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Ed Miliband must learn that change can scare people

Politicians love a change narrative - it's uplifting. But the dominant mood now is of pessimism and fear, and Labour must adapt accordingly.

Change is no longer the currency of politics – security is. That is the message, or at least one of the messages, that emerged from Barack Obama’s re-election. As the post-mortem continues and the corpse of the Romney campaign is dissected, one fact is being overlooked: it was Mitt Romney, not Obama, who pilfered, if not quite seized, the mantle of change.

We know that not because of Romney’s hubristic claims, but because Obama’s own supporters conceded as much. After the first presidential debate they were unequivocal. “The first debate really did disrupt the race and presents a painful real-time test of what happens when the president tries to convince people of progress and offer a very modest vision of future change,” reported James Carville and Stan Greenberg. The Los Angeles Times agreed: “All Romney has to do, by contrast, is propose a credible change in direction. He’s done that, proposing across-the-board cuts in tax rates, an overhaul of the tax code and deep reductions in federal spending. His plan won’t appeal to Democrats, and there are plenty of analysts and economists who doubt that Romney can make the numbers work. But he’s not proposing to stay the course set by Obama, that’s for sure.”

The Fabian deputy general secretary, Marcus Roberts, who enjoys good links with the Obama team and worked on Ed Miliband’s leadership campaign, contrasted Obama’s strategy with the old Lee Atwater maxim “Choose the ditch you’re gonna to die in”. “Consider this,” he wrote on the Fabians’ website, “Chicago started with attack on Mitt, went briefly positive in May, went back to attack, went positive at the convention and then went to a different type of attack. Then, last week the TV ads were back to bashing Bain. Now, the campaign says Obama will close positive. That’s a lot of different ditches.”

It was, but despite abandoning the moral high ground, scrambling from foxhole to foxhole and ceding the hopey-changey thing to the Republicans, Obama won, comfortably.

Feel the fear

Politicians love a change narrative. It’s uplifting. It reminds them why they came into politics in the first place. But in the present economic and political climate, it is also a recipe for disaster. The popular mood – both here and in the States – isn’t of hope and optimism but pessimism and fear.

A survey by Havas Media testing voters’ perceptions of the presidential candidates’ ability to help society as a whole and them as individuals came up with what the pollster termed “atrocious” results. Asked whether the candidates would “help make my life easier”, “help me live a better or fuller life” or “help me be a more responsible citizen”, no more than 32 per cent of respondents agreed it applied to either Romney or Obama.

But this was never going to be the election for a march on the sunlit uplands, and Obama recognised that. His campaign adverts weren’t promising change you could believe in, they were bombing Romney back to the political Stone Age: on Bain, on tax, on the “47 per cent”. Even more importantly, the campaign portrayed Obama not as the great reformer, but as the great protector. Your factory was under threat, he’d make sure it stayed open. Your son or daughter was serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, he would bring them safely home.

Understandably, some people are wary about drawing parallels with events across the Atlantic – but up until now they haven’t been sitting in Ed Miliband’s office.

The Labour leader’s election strategy is based on the cast-iron belief that 2015 will be an Obamastyle “change election”. Indeed, this past week Miliband aides were approvingly circulating an article by Dan Corry for Policy Network which argued that a Labour win required “a strategy that has the current of realism running through it, but that also has an uplifting sense of optimism . . . If the centre left does not give people the hope that through purposeful action we can build growth and a better world, then our appeal will always be less than that of our opponents.”

This is more to do with the politics of convenience than the politics of hope; anything allowing Team Miliband to divert attention from the need for cuts is pounced upon. Yet there is a firm – and dangerous – perception that Miliband’s vaulting rhetoric and expansive “One Nation” vision will inevitably trump David Cameron and his crude “We’re finally back on track. Don’t let Labour wreck it” messaging.

Some around Miliband are alive to the dangers. Jon Cruddas continues to push his “we are the [small c] conservatives now” message patiently, with some effect. The battle lines inside the shadow cabinet are morphing from Old v New Labour to radicals v conservationists.

But Labour is still leaning on too many of Romney’s discredited certainties. That a poor economy would undermine his opponent fatally. That early negative definition could easily be redrawn. Crucially, that hope and change would trump fear and the status quo.

Mitt Romney represented change all right. And it scared people. The American electorate, like the British electorate, has had enough upheaval and uncertainty. What Americans hunger for is a period of stability.

Barack Obama recognised that, which is why he ran successfully as the security candidate. And whether David Cameron or Ed Miliband recognises it will determine which of them receives a congratulatory phone call from the president on election morning, 2015.


This article first appeared in the 19 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The plot against the BBC

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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.