What japes! Nigel Farage drinks a flagon of ale after a Ukip public meeting in Basingstoke, 9 April. Photo: Getty
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Laurie Penny on the far-right: Ukip understands people will always want someone to blame

Orwell was wrong, the English will accept a far-right government, so long as it’s dressed up in silliness and accompanied by a farting trombone.

Why can nobody stop Nigel Farage? With just weeks to go before the European and local elections, the threat posed by Ukip and its charismatic leader is finally being taken seriously but it’s far too late. For too long, the main response of the political classes has been to scoff at a party that, since it cannot speak the language of “the people”, speaks the language of popular television comedies, complete with awkward racist blunders. But there’s nothing to laugh about.

Farage is not alone: he is part of a frightening pattern. Across Europe, candidates from the libertarian nationalist fringe are emerging to fill the void where hope should be with their vicious cocktail of prejudice and anti-politics. They capitalise upon broad resentment of the financial and political elite and popular longing for an alternative, any alternative. Absolutely all they have in common with “ordinary” voters is the fact that the centre-right establishment doesn’t understand them, doesn’t trust them and would like them to shut up and show respect.

Given that the Tory base shares many of Ukip’s core beliefs about immigration and European integration, its leaders can only hope that they’ll swallow a watered-down version of Farage’s arguments while pretending he does not exist. Nor can they rely on the nuclear option of pointing out that Farage is a privately-educated, expenses-grubbing former banker, because the same applies to much of the cabinet, and anyway, integrity is not Farage’s selling point. The fact that he draws a sizeable salary from his full-time political work, claims every possible taxpayer-funded expense from Europe and employs his German wife as his secretary has not hurt Farage, because it turns out the public have ceased to believe in honest politicians and would prefer to vote for a crook who’s upfront about it.

Nobody expects integrity or decency from Farage and they duly get neither. What they get, and what the British press has furnished with endless primetime platforms and wall-to-voting-booth-coverage, is a genuinely talented television personality who seems to be honest about his own hypocrisies. When journalists finally, timidly put the expenses question to him, he confirmed that he saw no problem with ripping Europe off. In this time of bland and faceless political insincerity, Farage gives the appearance of a likeable rogue who at least has his hands on the table where you can see them. 

In reality, one of the hands is under the table pointing a gun at your nethers, like Johnny Depp as Eyeless Jack in Once Upon A Time In Mexico, and I absolutely promise you that that’s the only time I’ll ever mention Johnny Depp and Nigel Farage in the same sentence. 

Farage comes across as a friendly spiv; in fact, he is is a thug. He is leading the sort of party that has no qualms about exploiting racial prejudice and hatred of foreigners in order to strengthen its base. Ukip is the sort of party that speaks for the people only in the sense that it taps into the cramped and ugly part of the collective psyche that would stamp on the other chap for a chance at revenge. Ukip is the sort of party that supports the interests of business whil speaking the language of socialism. Ukip is the sort of party that has to declare in its strapline that it is not racist, which makes it about as not racist as anyone’s racist uncle. Ukip gets away with all of this and more because it is the only vehicle representing public rage and contempt for the what Farage calls “career politicians and their friends in business”, as if he is not one of them.

The British political class does not understand how badly it has alienated its voter base. It does not understand the rage against a democratic system that has failed to provide any coherent, liveable alternatives to falling wages, rising rents and persistent unemployment. From within Westminster, it is impossible to comprehend how out-of touch politicians look, how much the expenses scandal meant, and continues to mean, for people who do not drink in the taxpayer-subsidised Commons bars.

Ukip understands that when people have given up on change, when people have given up hope, they will still get out of bed for someone to blame. A significant portion of its votes come not from the Lib Dems or the Tories, but from previous non-voters. The entire comment spectrum on left and right seems to treat the people who plan to vote for Ukip and similar meatheaded, vicious right-wing parties like cattle who must be herded towards right-thinking. They hope that simply pointing out the racial prejudice of the new party’s core platform, as with the latest, last-ditch, zero-hour cross party campaign to brand Ukip as “Euracist”, will cause the cattle to come to their senses. 

The problem is that people already know. Oh, they may quibble about the dictionary definition of racism, but people know, in their hearts, that Ukip is a party of prejudice that blames people who look different, talk different and comes from elsewhere for structural social injustice. They know. They just don’t care enough to change their vote. They don’t care because as much as they may like their neighbours, they hate the political classes and fear the uncertain future far more, and for that particular change in public mood, the Conservatives need only inspect the mirror in the any of those parliamentary bars.

As soon as Farage was put on a televised podium next to Nick Clegg, he’d won, and not only because he is the better public speaker, witty and brash and not lashed to a party line. The Liberal Democrats have everything to lose, having traded away every scrap of popular respect for power in that bile-raising way that should have become more palatable after four years but somehow hasn’t. By contrast, Ukip lose nothing when people laugh at them. Clegg looked like an acting student auditioning for a serious drama, when the audience knows, and Farage knows, that he is acting in a farce.

George Orwell once famously wrote that the reason goose-stepping fascists would never gain a shiny-booted toehold in Britain was that they would be laughed at. Unfortunately, he was wrong. If real far-right hegemony arrives in Britain, this is what it will look like. It will look ridiculous. It will set its unserious self against the serious politicians everyone loathes, and the British people - and, in particular, the English people - will giggle it all the way into Downing Street, accompanied not by a Wagnerian overture but a farting trombone. The reason nobody can stop Ukip is that nobody can offer a credible alternative that articulates public rage without playing on popular hatred. For that, you need vision, hope, and real respect for the electorate, and that’s something the organised left has yet to provide.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Islam issue

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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.