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Labour needs to talk to voters, not lecture them

If we let people get a word in edgeways, they might listen to us in return.

New Statesman
Respect MP George Galloway won Bradford West with, a 10,000 majority. Photograph: Getty Images.

After the Bradford West by-election, someone said, “If we’d lost by 1,000 votes I’d have put it down to organisation. Losing by 10,000? There’s something else going on.”

When you get involved in Labour politics, you go canvassing, or Voter ID, as we call it.

We knock on doors and use a tightly-drafted script which has been devised by experts. It has obviously been devised by experts because in our packs this is a flow-chart with professional-looking arrows.

We ask the questions and the answer is given a code. There is a key to understanding the code at the bottom of the script. Afterwards we enter the codes into our database against the name of the elector.

People are divided into three groups: Supporters, Undecideds, Againsts. The last group we never bother again. The first group ditto. They will be hounded to the ballot box on election day but between now and then they are quite safe from us.

The third group, though, the Undecideds, they get our full attention.

They are bombarded with direct mails, with phone calls, with surveys and invitations. We “squeeze” them (that’s what we call it) until they are forced into a decision – for or against. Only then do we leave them alone.

We learned at campaign training that it was all about how many hands a candidate shook. Every hand a vote. The faster you go, the more votes you get.

That may even have had some truth in it when politicians were still treated like celebrities or seen as important by people.

Everything changed when the expenses scandal happened. That exposed a fury at politicians that went beyond the corruption they saw at Westminster. They said we were out of touch, not listening, and we had no idea how normal life was lived.

We carried on as if nothing had happened. We still knocked on doors and we still asked our questions. 

“If there was a General Election tomorrow which political party would you support?”

“What are you doing about immigration?”

“Which party did you vote for at the last General Election?”

“Why can’t we have a referendum on the EU?”

“Would you prefer a Labour government or a Conservative government?”

“The bins. I’ve got a large family. We chuck out a lot of rubbish. If the lid is one inch off the top, they won’t empty my bin. And they don’t come back for TWO weeks! What do I pay my council tax for?”

“On a sliding scale from Zero to 5, with 5 being the highest, how likely is it that you will vote Labour at the next General Election?”

“They’ve stopped the bus and I can’t afford a car. How am I supposed to get to work?”

“Have you voted Labour in one of the past two General Elections?”

“What?”

 “Do you vote in local elections or do you vote in General Elections only?”

“I give up.”

“Thank you very much for your time.”

 And a good canvasser never forgets to shut the gate.

Not only are people sick of politicians (and by extension all political party activists), but when we do come to their door, we don’t listen to what people say to us. We’re only interested in one thing – a vote.

Why then are we so surprised that no-one is listening to us?

Whilst this is a problem for all political parties, it’s more of a problem for Labour than for Tories or Lib Dems. They’re in government. We’re not. And if we want to get back into government again, it’s something we need to think about.

Back to Bradford West. All the reports were positive. By the end of the campaign, some people were thinking that George Galloway might come in second, which would have been an incredible achievement.

But we were obviously asking the ‘wrong’ people. That is, they were lying to us. They were saying they were voting Labour but then voting for George Galloway.

There are lots of different theories about why we lost but most of them say that it was an exception. It was a by-election, they’re different. It was a Muslim community, though why they’re necessarily different no-one is saying. George Galloway, he’s certainly different.

But it wasn’t so different any of it. We did what we always do. We knock on doors and we ask people if they’re going to vote for us.

What we don’t do is talk to people. We never take the time to have a conversation.

When we tried it in the constituency there was an outcry amongst the tiny handful of people still brave enough to knock on doors. It’s daunting enough for most people not knowing who or what you will meet, but without a script?

“What will we say?”

“Well, just have a conversation with them. Talk to them. Ask them questions about what matters to them. Ask them if there are any issues they want to raise.”

It didn’t really work.

The next time we took a survey with us to give people some prompts, to start the conversation, but still they wanted to ask how someone voted. There were heated exchanges afterwards.

“What is the point of this? How will we know where our vote is? Who will we knock up on election day?”

The point of it is that people have fallen out of love with politicians. They find it particularly hard to be friends with Labour at the moment.

It is frustrating to be saying things that no one listens to until the Tories say it and then everyone thinks it’s a great idea. In fact, that’s really annoying. But the truth is, no-one is going to listen us because we long ago lost interest in anything other than their vote.

A friend who thinks this is a defeatist attitude says, “So what do you suggest? Just give up and go home? Let the Tories get on with it till they become really unpopular? How long do you suggest we give them?”

We should not give up and go home. We should go out and talk to people. When we knock on a door and we tell them our name and that we are from the Labour Party, we should wait a second to see what they say. You don’t need a script to guide you through a conversation someone you’ve not met before at the pub, at the school gate, in the doctor’s surgery.

That’s the only way that people will tell us what they think, where they stand and how they might vote. If we let people get a word in edgeways, they might listen to us in return. They might become interested in politics again if they don’t think all we’re after is their vote.

While that’s all we think about, people will do anything to get rid of us. They will lie or they will slam the door in our face.

No matter what information we have entered in our database, no matter how slick our election-day operation is, then a George Galloway will win in a Bradford West by 10,000 votes. Every time.

Natascha Engel is the Labour MP for North East Derbyshire

Tags:Labour