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Reviewed: Tory Modernisation 2.0 ed. Ryan Shorthouse & Guy Stagg

Homesick Blues.

Tory Modernisation 2.0: the Future of the Conservative Party
Edited by Ryan Shorthouse and Guy Stagg
Bright Blue campaign ebook, free download at:

Today, Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith sit together in cabinet. Rewind a decade, however, and it was all very different. Back in 2003, Gove wasn’t yet an MP but a crusading columnist, arguing, with other Tory modernisers, that the party had to drag itself into the 21st century on social issues and get over its fixation with Thatcherism.

IDS, on the other hand, was the Tories’ embattled leader, who had flirted with compassionate conservatism before reverting to type and trumpeting, in what would turn out to be his last conference speech as leader, the so-called “Tebbit trinity” of Europe, immigration and taxes.

By then, the sharks – including Gove – were beginning to circle. Calling on Duncan Smith to step down, he borrowed a few lines from Rudyard Kipling: “The Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,/And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wobbling back to the Fire.”

Within weeks, IDS was gone, replaced by Michael Howard, who promptly surprised everyone by briefly appearing to have undergone a conversion to a modernising agenda that, by that time, was best articulated by Policy Exchange – the ginger group-cumthink tank fronted by Gove and two other current ministers, Nicholas Boles and Francis Maude. Howard’s heart, however, wasn’t really in it and, by the 2005 election, his pitch, honed by the Australian strategist Lynton Crosby and a young MP called David Cameron, was as Thatcherite and as populist as ever.

Only after the ensuing defeat did Cameron put his considerable talents at the service of the modernisers. And only after he won the leadership in December 2005 did the party commit itself to “change to win”. Except that it didn’t – not quite, anyway. For the most part, Cameron worked around rather than faced down internal opposition. Worse still, in May 2010, he failed to persuade voters to grant him an outright majority.

That failure still forms a fault line through today’s Conservative Party. According to many activists and MPs, Cameron missed an open goal by not offering the country a clear enough (that is, Thatcherite) alternative. Instead, he had diluted their message with his support for “progressive” social causes that had little or no resonance outside Notting Hill. At the same time, by offering guarantees to ring-fence spending on big-ticket items such as the NHS and retirement benefits, he had, in effect, denied his government the freedom both to make much-needed savings and to complete the free-market revolution.

Others – including most of the contributors to this slim but thought-provoking volume – see things very differently. As Matthew d’Ancona argues, it was too little rather than too much modernisation that did for the Tories in 2010. According to this analysis, Cameron, spooked by the financial crisis, hit the brakes too early and, by defaulting to orthodoxy before the electorate was sufficiently reassured as to his good intentions, ensured that the Conservatives weren’t yet trusted enough to assume office without a deal with the Liberal Democrats.

As a result, argues d’Ancona (who is currently writing an eagerly awaited book on the coalition), the Tories are in far more trouble than they – particularly those on the Thatch - erite and populist right – realise. If, instead of moving quickly to jump-start the stalled modernisation process, they fall back into the tribal and doctrinal thinking and rhetoric of the 1980s, then the reforms that they (and, for the most part, he) regards as necessary – reducing the deficit, freeing up education, making work rather than welfare pay, rebooting the NHS – will be too easily misrepresented by their opponents. It will also, as the acting director of Policy Exchange, David Skelton, notes in picking up on extensive opinion research, strand them further than ever from the ethnic-minority, urban, working- class and northern voters they need to convince if they are to win healthy majorities in the future.

D’Ancona and most of his fellow contributors assume or at least hope that what is popularly understood as One-Nation Conservatism – an “open-minded and bighearted” creed “rooted in pragmatism, not in idealism”, to quote the book’s editors – remains a strong and viable strain in the 21stcentury Tory party. To read David Willetts’s essay, which stresses the centre right’s recognition of both “wings” (freedom and aspiration) and “roots” (tradition and community), this is not so hard to believe. Yet, back in the real world, one suspects that Willetts, while in good company here, may be in a smaller minority among his parliamentary colleagues than he would have us believe.

This is not to suggest that he or the rest of the contributors are living in cloud cuckoo land. Indeed, many of them make admirable efforts to ensure that their political and social analyses and the policy prescriptions that they come up with are rooted in empirical research. And while they are happy to engage in some (bright) blue-sky thinking, by no means all of it strikes one as utterly incapable of solving some of the tangible and persistent problems that impinge on the lives of the many ordinary people who remain unconvinced that the Tories have much to offer them.

Doing the latter, all the authors seem to agree, is central to “Modernisation 2.0”. Where version one was often (although never exclusively) about persuading educated and often liberal middle-class voters that the Tories were no longer “the nasty party”, version two, they insist, has to focus on the more fundamental concerns of what James O’Shaughnessy, director of policy at No 10 between 2010 and 2011, calls “the people we need to vote for us” – those living somewhere “between the suburbs and the council blocks”, “younger families who ‘work hard and do the right thing’ but often wonder why they bother” and who desperately need to be given “positive reasons to vote Conservative”.

For O’Shaughnessy, these would include a huge expansion in house-building, achieved by the kind of deregulation that scares some Tories rigid, as well as a switch from providing services in kind to cash lump sums and even a James Purnell-style job-guarantee scheme for the long-term unemployed.

Other iconoclastic ideas include capping energy bills and commuting costs (Skelton), more integrated budgeting and payment-byresults (Jonty Olliff-Cooper), loans-based early-years provision, for-profit state schools and more creative financing of postgraduate education (Ryan Shorthouse), truly taking younger people’s lack of political participation seriously (Guy Stagg), likewise loneliness (Graeme Archer), genuinely opening up (and divorcing) trade and aid (Fiona Melville) and getting real about renewables (Ben Caldecott).

Even if some of those ideas are a little less centrist or at least a little more ideological than some of their proponents seem to realise, this is a worthwhile exercise. Governments, after all, can become so preoccupied with day-to-day firefighting and with delivering the manifesto on which they fought the last election that they can easily run out of ideas for the next one. This book aims to help by providing what Willetts calls “midflight refuelling”.

Whether the Tories are able to take much of it on board is another matter. At the moment they seem far too focused on Europe, on hitting their fabled immigration target, on setting “strivers” against “skivers” and on what some of its members regard as a running battle with the teaching profession. If this isn’t wobbling back to the fire, then I don’t know what is.

Tim Bale is professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London. He is the author of “The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron” (Polity Press, £14.99)

Tim Bale is professor of politics at QMUL. His latest book, Five Year Mission, chronicles Ed Miliband's leadership of the Labour party.

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Intervention Trap

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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.