Automation, Capitalism, CGI Group, Citizen's Income, Councillor Matt Kerr, Defend Glasgow's ICT from Outsourcing, Glasgow, Glasgow City Council, Martin Ford, Opinion, Politics, Privatisation, Rise of the Robots, Socialism, UNISON, Universal Basic Income, Welfare
The Universal Basic Income is an idea in search of a home. A UBI would leave everybody in society on the dole, not by causing mass unemployment but by guaranteeing each citizen a regular handout of “free money.” The concept is as virgin as it is venerable: it has been espoused throughout its long and crowded history by socialists, capitalists, greens and libertarians; and yet it has been never put into practice by any nation state. In an exploratory Swiss referendum last year, nearly 77% of the voters rejected the free money.
This morning I had intended to sit down and write a long, meek article about the Universal Basic Income. You see, I might have been wrong about it in the past. I have lately read Martin Ford’s 2015 treatise Rise of the Robots and this has finally brought me around to accepting that there will be soon not enough purchasing power left in the economy to keep capitalism’s wheels turning. By “robots,” Ford generally means the automation and algorithms which are now forcing down wages and replacing workers amongst many skilled professions. In the UK, both Labour and the SNP have made favourable noises about the UBI – it might even get a mention in UK Labour’s next manifesto. And then, this weekend, one of Glasgow’s Labour Councillors, Matt Kerr, came out for the UBI in the Observer. His interviewer, Kevin McKenna, noted that “the move makes him the most senior incumbent politician in Britain to contemplate a radical scheme that only a few years ago was considered beyond the political pale.”
Readers in Scotland might be perplexed to encounter a newspaper article about Mr Kerr which does not include the words “privatisation,” “outsourcing,” and “hated.” For what is this extraordinary phantasm who is suddenly prancing across the UK stage and being extolled as “the Scottish pioneer whose plan for a basic income could transform Britain”? He is photographed posing as Rabbie Burns, with the same dank hair, white blouse and green frock coat that feature in Alexander Nasmyth’s 1787 portrait. With him posing as Burns like that, they seem to have already designed the banknotes for the Basic Income. Kerr is described, rather wildly, as “a young Labour politician” who is “pursuing an economic vision.” Alas, since he will not name the rates and costs of his UBI, the vision which he is pursuing is still pretty far ahead in the road.
Just enough noncommittal appreciation for the UBI is being expressed to fool inattentive readers into associating Mr Kerr with a Yes activist radicalism and energy. Meanwhile, McKenna valiantly omits any reference to why Kerr might have wanted to be portrayed like this in the first place. For Unison’s members have been striking throughout December against Labour’s plans to privatise Glasgow’s Information and Communication Technology (ICT) services. This abashed privatiser is thus having a do-over.
In the pages of the Observer, Kerr is saddened that, “although I’ll always strive for full employment, the reality is that as technology improves and increases, that’s going to be harder to achieve.” On Glasgow council, however, he has actively voted for a “rise of the robots” which will considerably dent full employment and ensure that the guilty technology “improves and increases” without any resistance from him. It is cold-blooded even for hypocrisy.
Glasgow’s ICT services are poised to be handed over to the Canadian multinational CGI. The council has insisted that their staff “have been given written guarantees that their jobs, terms and conditions, and pensions will be protected should the council decide to award a contract to CGI. These would be contractual guarantees that would go over and above TUPE regulations.” Unison has condemned the outsourcing “for a number of reasons including higher long-term costs, loss of control of a key council function, the future impact for social care, schools, home care, financial payments, council tax collection / benefits and other vital council services, and the threat to workers’ jobs, wages, conditions and employment status.”
The union has common sense on their side: if the council did not want to reduce labour costs, then why would they hand ICT services over to a corporation which promises in its literature to “speed IT and security incident responses through machine learning, analytics and automation technologies”? In July, CIBC World Markets identified potential benefits for CGI in a report which was entitled, “Leveraging Robotics And AI To Drive New Opportunities.” The promo for this report anticipates that CGI can “significantly reduce labour costs (20%-40%) for repetitive, rules-based data centre and BPO function [i.e. the outsoucing of human resources, finance and accounting].”
The preposterous CGI does not even have any employees, and not only because half of them have been presumably replaced by robots. Instead, the 2016 CGI Annual Report refers to “our professionals, whom we call members.” The corporation no doubt imagines that it is like a political party, with its “members” working tirelessly for their values. CGI is in fact allowed to call its workers this because “80%… are CGI shareholders, reflecting a strong personal commitment to the company and our clients’ success.” I think that the 20% who haven’t been persuaded to throw away their parachutes in this pledge of demented support for their employer are called “extremities.”
There are local elections in May and Glasgow Labour are eager to make out that they are more authentically connected to the city’s working-class heritage than the SNP. A gigantic privatisation programme, along with blatant strike-breaking, does not, to put it mildly, help. Hence a Labour councillor tarted up as Robert Burns in the pages of the Observer. Hence his prostitution of socialism’s ideas as well as its imagery. Hence the defrosted radical vocabulary from the back of the freezer (“pioneer… economic vision… drastically different approach… Nye Bevan is a great hero of mine…”).
The Observer reports that, “within weeks a team of academics and economists will begin to address the task of making pilot schemes for Glasgow and Fife viable.” I do hope that these poor intellectuals realise that they are being set to work only as part of a Labour party detoxification strategy.