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The Politics Interview: Menzies Campbell

The former Lib Dem leader was forced out of office by whispers and plots. How does he feel about his

Gordon Brown is not alone in regretting his failure to call an election in October 2007. When, as a new prime minister, he showed characteristic caution - despite double-digit leads in the opinion polls - and backed away from a snap election, it destroyed not just his long-term prospects but the short-term chances of Menzies Campbell's survival.

Elected leader of the Liberal Democrats in March 2006, Campbell hadn't enjoyed a Brown-style honeymoon, and questions about his leadership abilities persisted 18 months into the job. A general election in autumn 2007 would have given him the opportunity to re-establish his position at the top of the party.

However, it was not to be and with continuing rumblings about his age - what he calls the media's "fixation with trivia" - and agitation from within the party, Campbell, then 66, knew that his moment had passed. "Could I take the constant references to my age for another two years? Could the party?" he wrote in his 2008 autobiography. The questions were rhetorical.

If he feels bitter four years on, the signs are difficult to detect. In any case, the MP for North East Fife is probably too busy to worry. He sits on both the foreign and intelligence select committees and a year ago was sounded out by David Cameron for the role, eventually taken by Peter Gibson, as chair of the inquiry into alleged UK complicity in torture. In September last year, he joined the 2012 Olympic Games board. It's an appropriate appointment for a man who ran the 200 metres at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and held the British record for the 100 metres (10.2 seconds) between 1967 and 1974.

For five days in May 2010, he had the ear of Nick Clegg - his successor as Lib Dem leader - who was weighing up an offer to join David Cameron's Conservative Party in government. It's a scenario he had been considering for some time. "When Gordon Brown nearly had an election, I was already thinking ahead to what the consequences might be if the result wasn't an outright victory," he tells me when we meet in his cramped but perfectly appointed parliamentary office, with its views of the Thames and Big Ben. Campbell, in a blue jacket and signature pink-and-sky-blue-striped tie, sits on the green bench that fills the window bay.

He says that, for reasons of "high principle and low politics", full coalition was Clegg's only option - high principle because a minority government would not have assured the markets that Britain was serious about addressing the financial crisis; low politics because the Lib Dems were not sufficiently "robust financially" to fight a likely second election.

Poisoned chalice

Whatever the motivation, the price of coalition has been electoral collapse. Despite signs that the party's poll ratings are recovering from the lows of the spring (Campbell concedes that the uplift is "very gentle"), the Lib Dems were humiliated a month ago in an Edinburgh council by-election. The result mirrored defeats in the local and devolved assemblies elections in May, particularly in Scotland, where the Lib Dems' ratings - below 10 per cent in both constituency and list votes - were unexpected (their coalition partner did markedly better).

Before the election, Campbell had been bullish. He told one national newspaper that Scotland was different because of its "sensible voting system" (the additional member vote) and because "devolution creates a different political context". Such optimism proved unfounded.

May also brought heavy defeat in the referendum on electoral reform. Victory would have signalled progress towards a fully proportional system and would have lifted party spirits. In the event, not only was a move to the Alternative Vote defeated by a margin of two to one, but the campaign that preceded it was characterised by rancour. At the time, Campbell described some of the exchanges between coalition partners as "incendiary". Four months on, he is more sanguine. "I'm not sure that our hands were cleaner than theirs," he says. "Senior Conservatives expressed their views, sometimes in pretty rough terms, but Chris Huhne [the Energy and Climate Change Secretary] expressed his views in pretty rough terms [as well]."

It has had a positive effect, too, he says, in helping to clear the air a little between the two parties. "It was a way of sweeping up the rose petals from the Rose Garden," he says, referring to Cameron's and Clegg's first joint appearance as Prime Minister and Deputy PM on 12 May 2010, when their easy rapport surprised many.

In some respects, Campbell is the perfect coalition loyalist. Of Cameron, he says: "He looks as if he's a prime minister, he sounds as if he's a prime minister"; he believes that George Osborne is right to pursue his deficit-reduction plan ("I don't see an alternative that would give us a better chance of getting to the other end"); and he now supports the controversial Health and Social Care Bill ("The broad thrust of the bill, which is to give patients more influence and more choice, is something that is entirely consistent with Liberal democracy").

