Britain's Digital Future

Britain should be leading the world in technological innovation, but we have enabled too many barriers to our own success, argues Shadow Digital Minister Rt Hon Liam Byrne MP.

It was 54 years ago that Harold Wilson proved technology could win elections.

In 1964, he swept the Tories from office with a political sizzle crafted from the prospect of harnessing the ‘white heat of the technological revolution’ to create a different kind of country.

It was an electrifying moment, as Wilson sought to cast out the privileged old boys’ club running the show and put in its place a Government prepared to drive through the reforms Britain needed to win a race to the top.

We need that spirit today. New data that I published recently shows that the parts of Britain hit hardest by Brexit are exactly the places that are worst equipped to thrive in the digital economy – with digital download speeds that are nearly three times slower than the best equipped parts of the country. But that’s not all. Nationwide, we now have an incredible quarter of adults without basic digital skills. And in 2016, fibre-to-the-premises broadband reached just two per cent of British premises – compared to 70 per cent in Japan and 60 per cent in South Korea.

Crucially, our Government is simply not doing enough to build online the world of trust that is so vital to accelerating take-up of new technologies. Cyber-crime costs the country £29 billion a year – and the police tell me they simply do not have the resources to tackle it. Yet the number of cyber-attacks on critical national infrastructure is increasing and the National Cyber Security Centre reports around 60 “high-level” cyber-attacks a month.

We have to do better than this. I think there are three great challenges that we now must work through if the next election is to prove another 1964 moment.

First, we have to set out just how technology could transform the challenge of stagnating wages. Today, the ‘knowledge economy’ is around one third of GDP, one third of businesses, but only 20 per cent of jobs. If the knowledge economy made up a third of jobs, there would be over a million more high- paying jobs in Britain. That’s a great way to give the country a pay rise. So, we have to set out a plan for growing the digital knowledge economy.

Second, because we are Labour, we have to set out just how digital technology can help us tackle the profound social injustices of today. The five giants that Beveridge described as a prelude to his famous report in 1943 are a little different today. We are still scarred by ‘want’, principally hunger, homelessness and debt. The soup kitchens of the 1930’s may be gone but the food bank and the loan shark are features of every poor place. Disability is now a more important driver of poverty than ‘disease’. We would probably talk about ‘inability’ rather than ‘ignorance’, ‘poor places’ rather than ‘squalor’ and ‘exploitation’ rather than ‘idleness’. But, unchecked, a laissez-faire digital economy could make all of these problems worse not better. So, I want to establish how we use new technology to cut down the five giants of today, the challenges of poverty I see every day in my constituency of Hodge Hill, which is the most income deprived constituency in Britain.

Third, we have to start thinking about how we manage this process of change, proactively and together. History teaches us that for all the palpable advances that technology brings, it brings too dislocation, disruption and disquiet – what’s quaintly called ‘creative destruction’. In the past, it often spilled into violence.

We all know about the Luddites. Built years earlier in 1786, the Albion Mill towered over Southwark in South London. Designed by Boulton, it used James Watt steam engines to grind grain and knocked two shillings off the price of a bag of flour. Just five years later, it was burnt to the ground.

The ashes carried on the wind lay thick on St James’s Park. It was burned down by the millers who were seen dancing in the firelight singing, ‘Yes to Albion, and No to Albion Mills’. William Blake, a close neighbour, saw the wreck and thought the burnt out hulk resembled a “dark satanic mill”. And he put the idea into a hymn.

The point is that technological progress can come at a cost. As we navigate the Fourth Industrial Revolution, with its driverless cars, drones in our skies, 3-D printing, and all the other brilliant, baffling innovations, how do we make sure technology is our slave and not our master? How can it benefit the many and not just the few? We are now at the beginning of the business of regulations. Just as some 17 Factory Acts were required over the course of the 19th Century, so a host of new laws will be needed for this century to ensure that new possibilities power a revolution in social mobility, creating both new jobs and new ladders to those jobs for anyone, everyone, no matter what family, what community, what school, you grow up with.

Once upon a time, Britain was the superpower of the steam age. The challenge now is to cut through the confusion of Brexit and set out a plan to become a great power of the cyber age. I think Harold Wilson would approve.