Comment: Labour will make Britain a great digital power: here’s how

by Liam Byrne | 11.12.17

So the facts are in. The Tories have given us a recovery that is worse than the one in the 1930s that followed the Great Depression. And families won’t see any improvement in living standards until 2022. That’s why we should set a new ambition for Britain: to become the world’s leading digital economy.

Today there are just 1.5 million jobs in the digital economy. That’s about 4% of the workforce. But here’s the key point: digital jobs pay 40% more than the average wage. That’s more than £190 a week. So transforming the number of digital jobs in our economy is one of the fastest ways we can give Britain a pay rise.

Britain was one of the great homes of the scientific revolution. In fact, we’ve been honouring our scientists like sovereigns since we buried Isaac Newton in Westminster Abbey. It was the application of science that sparked the industrial revolution, which made us the superpower of the steam age. Our challenge now is to become the great power of the digital age. The Tories simply cannot deliver this.

Their stewardship of the education and skills system has left us with 12.6 million adults who have no basic digital skills – that’s a quarter of all adults. This costs us £63bn in lost output every year. In the 19th century we led the railway revolution. But today our digital infrastructure lags behind our competitors. In 2016 “fibre-to-the-premises” broadband was available only to 3% of UK premises– compared with 60% in South Korea and 70% in Japan. Moreover, the government has not got a grip on creating the sort of safe online space that is critical for the adoption of digital technologies to accelerate. Cyber-crime cost UK businesses £29bn in 2016, yet the police are hopelessly ill-equipped to tackle it. In fact, the UK has the second largest cyber-skills gap of 10 major countries.

Back in 1964, Harold Wilson labelled the Edwardian establishment of the Macmillan government as hopelessly ill-suited to govern the jet age. Well, today’s Teletext-era Tories, with their little-England mindset and free-market fetishes, simply lack the scale of ambition we need to help Brexit Britain thrive in the global digital economy.

Here’s a case in point. Those parts of Britain that will be hit hardest by Brexit are among the least well equipped to make a success of the digital economy. Research by the House of Commons library shows that the 95 council areas expected to suffer most from Brexit have average download speeds that are 65% worse than the areas that will be hurt least.

Labour will steer a different course. We will future-proof our digital infrastructure, with a new universal service obligation of 30 megabits per second, followed by rollout of ultra-fast broadband across the UK. We’ll transform the digital skills base, creating an innovation nation with the greatest proportion of high-skilled jobs in the OECD, where working people are able to re-skill with free, life-long education in further education colleges. But, crucially, we’ll draw on the best ideas in the world to help get digital policy right – and that means driving forward our digital democracy.

Back in 2015, the Speaker’s commission on digital democracy declared that parliament “should be fully interactive and digital by 2020”. Since then, little has happened. Until today. As a humble member of parliament, today I’m launching a deliberative democracy website to help get digital policy right. Drawing on the approach pioneered by new parties such as Podemos in Spain and city governments such as that of Reykjavik, the People’s Plan for Digital aims to open up the debates we need to have in parliament to help us get the right plans in place.

The great Nye Bevan once famously said: “We have never suffered from too much vitality; we have suffered from too little.” When it comes to the digital economy taking shape around us, that is no longer a mistake we can afford to make.

This article was originally published by the Guardian and is available here.

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