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Project “Ed’s Charisma” – the mission to help Miliband loosen up

Miliband’s strategists reject the idea that goal-hanging is part of the plan.

The surest way to look prime ministerial is to be the prime minister. The point is less glib than it perhaps sounds. Conservatives cherish opinion polls showing that David Cameron has a substantial lead over Ed Miliband on measures of personal authority. Voters generally think Cameron is stronger and more charming than his Labour rival. On the specific question of who looks more like a prime minister, one recent survey had the incumbent 40 points ahead.

Well, people would say that, wouldn’t they? It is easier to picture someone working in Downing Street when he already lives there. That is one Labour defence of the leader’s tricky personal polling. Meanwhile, the party regularly has double-digit leads over the Tories.

Most Labour MPs think that the margin is not wide enough. Many worry that it expresses midterm dissatisfaction with the government more than enthusiasm for regime change and that just a smidgen of economic growth could lead to an abrupt reversal. Downing Street is confident that a presidential-style election battle between the two leaders will halt Mili­band’s momentum.

The view that Britain holds presidential elections disguised as parliamentary ones is commonplace in Westminster – and wrong. If it were so, Cameron would have crushed Gordon Brown to seize a majority. He didn’t because enough voters rejected his party, sticking with Labour despite its flawed frontman. It is the media coverage that is presidential but voters see beyond that.

Way of the jargon

It is possible that the people who tell pollsters that they intend to vote for Labour will do exactly that. It also seems unlikely that those who almost backed Cameron as the ambassador for a new kind of Conservative Party but doubted the sincerity of the change will give him the majority in 2015 that they denied him in 2010.

Those conditions have bred a kind of cynical optimism in some Labour quarters. This view has the party sneaking up on power, doing little more than waiting for divisions between the coalition parties and within them to shred the government’s credibility.

Miliband’s strategists reject the idea that goal-hanging is part of the plan. They know that voters punish parties deemed to be hiding their real agenda. By contrast, they assert, Miliband could not be more open about his intentions: he wants to refashion the British economy so it serves the many, not the few.

What worries many shadow cabinet ministers is not the ambition but the lack of supporting policy detail and the impenetrable language in which the vision is expressed. There is unease at the way Miliband surrounds himself with academics and theorists who indulge the leader’s fondness for jargon – advertising “pre-distribution”, for example, as the antidote to inequality – instead of challenging him to speak in plain English. The atmosphere of the faculty seminar in the leader’s office hinders what one aide describes as “Project ‘Ed’s Charisma’” – the mission to help Miliband loosen up and make it easier for people to imagine him as prime minister.

Partly with that end in mind, Miliband will start this year’s annual conference in Manchester with a question-and-answer session on 29 September, open to all comers at a venue outside the police security cordon. It is an innovation not without risk, aides concede. The crowd won’t be vetted to weed out hecklers. Yet the leader’s minders say that he performs better as “the real Ed”, engaging with the public, unimpeded by lecterns and released from the conventions of political rhetoric.

This year’s keynote address will, I am told, build on last year’s disquisition on “responsible capitalism” but with lessons learned from the hostile reception that lecture initially received. The Miliband camp is certain that the underlying thesis – distinguishing between “productive” and “predatory” commerce – was the right one. It belatedly won plaudits, including from some conservative commentators, as a more interesting analysis of the challenges facing the country than was offered by the Lib Dems or Tories. The message, however, lost coherence amid endless revision. It suffered from being written by committee, as even members of the committee admit.

This year, Miliband has spent more time working on the speech at home. He is said to be determined that it is his personal vision, delivered in his own words (a prospect that provokes cold sweats among those Labour sceptics who long for more campaign-ready sound bites). The emphasis will be on the kind of society that Miliband wants to see emerge from the ashes of austerity. It is a message designed in part to expose Cameron’s failure to offer an optimistic account of why he wants to govern. Even many Conservatives worry that their leader comes across as little more than a posh dilettante overseeing a bodge job on the public finances.

Emperor’s new clothes

No 10 is alert to Cameron’s crumbling image. Focus groups are sounding resentful. Views that the Prime Minister “doesn’t understand people like me” are, according to a senior Tory source, hardening into a feeling that he “doesn’t like people like me”.

Yet there doesn’t appear to be much concern in Downing Street that Miliband’s status will rise as Cameron’s popularity falls. Nor is there willingness to engage with the argument that the Labour leader is making about the economy and society. His account of systemic flaws in British capitalism is dismissed as the sophomoric ramblings of a political lightweight, taken seriously only by people who are comforted by the sound of soft left erudition and afraid to confront the possibility that there might be no substance behind it. “It’s a case of the geek emperor’s new clothes,” says one No 10 insider.

Miliband is relaxed about that scorn. He believes that the Tory leadership is too ideologically blinkered or too arrogant to heed the desire in Britain for a dramatic change in political direction. Even if he is right about that, he has a long way to go before he persuades people that the change voters want is to a Labour government, with him as prime minister. Still, the task is made easier as long as the incumbent seems to think the best qualification for doing the job is simply looking the part.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Labour 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.