Saturday, 23 September 2017

Social Democracy Uber Alles

The outcry over the revoking of Uber's London licence shows that the service it provides is popular, and it's unquestionably a significant, innovative use of new technology to improve transport. On the other hand the outcry from drivers about lack of benefits and job security show that the application of technology is being used (not uncommonly) both to increase exploitation of the labour force and to flout legal regulation designed to protect labour and customers. The outcry of Black Cab drivers against Uber ignores the fact that people flocked to Uber not merely for convenience (though that is considerable) but because Black Cabs had priced themselves out of the market with the last big price hike.

Put all this together and it's clear that all the parties need to get together and find a workable solution, which is highly unlikely to happen because of the vastly different political atmospheres between UK and USA, and a general lack of adult leadership on both sides. I can imagine a system where Uber's technology is used, within a revised legal framework that brings in Black Cab drivers too. Uber would have to give up predatory pricing and recognise its employership, while Black Cab drivers would have to slacken their monopoly. And pigs would have to mount flying unicorns.

Amazon, Google, Facebook, Uber and the rest have built a worldwide, highly effective infrastructure of the sort that socialists (especially Stafford Beer) used to dream about - but unsurprisingly, as private enterprises, they use it to generate mega-profits for their owners and to erode working conditions and pay for their workers. The challenge for social democrats - which few are thinking straight (or even talking) about - is to devise new reforms that will make this infrastructure work better for the public interest, without destroying it or crushing its ability to keep innovating.

Tax avoidance by the big tech companies is certainly a major issue, and getting them to pay anything at all would be a step forward, but punitive taxation is not a solution either. Similarly with ownership, old-style nationalisation is unimaginable, unaffordable and might in any case stifle innovation. As for regulation, we need to grasp in precisely what ways the new connectivity renders many older forms of regulation ineffective, and modify them to the new reality. In fact we need to rethink a whole complex of now-inseparable issues - benefits, universal basic income, employment rights, taxation, public v private provision.

Not convinced? Then remember for a moment all those billions of pounds from the public purse that have been wasted over the last 50 years on failed NHS and other public IT projects. Now try to imagine how technology like Amazon/Google/Facebook's would help the NHS with appointments, record keeping and sharing, even diagnosis...

No parties that I'm aware of on either side of the Atlantic are thinking seriously about these matters in sufficient depth and urgency. In the USA the sheer incompetence of the Democratic Party has put the Republicans in a position not only to erase what remains of New Deal social democracy, but also to salt the earth against any possibility of its regrowth. In the UK social democracy has fallen down the crack that runs down the middle of the Labour Party, between a Right that remains wedded to neoliberalism, and a Left often hobbled by nostalgia (not always conscious) for state socialism. Not until Jeremy Corbyn starts calling himself a social democrat rather than a socialist, can you be sure that the party has remembered the difference.


  1. I agree with you Dick. But we should also look across the Channel, where the hyper-regulation of taxis has kept prices very high and made a taxi license a very expensive asset and barrier to entry to new operators (a licence in Nice changes hands at 300 Euros.) The black cabs in London have not had a monopoly for ages, since we can all use minicabs. The minicab firms mostly offer a fixed price membership to self-employed and car owning drivers. This never happened in France, so Uber was the first the break the monopoly. Incidentally it also offered French people of North African origin a chance to get work in a racist divided labour market.

    Also, Uber does not have the monopoly of cab technology. I was in Luton last week, cab location, driver's name and number all sent to my phone. I haven't seen this in London but surely it exists.

    So, it is not a choice of black cab versus Uber. London has a regulated, licenced minicab offer. What Uber does differently is (mainly) its pricing algorithm, which undercuts at slow times and overcharges at busy times. But mainly the difference is how much it charges the drivers. My automated minicab in Luton was paying £100 a week to hist office. Uber charges a % (I think 20 but I am not sure) I would rather my fare went to the driver.

  2. Dick's contentions are, as ever, salient and thought provoking. I personally only use taxis as a very last resort and if I have too, prefer minicabs whose drivers are usually familiar with the areas involved which from horror stories I've heard, is often not the case with Uber drivers.

    But those stories have come from the (grown up) children of my friendly peers who use Uber ONLY because it's cheap and response times are short: they don't give a sh*t about the social or tax implications – as is so often the case with online technologies that are ousting traditional forms of commerce and media, but that's another set of stories.

    They also don't care that many mini-cabs firms have disappeared due to Uber, their drivers having to migrate to the service that's undercut them. irony or what?

    Since so many 'Market Force' Tories are up in arms about this, Uber's appeal may well overturn Khan's and TfL's ruling in which case another insidious – to me anyway – bit of socio-economic engineering will have been completed under our noses.

    And whilst I'm rattling on about transport, anyone who is interested in the halcyon days of proper motoring in proper cars might be interested in the new magazine I'm launching – print only, obviously! – details of and subscriptions to which can be found on:

  3. Hi Dick - yes I'm still here! - these are massive problems, given the power of such rich corporations, and of course the insidious advertising that is their income and that tracks us (I'm just listening to Keith Jarrett on Spotify, with spoken and visual ads as accompaniment). You have some hope in Social Democracy, but I am not sure the UK has ever truly been one (say like Sweden has) with first-past-the-post, gerrymandering boundaries, monarchy, old school ties etc. Perhaps the closest we came was under the much-maligned Harold Wilson. However he was deliberately undermined by Establishment forces, from MI5 to the Treasury. Brexit will probably be a disaster, and certainly will not release Corbyn's socialist hopes. Incidentally, France does not seem to have big problems with IT, in the Health Service, Revenue etc. Seems to work well.


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