A new Fabian report, Changing Work

Yvette Cooper MP (ed.), Changing Work: Progressive ideas for the modern world of work, Fabian Society, 2016, 0 7163 4127 7, pbk, xviii + 90 pp, £9.95, or online free of charge.

What really is happening to employment? And what will happen to it? While it is possible to list some of the more obvious changes currently taking place – an increasing number of zero hour contracts, the automation of an increasing number of activities, the death of old industries, and the birth of new ones – what will happen is far from easy to predict. Will new industries provide enough employment to replace the employment decimated by the automation of industries that used to provide thousands of skilled jobs? Will the new jobs be good jobs or lousy jobs? And how should social democratic parties respond?

The twelve essays that Yvette Cooper has brought together in this collection constitute something of a jumble of disparate contributions, and they are full of uncertainties. This is entirely appropriate to our lack of understanding of the future shape of employment, and to the difficulties that the Left faces as it attempts to respond. Nita Clarke worries about productivity; John Park ponders the future role of trades unions; Margaret Prosser asks how our education system can fill the skills gap that departing EU workers will leave behind; and Cameron Tait recognises that in a globalising world governments and political parties have little control over what happens in workplaces, so other means will need to be found to address the insecurity that so many workers are experiencing.

But in the midst of the diversity, an important consensus emerges: that the benefits system needs to change. Norman Pickavance suggests that an ‘age of connectivity’ provides a context for community-based economic activity, but for that to work we shall need a level of financial security far greater than that provided by a means-tested system that stigmatizes workers and traps them in job search activities. Simon Franks knows that providing such financial security requires ‘public policy tools … devised to ensure a fair distribution of the spoils, [so that] productivity increase will enable everyone to be better off’ (p. 20). Charlotte Holloway asks for ‘a smarter welfare state’ to help workers to gain ‘the skills to adapt and thrive in this digital age for life’ (p. 40). And Jutta Steinruck recognises that ‘policy makers across Europe have to ensure that employment and social policies keep pace with digital innovation and entrepreneurship in order that we all profit from the opportunities and manage the potential risks which could be associated with it’ (p. 66), and that this applies as much to social security as it does to minimum wages and health and safety at work.

Four out of the twelve authors are quite clear that at the heart of the social security system required there needs to be a Citizen’s Income. Anthony Painter shows that most new employment is ‘non-standard’ (p. 72), leading to ‘insecurity cubed’ … job insecurity, insecurity caused by the welfare state, and that caused by technological change’ (p. 73). A new social contract is required, and its cornerstone will have to be a Citizen’s Income (p. 75). Anna Turley agrees with this suggestion (p.80). Guy Standing charts the rise of a precariat, and he offers the same prescription: a Citizen’s Income. And Scarlet Harris suggests that a Citizen’s Income would provide the foundation for a new gender equality, and would make it easier for couples to work out a work/life balance that would suit them.

In her introduction, Yvette Cooper describes the Labour Party as ‘never Luddite, always progressive and enthused by new ideas’ (p. xvii). The fact that both the current leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have understood the relevance of a Citizen’s Income to our economy, society, and employment market, suggests that this is still true.

Yvette Cooper and the Fabian Society are to be congratulated on this edited collection. It sets the questions that need to be set; it offers a number of ways forward; and, in particular, it recognises the importance of a social security system fit for the twenty-first century, and is clear that a Citizen’s Income needs to be at the heart of it.