Leader: Dave the mystery chap – but the substance isn't there

The electorate is not hurrying to embrace Mr Cameron's Tories, as they did Mr Blair in 1997 or Mrs T

The Conservatives could not have had more propitious circumstances in which to demonstrate that not only has the previously self-described Nasty Party changed for the better under the leadership of David Cameron, but that it has become, once more, the natural party of government. The Tories are up against a Labour government that has been in power for 13 years and, since Gordon Brown became Prime Minister, has been shaken by bitter internal conflicts. The United Kingdom is mired in the deepest recession since the 1930s. We have endured a once-in-a-century shock to the world financial system. Unemployment is approaching three million. The economy is being kept alive only by emergency fiscal and monetary stimulus programmes, and still the recovery is fragile.

We do not need, in addition, a well-sourced, 800-page book by the respected Westminster commentator Andrew Rawnsley to remind us that Mr Brown is deeply unpopular, both within the country at large and in his own party, or that he is prone to erratic mood swings and volcanic eruptions of anger. One can indeed imagine the "forces of hell" that were unleased against Alistair Darling for being simply, well, himself: honest and straightforward.

In such circumstances, the Conservatives should be recording poll ratings similar to those enjoyed by New Labour in the run-up to the 1997 general election. However, the polls are narrowing, with both the Conservatives' lead and their projected share of the vote falling, if not yet alarmingly for
Mr Cameron and his privileged inner circle.

Small wonder that there is such unhappiness and restiveness among many Conservative MPs, as James Macintyre reports on page 14. The Tories are not united behind Mr Cameron. Part of the problem is that few people, even in his own party, know what the Tory leader believes in or stands for. He is plausible. He is smooth and articulate. But, as Simon Heffer writes on page 26 of this special issue on the Conservatives, he is a politician without principle. The party knows what it wants, according to Mr Heffer. It wants grammar schools, stiff immigration controls and punitive spending cuts. It wants clear and decisive leadership of the kind that was provided by Margaret Thatcher, who, as our exclusive poll reveals on page 30, remains very much a hero to the present as well as the next generation of Conservative politicians.

Yet Mr Cameron has no such certainties, as he has shown this year by flip-flopping risibly on any number of policies, from a desire to give special privileges to marriage through the taxation system to equivocating on exactly how the Tories would reduce the Budget deficit. Would the cuts in public spending be immediate and swingeing, as George Osborne would want, or not? Nobody seems to know.

Mr Cameron has been leader of the opposition for nearly five years. When he seized the leadership, in what some senior Tories call a "young MPs' coup", the Conservatives had been demoralised by three consecutive general election defeats. In many ways, the Tories had sleepwalked through the early Blair years, unable coherently to oppose or challenge the New Labour hegemony. Many Conservatives were still in mourning for the fallen Mrs Thatcher, traumatised by the nature of her departure as well as by the squabbling and rancour that had gripped the parliamentary party during the wretched John Major premiership. It was a great moment for Mr Cameron to become leader.

As we have said before, his early positioning was impressive. He spoke a different kind of language from his immediate predecessors - the language of compassionate conservatism - and he was genuinely a social liberal.

At first, Labour did not understand him, as David Marquand writes in his essay, just as the Tories did not understand - and thus underestimated - Tony Blair. Cameron was less a Thatcherite than an old-style, Burkean Whig: pragmatic, plural, adaptable and non-ideological. It seemed that he knew exactly how he wanted to transform the party, and how to make it electable again.

Today, he offers no such clarity. After five years as party leader, he remains as opaque and unknowable as he ever was: a leader in search of a mission. He is, as our poem, with apologies to Old Possum, suggests, very much a mystery chap, with a "raft of policies" that he "plucks from thin air,/But when you take a closer look, the substance isn't there".

Unsurprisingly, the electorate is not hurrying to embrace Mr Cameron's Tories, as they did Mr Blair in 1997 or Mrs Thatcher in 1979, at comparable moments of crisis.

This article first appeared in the 01 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The Dave Ultimatum

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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.