Robots rising: Tories unprepared for economic impact of automation, say Labour

© Wolfgang Rattay
Deputy Labour leader TomWatson has called on Chancellor George Osborne to establish a royal commission to investigate the impact of robots on the UK workforce.

Watson said the Conservative Party feels powerless to act in the face of technological change, preferring instead to free industry from political interference and “pray to the gods of the free market.”

In an opinion piece for the Guardian, Watson blasted the Tories for failing to establish government committees or institutions to look at the economic impacts of automation.

He also called for an industrial strategy to share the wealth and time created through robotic workforces.

While many sophisticated jobs are already performed by robots, experts predict automation will have a much deeper impact on society in the coming decades.

Bank of America Merrill Lynch estimate just over a third of all jobs in the UK are vulnerable to automation, while the advent of a robot workforce threatens to increase inequality.

Watson called on the government to address the enormous technological changes facing the world.

The question facing us as a nation is how do we make technological change our ally not our foe? We can’t leave it to fate,” he said.

Too many senior Tories think they are powerless to act. They wrap their powerlessness up in economic and political libertarianism, pray to the gods of the free market.

There is no minister for automation. No special cabinet committee has been set up to come up with solutions. There is no royal commission to look at the economic impact robots will have or the ethical dilemmas they pose.

Where is the new institution that brings together trades unions, employers and government to establish how the time liberated and wealth created by robots is equitably shared?

Watson’s article follows warnings from senior economists on the need to prepare for automation in the economy.

Bank of England economist Andy Haldane warned last November that robot workers could wipe out half the workforce in the UK.

Taking the probabilities of automation, and multiplying them by the numbers employed, gives a broad brush estimate of the number of jobs potentially automatable,” Haldane said, stressing that 15 million people might be affected among the workforce of 31.21 million.