The New Statesman Interview - Shaun Woodward

He joined a party led by Thatcher; now, he's on the other side and refers devoutly to "our founding

A politician who defects to another party is guaranteed intoxicating stardom for 48 hours. After that, an awkward obscurity often awaits. Where are the Emma Nicholsons and Peter Thurnhams who fleetingly lit up the political sky with their defections in the previous parliament?

For Shaun Woodward, the cameras clicked and Sir David Frost's sofa beckoned during the weekend before last Christmas, when he dramatically switched sides. At 41, he is the most intriguing of the defectors, partly because he is still so youthfully ambitious. Nearly all those who change parties tend to be in the middle or towards the end of their careers. Woodward is still in his first term as an MP. His ambition had already propelled him to considerable heights in the Conservative Party. When I last interviewed him, in December, he was ardently defending the candidacy of Lord Archer in the London mayoral farce. Now, as we sit in the garden of his Westminster house, he speaks of "our founding fathers in the party". He means the likes of Keir Hardie. The book Labour's Century is one of the many documents placed on a large table in his living room.

Woodward is still going through a transition. Apart from the not altogether convincing reference to "our founding fathers", he keeps his distance. He talks of "the Labour Party" and "the government". Rarely does he dare say "we" when reflecting on either. Sometimes he is quite explicit. "It would be quite impertinent for me to give advice to a party or a government when I have been a member for only six months." This, though, is partly a device to avoid mouthing any doubts in public about the direction of policy.

The calculating self-effacement is not as necessary as he believes it to be. For all the dissembling and ingenious revisionism required of a defector, Woodward has an authentic voice. It is not the voice of the current Conservative Party. For many years it was obvious, too, that he liked and admired the leading Blairites. "I've known them all for a long time. I've liked them as individuals and known them as friends. I admired the professionalism of Peter Mandelson, the way he got a grip on the communications of the party. I admired Alastair Campbell as a political journalist. My liking of Tony Blair was very different. He created a party that could deliver policies based on the values I have always believed in. I have at least as many conversations with some of these people now as we had in the past. I want to do everything I can to help the Labour Party and this government win a second term with as big a majority as it is possible to get."

Recently, his "conversations" have extended to the Treasury on policies related to the new economy. There has been contact with Millbank over tactics for the next election campaign. He is about to speak at Labour Party meetings around the country. In a minor key, this defector is becoming a player.

He claims that he first considered switching sides as long ago as 1994, when Blair became leader. "I spoke to friends in the Labour Party about it then, but I could never do it while John Major was Conservative leader." For Woodward, Major was the first Blairite. "He believed in Britain being at the heart of Europe, in creating a classless society, a nation at ease with itself, but the right wing never allowed him to lead the party."

It was Ken Clarke's failure to win the leadership in 1997 that marked the next phase of his journey. "What I most disliked about Margaret Thatcher related to her speech in which she said there was no such thing as society. It became clear to me that William Hague was resurrecting that ideology. In the 12 months before I left, I became increasingly unhappy, stuck inside a party in which I was completely isolated. Labour MPs came up to me and asked how I could stay when I was making all these speeches about the age of consent and Section 28. Last summer, I went away with my family and some close friends. Every night we returned to the same subject. It was not whether I could stay in the party, but when I could leave."

At that point, Woodward resolved to stand down at the next election as MP for Witney. He says it was the launch of the "common sense revolution" at last year's Tory conference that provoked him to act earlier. He insists now that he would have left even if a compromise had been reached over his opposition to Section 28, the ostensible reason for his departure.

"It wasn't Section 28 that was the straw that broke the camel's back. The back had already been broken. I would have left anyway over the Tory party's approach to asylum. The deaths in the lorry at Dover demonstrate just how desperate these people are. They didn't risk losing their lives so tragically in the hope that they could get a few vouchers, for goodness sake. This is far more serious than the Tories will accept. If, for example, you take action against Milosevic, the consequence will be displaced people and displaced families. We have a duty to look at them as genuine asylum-seekers. I can promise you that issue would have forced me at full speed out of the Tory party."

