keep their workers employed by becoming more productive.
- Local political leaders taking responsibility for the 4IR. Councils play a key role in making a success of their communities, from attracting inward investment and funding regeneration to granting planning permission for businesses to expand. The impact of the 4IR needs to be handled strategically, with local government taking a long-term view of local employment patterns as machines replace workers, new businesses spring up in new industries such as 3D printing, and patterns of work change as remote-working enabled by technology increases. Every local council should task one of its Cabinet members with specific responsibility for the 4IR, and create a taskforce of local councillors and officers to devise a pro-active strategy to help their local economy benefit from the 4IR, rather than reacting to changes brought on by technology.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution is already happening, and it is the defining political and economic issue of the next ten years, just as the financial crisis shaped the last decade. Not only is the 4IR the field on which we must fight the next great battle over the value of free markets at a conceptual level, but it is also the real-world driver of growth which we must harness to deliver rising wages and good jobs.
The 4IR is the latest phase of globalisation, and our task in Government is to manage it better, harness its economic benefits, and avoid some communities behind left behind as it transforms our way of life.