Revolution is a word that has been used a lot at the Labour conference.
Though this actually has very little to do with the current leadership, but more to do with a palpable sense of excitement about changes in the economy.
As well as the usual abundance of fringes on public services, it is notable that there has been a great deal of talk about the future economy. One fringe on the fourth industrial revolution, hosted by the New Statesman, was so oversubscribed that it was full 15 minutes before it was due to begin.
John McDonnell talked about it in his conference speech: “By the middle of this century, it is possible that up to half of all the jobs we do now could be automated away.” Moreover, McDonnell didn’t argue this was negative, but called on the City to put money into high-value, high-productivity business and generating better quality jobs.
Adding to this, McDonnell talked about the need for Regional Development Banks and rebalance growth away from the South East, through greater devolution. He advocated infrastructure like Crossrail for the North, extending HS2 to Scotland and electrification of the rail.
Today, Rebecca Long Bailey, a close ally of McDonnell, will set out more detail on Labour’s approach to the fourth industrial revolution. Again, automation is expected to be mentioned, but not negatively. She is expected to tell conference that “only Labour will ensure that workers and businesses are equipped to enjoy the prosperity this changing economy can bring.”
Infrastructure and devolution have also been talking points, with politicians from the left to the right of the party talking about the power of devolution to unlock regional growth. Yesterday morning (Monday) Lord Adonis, chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, spoke with his usual passion about the role of infrastructure in broadening and unlocking regional growth, and this morning (Tuesday) Paul Sweeney MP, the new shadow Scotland minister, talked about the need for a constitutional convention to refine and think about how the UK devolves power.
Put together, this speaks of a Labour Party that is giving a renewed focus to industrial strategy and infrastructure. There is a sense here that attitudes are changing to investment in the economy, and that borrowing to invest is not the unpopular message it used to be. Labour is responding in kind and the word “Keynesian” is being spoken out loud once again. The Party is feeling more free to talk about the Government’s role in the economy, how a Labour Government would use the fourth industrial revolution as a mechanism to create new jobs in new industries, with Government playing a leading role in incentivizing them. Corbyn has even implied that Brexit provides opportunities to do away with state aid rules, which could be a mechanism by which the Labour achieves these goals.
Corbyn and his team have a renewed confidence at this year’s party conference. While previous years were, by necessity, about securing and maintaining the leadership’s position, this year has taken a more cerebral tone, with a greater focus on what a Labour Government might do.
Perhaps that’s the real revolution.