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As any debate about Labour continues, the chances a Tory will mention Stalin approaches 1

Is that all you’ve got?

A few weeks ago, in the latest of my frequent attempts to leave my dirty fingerprints all over the British political lexicon, I coined a term for the growing Tory habit of dismissing any even mildly left-wing idea by spluttering about Stalinism.

The equivalent trend in online debate for people to start yelling about Nazis has long been known as Godwin’s Law, after Mike Godwin, the American Lawyer who termed it. But I’m a modest sort of egomaniac, so I decided instead to name mine after a rising Tory star who is among the most active in demonstrating it. Cleverly’s Law is named for the Braintree MP James Cleverly, and states: “As any debate about Labour policy continues, the chances that a passing Tory will compare a left-winger to Stalin or Mao approaches 1.”

I mention all this partly because I’m determined to make Cleverly’s Law a thing and that’s more likely to happen if I keep going on about it, but also because it’s been much in evidence for the last few weeks. And I think this says more about the weakness of the right’s current position than they realise.

An oft-heard corollary to Godwin’s Law, after all, is that the person who first invokes Hitler has lost the relevant argument (although, this being 2017, the waters have been muddied somewhat by the growing prevalence of actual neo-Nazis). There’s a section of John O’Farrell’s memoir, Things Can Only Get Better, where he describes an argument his undergraduate self had with an older, Tory relative, and he does much the same. Describing the incident over 15 years later, O’Farrell is acutely aware that throwing references to fascism around is a sign he was struggling to make a real argument.

You can find similar passages in many other lefty memoirs covering the period. The popularity of something as horrible as Thatcherism was so mystifying to the left that many of those most worried about the damage it was doing to the social fabric struggled to articulate why its fans should care. Couldn’t they see that they were wrong? Isn’t that enough?

This, I think, is where right-wingers are now.  They're so terrified of Corbynism – not in a “We don’t like to lose elections” way, but in a “Can’t you see how dangerous this is?” way – that they’ve forgotten how to make their case. They’ve forgotten that they even have to. To them, obviously Labour is now hard left, and obviously the hard left is wrong. What more needs to be said?

Well: if the polls are to be believed, rather a lot, actually. There are two problems with simply yelling, “Communism!” every time anyone talks about – to pick two popular but contested left wing ideas at random – rail nationalisation or rent controls.

One is that the reason these policies are popular is that the status quo is broken: people feel they’re paying a lot of money to get something terrible. Dismissing all attempts to address that problem as the road to the gulag suggests either that you don’t think there’s a problem, or that you don’t know how to solve it. Neither is conducive to persuading people to vote for you.

The other is that it risks pushing moderate or liberal young voters further to the left. If someone having a shitty life is repeatedly told that any policy which might improve things is rampant socialism, then they might start to wonder whether rampant socialism might not be better than what we have now.

All this is fine with me: a bigger state and a more redistributive economy sounds like a rather fine idea (plus, Virgin Trains will no longer be able to play advertisements for Daddy's Home 2 at you while you're on the train loo). But the right-wingers should know that if they want to win back the voters they lost last June, they need to do more than smear their opponents. They need to come up with solutions of their own. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

Photo: Getty
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Technology can change the world – provided we have a measure of democracy, too

You could say we need a technological revolution for the many, not the few. 

Over the last five decades, the American Consumer Technology Association’s annual jamboree has grown to become the world’s largest tech show: attracting over 190,000 visitors and 4000 companies, with 7,460 reporters filing 59,969 reports over the course of four days in Las Vegas. In the process, it has achieved an almost mythical status – from unveiling the first-ever home VCR (Philips 1970) to Bill Gates’ resignation from Microsoft in 2006, and has included cameo appearances by the likes of Jay-Z and Barack Obama.

As a fully qualified geek (Electrical Engineering degree, 20 years in tech – before it was cool) and the shadow minister for Industrial Strategy Science and Innovation, I couldn’t resist seizing the opportunity to venture to Las Vegas while on a family holiday to the US’ west coast; hoping, against all hope, to see the progressive future of a technology-enabled, more equal world.

If only.

But I did emerge with a renewed conviction that technology can solve our problems – if we use it to do so.

In some ways, the most remarkable thing about the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was the way it demonstrated how technology has taken over our entire world. CES was a car show in the middle of a health show, which happened to be around the corner from a home show, which was adjacent to a sports show that was next to an entertainment show. Just about every sector was represented.

Nissan had a huge stand for their new autonomous vehicle showcasing the ‘Brain-Vehicle Interface’, as did Philips for their new sleep enhancing devices, and Huawei for their connected home. In 2018, technology can be used as an enabling platform to aid just about everything. And in a world where near enough everything is politicised, technology is very political.

But this was not evident from CES: not from the stands, neither the keynotes, nor the participants. There were few speakers from civic society nor governments, and those politicians who attended – such as Donald Trump’s Transportation Secretary, Elaine Chao – talked only of their ‘excitement’ at the sunlit uplands technology could guide us to. The show existed in its own, largely self-sufficient world. While Ford created an entire street to show off its autonomous cars, there was no reference to who would pay for the road, pavements, lamp-posts and guttering if only robots worked.

And as a politician rather than an engineer, it is the societal impact that matters most to me. One realisation brought about by my visit is that I have greatly under-estimated the consequences of driverless vehicles: communications, parking, urban layout, and public transport are all likely to be deeply impacted. The automobile industry is working to position cars as your personal moving office-cum-front room-cum-hotel-cum-lecture theatre; where you can work, maintain personal and social relationships, unwind and learn – all while going from A to B. How will crowded, under-funded public transport compete?

At the show, Nissan launched its Brain-to-Vehicle technology, which reads the driver’s brainwaves to determine when the car’s intelligence should intervene. Although I'm personally unsure about the inclusion of brain surveillance in the driving experience, it may well be the next logical step as we increasingly give up our data in return for ‘free’ services. Certainly the anthropologists at Nissan argued that this was the very definition of assisted artificial intelligence.

Fortunately, autonomous vehicles are not the only way to get around. Improvements in battery technology mean that – between electric scooters capable of folding away into airplane carry on, and electric bikes with the power of motorcycles – personal mobility has become a market in its own right.

Personal health and sport were also big themes at the event. Philips has brought back the night cap, which not only looks far more fetching than the Victorian original, but is now also capable of lulling you gently into a slumber before monitoring the quality of your sleep. Orcam’s discrete camera-glasses for the visually impaired can read text and recognise people, whilst L’Oréal’s UV Sense is a sensor small enough to be worn comfortably on your fingernail that detects ultraviolet exposure.

One aspect of the show that has remained largely unchanged is its demographics. Whilst the glossy adverts on the walls depict women and BME people using technology, those actually designing it were, with a few exceptions, male and largely white. As always, there were no queues for the women’s loos and while there were not any ‘F1 girls’, the gender balance was improved largely by attractive women, who were not engineers, being employed to ‘explain’ technological advances.

Weeks later, the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos was also dominated by technology, which the Prime Minister used as a fig leaf to cover the absence of vision for Brexit. Lacking in both the CES and Davos, was any sense that the interests of the many had any significant stake in what was going on. We need a Labour government to help change that.

Chi Onwurah is the Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, and the shadow minister for industrial strategy.