Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Jeremy Corbyn's Brexit strategy is paying off – for him, at least

Despite repeated predictions, it is difficult to see where pro-Remain voters can go other than Labour thanks to first past the post. 

Labour’s row over the customs union once again has people predicting that Remainers will abandon the party.

As I explain in greater detail here, the question of what Labour should have done on the vote is not open-and-shut. Predictions that Remainers will abandon Labour are rather like an ideal public transportation system  – no sooner does one leave the station, another arrives. However, I am uncertain as to how this would work in practice.

Let’s imagine you are an angry Remainer. (As you are reading the New Statesman website this is fairly likely.) Let’s imagine you think, rightly, that around a third of the parliamentary party, including a chunk of the Labour leadership, is happy for us to leave the European Union in a fairly drastic fashion.

What do you do? Well, the truth is a large number of the most committed Remainers live in one of England’s great cities, all of which are in possession of humongous Labour majorities. Let’s take Diane Abbott’s constituency, where I live, as an example. It voted heavily to remain in the European Union, and because of the people who voted for the first time in 2016, Remainers were much more likely to keep up the habit in 2017, its electorate in general elections is even more pro-Remain than it was in the referendum. The nearest explicitly pro-Remain party, the Liberal Democrats, are in third place with just over 3,000 votes, some 36,000 votes behind Labour. Abbott can lose a great number of votes, either directly or through people just feeling dispirited and staying at home, before the seat’s majority drops from “ultra-safe” to merely “very safe”.

What about places where Labour is vulnerable? Well, the bad news for Remainers shopping around is that with two exceptions, Labour is vulnerable to the Conservatives, who have a still more drastic approach to Brexit. So the risks that come with abandoning Labour are quite high.

In England and Wales, there are basically only two seats where a pro-Remain party can credibly threaten Labour: Sheffield Hallam and Leeds North West. Elsewhere, thanks to first-past-the-post, it is hard to see where else committed Remainers can go that (a) is electorally appetising to them and (b) actually hurts Labour in a meaningful fashion. It may be that thanks to his Brexit stance Corbyn has a slightly smaller ego boost when his result is declared in Islington North. That doesn’t mean that Labour won’t win.

That does mean that in Scotland, Labour will probably need to squeeze the considerable Tory vote in third place in the seats it is combating the SNP, rather than trying to win over SNP voters. But even there, it doesn’t close off the path to winning seats entirely.

And that’s before you get into the fact that for a lot of committed Remainers, Brexit is primarily a cultural issue, not a political one. People feel angry about the referendum vote not because they have a particular affection for the acquis communautaire but because the European Union represents values they prize, values that they feel are under threat and are well-represented by Corbyn.

Now that doesn’t mean that Labour’s position on Brexit isn’t going to cause them political difficulties after they take power – in my view, it probably will. That doesn’t mean Labour’s Brexit position isn’t the wrong one for them and the country in the long term – in my view, it probably is. But thanks to the United Kingdom’s iniquitous electoral system, Labour are best served electorally by a leader whose policy position is pro-Brexit but who appeals to the cultural sensibilities of Remain voters, AKA Jeremy Corbyn. 

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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.