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Patrick McLoughlin deserves better than to be blamed for Theresa May’s mistakes

The latest online gaffe reveals the that the problem is further up the Conservative food chain, despite what the anti-McLoughlin lobby may say.

As far as his critics are concerned, nothing in Patrick McLoughlin’s stint as Conservative party chair became him like the leaving of it: Conservative Party Headquarters announced (incorrectly) that his replacement would be Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary, with a hastily-deleted shareable graphic.

The word on the street is that a staffer saw that the BBC had confirmed the switch and hastily tweeted out an announcement. The real reason behind the Grayling non-move – be it that he refused to take the demotion, or simply that it was never on the cards, etcetera – is almost certainly never going to be entirely clear, but the incident served as a reminder of the poor-to-non-existent nature of the Conservative Party’s online communications.

A reshuffle ought to be an occasion in which every new position is pushed out through the party’s social media channels and shared by its activists and elected officials. The nature of human affairs is that bumps in the road – like James Brokenshire’s resignation due to ill health – will derail the roll-out slightly, but the situation where a staffer is in a position to even make the mistake in the first place is a bad one. Instead, the official Downing Street department is the only thing making a splash on social media, and that can’t be used to advance a political argument for why the reshuffle is a good thing. (Which is part of the odd quirk of this reshuffle: what is the point of it? What’s the headline Downing Street wants from it? It’s not clear.)

The anti-McLoughlin lobby say that the incident summed up his tenure at CCHQ: prone to self-harm and embarrassingly bad at social media. But it actually reveals the real truth which is that the problem is further up the food chain. Departing officials can’t organise their own removal. It is true that the Conservative machine was in bad shape when the election was called, but that was because May had ruled out calling a contest and as a result CCHQ had fallen into its usual state of mid-tem disrepair. (The same is usually true of the opposition parties, but Labour and the Liberal Democrats both had assumed May would seek an early contest in 2016 so were in far better nick than they would have been otherwise.)

The major advantage for Brandon Lewis is that while both the impact of the position on the next election and McLoughlin’s culpability for the last one are overstated, he has been given a big opportunity to raise his own profile and clout within the Conservative Party.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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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.