12.16.2019 8:11 PM

Innovation

Here’s what 2020 Democrats can learn from the UK’s losing tech policies

Free broadband could protect workers from A.I. and automation. So why wasn't it more popular?

Andrew Yang

The British Labour Party suffered a disastrous defeat in last week’s election, resulting in the fewest number of parliamentary seats since 1935. The conversation has now turned to what went wrong, with blame targets including leader Jeremy Corbyn and the party’s policy on Brexit. Labour went into the election with a radical manifesto, promising the nationalization of key utilities, a Green New Deal, and strengthened workers’ rights. It’s a conversation American politicians should hear.

One of its most radical promises was free, full-fiber broadband by 2030. It’s exactly the sort of commitment that campaigners argue will be vital for the future, as robots and automation disrupt traditional work and give rise to a less secure class of workers. Guaranteed basic services, similar to a universal basic income, will help support the population as guaranteed work grows more scarce.

The specter of Labour’s brutal experience threatens to hang over the United States’ presidential election next year. Democratic candidate Andrew Yang is running on a promise to answer the rise of A.I. with the $1,000-per-month Freedom Dividend. Bernie Sanders is proposing a federal job guarantee, dismissing basic income because “people want to work.” Elizabeth Warren has made Medicare-for-all a central theme of her campaign, but downplayed the likelihood of A.I.-driven job losses during an October debate.

For some Democratic candidates, the British election results have offered key lessons. Former Vice President Joe Biden said that the Labour Party’s manifesto contained “ideas that are not able to be contained within a rational basis quickly,” while former New York City mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg called Corbyn’s loss as a “canary in the coal mine.”

There are many differences between American and British politics, but this debate cuts to a central question about automation-fueled job losses. How do you convince the electorate of a policy that may prove beneficial in the future?

Pepper the Robot: coming for your job?Inverse

Labour’s broadband policy: what happened

Labour’s plan, in a nutshell, was this: nationalize Openreach, the arm of private firm BT that runs the country’s largest broadband network. Complete the full-fiber internet access rollout by 2030 under a state-owned firm called British Digital Infrastructure, and offer free access under another state-owned firm called British Broadband Service. For a more in-depth explanation, you can read Inverse’s previous story here.

When Inverse last month asked Alzbeta Fellenbaum, principal analyst for IHS Markit, a London–based data broker, for her assessment of the plan, she was unconvinced: “It’s kind of hard not to look at this and see it plainly as an election spiel and a stick to wave into the electorate’s face.”

Evidence showed the idea was popular. A YouGov poll released on November 15 showed 62 percent supported the idea. However, just 32 percent supported nationalizing Openreach to actually deliver the policy, one percentage point more than those opposed.

It seems voters might like an idea in theory, but require more convincing when it comes to the details.

YouGov's polling figures.YouGov

A focus group conducted a few days later by Conservative Party peer Lord Ashcroft showed mixed support for the idea:

“I might nationalise certain essential things. But I’m not desperately sure I would nationalise wi-fi;” “There are people sleeping in cold homes, kids without warm clothes, families on the breadline. I just don’t think this is top of the list;” “I work six days a week to provide my family with the necessities to live with. Broadband is a luxury, not a necessity. You have to work for it, you don’t get given it. If you don’t want to graft or pay your dues, that’s cool, but don’t expect to get it for free.”

Labour’s manifesto did little to help the problem. It described a multi-year plan culminating in free broadband, but didn’t really explain why it was needed. It identified a big problem — rural connectivity — solved by large-scale fibre rollout, but didn’t quite identify the problem solved by making it free.

In The Guardian’s post-mortem analysis, one Labour source criticized the idea: “It wasn’t that people didn’t like the policies, people thought there was too many of them. The free broadband was really unpopular. We hadn’t spent two years [since the last election] making the case for it and we just dumped it on them … so people thought ‘this is a weird luxury, why on earth are we being offered this?’”

Jon Lansman, co-founder of Corbyn’s campaigning group Momentum, also criticized the manifesto to the same publication as “too detailed.” He declared it a manifesto for 10 years, rather than the maximum five years between elections.

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party.Labour

Labour’s broadband policy: why it was necessary

One thing Yang can’t be accused of is failing to state the case early enough. He told Inverse in April 2018, two-and-a-half years before the election, that basic income was needed now:

“I get frustrated when people talk about this as if it’s all speculative […] I spent the last six years walking the midwest of this country, and if you go to Cleveland, or Youngstown or Detroit, automation is just as real as if you were to go to Alaska and find a melting glacier and say that climate change is real.”

Yang, Sanders and others have outlined policy platforms that could prove prescient in the coming years. But they are seeking a mandate for their ideas in 2020, before the reason why they are necessary has grown clear to the wider population.

At a universal basic income event in London last summer, Fast Future Publishing’s Steve Wells identified several services that could form the basis of a “universal basic services” policy. Providing such amenities as healthcare, education and broadband could offer a compelling alternative to a straight monthly cash transfer through basic income.

The two approaches aren’t necessarily incompatible. Basic income campaigner Scott Santens told Inverse in May that many people including himself “see services as existing on top a foundation of UBI.” Yang’s policy platform also includes a commitment to boosting public services, and says he “support[s] the spirit” of Medicare-for-all.

Both approaches aim to answer similar questions about the future of work. Labour warned about automation back in 2016, the year after Corbyn took over the party’s leadership. In February 2018, shadow chancellor John McDonnell asked in a speech “why shouldn’t we extend this principle of universalism further” beyond healthcare, concluding that these questions are “important ones which we as a society will have to ask ourselves sooner or later.”

John McDonnell, the party's shadow chancellor.Labour

Despite an increasingly-precarious workforce, it didn’t seem to cut through. Describing his experiences campaigning for Labour, Dan Evans-Kanu recounted the experience of meeting a self-employed voter with no guarantee of any hours week-to-week (a “zero-hours contract”). When told Labour would ban the contracts, she said she was doing fine and would instead be voting Conservative.

Universal basic income trials have shown that they can bring great benefits. Early results from Finland’s UBI trial suggested people felt happier, less stressed, and more comfortable on the same income levels. If jobs and working hours reduce through automation as hypothesized, laying the groundwork early could ensure a smooth transition.

Free broadband offers compelling answers for the future of work and ensures everyone has access to a vital public service. But voters did not seem totally convinced by the policy and didn’t see why it was necessary. Labour’s manifesto didn’t offer much clarity.

Several key questions remain. Were the details of Labour’s policy the best approach? How could Labour make a more compelling case for the policy? What lessons could be learned for the UBI and UBS movements?

Anyone that sees UBI or UBS as a response to A.I. and automation would need to learn from Labour’s experience. It would also be wrong to outright dismiss the idea of free broadband, as it aims to answer some key questions about the future of work.

Yang, Sanders and others are concerned about a problem that most voters won’t have personally felt yet. But as data suggests around half of American workers could find their lives disrupted, they may need to convince the electorate before it’s too late.

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