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Thursday, 28 September 2017

Labour Luddites and a Prime Minister as a Poodle

Jeremy Corbyn has gained a new measure of popularity in recent months, largely because he has become popular. He has changed from being a crabby, obsessed 'leftie' to being an almost-charismatic emblem of popular disgust with boring, respectable politicians. In his speech yesterday his main task was to transmit some of the enthusiasm that was being shown - to excess - in the hall at the Labour Party Conference to the wider population; while combining it with a measure of responsible policy that can be presented to the electorate. Much of what he has recently advocated has my strong endorsement , based on half a century of intensive study of the history and effectiveness [or, as usual, ineffectiveness] of economic policy: especially when derived from economic theory. A modern country needs a mixed economy, with a large amount of state investment and public ownership of natural monopolies [which must, of course, be at least as well managed by the public sector as the private sector: which would be hard to achieve, but is doable].

One aspect of his speech, however, verged on the cretinous. That was his apparent Luddism in suggesting that action should be taken - including punitive taxation - to prevent human beings' jobs being taken over by robots; presumably at the behest of wicked capitalists. Virtually every forecast for the medium term future of the economy envisage huge benefits [not least, massive gains in productivity and in the range of products and experiences that will be available] due to innovations where human ideas are made into products and experiences to be enjoyed by everyone by the combined action of people and machines drawing on intensified robotics and enhanced artificial intelligence [AI].

The origin of the term Luddism comes from the mythical character Ned Ludd, the supposed organiser of the gangs of handicraft workers who broke into premises and smashed machines that were capable of replacing old-established crafts [because they greatly enhanced productivity] in the new factories, particularly in textile manufacture in the period 1790-1820. Individual employers were ruined by the Luddites, and a few workmen were penalised when they were caught in the act [or betrayed by colleagues]; but over a couple of decades the machines prevailed, and employment increased [though this often included child exploitation, until that was banned by laws that were enforced by inspectors who actually entered the employers' premises]. The ban on child labour, the ban on womens' night work, bans on the use of dangerous chemicals and processes need to be enforced in a civilised society: the state must be active in the economy to promote and preserve human rights and humans' health. One result of recent laissez-faire attitudes in society at the start of this millennium is the rise of 'modern slavery' [though I cannot detect anything notably modern about it]. The government's obsessive austerity has reduced the numbers of police officers, while terrorist threats have reoriented the work of many officers: with the result that offences like internationally-traded forced prostitution and domestic service have grown almost uninterrupted.

This is the background against which - so it is promised - Mrs May is to utter a peon of praise to the 'free market' as the central point of her speech to the Conservative Conference which opens today. This will be contrasted by the press [which is predominantly pro-Conservative] with the backward-looking old socialism and Luddism of the Corbyn effort yesterday. Mrs May will utter this claptrap in between calls to the US president asking for his intervention in a trade war with the US over the fate of the Bombardier aircraft factory in Belfast [and three other plant in Northern Ireland, as described yesterday in this blog]: a prime example of point protectionism which makes nonsense of the hard Brexiteers' vision of the future. Mrs May has to press this case, in defence of free trade ideology, despite the fact that her parliamentary majority depends upon taking a chauvinistic stance on the Bombardier issue. She lost the recent general election, and clings on to power with the votes of the Democratic Unionists. All the Bombardier plants are in constituencies held by the DUP: and the Bombardier jobs are of such importance to Catholic as well as Protestant workers that Sinn Fein's leader has signed a joint letter with the DUP leader to send to the US Vice-President. Hostilities at Stormont have been transcended by this issue; and Mrs May is compelled to make a nonsense of her free market rhetoric even as she utters it. Nevertheless, as a poodle of the Northern Ireland politicians she has no option but to demonstrate in the clearest way that her rhetoric is claptrap. Thus the Tories will be diminished by the inconsistency and infighting that will be in full view in the coming days: yet they all know they must hang on to office, or Corbyn will have the chance of his lifetime.

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