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Leader: Too many Tories are standing athwart history yelling, “Stop!”

The government is now hostage to an unrepresentative band of right-wingers.

After his election as Conservative Party leader in 2005, David Cameron promised to create a party at ease with the forces shaping modern Britain. It would be one more concerned with improving living standards and public services than with “repatriating” powers from Brussels; one with an environmental conscience, committed to addressing the existential threat of climate change and one that believed marriage “means something whether you are a man and a woman, a woman and a woman, or a man and another man”.

For reasons of both politics and policy Mr Cameron’s “modernising” project was the right one but the events of the past month have confirmed its end. Having been warned by their leader that they needed to stop “banging on about Europe” if they were ever again to win a majority, the Conservatives began to speak of little else following the 2 May county council elections and the surge by the UK Independence Party (Ukip).

Although Mr Cameron promised in January to hold a public vote on Britain’s membership of the European Union by the end of 2017, his MPs variously demanded a “mandate referendum” or an “enabling bill” to enshrine his pledge in law, seemingly unaware that the more time they spend discussing Europe, the less chance they have of winning the general election that will precede any vote. As pollsters testify, the issue is not even among voters’ top ten concerns. The Prime Minister’s eventual decision to publish a draft EU referendum bill, having consistently refused to do so since his speech in January, was an admission that he had lost and that his party’s Euro-obsessives were winning.

This high farce was followed by the return of the gay marriage bill, which, rather than demonstrating how much Mr Cameron’s party has embraced liberalism, served as a reminder of how much it has not. Once again, more Conser - vative MPs voted against the measure than in favour of it and the debate in the Commons was marked by references to an “aggressive homosexual community” and comparisons of same-sex marriages to incest. Forced to rely on Labour and the Liberal Democrats to secure the bill’s passage, Mr Cameron was unable to take credit for a policy that the last Labour government lacked the courage to put forward during its 13 years in office. Too many Tory MPs have exemplified William F Buckley’s definition of a conservative as “a fellow who is standing athwart history yelling, ‘Stop!’”

Mr Cameron does not deserve all or even most of the blame for his party’s reactionary tendencies; not even Cicero could persuade the Tory backwoodsmen to embrace equal marriage. Yet he has consistently failed to challenge the myths that his MPs cite to justify their atavism.

The first myth is that the best response to the surge in support for Ukip, which has achieved ratings above 20 per cent in recent polls, is to adopt ever more hardline stances on Europe, immigration and welfare. Were this the case, the Conservatives would already be winning back Tory defectors from Nigel Farage’s populist party. That they are not is evidence that the main drivers of Ukip’s popularity are far more complex and long-term than the hardliners’ analysis suggests.

The rise in support for Ukip is a howl of rage against a diminished political establishment that appears incapable of solving Britain’s economic problems: the lack of adequately paid jobs; stagnant or falling real wages; the shortfall in affordable housing; the continuing absence of growth from many regions outside London and the south-east. Hostility towards the EU and immigration is often a proxy for these concerns.

Rather than mounting a doomed attempt to outflank the Faragists, the Tories should focus relentlessly on addressing these issues. The “blue-collar” modernisers in the party, such as Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow, have recognised as much, but their emphasis on improving living standards has been swept away by the latest wave of Europhobia.

The second myth is that the party’s failure to win a majority in 2010 was due to an excess, rather than a dearth of modernisation. As polling by Michael Ashcroft has shown, the Tories fell short because voters feared it had changed too little, not too much. A majority of voters continued to doubt whether the Tories could govern in the interests of low- and middle-income earners as well as the wealthy, and whether they could protect public services at a time of austerity. The government’s subsequent decision to cut the top rate of income tax from 50p to 45p and to introduce an arrogant and botched NHS reorganisation for which it had no mandate only confirmed the validity of these suspicions. Mr Cameron should not forget that in 2010 most voters supported parties that rejected his commitment to impose early spending cuts.

That the Conservative Party appears willing to do all it can to lose the next general election is not of concern to progressives. But that the government is now hostage to an unrepresentative band of right-wingers most certainly is. Enduring the slowest economic recovery in more than a century, Britain needs competent and responsible administration. If Mr Cameron is unwilling or unable to provide it, he should consider whether the time has come to ask the voters, as one of his Conservative predecessors did, “Who governs Britain?”

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, You were the future once

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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.