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Blair’s call to Labour: ‘Reimagine the state by embracing AI’

By Matt Redley
09 July 2024
Public Affairs
artificial intelligence

At the ‘Future of Britain’ conference today, Tony Blair presented a vision of radical reform for public services, with AI at its centre.

At the conference, run by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change (TBI), Blair set out his stall on the argument for embracing AI to drive efficiencies and boost growth. This was a day for discussing big ideas, and what bigger idea than ‘reimagining the state’.

Britain faces an “unenviable triple whammy” of high taxes, debt and poor outcomes, highlighting the need for adoption of such technologies, Blair argued. Without providing respite, there is also “worse to come” due to an ageing population, “deep structural health problems” and rising numbers of people with long-term sickness.

As a result, today Blair argued that there’s no better time for the incoming Labour government to focus on how technology can transform the NHS, the courts and justice system. In Blair’s words, AI allows the government to get “more for less.”

This follows work from the TBI, which has produced a mountain of evidence seeking to examine how AI can transform public services. Its first paper, launched to coincide with the conference, makes the economic case for reimagining the state, forecasting that AI adoption can save 20% of public sector time by 2040, and £12bn a year by the end of this parliament.

On the detail of how this could happen, the TBI has previously argued that civil servants can be assisted in their role by AI-enabled tools, or AI ‘helpers’, ultimately reducing their work burden. They have also argued that AI could provide citizens with a digital public assistant to help with, for example, filling out tax returns, having considered privacy and autonomy.

It’s particularly of note that the former Labour Prime Minister has chosen this time and place to focus attention on the AI revolution. Today’s conference and paper have shown that Blair believes that the secret sauce for Labour’s success in office is to prioritise the adoption of AI.

The new Labour government has a series of decisions to make on its direction of travel for technology. It has already set out a series of tech-focused pledges in its manifesto, such as pledging to create a National Data Library.

Starmer has also pledged that Labour will “bring together existing research programmes and help deliver data-driven public services, whilst maintaining strong safeguards and ensuring all of the public benefit”, appearing to chime with Blair’s emphasis on using technology to drive efficiencies.

Labour have also pledged several other policies which indicate enthusiasm for AI adoption. These include supporting universities with AI-related ventures, and working with the industry to ensure these ventures have the finance to grow, amongst others.

These pledges indicate that Blair is pushing on a door that is ajar. A key question will be on the extent to which Starmer welcomes these ideas. By demonstrating close alignment with Blair, Starmer will be signalling to voters that he wants to get the old band back together for another rendition of ‘Things Can Only Get Better’, when others will argue that he should focus on his own smash-hit debut album.

Blair’s ambition seeks to capitalise on the UK’s existing strengths, notably its world-class universities and leading AI companies such as DeepMind.

Ultimately, today’s event acted as a warning shot for the potential loss of the country's competitive edge without proactive government support for AI. Casting minds back, Blair gained a reputation in power as a ‘pen and paper man’, and a leader who was famously a technophobe.  For the country, the Labour leadership, Tony Blair and our new technological frontier, we have entered a new era.