About us

Leading international thinktank and political network


Register for all the latest updates in our regular newsletter

Home Opinion The digital economy: A platform for centre-left revival
Economy • Innovation • Progressives

The digital economy: A platform for centre-left revival

Paul Hofheinz - 10 December 2015

Progressives must re-embrace a long and powerful tradition of being the first to see the future

Who are ‘progressives’? What are the values that unite us and make us who and what we are?

One of the first characteristics is an approach to ‘the modern’, a belief that the future is a challenge to be embraced and not a curse to be avoided. This, more than anything, defines the now 230-year-old movement which began when Immanuel Kant argued that the shift from barbarism to civilization was a historic trend which society would be well advised to embrace, and could sensibly serve as a rallying point around which future political movements could be formed [1].  The struggle for such an embrace of change continues to this day. As you read these words, centre-left parties around the world are debating their roots and core values. What agenda can unite society around a common vision of progress? How can we articulate this vision in ways that are electorally convincing and economically effective? And most importantly, what are the policies we should promote, the ones that will give us the growth, jobs and social inclusion we are committed to deliver and upon which we will be judged?

These are not easy questions, and in some ways they are what make our progressive debates so fascinating. Certainly, they inspire some of the modern world’s greatest minds to weigh in, taking on political themes that might have seemed too mundane had these central intellectual challenges not been so prominent in them [2].  Put simply, we progressives face a tall order. Conceived on the value-laden left, we have a politics that seeks to harness the power of the state to deliver social wellbeing but never lets the state become an impediment to progress itself; which exists beyond the interest-group capture that has become the rock upon which so many parties have perished (left and right); that develops and implements a strategy uniting the many who work for a better tomorrow; that puts the interests of none above the welfare of the many; that speaks truth to power; and that wins elections and governs well when we do win them. Fundamentally, we are committed to doing the right thing. So what is the ‘right thing’? What can we do that will give us the growth, jobs and greater equality we seek?

Society is going through a wrenching transition at present. It is not so much that technology has propelled us prematurely into a future of disruption and not-so-creative destruction, but rather that we can scarcely understand the present in which we live. Despite the steady drip of negative headlines, and some harrowing electoral reversals in key places, it is decidedly not a negative present. Indeed, the seeds and tools of tomorrow’s success are all around us, should we be bold enough to plant and seize them today. Consider this: whatever doom the naysayers are forecasting, digital technology has already created more opportunity for more people than any technological change since the arrival of the printing press some 500 years ago [3].  It is a general purpose technology, whose role and presence permeates the economy, which brings an end to centuries-old industries in some places, but gives rise to dramatically improved and hugely popular goods and services in others [4].  It is a great social leveler – putting resources formerly available to the few in the hands of the many [5].  Most notably, it may well be the sole concession to a better life that this generation has successfully bequeathed to the next [6]. 

Children love technology. We might not be able to give them jobs when they leave school or university, but we have given them a future. To be blunt, that future is in the digital world, which they take (rightly) to be their birthright. Children are not like their parents; they no longer watch much television, they find the ‘copyright wars’ we adults engage in amusingly quaint. Even if we have not really been able to pass on the promise of social advancement that our generation took for granted, at least we have been able to give them this: an exciting new platform they will use to rewrite the rules of democratic engagement [7].

This is why the digital agenda can and must become a central plank of any modern, progressive agenda. Digital technology, and the economic and social revolution it brings in its wake, is the future. It creates more jobs than it destroys, and it allows for better, more reasoned policymaking at all levels, from the individual to the state [8].  Any effort to put our society and our policies on the wrong side of digital advancement – and there are powerful interests on the left and right pushing us hard to go there – will only condemn the proponents to a fate not unlike the Spanish Inquisition – powerful enough to win the discussion of the day, but sufficiently out of touch to lose the long-term argument forever.

So what, then, does a progressive digital agenda look like? I would argue that there are two separate but equally important components: one rhetorical, the other programmatic.

