Reflecting on the year in which New Labour optimism began flooding the UK, Tony Blair writes exclusively for ShortList on the challenges ahead and how technology can meet them
In my 1996 Labour Party Conference speech, I said that we lived in an era of extraordinary, revolutionary change at work, at home, through technology, through the marvels of modern science. Then, smart-phones weren’t smart, while the internet of things was more, ‘what is this internet thing?’ But 20 years on, this statement is even more true. The pace of this revolutionary change has accelerated. And rather than being angry at the challenges it brings, we need politics to give answers to them.
In 1996 I was setting out the principles and priorities for Labour in government. Our belief was that we needed to apply our values in a new and changing world, where the chief characteristic is the scope, scale and speed of that change. And while we didn’t always succeed, we were a radical and reforming government that oversaw a transformative change in the social fabric of our country.
Those who have turned – or are turning 20 – this year, live in a country where 120,000 people are in civil partnerships, with many more now married as the atmosphere and opposition to the issue shifted, bringing change in the Conservative party. Millennials are far more likely to have gone to a good school and attended university. They can go to museums free of charge; live in cities regenerated through Labour’s investment; vote for members of the Welsh Assembly, Scottish Parliament and for a London Mayor. They only know of peace in Northern Ireland. And they are part of Europe, the greatest political and economic alliance in the world, which we helped positively shape and expand during our time in government.
These changes took the country forward, modernising it. I am proud of that. But I do not ignore the challenges for people today: of social concerns about inequality and climate change; of middle-class people and lower-income families feeling their incomes are flatlining; of young people worrying about being worse off than their parents, struggling to find employment and get on the housing ladder. It is also a generation experiencing the next technological advance, as big data and AI, cryptocurrency and blockchain bring about seismic changes. It will be akin to another industrial revolution except this time it will affect the service sector, too.
This is why progressives need to start asking the right questions, providing answers to how we can apply the latest technology to public services. Take education. Digital technology offers the ability for greater delivery and access. But by its nature, technology will always be inextricably linked to learning and governments should be leading the way on this; reforming curricula, using data for evaluation and improving outcomes. This is already happening in countries such as Estonia where they teach coding from a young age, preparing children for the economy they will be working in, not the one they are living in today.
Health is another area. For example, in diagnostics, machine learning today means that computers can go through thousands of CT or MRI scans to identify anomalies, which can then be checked by doctors. Rather than automation, this is about symbiosis, with the time saved giving doctors more time to spend treating patients. Technology being used to improve frontline services.
In justice, infrastructure, science and research – and right across the policy spectrum – progressives should be pushing the agenda forward. But to do this, there are three things that we should be focusing on.
Market of ideas
First, we should be looking to co-create with the private sector, in particular with tech companies, using the skills and expertise in the economy to strengthen policy, invest in advanced manufacturing and build the industries of the future. This is not an era of government always knows best, nor is it an era where the government knows nothing. We need to encourage a healthy economy and private sector and work with it so that innovation can flourish.
Second, we should be looking at the most effective ways to use new media, new sources of information and new forms of engagement to strengthen our policy. Social media has dramatically altered our discourse and given new platforms for people. Often the noise can be overwhelming – and governing by a Twitter feed is invariably a bad idea – but more people are engaging in politics and many are trying to encourage positive change. Open data initiatives is one way in which this can happen. The US government pioneered the use of GitHub, with many other governments following suit. This is about giving people information that can inspire them to produce things we hadn’t even thought of yet.
Third, we should also be more radical, more open and more able to absorb the latest thinking, and less afraid of innovating. The marketplace of ideas is far bigger – and far more accessible – than at any point in history. And we should be constantly tapping into it.
Making this happen will require being open to the world. But it will also require being open to different arguments. As frustrating as it may be at times, progress only happens through compromise and through working with others, even if they’re not of the same political persuasion. There is purity in principle, but if those principles are never applied, were they worth holding on to quite so tightly? And ultimately, this isn’t about the system not working for you; it is you not working with – or working to change – the system. This feeds disengagement, and is often where the pall of pessimism comes from.
In the leader’s speech in 1996, I also said the age of achievement will be built on the new technology. It gives us greater individual opportunity, but also the ability for common endeavour and collective entrepreneurship. It is something I still believe. It is something I had to adjust to beginning with sending my first text message in 2007. But these are the changes happening around us. It is up to us to shape them as a force for good. And as a force of good for all.
Pick up this week's ShortList Magazine to see more tributes to the year that was 1996