Jeremy Corbyn wants to tax robots. No, really
Robots are, in many ways, better than humans – especially if you work in HR. Robots never ask for a pay rise. Robots never steal someone else’s milk from the fridge. Robots almost never make a scene at the Christmas party. So it’s no surprise that automation threatens a lot of jobs, especially as in the long run they’re a fair bit cheaper than humans that consistently draw a salary, get sick and take the skills elsewhere after a time.
Robots may be good for company owners, who get to maximise profits, but it’s not so hot for society as a whole. If an entire workforce is displaced, then what do they do for work? How do they survive? These are difficult questions with serious repercussions that governments have been ducking for some time, as I wrote about in more depth here.
Today at the Labour Party conference, Jeremy Corbyn will attempt to answer some of these questions, and while it’s far easier to do this from the comfort of the opposition benches, it does at least start a discussion. Corbyn’s answer is for companies that replace workers with robots to be taxed in a “new settlement between work and leisure.”
“We need urgently to face the challenge of automation; robotics that could make so much of contemporary work redundant,” the Labour leader will say. “That is a threat in the hands of the greedy but what an opportunity if it’s managed in the interests of society as a whole.
“If planned and managed properly, accelerated technological change can be the gateway for a new settlement between work and leisure, a springboard for creativity and culture, making technology our servant and not our master at long last.”
The Wider Picture
You can disagree with the methods, but this feels quite an important moment to me. People on the fringes of politics have been talking about automation and robotics for a while, but for a keynote speech from a party leader, this could be a watershed moment.
When I wrote about this from my time at Futurefest 2016, a quote from Futurologist David Smith stuck with me: “If you think about the language, it’s very old: we use the ideas of retirement, pensions, taxation, welfare, how we generate money. The language is all wrong. This is half the problem – we can’t really have a conversation until we rethink how it really works.
“There needs to be a debate among politicians who have a view of the future – and there aren’t many – for a political system that has more long-term thinking,” he added. Quite so: our politics simply isn’t built for long-term planning. All a party needs to think about is the next election in five years time. Ten, 20 or 30 years away is somebody else’s problem – until it isn’t anymore.
Corbyn’s intervention may not be fully formed, but the more people that are thinking about the serious issues that automation raises the better.