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My advice to Ed Balls: don’t follow Slasher’s lead and promise the earth

Who has really been telling "shameful lies"?

In a speech at the 2009 Conservative party conference in Manchester, George “Slasher” Osborne offered a sneering overview of Labour policy with all sorts of claims about how the streets would be paved with gold if only the Tories were to win the next general election and he was made chancellor. The following spring, after an election a ham sandwich could have won but no one did, the Tories had to form a coalition with a turncoat party that for years had opposed austerity but paused a few days and reversed all of that, once ministerial cars were on offer.

The Lib Dems banked all on the UK economy rising from the ashes; they hoped that there would be an “expansionary fiscal contraction” and growth would emerge before 2015. The governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, has what must be the worst economic forecasting record of any governor in living memory. He failed to spot the recession and the subsequent double dip; he thought that the UK and the US had decoupled; he thought that there would be a wage spiral as a result of union power and appeared to have no clue that LIBOR (the London Inter-bank Offered Rate) was being fiddled, even though it was arguably his job to know. King told the coalition posh boys to slash away and all would be well. But it wasn’t.

Some of us even had the audacity to say all of that stuff was for the birds and warned that the government was committing economic suicide; but nobody much listened and on they ploughed. Sadly, the government is now in deep trouble and knows it. It will be interesting to hear how Slasher plans to wriggle out of this mess at the Tory conference in Birmingham.

Look back in anger

Before that, it seems appropriate to go back and look at the claims Osborne made, in his speech in 2009, about what he would deliver. First, he said that the Tory party would “lead the economy out of crisis”. That could hardly be further from the truth, as the coalition has pushed us into an even deeper crisis. We are in the slowest recovery since the Second World War and are perhaps even heading for a triple dip.

The chart below shows the current estimates of GDP growth along with the initial estimates, as data gets revised all the time. The economy was growing nicely when the coalition took over; it grew for five successive quarters from the third quarter of 2009 up to the third quarter of 2010, under Alistair Darling’s policies. Output is now 4.4 per cent lower than it was at the start of the recession in 2008 and has shrunk in five of the past seven quarters. It takes time for policies to feed through to the data, so if we assume that the coalition owns the data from the fourth quarter of 2010, the economy has shrunk 0.6 per cent.

The recession deniers are clueless. The recession hasn’t been revised away and isn’t going to be; the revisions average 0.1 per cent down over the past 20 quarters. Consumer and business confidence today is lower than it was when the coalition took office. The latest European Union sentiment index for the UK (reported in the second chart, below), which is a combination of business and consumer surveys, stands at 91.9, against 102.4 in May 2010, when the coalition took over. It is markedly lower than in Sweden (100.0), which recently moved to inject a stimulus into its economy. Confidence is especially low in the services sector, with a score of -22, compared to -10 in May 2010.

In November 2010, there were 2,477,000 unemployed, with an unemployment rate of 7.9 per cent. The latest data shows 2,645,000 unemployed in July 2012, with an unemployment rate of 8.2 per cent. Over the same period, average weekly earnings rose 3.3 per cent, while the Consumer Price Index has risen by 6.5 per cent, so real earnings have fallen sharply.

Far from leading us out of crisis, Osborne has made matters worse and pushed the UK economy into a double-dip recession. The latest UK PMI for manufacturing was disappointing, falling from 49.6 to 48.4 (anything below 50 indicates decline). This is the third month of declines and job losses are beginning to mount. The PMI for construction in September showed the biggest decline in new business since April 2009, so there’s little sign of green shoots.

I have every expectation that GDP in the next quarter may be positive but the fourth quarter is likely to be negative. Plus, the deficit is up by 22 per cent so far this year. As the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, said in his Labour conference speech, we are seeing “rising borrowing, not to invest in the jobs of the future but to pay for the mounting costs of this government’s economic failure. There is nothing credible about a plan that leads to a double-dip recession . . . That’s not credible, that is just plain wrong.”

Holidays in the sun

Second, Osborne argued in 2009 that the Tories would protect public services, claiming: “We’re all in this together.” He had the audacity to repeat this phrase seven times. He then claimed: “Our determination as compassionate Conservatives [is] to protect the most vulnerable.” In truth, the poor are all in it together and the rich are holidaying in the south of France.

Sensibly, Balls hasn’t fallen into the same trap as Osborne did just before the election. He doesn’t need to say too much about what Labour would do, other than to reiterate that he will wait and see how serious is the mess he is likely to inherit. He is entitled to say he warned that this economic disaster was looming and things would have been a lot better had he been in charge. My main advice to Balls, though, is to stay away from the pork pies. We all know who told “shameful lies”.

David Blanchflower is economics editor of the New Statesman and professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire.

David Blanchflower is economics editor of the New Statesman and professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Conservative conference special

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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.