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Confetti - Your Future

Nadia on... the Luddites

5 May 22 words: Nadia Whittome
photos: Fabrice Gagos

 LeftLion columnist and MP for Nottingham East Nadia Whittome looks back on the Luddites and what they can teach us...

With the theme of this LeftLion issue being mythology, I wanted to explore a part of Nottingham’s history that is steeped in legend of its own. No, it’s not Robin Hood - I’m talking about the Luddites. 

Nowadays, we’re most likely to use “Luddite” to talk about someone who can’t work out how to mute themselves on a Zoom call, or who hates having to order through an app at the pub. But far from just a stand in for “technophobe”, it’s a word with a long, radical and local history.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, weavers and other textile workers in England were seeing the industrial revolution begin to drastically change their working lives and undercut their skills. In school we all learned about the spinning jenny, the stocking frame, and all the other inventions that brought about huge changes in how society and production was organised. I remember less discussion though about the workers who resisted these inventions, concerned about the loss of autonomy, craftsmanship and pay their introduction meant. 

The Luddite movement began in Nottingham and took its name from Ned Ludd, a fictional weaver who served as both figurehead and disguise - think “I’m Spartacus” but for nineteenth century mill workers - for these highly organised groups of activists. 

In the years up to 1816, the Luddites launched a concerted campaign against mill and factory owners and the government officials who sought to protect them. They smashed machinery and, in letter writing campaigns, demanded higher wages and an end to child labour. Several were killed in a gun battle in spring of 1812 and, after this, a crackdown by the authorities saw their actions taper off. 

When I consider what the modern-day equivalent of the Luddites might be, I think about the incredible organising we have seen in Amazon warehouses, among Deliveroo riders and in other highly automated workplaces happening over the course of the pandemic

But the questions they grappled with remain relevant today: is the march of technological progress necessarily progressive? Should efficiency and production be prioritised where pay, jobs and working conditions are negatively affected?

When I consider what the modern-day equivalent of the Luddites might be, I think about the incredible organising we have seen in Amazon warehouses, among Deliveroo riders and in other highly automated workplaces happening over the course of the pandemic. 

The Luddites were not opposed to technology itself - as skilled craftspeople, they operated complex machinery as part of their day-to-day work - but opposed, instead, to technology designed to exploit their labour and remove their agency. 

Today, trade unionists are not opposed to technological progress but to the use of technology at the detriment of workers - from dystopian surveillance and monitoring at work; to technological unemployment with no alternative; to the excesses of the hyper wealthy few, which see billionaires engaged in personal space races while paying poverty wages.

  

Today, trade unionists are not opposed to technological progress but to the use of technology at the detriment of workers

The Luddites and other early labour movements and trade unionists - from the Tolpuddle Martyrs to the chartists - share something in common with the labour movement I am so proud to represent in Parliament today: they knew the value of their work, of their time, of their lives. They were clear-eyed about the ways in which the bosses sought to exploit them, and similarly clear-eyed in their opposition to exploitation.

When I see trade unionists taking action - whether on the picket lines at the University of Nottingham in recent weeks, or British Gas engineers resisting being fired and rehired on worse pay and conditions - I see people who know what they are worth. 

I am enthusiastic about a world where technology frees up our time, means we work less, and enables people to lead happier, easier lives. But that world will not be handed to us - we must fight for technology to be used for our benefit, not our detriment. The legacy of the Luddites continues to echo down the ages - even if Ned Ludd himself might have been more myth than reality.

nadiawhittome.org

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