First and foremost, concerning the rhetorical, the centre left must tread more carefully on the digital agenda. We must redouble our efforts not to let the newness and challenge of successfully managing the social disruption brought by the new business models and technology – and, frankly, the not always progressive views of some parts of our base – put us in an electorally losing corner here. We should – to be direct about it – stop scaring everyone about digital technology. Certainly, there is disruption involved; but since when were progressives people who thought a better world tomorrow should be stopped because of political exigency today? We must be careful how we set and defend our own red lines. This is particularly true in the key and vital area of data – called by some the ‘oil’ or the ‘currency’ of the new economy. Regardless of the metaphor, it is the essential input that the digital economy needs to operate – the way that modern businesses communicate, the raw material for developing and forming better insights about society that are the essence of a progressive, evidence-based agenda [9].  The fact is, we need a progressive policy on data – one which enables the collection, retention, analysis and sharing of data, and one which helps us integrate in international markets, where we are destined to thrive if only we would embrace the challenge and let ourselves fully compete. We must move forward with a political stance that says, yes, privacy will be protected; but we reject a political stance in which we declare the glue that holds the internet together to be a toxic substance, most safely kept secure within not-even-faintly protectionist national borders.

Second of all, the programmatic: digital technology does mean disruption, and who is better positioned to manage disruption in a convincing and socially fair way than progressives? We need the jobs that come with digital technology, to be frank about the matter. The political process today is overshadowed by a persistently sluggish recovery that no one can or should be pleased with. The winner will be the party that cobbles together an electoral programme that convincingly offers new jobs and sustainable economic growth. In an advanced economy, this means first and foremost embracing the outer edge of top-level economic development, what the Germans have called Industrie 4.0 – or the fourth industrial revolution. As well as this though, we should establish and embrace a culture of entrepreneurship, of startups, of new business services and models, a culture of experimentation and innovation, and a society where every individual is encouraged to succeed and given the tools to do so. We should embrace the merger of industry and services using our fundamental strengths in both areas to make Europe a place where the businesses of tomorrow thrive, are diffused, and generate enough sustainable employment to put an end to the near permanent angst that today’s generation feels. We need a culture of readily available and ongoing education, a society where hard and soft skills unite with the distributive power of the internet to foment and abet a life unlike any other that has ever been lived. Most notably, we should approach voters with the idea that, yes, we understand this is difficult. But our party has a comprehensive programme, a social compact, which we will implement to make sure that we are capable of building the jobs and driving the growth right here at home, where we will thrive in the digital era [10]. 

To conclude, this is not an entirely new idea. In fact, it is what propelled Harold Wilson to electoral victory in 1964. With a campaign based on embracing the ‘white heat of technology’, he felled two beasts with one rhetorical sword: he positioned Labour as the party of the modern, and he cast the hapless Tories of the time as the party of yesterday, with no ideas, and an agenda that smelled more of mothballs than silicon chips.

The magic is there again for the reaching, but to get there we must move quickly and decisively – and sincerely. For an internet-abetted population – one where Twitter carries more weight than the chattering classes of London, Paris, Washington or Berlin – loathes nothing more than craven grabs for power and the perceived insincerity of politicians uttering shibboleths in which they hardly believe. This puts an onus on doing our homework. It is vital that we understand the digital agenda, that we see how it can and will help our society to advance and that we embrace it publicly with the enthusiasm and confidence of a millennial [11].

Such an approach though requires tolerance, vision and courage – political virtues that are not in great supply today. It helps that we have a long and powerful tradition of being the first to see the future, and the first to embrace that future and give it political expression in the contemporary context. But we are not doing that today. We remain – on this and in many other areas – caught up in the electoral logic of the industrial age. It is a challenge that has defined progressives throughout the ages, and not coincidentally determined our political success as well.

Paul Hofheinz is president and co-founder of The Lisbon Council



[1] Immanuel Kant, Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch (1795).

[2] Anthony Giddens, The Third Way: The Renewal of Social Democracy (Cambridge: Polity, 1998).

[3] Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organising Without Organisations (London: Penguin, 2008).

