How Labour could still save the Royal Mail from privatisation

A pledge by Miliband to renationalise the postal service could scare off potential private investors.

It was all quite a shock. On Friday, as the government announced that potential shareholders in the privatised Royal Mail were already lined up, campaigners were pre-occupied with the ballot for an anti-sell off postal workers strike. A strike that will now come after the post has been privatised, if the government has its way.

But there is one last chance to save the post from a privatisation the public do not want. Step forward, Ed Miliband.

In Brighton last week, Labour conference delegates voted unanimously to bring Royal Mail back into public ownership should Labour win the next election. Hurried press briefings that this would not bind the leadership were followed by shadow business secretary Chuka Ummuna yesterday clarifying that such a pledge would be “irresponsible”.

Yet in the past week, the Labour leader has has proved that, occasionally at least, one can govern from opposition. And on this basis, maybe privatisation of the post is not as inevitable as it seems. Miliband’s conference pledge to freeze energy prizes was derided by Tories and pundits as unworkable. But it did much more than bring the issue to the headlines: it led the energy companies themselves to subsequently decide that Miliband, and not David Cameron, was shaping their future. The front page of the NPower website was updated within 24 hours to read: “Why wait for Ed?”, as the power giant offered its customers the chance to set their prices until 2017.

It’s something few opposition leaders have managed – but Ed is no stranger to setting the terms of debate. The scene was set by his early display against News International, when the Labour opposition forced the government to commit to the public, judge-led inquiry that became Leveson. There have since been numerous other areas in which Miliband could have used his acumen and judgment to make the Tories fight on his terms, but instead we have only seen a deafening silence. Labour’s economic arguments still centre around “getting the deficit down”, the line pioneered by Cameron, and vehemently opposed by Labour, before the 2010 election. But the policy pledges in last week’s conference speech were at least encouraging. Now, faced with a privatisation that 67 per cent of the public oppose, it is surely time for Miliband to act again.

The government’s brag that shareholders were waiting in the wings was intended to present the privatisation as a fait accompli. But we forget that no money has changed hands – and potential investors rarely take kindly to hearing their purchases will be snatched away.

Yet despite Miliband’s willingness to challenge the ‘vested interests’ of big business, public ownership remains a toxic phrase among Labour high command. The party’s official history implies that it only regained power in 1997 due to abandoning its policy of nationalisation. But not a single hand went up against the motion at Labour Party conference that called for renationalisation of the post. In the past, Labour leaders from Wilson to Blair ignored party conference decisions on the grounds they would not be popular with the wider public. But as politicians of all parties have drifted away from the realities of ordinary people’s lives, Labour conference now more often proposes policies that could well regain trust and support from voters.

One voice warning against a renationalisation pledge is postal expert David Stubbs. He told the Scotsman that Alex Salmond’s pledge to take the Scottish arm of the post into public ownership in the event of independence would have the “immediate effect… to depress the value even further.” Imagine the effect of a Labour pledge to take it back wholesale. What sort of investor would sign on the dotted line then?

Unfortunately, though Miliband has demonstrated himself well capable of taking on vested interests and winning, he has yet to recognise that sometimes his party's grassroots might just have it right. That he has only just pledged to scrap the bedroom tax – after months of dithering - suggests that the party’s policy process has failed to listen to party members and councillors who have been protesting since the penalty was first mooted.

Time is running out to save Britain from the devastating service that comes with privatised post, with the transfer of stock expected by 15 October. Pledging to re-nationalise would be a risk, but Miliband has taken those before: and if potential investors run scared like the energy companies, it wouldn’t cost a penny.

A worker walks past a row of vans at the Mount Pleasant sorting office on September 12, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Conrad Landin is a freelance journalist and associate editor of Left Futures. Follow him on Twitter @conradlandin.

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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.