Nigel Farage ahead of his second debate with Nick Clegg. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Is Nigel Farage hurting the Eurosceptic cause?

If Euroscepticism does not have a much broader appeal than Ukip, Nigel Farage risks becoming an unlikely heir to the late Tony Benn.

It was a very good night for Nigel Farage. The Ukip leader won the second of his two debates with deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg rather more decisively than the first. According to the ICM post-debate poll, 71 per cent of Conservatives and 57 per cent of Labour voters and even 42 per cent of LibDems thought that the Ukip leader won the second debate. Only 2 per cent of Ukip voters gave it to Nick Clegg.

For the uncommitted, Farage certainly won clearly on debating style. But Nick Clegg was much too narrow on substance too. The LibDem leader consistently pitched only to the minority of existing liberal pro-Europeans - seeking their European votes this May - and rarely made the arguments which could well broaden that base to a majority.

So Clegg spoke of his love for modern Britain’s diversity without also talking about why integration matters more if a fast-changing society is to be confident that we have a shared sense of ourselves, that unites new and old Britons alike. Asked for his vision of the EU in a decade’s time, Clegg thought it would be “pretty much the same” as now. That might work with the one in six people who like the status quo, but he offered nothing to the clear majority who would want to stay in as long as the EU was reformed. Farage’s case was not always especially coherent - he was getting out of Europe to go global on trade with India, while also consistently bashing business, and made a virtue of an isolationist foreign policy. But it was the Ukip leader, not the LibDem, who tried harder to connect beyond his base of support.

As the populist Ukip leader makes the political weather, he worries pro-Europeans and cheers up those who would like Britain to get out of the EU.

But should that be the other way around?

Here is the Nigel Farage paradox: the more that Ukip’s media profile, poll rating and party membership has grown over the last two years, the more that support for the party’s core mission – that Britain should leave the European Union – seems to have shrunk.

The YouGov tracker on an in/out referendum captures this Farage paradox clearly.

Last year, there was an average lead for “out” over “in” of sixteen points: 48 per cent to 32 per cent.

Since then, Nigel Farage has rarely been off the television, but the trend is now neck and neck. After Farage won the first debate, the Sunday Times/YouGov poll had a six point lead for “in”, the biggest lead for the pro-EU case for two years.

The polls will continue to fluctuate, but the rise of Ukip has certainly put “in” back on level terms.

There is no doubt that Nigel Farage resonates very effectively for the one in four who are certain that Britain should leave. Those who feel most “left behind” hear their deeper discontents about how Britain has changed being voiced in mainstream politics for the first time. Yet the Ukip mood music can be a turn-off for softer Eurosceptics and “don’t knows” who are not uncomfortable with the society they live in, and risks turning those who were “leaning more out than in” back into reluctant Europeans. Hence Douglas Carswell’s timely warning to his fellow Eurosceptics that “we must change our tune to sing something that chimes with the whole country”. The libertarian Conservative argues that the “better off out” camp must offer an optimistic vision of the future, not just a reverie for a lost Britain, or what he describes as an “angry nativism”.

Immigration has driven Ukip support, which is much stronger among the one-in-four Britons who would stop all immigration if they could. Carswell says that the argument for having more control over migration needs to acknowledge that this can’t happen in the real world.

Immigration, many Outers seem to believe, is our strongest card. It links one of the public’s number one concerns with the question of our EU membership. Perhaps. But the Out campaign must not descend into any kind of angry nativism. First and second generation Britons must feel as comfortable voting to quit the EU as those whose ancestors came over before William the Conqueror. An independent Britain is not going to have no immigration.

Nigel Farage last night had to disown a Ukip leaflet with a Native American pictured and the slogan ‘He ignored immigration and now he lives on a reservation’. That nativist pitch is an example of the gap between some of Ukip’s national media messages in mainstream media debates and the much harder messages being delivered in some local posters and leaflets.

Carswell is surely right that if most people think Euroscepticism is dominated by nostalgia for the past, anger about what has changed, and pessimism for the future, it has no realistic chance of persuading most Britons to make the leap.

But there are two significant challenges for this more liberal and optimistic Euroscepticism.

Ukip could prosper as a party on a narrower and angrier argument. That is enough to get 10 per cent in the polls and perhaps winning a European election, but it would be a much less effective approach in a referendum, where the target is 50 per cent of the vote, not 30 per cent of the narrower electorate who turn up to vote in May 2014. “Outsider” parties like Ukip have, since 1999, performed strongly in European elections and then faded when the question is who should govern Britain, as our report this week, ‘The rise and rise of the outsider election’, illustrated.

The other challenge is that this open and liberal Euroscepticism may be an even more elite project than liberal Europhilia. Among the public at large, the “better off out” case currently is resonating most with those who do prefer the past to the future, as both attitudinal and generational data suggests.

The over 60s would prefer to get out – while Sunday’s YouGov poll showed a preference for in among all groups born after 1954, and so who did not cast their first votes until after Britain had joined the club. The case for “out” can’t win fail if it can only persuade those who can personally remember a Britain outside the EU.

The Ukip leader may be making the political weather, but if Euroscepticism does not have a much broader appeal than Ukip, Nigel Farage risks becoming an unlikely heir to the late Tony Benn.

Benn’s insurgency mobilised activism on the left as had not been achieved for a generation, but failed catastrophically at the ballot box. The Labour left-winger was the decisive voice in insisting on a referendum after Britain joined the EEC. Harold Wilson granted Benn’s wish. But though the anti-EEC campaign began in the lead, it lost the vote by a two-to-one margin. If Farage does secure a referendum, a Ukip-dominated campaign might prove a recipe for losing it.

Nick Clegg’s performance was narrowly pitched to pro-European voters who might come out for the LibDems in May 2014. That showed that the question of “who can give the pro-EU case popular reach beyond those already onside” still awaits an answer.


Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

The Science & Society Picture Library
Show Hide image

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.