Show Hide image

Sadiq Khan: champion of the underdog

The shadow justice secretary grew up poor – now, as a card-carrying member of Ed Miliband’s “new gen

I arrive at Sadiq Khan's office in Tooting, south London, to find the shadow justice secretary chatting with one of his female constituents in Urdu. Khan is one of 19 Asian MPs and was the first Muslim to attend cabinet. "I don't call myself a Muslim MP," he tells me. "I'm an MP who happens to be Muslim."

Khan has been MP for Tooting, where he was born and brought up, since 2005. Last year, the Tories - bolstered by Lord Ashcroft's millions - targeted the seat; Khan's majority was slashed by nearly 3,000 votes. When his re-election was announced by the returning officer in May, his supporters chanted "Yes, we Khan", in the manner of a Barack Obama rally. "We were the seat that the Tories needed to form a government," he says proudly.

Khan's unlikely victory in Tooting was followed by his appointment as campaign manager for the Labour leadership bid of Ed Miliband - whose victory, too, was against the odds. In October, Khan, a former civil liberties lawyer, was elected to the shadow cabinet and given the role of shadow justice secretary. He was charged with shadowing two of the coalition's biggest beasts, the Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, and the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg (on constitutional affairs). Young and articulate, he is a card-carrying member of his leader's "new generation".

Born in 1970 to immigrants from Pakistan, Khan was the fifth of eight children - he has six brothers and one sister. He grew up on a council estate. "It was crowded," he tells me. "There were two and a half bedrooms." His father was a bus driver and his mother sewed dresses. He did not go abroad until he was 23, when he went on holiday to the United States.

“Class is still relevant," Khan says. "I don't think we should pretend it isn't." However, he dismisses Labour's antics in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election of 2008 - sending out activists in top hats, dressed as toffs - as "crude" and "not smart politics". He is keen to warn against the conflation of "aspiration and class". "Labour has got to be careful if it is to carry on being the party of aspiration," he says.

What about the coalition? Does it matter that there are 22 millionaires in the cabinet? "That they are rich is relevant because of the lack of empathy. I'm not saying that they can't empathise - but they just don't get it.

“For them, tightening your belt is taking two holidays a year instead of three . . . or having one au pair rather than two. I think it is a problem if you have a cabinet that doesn't understand the real challenges that people face. If you have a background that is one-dimensional and have not had the life experiences or understood what sacrifice means to ordinary punters, I would say it is difficult." He then hastens to add: "I'm not saying you can't empathise without experiencing things - but it is difficult."

Does he consider himself to be working-class or middle-class? "I am middle-class by profession, but I hope I've not forgotten my working-class roots."

I point out that there are few politicians with working-class roots left on the Labour front bench after the former postman Alan Johnson's resignation as shadow chancellor. Khan nods. "Johnson going is not only a huge disappointment. Very few of us in the major parties have diverse experiences and that is a problem. We are going backwards."

Khan mentions the potential impact of the new, austere MPs' expenses system, overseen by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa). "One of the unintended consequences of Ipsa will be that you will end up with people who are independently wealthy, or who haven't got any dependants, or whose families need to live hundreds of miles away, while they are living by themselves in Westminster." He smiles, before adding: "And we know all the mischievous behaviour that can cause. It is inevitable that politics will become a middle-class vocation, which is dangerous . . . we, as a party, need to do more and the trade unions have also got to step up to the plate."

But isn't he embarrassed about how elitist Labour seems to have become? Three of the top posts in the shadow cabinet - the leader, the shadow chancellor and the shadow home secretary - are held by middle-class Oxbridge graduates who spent much of their pre-parliamentary careers as special advisers.

“I am not saying that there is anything wrong with wanting to be a politician," he says. "What I am saying is that it is not a good thing when you have all three parties in parliament filled with career politicians."

Given his background, how did Khan end up as a lawyer? "LA Law," he replies, referring to the hit US television drama series of the 1980s. It starred, among others, the Hispanic actor Jimmy Smits as the dashing young attorney Victor Sifuentes.

