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Can Uber's new boss steer the company out of the headlights?

Dara Khosrowshahi has a daunting in-tray.  

When the board of the “ride-sharing” app Uber went looking for a new CEO, it wasn’t so much hunting for a successor to Travis Kalanick as an antidote. The company’s co-founder was forced in June to take an indefinite leave of absence, but even that wasn’t enough to satisfy some investors. They wanted him out. So he left.

The new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, has a daunting in-tray. First, there’s a legal dispute with Waymo, formerly Google’s self-driving car unit, which alleges that a former Google engineer stole research before ultimately quitting to join Uber. (The man involved has invoked his US Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination; the case is expected to reach court later this year.) Then there are the ongoing regulatory battles around the world, as Uber claims it is part of the “sharing economy”, rather than a minicab service with employees and all the responsibilities that come with that.

Finally, there are deep concerns about Uber’s corporate culture. Kalanick’s downfall was accelerated by suggestions that, under his watch, the company had become a haven for gropers and sex pests, and that he hadn’t done enough to investigate the problem.

In February, a former employee called Susan Fowler published a blog post alleging that she had been propositioned by a manager. “When I reported the situation, I was told by both HR and upper management that even though this was clearly sexual harassment and he was propositioning me, it was this man’s first offence, and that they wouldn’t feel comfortable giving him anything other than a warning and a stern talking to,” she wrote. “Over the next few months, I began to meet more women engineers in the company. As I got to know them and heard their stories, I was surprised that some of them had stories similar to my own.”

Fowler’s blog attracted huge publicity, and senior figures decided that they needed to respond decisively. The board member Arianna Huffington, the co-founder of the Huffington Post, promised that there would be no more hiring of “brilliant jerks”. Uber asked the former US attorney-general Eric Holder to write a report on how the workplace culture could be reformed.

But the bad PR wouldn’t go away. In June, an all-hands meeting was held, at which Huffington noted that once companies had one female board member, it was easier to recruit a second. The venture capitalist David Bonderman, another member of the board, interrupted her: “Actually, what it shows is that it’s much more likely to be more talking.” He resigned soon after, calling his remark “careless, inappropriate and inexcusable”.

Inevitably, there were efforts from the men’s rights movement to turn Bonderman into a free speech martyr – an episode reminiscent of the recent resignation of the Google engineer James Damore, who circulated a memo suggesting there were biological reasons for the paucity of women in his company. (Silicon Valley might portray itself as ruthlessly Darwinian but somehow that impulse fades when the person sacrificed for the good of the company is a powerful man.)

As the sexual harassment row grew, it became clearer that Travis Kalanick – who referred to Uber as “Boob-er” in a 2014 GQ article because it had helped his success with women – was not the right figure to smother the flames. Hence his defenestration and the search for a more low-key replacement. At 48, Khosrowshahi already has 12 years of leadership at the travel company Expedia on his CV. It’s the kind of company Uber would prefer to be: quietly, uncontroversially successful.

Unlike Kalanick, whose 14 rules for new Uber employees included an injunction to “always be hustlin’”, Khosrowshahi has a traditionalist streak. He worked at the banking firm Allen & Company and is on the board of the New York Times. He restructured Expedia several times, raising hopes that he will do the same to Uber’s sprawling international empire. His rebellions are quiet: when he married his wife, Sydney, in Las Vegas, she wore a Slayer T-shirt.

In contrast to Kalanick – who accepted an offer to serve on Donald Trump’s business council – Khosrowshahi, an Iranian American, has been critical of the US president. He was born in Tehran and moved to New York at the age of eight in 1978. When his father returned to Iran to care for his grandfather, he was detained there for six years, splitting the family apart. Unsurprisingly, he opposes Trump’s “Muslim ban” and, after a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, he tweeted: “I keep waiting for the moment when our Prez will rise to the expectations of his office and he fails, repeatedly.”

That attitude is more in tune with the prevailing mood in Silicon Valley, where even those titans who initially tried to work with Trump on his business advisory council have given up attempting to influence someone so capricious. As for Khosrowshahi’s lack of star power, that is exactly what Uber wants: better an invisible CEO than one who creates bad headlines.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 31 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The decline of the American empire

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Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.