Show Hide image

The plot to kill off Labour

. . . on boardroom, bathroom and Purnell’s sideburns

Less than a year ago, we all speculated about whether capitalism would survive. Now, after the elections to the European Parliament, social democracy seems in more danger. Bankers, hedge-fund managers and the like have already picked themselves up and started to behave as if nothing had happened. The lavish bonuses are undisturbed, bank share prices are surging and, soon, the champagne will be flowing again.

Yes, there is a price for the financial collapse, but it will be paid by workers, taxpayers and users of public services. For example, while everybody’s attention was elsewhere this month, Barclays Bank abolished its final-salary pensions, not just for new employees (it did that in 1997), but for existing employees. You may have thought the employees had some contractual entitlement, but apparently not.

In the banking world, contracts become unbreakable only when they affect the bosses’ bonuses. Similarly, Barclays pleads that the “unknowable risks” of pension guarantees are too much to bear. But banks feel free to take any risks they like on the money markets. As for public services and welfare benefits, we are being softened up for cuts on a scale not seen since at least the 1970s and perhaps the 1930s.

The centre left, here and elsewhere in Europe, was found completely wanting by the financial crisis. It had no vision, no language, no programme of action that was equal to events. New Labour in particular was too deeply implicated in the Thatcherite agenda of privatisation and glorification of financial services to seize the moment by, for example, nationalising the banks. Voters evidently concluded that, if they are to have capitalism, they may as well have the real experts running it.

I always thought there was something suspicious about City people and big companies backing New Labour through three general elections. Now I know: it was a plot to achieve Margaret Thatcher’s aspiration and kill off the Labour Party for good. New Labour ministers were just Lenin’s useful idiots in reverse.

Chief among those useful idiots would be James Purnell, a person unknown to the public until he resigned from the cabinet. Raised half in France, half in Surrey, he knows little about either Britain or the Labour Party. He worked for Tony Blair, then shadow employment secretary, while he was still at Oxford and progressed through the Institute for Public Policy Research, the BBC – not making programmes but working for John Birt as a “policy aide” – and, after Blair got to power, Downing Street. He became an MP in 2001. It is hard to imagine a narrower, more sheltered background. No wonder he didn’t know how to clean a bathroom.

The Daily Telegraph reports that, as pensions minister, he impressed “with his ability to master such a technically demanding brief”. If it’s so demanding to master, why are we on our ninth minister in charge of pensions since 1997? And why is Yvette Cooper the eighth Secretary of State for Work and Pensions since the department was created in 2001?

What the Telegraph means, I think, is that Purnell has the swotty student’s talent to mug up on figures and theories without the slightest understanding of how they might affect people. Rather like those who tell you exactly how Manchester United should have won the European final but have never kicked a football in their lives.

Ed Miliband, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, has been, I gather, on paternity leave. This would explain why he failed to make the principled resignation I have recommended, while people with dodgy expenses and dodgier sideburns hogged the limelight. He may rest assured that no principle is discernible in any ministerial departure so far, and he is probably wise to stand aloof from the common herd of resigners. Ed, I keep the faith; in the words of the song, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you. Woo, woo, woo.

The possibility that a 1,000-1 outsider might beat a more highly ranked team is what makes sport exciting, reminding us that we are watching an event where the outcome is genuinely uncertain. It still happens, once or twice a year, in the FA Cup, if not on the scale it once did, when Wimbledon and Hereford, from outside the Football League, beat top-division sides. But cricket requires such high levels of technical skill that, in matches lasting more than half a day, the chances of part-timers beating full-time professionals are negligible.

Twenty20, however, provides better opportunities for giant-killing, as Holland’s thrilling World Cup victory over England showed. The shorter the game, the greater the chance that a determined and focused outsider can cause an upset. Perversely, the existing domestic Twenty20 competition and a second planned for next season are confined to the 18 first-class counties, with no admission for the 20 minor counties. Nor are there plans for a pure knockout competition; if the giant can get up again after being killed, as England did, the romance is somewhat diminished.

A knockout cup that began with each minor county at home to a first-class county would widen public interest. But county treasurers hate knockout cups because they entail erratic streams of income; and TV companies hate minnows because they lack the support that delivers large audiences for advertisers. So it won’t happen.

Can someone explain why the European election results were declared long after midnight on Sunday, more than three days after we’d cast our votes? Most other EU countries vote on Sundays, and several announced results before we did. I realise there are concerns about voters elsewhere being influenced by premature disclosure of UK results (“Gosh, those Brits voted for Nigel Farage! We must vote for a loony, too,” they would say in Kraków), but we could surely start counting in secure locations first thing on Sunday morning. We can’t expect people to take an interest in politics if it all happens while they’re in bed.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Tragedy!

The Science & Society Picture Library
Show Hide image

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.