Ice floes viewed from plane window

General Election 2015: a view from the window seat

This article was first published on Sceptical Scot.

After some involvement with General Election 2015 it’s strange to find myself 36,000 feet up on a plane headed for a long planned holiday on the other side of the world just as the campaign enters its most intense phase.

Thoroughly immersed in politics as I now seem to be, it’s not entirely unpleasant to have the opportunity to escape the febrile atmosphere for a couple of weeks, particularly that in post-referendum Scotland, now a different, politically charged country.

And my view from the window seat, with the blue haze shimmering over the tip of Greenland, affords an opportunity to breathe out, to try to attain a certain perspective, to discern what is and is not of lasting importance amidst the clamour of day-to-day political debate.

To be sure, through the noise – who said what to the French ambassador, whether Ed looks like a Prime Minister, the latest ‘car-crash’ interview – substantial issues come in and out of focus: the dangers, opportunities or otherwise of full fiscal autonomy, the relevance of nuclear weapons as a deterrent, philosophical differences over the state’s role in funding public services, the extent to which wealth should be passed on through the generations.

But some of the most profound issues in British and international politics have been almost entirely missing from the debate. It’s easy to blame squabbling politicians, but the parameters of the discussion are set as much by what is deemed acceptable to the electorate as they are by political spin doctors.

Some issues are just so complex, so daunting, that they seem to transcend the ordinary compass of political debate, the familiar dividing lines between left and right. But they matter to all of us, and we need to start talking about them some time. An election designed to allow us to choose those who will make decisions on our behalf for the next five years would seem to me as good a time as any to allow them into our conversation.

Here are five issues that seem to me, by this window, now, to deserve more attention than they have got so far.

Climate change

It should be remarkable that climate change, the most important political issue for all of us, everywhere, has yet again been almost wholly absent from a British election campaign.

And yet not surprising. It is an issue that overwhelms, a looming thundercloud on the horizon of an already troubled political sky that comes in and out of focus, that threatens to mesmerise and choke everyday political discourse. All the mainstream parties agree on this, at least, that Britain should play its full part in contributing to the global effort to mitigate the impact of climate change. All have pledged to work towards a legally-binding global climate deal, to cut UK emissions and phase out unabated coal-fired power by the 2020s.

And yet it isn’t clear precisely how the UK will manage the complex transition to sustainable energy. Coal still accounts for a third of our electricity production, and phasing it out won’t be easy: businesses, land owners, farmers and households will need to invest to improve efficiency; energy producers will need to switch to low-carbon generation; significant finance capital will need to be directed towards the renewables sector; decisions about fracking will have to be made; nuclear will have to be expanded or phased out.

All that will be hard enough in Britain. And what will we do to help developing countries do likewise? The global economy will grow by half as much again over the next 15 years, placing unprecended strain on the world’s energy infrastructure just as it must undergo fundamental restructuring.

These are hard questions, and not just for the UK. But we need clear answers than we have now.

Science, technology and the ‘high skill, high wage’ economy

All the parties tempt us with the shimmering prospect of a ‘high skill, high wage’ economy, offering the good jobs that bring security and prosperity. There has been rather less talk about the sustained investment in research, science and technology needed to make it happen.

Britain’s commitment to research and innovation is poor in relation to other large economies, and getting worse. The UK spends just 1.72% of GDP on research, well below the G8 average, with much of that concentrated in a few established sectors such as pharmaceuticals: investment in critical sectors like energy is actually falling.

Britain’s record in turning out the kind of science, technology, engineering and maths graduates that industry says it needs is poor. Proposals to include international students taking those degrees in immigration targets don’t help. And nor does the persistent failure of large British companies to look beyond the short term and invest in research.

A prospective government serious about reorienting our economy away from chronic reliance on the City of London and a nebulous service sector, and towards the hard path of sustained technological innovation needs to tell us much more about how it would actually do it.

Automation and the rise of the robots

If it is clear that investment in technology is essential to develop the sophisticated economy that can pay highly skilled workers a good wage, there remains the question of how many jobs it would actually generate.

Technological progress has always been accompanied by concern that the jobs it makes redundant will not be replaced, a fear that has thus far proved unfounded, as new industries bring new jobs to replace the old.

