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Leader: Liberalism now feels inadequate in this new age of insecurity

The stakes could not be higher.

Ever since the Thatcher era, British politics has been defined by forms of economic and social liberalism. The right won the argument for the former and the left the argument for the latter, or so it is said. Yet in the post-crash era, this ideological settlement is beginning to fracture. The right is re-examining its crude economic liberalism and the left its social liberalism. This shift is characterised neither by a revival of socialist economics, nor by one of reactionary conservatism. Rather, it is defined by a mutual recognition that liberalism, at least in some of its guises, does not provide all the answers to Britain’s most entrenched problems: its imbalanced economy, its atomised society, its lack of common identity.

Two thinkers, Phillip Blond and Maurice Glasman, and their respective factions – the Red Tories and Blue Labour – were quicker to recognise this than most. Mr Blond may no longer have the ear of the Prime Minister, if he ever did, but since the appointment of Jon Cruddas as the head of Labour’s policy review, the Blue Labour faction has emerged as the dominant intellectual influence on the Labour Party.

With his support for a technical baccalaureate, employee representation on remuneration committees and a new network of regional banks, the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, has embraced elements of the German social-market model long championed by Lord Glasman. At the same time, Blue Labour has encouraged the party to begin to articulate concerns on social issues that have long been neglected by the left and to speak about culture as well as economics. In a recent speech to the Fabian Women’s Network, Diane Abbott, the shadow public health minister and once on the hard left of the party, spoke out against the “sexualisation” of childhood. “For so long,” she said, “it’s been argued that overt, public displays of sexuality are an enlightened liberation. But I believe that for many, the pressure of conforming to hyper-sexualisation and its pitfalls is a prison.” Ms Abbott concluded: “We’ve got to build a society based on open-minded family values and not ‘anything-goes’ market values.”

More contentiously, in the case of immigration, Blue Labour has provided Mr Miliband with a language in which to engage with what went wrong under New Labour. According to Tony Blair’s globalist narrative, an open immigration policy was an unalloyed good. The interests of workers who saw their wages undercut and who felt confused and left behind by the pace of change were subordinate to those of the corporations that benefited from a larger and more flexible labour pool. Mr Miliband appears to have accepted the argument of Lord Glasman, Mr Cruddas and others that the Labour Party was too slow to respond to such anxieties among its natural supporters in working-class communities. He has argued that Labour was wrong not to impose transitional controls on migration from accession states such as Poland, as other members of the EU had done. He has pledged to ban recruitment agencies that operate exclusively by bringing in foreign workers to Britain without trying to fill vacancies locally. If it is true that immigration has had a generally beneficial effect on aggregate output, it is also true, as Mr Miliband has observed, that: “People don’t live their lives in the aggregate.”

This insight is also shaping the Labour leader’s approach to welfare and his call for a reassertion of the “contributory” principle. By remodelling the benefits system so that there is a clearer link between what people put in and what they receive, Labour seeks to restore public confidence. The view of the welfare state as a pot from which all draw as much as they can is being rejected in favour of one that emphasises reciprocity. This is necessary if the welfare state is to survive and to continue to enjoy majority support.

On the right of British politics, there is a similar willingness to question the free-market dogmas that, as David Selbourne argues in his essay beginning on page 28, the modern Conservative Party under David Cameron has embraced. “The inability of today’s Conservative Party to fashion an identity for itself is a matter for incredulity,” he writes. “If you think like the classical Conservative used to think, you would be seething at the ‘moral condition’ of the country . . . Old-style Tory utilitarians would have been rolling up their political sleeves to tackle today’s indecent levels of social and economic inequity, housing shortage, declining standards of health provision, rural impoverishment and soaring public transport costs.” Instead, the party is suspended uneasily between tradition and “modernisation”.

Yet there is good thinking occurring on the right. The Tory MP Jesse Norman and the conservative commentator Ferdinand Mount recognise that Britain’s lightly regulated model of financial capitalism has undermined the conservative goal of a stable and orderly society. Mr Norman, who will shortly publish a book about Edmund Burke, has written of how markets should not be idolised, but “treated as cultural artefacts mediated by trust and tradition”.

Nearly three years after the general election, British politics remains hung. There is increasing disdain for the coalition but as yet little genuine enthusiasm for the Labour alternative. The events in Cyprus remind us that, five years after the greatest financial crash in history, Europe remains in crisis and the banking system is largely unreformed. In Britain, where the banks were bailed out at a great cost to the nation, wages are flat or falling, unemployment remains very high, and the old welfare model is unravelling. Institutional trust is at an all-time low. So peculiar is our situation that an unelected monarch, the embodiment of the old class-based hierarchical system, is perhaps the nation’s most trusted and respected individual.

With its emphasis on abstract individualism, liberalism, the great driver of social emancipation and economic prosperity, now feels inadequate to this new age of insecurity. In his recent “Earning and Belonging” speech, Mr Cruddas said: “Simply opposing the cuts without an alternative is no good. It fails to offer reasonable hope. The stakes are high because when hope is not reasonable despair becomes real.” He is right: the stakes could not be higher but who is best positioned to lead Britain out of despair and create a new sense of purpose and belonging?


This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

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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.