In defence of Vince Cable

That was the week that was . . .

During the coalition talks and after the general election in May, Vince Cable addressed a meeting of Liberal Democrats and told them that "my heart beats on the left". What he meant, of course, was that he was closer to Labour than to the Conservatives, even to David Cameron's liberal Conservatives.

He was still then just about the nation's favourite Vince, a self-styled "free radical" and economics sage. All the same, he urged his fellow MPs to follow him into coalition with the Tories, because, as he told me when I interviewed him in September at a fringe event at the Liberal Democrats' conference in Liverpool, he was "an enthusiastic deficit hawk", and believed that the deficit had to be cut faster and harder than Labour proposed, with some "in-year cuts". He also spoke to me about the pressures of collective responsibility.

Now, all these months later, it's clear just how damaged the Lib Dems have been by their association with the Tories. They are as low as 8 per cent in some polls. Effigies of their leader, Nick Clegg, have been burned on the streets. Students are rioting because of "betrayals" and broken pledges on tuition fees. They are perceived as flip-floppers and liars.

As ever, the truth is more complicated. I had dinner recently with a senior Lib Dem minister who explained just how much his party was doing inside government to "rein in and moderate" the Tories.

Cable is a social democrat and a Keynesian economist by training. He once told me over lunch at the New Statesman that, though he left the Labour Party long ago, he believes "passionately in the redistribution of wealth".

This week, as we all know, "Saint Vince" was humiliated after he was secretly recorded by those two giggly female undercover reporters at his constituency office; he has since been stripped of key responsibilities as Business Secretary after his assault on his "enemy", Rupert Murdoch.

His disparagers, perhaps long jealous of his popularity, have delighted in his humiliation. They have lined up to insult and traduce him. Newspaper columnists, from all sides, have been leading the charge. He is finished, they say. He is arrogant and complacent.

When the revelations broke, Ed Miliband called on David Cameron to sack Cable. This was a mistake by the Labour leader, because one day soon he may well need Cable's support. Instead of calling for him to go, he should have concentrated on the substance of what he'd said. Miliband was in front of an open goal and missed the target. Only the next day did he firm up his attack on the coalition.

Yet Cable had confirmed what many of us suspected – that this coalition is no "love-in". The Tories are in charge and they are behaving recklessly. The Lib Dems are taking the heat and they are being burned. In their haste to overturn Labour's legacies and dismantle Gordon Brown's client state, the Tories are in too much of a hurry – the admirable Tim Montgomerie, of Conservative Home, has written in the New Statesman of the "breakneck coalition". Their reforms to the health service, the welfare system and education are zealous and dangerous. Indeed, as Cable said, "they have not been thought through", as Michael Gove demonstrated once again with his latest reversal, this time on the School Sport Partnership programme (cut one minute, restored the next!).

Vince Cable may be something of a lone wolf, but he remains hugely popular among activists, as I discovered at that fringe meeting in Liverpool. Later, at the same conference, on 22 September, he gave a good speech in which argued for a new approach to taxation, switching the burden from earned to unearned income, from taxing income, or jobs, to assets, principally property and land. He said:

It will be said that in a world of internationally mobile capital and people it is counterproductive to tax personal income and corporate profit to uncompetitive levels. That is right. But a progressive alternative is to shift the tax base to property, and land, which cannot run away, [and] represents in Britain an extreme concentration of wealth.

(I wrote about the need for land reform and a new social democratic model in the New Statesman cover story of 18 October.)

Cable's mistake was to trust those two crafty female reporters not wisely, but too well. We demand that our politicians tell the truth but then vilify them when they speak candidly to "constituents". He's guilty of nothing more than vanity. It is correct that he remains in the cabinet, even though he is for now diminished.

Footnote: By the way, Vince sure knows how to wear a hat. He's been a fan of the fedora for years, and was wearing a particularly rakish one in photos taken after his unfortunate gaffe. Unkind observers might say it made him look like a minor character in a 1950s spy thriller. But everyone else will just be glad it's not a William Hague-style baseball cap.

Incidentally, can you imagine Cameron or Osborne in a hat? Beanie – too student protest. Flat cap – too Labour. Bowlers, boaters or top hats – too Bullingdon Club. That just leaves a Stetson . . .

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

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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.