[4] Ann Mettler and Anthony D. Williams, “The Rise of the Micro-Multinational: How Freelancers and Technology-Savvy Startups are Driving Growth Jobs and Innovation,” Lisbon Council Policy Brief, Vol V, No 3 (2011). See also, Mettler and Williams, “Wired for Growth and Innovation: How Digital Technologies are Reshaping Small- and Medium-Sized Businesses,” Interactive Policy Brief, 12/2012 (Brussels: The Lisbon Council, 2012).

[5] Philippe Aghion, Ufuk Akcigit, Antonin Bergeaud, Richard Blundell and David Hemous, “Innovation, Income Inequality and Social Mobility,” VoxEU, 28 July 2015.

[6] Michael Mandel and Diana Carew, “Tech Opportunity for Minorities and Women: A Good News, Bad News Story,” Policy Memo (Washington DC: Progressive Policy Institute, 2015).

[7] Sergey Filippov, “Government of the Future: How Digital Technology Will Change the Way We Live, Work and Government” European Digital Forum Digital Insight (Brussels and London: The Lisbon Council and Nesta, 2015).

[8] A study of census results in England and Wales since 1871 finds that technology has been a job creator rather than making working humans obsolete. Ian Stewart, Debapratim De and Alex Cole, Technology and People: The Great Job-Creating Machine (London: Deloitte, 2015).

[9] Paul Hofheinz and Michael Mandel, “Uncovering the Hidden Value of Digital Trade: Towards a 21st Century Agenda of Transatlantic Prosperity,” Interactive Policy Brief, 19/2015 (Brussels and Washington DC: The Lisbon Council and Progressive Policy Institute, 2015).

[10] In a previous essay, I argued that a progressive innovation agenda should be based on four key principals: 1) Build, 2) Educate, 3) Open and 4) Learn. See Paul Hofheinz, “An Innovation Agenda for Europe,” in Robert D. Atkinson, Michael McTernan and Alastair Reed (eds), Sharing in the Success of the Digital Economy: A Progressive Approach to Radical Innovation (Washington DC and London: Information Technology and Innovation Foundation and Policy Network, 2015). 

[11] For an interesting account of the role of social media in Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, see Rahaf Harfoush, Yes We Did (Washington DC: New Riders, 2009). See also Jon Gertner, “Inside Obama’s Stealth Startup” Fast Company, July/August 2015.



Tags: Paul Hofheinz


Roy Smeding
06 July 2016 13:44

Your ideology is not "centre-left" in the sense implied by those two words. There is no centre-left. The centre is where ideology moves as it gets co-opted by business interests. It still aims to funnel power away from the common people -- just not to conservative bigots, but to supposedly "apolitical" or "objective" corporations. Your "progressive policy on data" ignores the key fact about data: it is nearly always data about people. Allowing corporations to deal in it more freely gives them even more power over us. If it was just boring, objective numbers that don't hold power, why would it "help us integrate in international markets"? Your "technology" is not "disruption", it's more of the same: companies, funded by huge quantities of capital, deciding that their ideology is the objective default lens to view the world through. Calling it "disruption" serves to paint a picture where we can tell those out of a job "sorry, that's just how this goes". But there is nothing new about Uber and friends except the loophole they found to further exploit the people supplying their labour. Not everyone is "scaring people about technology", it's just that much of what you call "technology" is more socioeconomic ideology than a novel technological idea. A given idea can be implemented in more than one way, and the details of this implementation are a result of the ideology of the implementer (and lack of ideology is still ideology here, just poorly thought out). You neglect to challenge the basic assumptions driving your essay, assumptions that are being challenged by real progressives. If automation reduces the amount of human labour needed to create the same amount of wealth, why do we need more jobs? We were paying these people before, and it's not like the company is making less money. A basic income is at the very least an option worth considering, but your article makes no mention of such ideas. Presumably they aren't "technological" enough. I will agree that every political group needs to re-evaluate many things in the face of technological changes, but it's the concepts that you take for granted that really show your ideology at work.

Add comment


Enter the code shown:

The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

Most read this month

Search Posts

search form
  • Keyword
  • Title
  • Author
  • Date posted