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Can Labour keep up its Brexit balancing act?

The party’s ambiguity faces one big hurdle. 

Labour are a party of Remainers outside of Westminster led by Brexiteers inside it. The reasons for that are complex: among the Labour leadership there are those who distrust the European Court of Justice and want to escape its regulatory orbit, as well as longstanding Eurosceptics. On the backbenches there are leavers from the Labour left, MPs who feel that the referendum mandate can only be met by ending the free movement of people, and MPs who fear losing the third of Labour voters who backed an Out vote in 2016. All of those beliefs pull the party towards a fairly drastic exit from the European Union.

But the majority of people who voted Labour in 2017 backed Remain in 2016 and for a significant chunk of them, they did so believing the party broadly shared their view.

That’s one of the few sources of Conservative optimism: sooner or later, or so the thesis runs, there will have to be reckoning between Labour’s position and that of its voters.

I am dubious about this for a variety of reasons, not least first-past-the-post, which makes it hard for Remainers to punish Labour without rewarding the Conservatives.

But this was a week in which we began to see how that thesis might come true: firstly after Jeremy Corbyn told this week’s meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party that single market membership was incompatible with Brexit, and secondly after a Brighton Labour councillor caused a small storm on Twitter when he branded whining Remainers “neoliberal snowflakes”.

Corbyn’s remarks were overshadowed first by Theresa May’s bad reshuffle and then by Tim Farron’s latest thoughts on gay sex, and no-one really cares what happens on Twitter at the best of times. Day-to-day, Labour’s ambiguity over Brexit is sustained by clever tactical work on the Labour side and May’s unwillingness to work with other parties. (It’s striking that the best thing for the country and the Conservative Party would have been a big, generous offer to work on Brexit with the other parties – that would force Labour to commit to a position, quite probably one not a million miles away from the Conservative one. Fortunately for Labour, she’s not that kind of politician.)

That means that the only big bear trap for Labour is the vote on the deal itself, when Labour will have to commit one or the other. But I don’t think they will get caught on that one, as the easy way out is just to vote it down because it does not secure “the best possible access” to the single market, a form of words around which all of Labour can unite even as they disagree on the meaning.  

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.