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?”

“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

Respect MP George Galloway won Bradford West with, a 10,000 majority. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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