Khan cites the character of Sifuentes as an inspiration (he pretends not to hear me when I remind him that Smits went on to play the US president in The West Wing and I ask him whether he has similar leadership ambitions). "Don't underestimate the power of TV. In LA Law, you had these lawyers acting for underdogs, doing these great cases, and I was reading in the newspapers about the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six and all those miscarriages of justice. Those were my formative years."

What prompted him to specialise in human rights? "Acting for the underdog," he says. "When I was growing up, I saw friends' big brothers being stopped and searched by the police; people losing their jobs; my dad's garage under threat of closure. I needed to be useful."

When he was 26, he founded the law firm Christian Khan with Louise Christian. He went on to serve as chair of Liberty, where he played an influential role in appointing a young Shami Chakrabarti to lead the organisation in 2003.

He "walked away" from his firm in 2004 to become a prospective parliamentary candidate in Tooting, where he had been a member of the local Labour Party since the age of 15, because he wanted the opportunity to change "hundreds of thousands of people's lives" as a member of parliament. "I didn't have any mates who were already MPs or ministers when I went into the Commons. I went in there as somebody whose CV and backstory was [about] taking on the party." Khan reminds me that he voted against Tony Blair's 90-day detention-without-charge proposal as a freshman MP in November 2005; I remind him that he later voted in favour of ID cards and the renewal of control orders.

Did he feel that he had sold out his former colleagues who were still working in the field of civil liberties? He shakes his head. "Politics is about compromise. We don't have à la carte politics in this country."

In a forthcoming Fabian Society event, Khan will deliver his first major speech on the party's approach to criminal justice. Like Ed Miliband, he is dismissive of the triangulation and autho­ritarianism of the New Labour years. "I think one of the things that a Labour home secretary and a Labour lord chancellor found difficult was to get out of a Daily Mail headlock. We allowed that tail to wag the dog." Does prison "work"? "It depends what the purpose is. If prison is to punish, it does . . . It doesn't rehabilitate enough, though." On the subject of Islam, I ask whether he agrees with the Conservative Party chair, Sayeeda Warsi, who is a fellow Muslim, that Islamophobia has become acceptable in Britain.

Khan describes the Tory peer as a "mate" but says that her recent speech was "too simplistic". "My view is this. When I speak to my cousins in Pakistan, they tell me that no one from my family could dream of becoming a member of parliament there, let alone a member of the cabinet. That I could in Britain is a huge source of inspiration to them."

So, is there no Islamophobia problem in the UK? "Of course there is. I think we are now at the stage where the Afro-Caribbean community was 20 years ago and the Irish were 30 years ago." (On 5 February - just two days after our interview - Khan accused David Cameron of, in effect, "writing propaganda" for the English Defence League by denouncing both Muslim extremism and multiculturalism in a speech to a security conference in Munich. Khan's "mate", the Tory chair, accused him of "outrageous and irresponsible" smears against the Prime Minister and demanded that he apologise. He hasn't.)

Knocking Eds

Was he surprised by his friend Miliband's victory in the Labour leadership contest in September? The night before the result, Khan told Miliband to "prepare for defeat". "I learned this from Rumpole of the Bailey," he says. "Always tell your client he's going to lose because, if he loses, he's expecting it; if he wins, you're the fantastic lawyer who got the victory." However, he adds: "I had a feeling we'd done it."

How does he respond to his backbench colleagues who have been grumbling about their leader's "slow" and "shaky" start? "They need to get a sense of perspective. We're in the ninth month of a 60-month parliament. Blair had three months before his first conference speech and they knew there'd be an election by May 1997." In contrast, he says, "we've got five years to go. The important thing is that Ed continues to improve."

Is he worried about the dynamic between Miliband and Ed Balls, the new shadow chancellor? Is Balls "on probation", as one shadow minister put it to me? "As somebody who aspires to be lord chancellor, I believe in rehabilitation and giving people another opportunity," he says, laughing. "I judge a person as I find him and, on the evidence I've seen, Ed Balls is a brilliant shadow chancellor."

Khan is an astute politician. I ask him what he thinks is the main challenge facing Labour in opposition. "Many of us have friends and family [members] who, in the past, would have said that they were Labour voters but now feel uncomfortable about being Labour voters, even though they voted for us in 2005 and 2010. We need to change that. You should vote Labour with pride."

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 14 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The Middle East

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.