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Chris Williamson’s resignation is a sign of things to come

Labour’s tight fiscal rule means that junior ministers will be keen to find money somewhere to fund their pet projects. 

Chris Williamson has resigned his post as shadow junior fire minister after he called for councils to be given the power to double taxation on the most valuable homes in an interview with the Huffington Post.

The resignation is interesting for a number of reasons. The first is that Jeremy Corbyn dislikes firing people and has an immense sense of fidelity to those who have stayed loyal to him. Williamson backed him from the very beginning and was one of the vanishingly small number of parliamentary candidates – including those with otherwise impeccable Corbynite credentials – to have included the Labour leader on his election literature even at the very nadir of his unpopularity. I’d usually roll my eyes at suggestions, from several well-placed sources, that the departure was mutual but in this case it feels likely.

Corbyn’s aversion to sackings is one reason I would be surprised in the extreme if this was the prelude to a wider reshuffle – as I wrote in my column last week,  the Islington North MP has little appetite for one. But similar controlled explosions like this one might become the norm.

Why? Because one of the consequences of Labour’s forward advance at the last election is that they have the air of a government-in-waiting that their poor polling and the very bad 2015 result combined to deny them in the last parliament. That means that shadow ministers can no longer go “off piste” without making news or being dismissed as cranks. Although the leader’s office has a greater control over party processes than it did before June – Andrew Fisher, Corbyn’s policy chief, is now the boss as far as shadow cabinet staffers’ contracts are concerned, not as before, Simon Jackson, his opposite number in  party HQ – it still has a fairly laissez-faire approach. I’m reliably informed by several sources that Angela Rayner’s Spectator interview, in which she described Labour’s approach to solving the problems of the British economy as a “shit-or-bust” was not cleared with the leader’s office beforehand nor was Williamson’s bit of thinking out loud.

Rayner in a way got in trouble for merely expressing in colourful language what all of Labour’s core four – Corbyn himself, Diane Abbott, John McDonnell and Jon Trickett – have said themselves: that the United Kingdom is at a crisis point and requires radical measures to solve it. Williamson however was doing something very different: floating a policy way outside his brief, and one that would see taxes increased at that.

Tax-and-spend is going to be a particularly difficult area for Labour over the next four and a half years. McDonnell’s fiscal rule – a blank cheque as far as infrastructure spending is concerned but the books must balance as far as day-to-day spending goes – means that outside of infrastructure the spending decisions are quite tight. One challenge for the shadow welfare team is that they have no money to spend which means they can oppose the government’s handling of universal credit but they can’t easily propose an alternative. The two most expensive decisions in the manifesto – to match the Conservative cut in the 40p rate and the abolition of the tuition fees – were both vindicated in that Labour increased its share of the vote among people earning £45,000 and up, the immediate beneficiaries of the cut, and did even better among people aged 18-24, but that places quite sharp limits on what it can spend elsewhere unless it can find some new ways of getting money off people or commits to a far larger level of borrowing than it did in 2017.

There was also in general an expectation during the meetings to approve the manifesto in 2017 that there would be a leadership election in fairly short order so there was no point fighting too strongly for extra cash. Rayner was one exception and her rows with McDonnell for extra money for early years were one of the few pre-election rows that made it to the press. But several other spending departments are now bitterly regretting not doing the same. Backbench MPs, too, are likely to be increasingly vocal about the need for more money on their areas of interest. (In particular, I would be surprised if there wasn’t at least some loud pressure for the Shadow Treasury team to find some more money to end the welfare cap.)

So you can expect more of this kind of thing in the future. 

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.