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.

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?”


 “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

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