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Jim Murphy: "Lazy Labour" risks losing the next election

The shadow defence secretary warns that parts of the party are drifting along with “a sense of entitlement to win”.

Jim Murphy is not often lost for words. The shadow defence secretary is seen as one of the ablest communicators on the Labour front bench but his fluid Glasgow patter runs dry as he tries to express the anger among voters that he thinks will shape politics in years to come. It is not, says Murphy, the kind of ideological sloganeering rage that might be diverted down the usual leftwing channels.

“These are people who are angry who will never go on a demonstration. They’re not going to march behind a banner or wave a placard. They’re quiet people who work bloody hard and see their lives stagnating or getting worse. It’s a modest, understated, British, non-revolutionary kind of . . . nnnrgh.” The words run out, leaving only a fist-clenching, teeth-grinding, strained guttural moan – think exasperated Scottish Chewbacca – to express the cry of impotent fury rising up from squeezed Britain.

The established parties, he says, are illequipped to deal with this feeling. There are parts of the country where Labour is losing contact with the electorate. “Parts of the party are stagnating,” says Murphy. We are talking in his parliamentary office with its lofty view of Big Ben but his mind is on the voters he meets on the doorstep, who are ever more alienated from this rarefied world. Their disengagement, he says, is expressing itself with new force. “People say, ‘I don’t vote and let me tell you why. It’s not because I don’t care. Here’s my long list of reasons.’ It’s a kind of chest-thumping, contorted civic pride: militant apathy.”

This challenge is uppermost in many Westminster minds after the Eastleigh byelection, where the UK Independence Party came a close second to the Liberal Democrats, rubbing Labour and Tory noses in public contempt. Ukip’s rise has provoked a noisy public debate among Conservatives about the best strategy for dealing with populist insurgency; Labour’s response has until now been muted. Murphy is the most senior figure to concede that his party is failing to engage with millions of voters.

“If you don’t knock on people’s doors between now and polling day you deserve what you get,” he says. “They’ll say, ‘Where were you when I was struggling, when my husband lost his job, when my hours were cut, when I needed you? . . .’

“It’s not an Eastleigh problem, it’s a wider problem. It’s Lazy Labour.”

There are parts of the party, Murphy warns, that drift along with “a sense of entitlement to win”. It is a complacency that goes without scrutiny in party structures and in constituencies where Labour is historically unchallenged; it is not particular to any wing or ideology. “New Labour, Old Labour, left or right – you pay your money, you make your choice. There’s honesty and sincerity about all of them. It’s Lazy Labour we don’t talk about.”

Murphy is quick to praise diligent activists and MPs across the country. His point is that economic crisis and the collapse of trust in so many establishment institutions in recent years have changed the terms of political combat, leaving no seat, no matter how safe it looks, inoculated from the disruptive forces being unleashed.

That raises a question of whether Labour’s machine is equal to the task of turning Ed Miliband’s unifying “one-nation” vision into a winning formula. Murphy plainly has his doubts. He warns against the temptations of “segmentation” – of picking off interest groups and slices of amenable voters without crafting a clear message for the whole country.

“You’ve got to have a one-nation electoral strategy alongside your one-nation values. You don’t get to one-nation politics [by] segmenting the voters. You could get an electoral jigsaw and somehow force all the pieces together so it would give you a picture of a Labour victory – [but] that’s a pretty small view of the world.”

He has a particular rebuke for those in the party who see victory falling into place as target seats tumble when the Lib Dem vote collapses. “For a lot of people it’s fun to kick the Liberals, but if you want a big one-nation mandate it’s pretty fruitless just to do that. Winning 2010 Tory voters is much harder but much more important. We could scrape over the finishing line with Labour voters plus some ex-Liberals, but given the scale of the problems we’d have to deal with, we don’t want to just scrape over the finish line. We want a decent mandate.”

There is, Murphy adds, a longer-term danger for Labour in failing to reach out to parts of southern England. The party risks irrelevance in some areas, equivalent to the cultural expunging of Conservatism from Scotland and some northern English cities.

“I don’t want it to become countercultural for people to vote Labour, the way it has become countercultural for people to vote Tory in Scotland. There are youngsters who weren’t born when Mrs Thatcher was around who still would never vote Tory because of Thatcher . . . That’s not a journey we can afford to take in the south.”

It was Tony Blair who famously overcame Labour’s electoral “southern discomfort” in the mid-1990s. Talk of a recurrence of the syndrome risks reinforcing the suspicion on the left that Murphy is one of what Unite’s general secretary, Len McCluskey, and others have called “Blairite zombies”: acolytes of the former prime minister obstructing the party’s path to socialist virtue.

“It’s no bad thing to have led the party to three remarkable victories,” Murphy says of Blair. “New Labour is part of our heritage . . . But I’m not a Blairite and I’m not a zombie – so I can’t be both.”

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 11 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The audacity of popes

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.