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Leader: Miliband’s Thatcheresque challenge – to change the soul of the nation

Like the former Conservative prime minister, Miliband aspires to be a genuinely transformative leader. Will he succeed?

Economics are the method; the object is to change the soul.
Margaret Thatcher

Those words remain the clearest distillation of the former Conservative leader’s philosophy. Thatcherism was not only an economic crusade to smash the postwar consensus but an ethical project founded on the belief that socialism was inherently morally corrupting. By expanding home ownership, taming inflation, privatising nationalised utilities, weakening the unions and reducing marginal tax rates in an effort to create an “enterprise economy”, Mrs Thatcher sought to promote what the political philosopher Shirley Letwin called “vigorous virtues” – self-reliance, industriousness, fidelity and thrift – and in the process remade the nation through harsh conflict.

Today, the Labour Party has a leader who similarly views politics as a moral challenge, but from the centre left. New Labour, Ed Miliband has said, was “better at rebuilding the fabric of our country than the ethic”. He has declared that Labour must seek not just to return to power in 2015 but to make its values and ideas the “common sense of our age”. Just as Mrs Thatcher rejected the decades-long postwar consensus, so Mr Miliband has rejected the consensus established by her government and faithfully adhered to by every prime minister since. The financial crisis and years of declining living standards (11 million people have had no rise in their real incomes since 2003) are, for him, symptoms of an economic model that is not merely defective, but broken.

So, too, is the steep rise in inequality. Confronted by the widening gap between rich and poor, Tony Blair would glibly remark that he didn’t go into politics “to make sure that David Beckham earns less money”. Gordon Brown was less intensely relaxed about the “filthy rich” but doubted whether it was possible significantly to reduce inequality in a country that he continued to view as conservative.

In his speech to this year’s Labour conference in Manchester, Mr Miliband declared: “I will never accept an economy where the gap between rich and poor just grows wider and wider. In one nation, in my faith, inequality matters.”

“My faith”: here, too, the parallels with Mrs Thatcher are striking. “The Old Testament prophets did not say, ‘Brothers, I want a consensus,’” she once remarked. “They said, ‘This is my faith. This is what I passionately believe. If you believe it, too, then come with me.’”

Like Mrs Thatcher, Mr Miliband aspires to be a genuinely transformative leader. Is he deluded? Or can he win power and build a counter-hegemonic project comparable with Thatcherism?

The year did not begin well for him. In January, Maurice Glasman, the maverick “Blue Labour” intellectual ennobled by Mr Miliband, wrote of his patron’s leadership in the New Statesman: “There seems to be no strategy, no narrative and little energy.” His words reflected and reinforced the concerns of many and there was, in the weeks after the intervention, much chatter about a possible leadership challenge. Exacerbating anxiety was Mr Miliband’s 2011 conference speech, with its sharp distinction between “predatory” and “productive” capitalism. It was poorly delivered and explained, and an incoherent policy review, subdivided into 29 groups, produced little of note under the guidance of Liam Byrne.

Much has changed since then. Mr Miliband has unified the party behind him. His theme of “one nation” has given him a powerful frame for his arguments and Labour’s standing in the polls has improved noticeably. Having received just 29 per cent of the vote in the 2010 general election, its second-worst result since 1918, Labour now regularly polls between 40 and 45 per cent, with a double-digit lead over the Conservatives. In the 1980s, it was the formation of the Social Democratic Party and the consequent split in the centre-left vote that allowed Mrs Thatcher to win successive landslide victories. In 2015, the collapse in support for the Liberal Democrats and the reunification of the left around Labour could bring Mr Miliband to power, with a slender majority.

Labour’s policy review is now being led by Jon Cruddas, the MP for Dagenham and Rainham. It is con­centrating on three areas: a new economy, a good society and a new politics. Like the early Thatcherites, Mr Cruddas has sought to “pull together ideas from a wide international orbit”. Thinkers such as the Harvard philo­sopher Michael Sandel, the Australian writer Tim Soutphommasane and the American academic Danielle Allen are among those whose ideas are informing Labour and helping it find a new language in which to address welfare reform and immigration.

Mr Cruddas represents an impoverished constituency in the borderland between Essex and east London. He understands the anxieties of those voters who believe, wrongly or otherwise, that mass immigration has depressed wages. Labour remains distrusted not only on immigration but also on the economy: on its watch, asset bubbles were allowed to inflate dangerously and not enough houses were built and the party did not have a credible industrial policy until too late.

Labour was chastened by defeat. Can it now offer more than what David Miliband, writing in these pages in July, called “defensive social democracy”? Can it create a novel kind of “responsible capitalism” that delivers sustainable growth and realigns contribution with reward? Labour has in the past viewed public spending and state intervention as the engines of progress but, because of the fiscal constraints it would face in office (the Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts that the deficit will be £99bn in 2015), it can no longer do so. Instead, Mr Miliband and his advisers speak correctly of “predistribution” – the allocation of income and opportunities before taxes and cash transfers – and, in another Thatcheresque flourish, “a supply-side revolution from the left”. In the new economy they envisage, workers’ representatives will sit on company boards, firms will be encouraged to pay the living wage and the banks will become the servants of the people, not the masters. All of this is commendable, if utopian. And Mr Miliband lacks the kind of emblematic policies, such as the “right to buy” council houses, that built popular grass-roots support for Thatcherism in Labour strongholds.

Outside of Mr Miliband’s inner circle, there remain too few willing to speak for his project. He has no intellectual outrider comparable to Keith Joseph and few unshakeable allies in the shadow cabinet. Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, has spoken little of the notion of “responsible capitalism”. His Keynesian critique of the government’s austerity programme has proved robust but it is entirely defensive. The party will not win the election simply by trying to convince voters that the economy would have performed better under its stewardship.

David Cameron has been a disappointment as Prime Minister, even to many of those who once believed in his promise of a more compassionate Conservatism. He is a fluent and plausible leader and performs well in a crisis but what does this patrician believe in and what does he want, beyond the pleasures and privileges of power? The government he leads too often seems incompetent and directionless, with the exception of his chief cabinet ideologue, the ardent Michael Gove. The Conservatives will no doubt insist that voters should trust them to “finish the job” of deficit reduction and economic recovery. It could yet prove an attractive message to an electorate resigned to sustained austerity.

It remains for Mr Miliband to convince the public that it should share his “faith” and follow him in his pursuit of social and economic transformation.

This article first appeared in the 24 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Brian Cox and Robin Ince guest edit

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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.