But has Jack Straw been any better? It is at this point that he voices his only public criticism of the government. "There is no question that we haven't used the most appropriate language. We felt far too ready to use words that were wrong. But we've recognised that this language was wrong, that most asylum-seekers are genuine. What is disgraceful is when you see the reality but still use the inflammatory language."

A defector makes the leap for several complex reasons, not all of them noble. But Woodward has a strong record on civil liberties and social tolerance. His speech arguing for a lower age of consent, which he made when he was still a Tory MP, and for which he was occasionally barracked from his own side, was an act of political courage. He has recently returned from a month in America, partly looking at the impact of the civil rights legislation of the 1960s in Mississippi. "It is in the area of civil rights where I see my political views coalescing. In Mississippi, I wanted to discover where the changes instigated in the 1960s had left black people economically, to review programmes aimed at bringing communities closer together, where kids who have been left behind are retrained. Great progress has been made, but I also realised that legislation is not everything. The climate is crucial, a moral climate where it is utterly wrong to judge someone by the colour of their skin or by their sexuality."

He also defends the government's often criticised record on civil liberties. "In 1997, we had a Conservative government that was not prepared to argue for an equal age of consent. It was outrageous, too, that the previous government did not grant an inquiry into the Stephen Lawrence murder as this government did. This government is robust on both."

There is an obvious problem with these observations. Woodward was a Conservative candidate at the last election, defending the record of that previous government. There is a problem also when he attacks the Thatcher government for "not doing much more to address the appalling consequences of the job losses in the 1980s". It was her party that he decided to join, although he insists that it was only the Major/Patten version that he found acceptable. In a recent BBC discussion, the Conservative right-winger John Bercow responded to Woodward's comments by stating: "You have no principles and not a shred of credibility."

Much more wounding for Woodward has been the reaction of some like-minded Tory MPs, formerly close friends, who do not speak to him now. On his first day in the Commons as a Labour backbencher, I happened to be having a conversation near the Commons with a Tory left-winger when Woodward stopped to join us. The Tory, a moderate and decent MP, did not say a word to him. When Woodward left, he explained: "I cannot talk to him again. He is a political opponent now. We can't just carry on discussions as if we are still old allies fighting the same battles in the same party." Woodward looked devastated.

He claims to have found such slights less traumatic than the media attacks on his family, which he believes were instigated by Conservative Central Office. The main target was his sister, formerly his brother, who had a sex change. "How could they exploit my brother, now sister, Lesley, who had obviously been going through a great deal of distress in her life? My parents, who are in their eighties, needed police protection."

He has promised his family a year of stability after what he describes as their "shared hell" in the months leading up to the defection and the drama of the event itself. His family, however, may prove to be a source of political instability in the years to come. His wife, Camilla, is an extremely wealthy member of the Sainsbury family. Conservative Central Office has already ensured that every single Labour constituency in the country has all the details of his lavish lifestyle. If he seeks a seat at the next election, Camilla's millions will inevitably be an issue.

"Before joining the party, I gave a lot of thought to whether my wealth would be a problem. But first I would point out that it is my wife's money, it is not mine. I came from a very ordinary background. Second, we have given millions away to charitable causes. You could argue that the taxman should take away the lot, but we have set up a trust in which all kinds of causes are benefiting - Childline, an information centre for schools at the National Portrait Gallery, social projects in deprived areas."

He claims to be non-committal, but I have no doubt he will seek a seat at the next election. He would like a ministerial job as well, partly to show other potential Tory deserters that there is life on the other side. This defector has no intention of lighting up the political stage for 48 hours and then disappearing into awkward anonymity.

This article first appeared in the 26 June 2000 issue of the New Statesman, We made the people-smugglers rich

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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.