But this time things may be different. It is notable that the lucrative new digital markets opened by the web haven’t generated many new jobs. Mega-corporations like Google, Facebook and Apple employ comparatively few workers. The digital economy’s natural tendency is towards monopoly, with a handful of big players cleaning up entire markets: Amazon dominates retail, Google advertising, Facebook communication, and so on.

And ever more sophisticated algorithms are powering software that threatens to make many previously secure professions redundant, taking over tasks that previously required human oversight.

One major study, The Future of Employment by economists Carl Frey and Michael Osborne, argues that 47% of US jobs are at ‘high risk’ of computerisation in the next 20 years. Machines are moving into white collar professions: credit analysts, cooks, geological technicians, crane operators, chauffeurs, cartographers, and real estate agents are all at risk. Even hitherto well paid legal and financial work is vulnerable: lawyers are threatened by notary software and City middlemen by number-crunching applications. Some studies predict that in the next few decades only 15 to 20% of the workforce will make a good living, the rest left to scramble for poorly paid partly-automated jobs requiring limited human input.

Possible solutions might include mass education programmes giving as many people as possible the technical skills necessary to help them harness rather than serve intelligent machines. Public job creation schemes might go some way in making up for the failure of an automated private sector to generate sufficient employment.

The failure of the British political establishment to engage with these issues is indicated by the widespread dismissal of the Greens’ proposal for a Citizen’s Income, which, though more of a sketch than a policy at present, at least anticipates the prospect of a mechanised economy. Our political discourse continues to hold on to the ideal of full employment, and is inclined to reduce the social safety net, just as the prospect for well paid, secure work becomes ever more distant for many. We need to start taking seriously the possibility that the hi-tech economy we say we want may not, by its very nature, be able to generate jobs for all.

Economic democracy

The quality of employment, not just its availability, has been a central election issue.

Labour has put a set of proposals to improve conditions of work at the heart of its programme, promising the abolition of zero-hours contracts, a higher minimum wage, and the banning of the use of agency workers to undercut permanent employees. All of that would help insecure British employees. But there has been no mention of another powerful way of helping workers assert themselves that is common across Europe, and beyond: the promotion of an alternative model of the firm – the cooperative.

Labour’s economic and industrial programmes continue to make formal reference to its historic commitment to the cooperative model. But the last time the party seriously considered extending signifcantly the right of workers to influence the direction of their companies was under the 1974-79 government, when Industry Secretary Tony Benn lobbied for workers’ control, and the Bullock Commission recommended greater union representation on boards.

There’s evidence across Europe and beyond that strong cooperatives and mutuals can offer workers some security in a global economy dominated by powerful employers and flexible labour markets. The Mondragon cooperative in the Basque country, for example, has been able to continue to offer workers decent pay and conditions of work through a eurozone recession in which unemployment has soared across Spain, as have mutuals in the extensive Italian cooperative sector.

British politicians frequently laud the success of our own John Lewis Partnership. Curious, then, that greater advocacy of that model has been absent from this election.

Political democracy

As in 2010 this campaign has seen endless speculation about the configuration of what it seems will, inevitably, be a minority government. Indeed there’s growing acceptance that government by some kind of coalition is becoming the natural order of things. The seven-way leaders debate was the clearest illustration yet of Britain’s emergent multi-party system.

And yet there has been very little discussion about changing the electoral system to a system of proportional representation to acknowledge that change. It seems we are content to make do with First-Past-The-Post, a system designed for the days of two party politics.

Perhaps the rejection of the Alternative Vote in the referendum the Liberal Democrats forced as a condition of coalition has indeed ended formal debate about the electoral system ‘for a generation’, as opponents of reform were keen to frame it after the vote. But the Alternative Vote was the weakest form of proportional representation that could have been offered. If we are going to have multi-party politics we need to discuss again how to redesign our political system to reflect new electoral realities.

Thinking about the future

Those are five issues, then, that I think we need to at least start talking about. These, and others like them, are discussed earnestly in seminars, research papers, books and meetings in between elections. And yet when the campaign kicks in, the field of debate is again colonised by undeniably important, but narrower concerns.

Easy for me to say, I know, looking down at the clouds below. But necessary to say, nonetheless.