In other areas, he has been more rebellious. In late August, he was critical of Cameron's assault on the Human Rights Act after that month's riots, and last December he was one of 21 Lib Dems who voted against an increase in university tuition fees; he and Charles Kennedy were the most senior members of the party to do so. "I pledged myself to do that," he says. "I had my photograph taken on the steps of the student union at St Andrews University," where he is chancellor. Campbell has said that his credibility would have been "shot to pieces", had he done anything but vote No. By extension, does that mean those Lib Dems who signed the same pledge and then abstained or voted in favour of the rise - there were plenty of them, including Clegg - had their credibility shot to pieces? "They must decide for themselves," he says, and then speaks of how he had been pressured to reconsider his position: "I was subject to quite a lot of late-night telephone conversations with my friends in the party, now in parts of the establishment."

On the economy, too - despite broad support for the Osborne plan - he is increasingly at odds with many on the Tory benches. He believes that the 50p rate of marginal tax levied against those earning £150,000 or above should "stay for the foreseeable future". This is an odd position for Campbell, who put his leadership on the line by forcing his party to abandon the 50p tax. "Times change and policies have to change," he says simply. He also believes that the coalition should rethink the rise in VAT, introduced in January. He wants the government "to look at whether or not you could have a temporary reduction or something of that kind . . . I hope the Treasury will look at this seriously."

On the government's military action over Libyan skies, by contrast, Campbell is supportive. As Lib Dem foreign affairs spokesman in the early 2000s, he became the face of parliamentary opposition to the 2003 war in Iraq and was a regular guest on the nightly news programmes, coining the phrase "flawed prospectus" to describe Tony Blair's attempts to justify pre-emptive action against Saddam Hussein. He rejects the accusation that in Libya as in Iraq, the west is attempting to effect pre-emptive regime change. "It's tempting to concertina into that," he says, but points to UN backing and the "pressing urgency of the potential humanitarian disaster".

Last handshake

Campbell, an MP since 1987, is proud of his friendships across the aisle. He was close to the Labour leader John Smith, and Brown was an irregular commuting companion. He describes the former Conservative prime minister John Major as someone "I like very much". Tension with other parliamentarians is rare, though it does exist. He was said to have been highly critical of Danny Alexander's decision to advocate a windfall tax on North Sea oil and gas and of his sanctioning the closure of RAF Leuchars in Fife. Campbell wondered aloud about the "extraordinary coincidence" that RAF Lossiemouth in Moray, near Alexander's constituency, was spared in the defence review.

More damaged is his professional relationship with Huhne. The two were never close ("I'm an admirer of his competence" is as far as he will go) but, according to Campbell, Huhne was guilty of a breach of trust in January 2006 by breaking an assurance that he wouldn't put himself forward as a rival candidate to replace the departed Kennedy as leader.

“In a room very like this room, he shook me by the hand and said he would support me," Campbell recalls. "Half an hour later, he came back and said he was thinking again." In his autobiography, he notes: "We didn't shake hands when he departed for a second time."

When I remind him of those words, Campbell says: "Perhaps I have got a slightly old-fashioned view, but when you make commitments . . ." His voice trails off and he spends a few moments searching for the right formula. "I don't want to start a row where 'Campbell accuses Huhne of being disloyal', but if you can't have confidence within your party, it means being a leader is much more difficult."

That confidence was tested again in October 2007, during the final days of Campbell's leadership. Friends told journalists that Huhne was doing the most to agitate for his removal. "People on his behalf," he says now, incredulous that anyone would think he wouldn't find out. But a "nod and a wink" from a friendly journalist was all it took.

Naturally, if Gordon Brown had been bolder four years ago, the whole episode would have been avoided. Or, perhaps, simply delayed.

Jon Bernstein is deputy editor of the New Statesman

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

This article first appeared in the 19 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the next Prime Minister

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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.