The underground would be filthy - 95 per cent of London Underground cleaning staff are foreign-born. Photograph: Getty Images
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Without immigrants, our country wouldn’t function. So let’s give it a go...

Fancy Ukip’s oh-so-reasonable line on the need to save our “out-of-control”, overcrowded, overburdened country? Let’s all try living, just for one day, without immigrants.

I have a modest proposal for the likes of Ukip, MigrationWatch, the Home Secretary, David Goodhart, Paul Dacre and, of course, the BNP. Why not call for “A Day Without Immigrants?” Wouldn’t that demonstrate, once and for all, that neither our economy nor our society needs migrants? That they are a burden, rather than a blessing?

“A Day Without Immigrants” was the name given to a rather innovative series of protests in the US in 2006, which brought more than a million Latinos on to the streets of 50 cities, from New York to Los Angeles. They boycotted shops, schools and their places of work to try to highlight the plight of undocumented migrant workers.

But here’s how I’d implement a similar boycott here: anyone in the UK born abroad or with a parent born abroad would stay at home for 24 hours. Any business or organisation founded by an immigrant or the child of an immigrant would close for the day.

Britain would be transformed – but, regrettably for the immigration-bashers, in a wholly negative way. In fact, I suspect it would be a pretty awful 24 hours for most Britons, dark and dystopian, even. Think Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later – but without migrants, rather than with zombies.

Let’s start with the trivial stuff. Who would serve you in restaurants or coffee shops? Who would make your sandwiches and wraps at lunchtime? What would be the point of going out to eat in the evening if there were no longer any Chinese, Thai, Malaysian, Indian, Japanese, Turkish, Lebanese, Persian, Italian, Spanish and, yes, French restaurants open?

How about your health? Who’d patch you up and prescribe your medicines? Ministers and their outriders in the right-wing press like to scaremonger about the spiralling costs of so-called health tourism (which amounts to a shocking 0.01 per cent of the £109bn NHS budget) and exaggerate the numbers of migrant families that turn up expecting free treatment in our overstretched A&E departments. The reality, as the chair of the council of the Royal College of GPs, Dr Clare Gerada, has pointed out, is that “you are much more likely to have an immigrant caring for you than sitting up in front of the emergency department”. About 30 per cent of the doctors and 40 per cent of the nurses working in the health service were born abroad. Put simply, the NHS could not survive 24 hours without its migrant workforce.

The same applies to the social-care sector. If you have a sick parent living in a care home, you might have to take the day off to look after them. In 2009 a fifth of all care assistants and home carers – 135,000 people in total – were foreign-born; in London, 60 per cent of care workers were migrants. Speaking of taking the day off, neither the Deputy Prime Minister nor the leader of the opposition would have to turn up to Westminster for PMQs – Nick Clegg is the son of a Dutch mother and half-Russian father; Ed Miliband is the child of Polish refugees.

Meanwhile, the Chancellor would have to go to the Commons to warn that “A Day Without Immigrants” would, if extended over a year, force him to introduce a further £7bn of spending cuts and/or tax rises. Why? Migrants boost the British economy by £7bn a year, according to an OECD study published in June. That’s the equivalent of an extra 2p on the basic rate of income tax.

Sticking with the economy, we’d have to board up iconic British stores such as Marks & Spencer (co-founder: Michael Marks of Belarus), Selfridges (founder: the American Harry Gordon Selfridge) and Tesco (founder: Jacob Kohen, son of Avram, a Polish migrant). UK holidaymakers would have to cancel their cheap flights on easyJet (founder: the Greekborn Stelios Haji-Ioannou).

Our universities, a multibillion-pound export industry, would take a hit, too, if foreign students stayed away. One in ten students in British universities comes from outside the EU and the fees that students from other countries pay are a bigger source of income for most universities than research grants.

What about sport? Imagine going to watch a Premier League game midweek as a Liverpool fan. Luis Suárez wouldn’t be playing. If you’re a Man United fan, you’d miss out on the ball skills of Robin van Persie; if you’re a Man City fan, it’d be Yaya Touré on strike. Chelsea fans? Say goodbye to Juan Mata and Eden Hazard.

Incidentally, if you were planning on using the Tube to go to watch Chelsea play, you’d find it in a pretty filthy state, the train platforms tagged with graffiti and strewn with rubbish: 95 per cent of London Underground cleaning staff are foreign-born. It wouldn’t just be the District Line that was dirty, it would also be your place of work: 89 per cent of office cleaners in the capital are migrants.

But the countryside would be fine, right? Wrong. Imagine all those unpicked crops and the effect: the rise in food prices, supermarkets opting for (cheaper) foreign over domestic produce, fruit farmers on their knees. The truth is that “native” Brits have not been interested in fruit-picking for years and, as the Home Office’s own Migration Advisory Committee warned in May, many of the UK’s fruit-picking businesses could close without new migrant workers from outside the EU.

On immigration, we hear constantly that voters don’t trust the official statistics or studies (a recent Ipsos MORI poll found that the public thinks that immigrants make up 31 per cent of the population –when the official figure is 13 per cent). So this may be the only way to win hearts and minds. A great boycott. A one-day strike by immigrants and their children across the UK, coupled with a ban on the use of immigrant-founded businesses by the “indigenous” population.

For a mere 24 hours. Let’s do it. And if it doesn’t transform public opinion, well, at least I’ll have had the day off work.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the political director of the Huffington Post UK, where this column is crossposted

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

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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.