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Shirkers v strivers

Labour can win the welfare argument by appealing to working families hammered by the cuts, Liam Byrne tells Rafael Behr.

Labour lost crucial votes at the 2010 general election because it had presided over a welfare system that too many people thought offered rewards for idleness. So it is hardly surprising that George Osborne has made benefit cuts the centrepiece of his austerity plans. Targeting the welfare bill has the double appeal of being popular and foisting a dilemma on the opposition. If Ed Miliband acquiesces to an unpicking of the safety net, his party cries treason. If he defends the status quo, he invites Tory accusations of deficit denial and softness on scrounging. The received wisdom in Westminster is that this trap is one of Osborne’s most cunning manoeuvres.

So I am surprised to hear Liam Byrne declare that welfare will be his party’s ticket back to power. “Labour will win on social security,” he tells me over tea in his parliamentary office.

Byrne is not short of confidence. Among officials in the last government he was a notorious swaggerer – fastidious and unafraid of making enemies. It has fallen to him, as shadow work and pensions secretary, to tell the party things it might not want to hear. Does it bother him, I wonder, being a hate figure for some on the left? “Social security politics is always complicated in the Labour Party,” he concedes with a strained laugh. “It’s complicated now because we have a moral obligation to scream and shout to protect the people who are being hurt by this government. At the same time we have to bring forward a plan for renewing social security that is strong on the responsibility to work.”

So, how does welfare go from being an electoral liability for Labour to an advantage? Byrne’s premise is that the government is failing even on its own terms. It is not reducing the benefits bill or the deficit. When voters grasp the scale of that failure, they will be all the more appalled by the social consequences of the illtargeted and politically motivated cuts.

“The Tories have crossed the threshold of decency,” Byrne says. “They’re very good at conjuring up another vulnerable group to kick the crap out of, but we’ve got to say, ‘Look at the numbers.’ The welfare bill has gone up by £20bn and the way they’re paying for that is taking money off working people. They’re taking £14.6bn of people’s tax credits.”

That is a pivotal argument. The welfare debate in Britain has so far focused on cuts to unemployment benefits and on reforms aimed at encouraging the jobless back into work – the Universal Credit and the Work Programme. That has enabled the government to claim that it sides with working people against slackers. Byrne believes that story will unravel next year when cuts to tax credits and child benefit will heap more pressure on already squeezed low-income families, while those flagship policies aimed at helping the long-term unemployed will run aground. “It’s not Britain’s shirkers who are having to pay the cost of failure, it’s Britain’s strivers,” he says. “The Tories are screwing Britain’s strivers.”

That phrase is a deliberate raid on the Tories’ campaign lexicon. No 10 strategists have identified “strivers” as a key target group – the working-class and lower-middle-class “aspirational” voters who once flocked to Margaret Thatcher’s banner but question whether David Cameron is on their side. The impact of coalition policy on that swing segment will, Byrne says, give Labour an audience on welfare again. “As working people feel the kicking they’re going to get next year and as they see the way our country becomes divided, they’re going to recoil,” he says. “It will remind them of the things they rejected about the Tories in 1997.”

Won’t the public then also want to know what Labour would do differently, given that the budget constraints would be much the same? Byrne, like every shadow minister I speak to, turns vague on the topic of specific cuts. He talks in broad terms about spending less on housing benefit and more on social housing; less on unemployment benefit, more on childcare and social care. The theory is that limited resources should be diverted to help people find work and stay in it. Providing training or help looking after children and elderly parents will be the key to winning consent for a rejuvenated welfare system. Benefits must be designed around the needs of working families, which “feel that they’ve put a lot of money in and don’t get the things back out that they need”.

As for financial viability, Byrne looks to a neglected lesson of the postwar settlement. “If you look at Labour’s 1945 manifesto, two ideas are brought together: we want social security for a rainy day, but it comes with a commitment to full employment, which is what we’re going to need to pay for it.” Achieving that rebalancing will require stating some “hard-edged” facts, warns Byrne. For example? “You’ve got a responsibility to work if you can and if you don’t work, we’ll stop your benefits – it’s as simple as that.”

This kind of comment makes some Labour members wince. It is also something former Labour voters want to hear. Byrne thinks that there is a way through the dilemma. It involves “shouting from the rooftops” about injustices perpetrated by the coalition, while building an alternative offer based on an understanding of what hard-pressed families really want from a social security system. He is sure it’s a winning strategy. But he has to persuade his party of that if he is to convince a sceptical public.

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

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The family in peril

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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.