Forget values or policies - if you're a woman, getting selected as a parliamentary candidate is all about the hair

Sally Gimson, who is seeking selection as the Labour parliamentary candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn, shares a few thoughts from the campaign trail.

I have been obsessed for the past few weeks with the selection of Labour’s next parliamentary candidate in Hampstead and Kilburn. Glenda Jackson will be standing down in 2015, the all-women shortlist has been whittled down to the last three of whom I am one, and the hustings and decisive vote are on Sunday, which also happens to be Bastille Day. In case you are wondering, this is a selection Unite has decided to sit out. Hampstead and Kilburn has a large and independent-minded membership, about 900 strong, which makes the outcome horribly unpredictable. As a candidate, the election is about mobilising your friends, holding a fund-raiser and spending every day knocking on members’ doors, ringing them up, sending them emails and leaflets until they are sick to death of the lot of us. And then giving a knock-out speech at the hustings. It is costly in both time and money, which is why candidates always try for union backing because that is one of the few sources of help if you are not independently wealthy. I am proud to be endorsed by Aslef. One forgets though that politics was always for some people a hand-to-mouth business, and can be the worse for not being so. Clement Attlee had lots of jobs before he became an MP, working for charities, as secretary to Beatrice Webb and to Toynbee Hall, and serving at Gallipoli, where he was the last but one man out of Suvla Bay. Disraeli was scandalously in debt.


What I detest most about the current bunch of Tories is that they have encouraged and indeed see nothing wrong in a global oligarchy which is floating away from the rest of us. These people do not pay taxes and have their businesses registered off shore. This is the case for many of the businesses now taking over public services. Neither these firms nor their bosses have any  real stake in Britain. They don’t care about public services and are interested in pushing down wages across the board. Moreover they use expensive lawyers to close down any legal challenge to their position, while  the Tories and LibDems have abolished much legal aid which would help the less well-off  challenge them. It is inherently unfair and a Labour Government will have to pass bold legislation to stop it.


Out canvassing, I find myself meeting everyone from young management consultants, pragmatic Labour as one might call them, who have spent their adult life in Blair’s Britain and are passionately interested in how you obtain social justice within a global capitalist system, to the romantic old literary left in Hampstead, poets and artists who have seen the world change beneath their feet. Their reference points are Attlee and post-war Labour governments and they make the necessary connection to Labour’s intellectual socialist foundations.


Meanwhile a significant part of the electorate live on the council estates in Kilburn. These people most need a Labour MP and a Labour government to stand up for them, but very few of them are Labour members. Nor indeed are most of them unionised. They are stuck on very low pay, going in and out of unstable work, sometimes disabled and heavily reliant on benefits. With the Government’s cuts and changes to benefits they are all too easily forced into the hands of loan sharks and many may end up being forced out of London. As lawyer on the Kilburn High Road reminded me Labour in the 1970s was instrumental in setting up law centres, and legal firms up and down the High Road offered free advice. That has all but gone now. The Citizens Advice Bureau also moves out this summer.


My husband, Andrew, has been the subject of a certain amount of speculation. Does the fact he’s a bit of a Tory make any difference? With a majority of only 42 in a three-way marginal I hope it might be an advantage to be able to pick off supporters of the other side. This is the letter he wrote to the Camden New Journal:

In your admirably even-handed account of the candidates to succeed Glenda Jackson, you suggest people might think it a drawback for Sally Gimson to be married to me. So I would like to reassure any of your readers who may be worried about this that although I have Tory tendencies, I have been unable, in the last 21 years, to change a single one of Sally’s political opinions.


I haven’t yet managed to meet Emma Thompson, another famous member, who is a prominent campaigner against the third runway at Heathrow. Alan Davies, the comedian, has come to several events, behaved charmingly and seems genuinely enthusiastic about choosing the next parliamentary candidate. I do wonder whether the whole process might not make for a one-minute comedy sketch and he is just gathering material.


My preoccupation with politics means the house has become a bit of a mess. When a professor friend arrived to stay from America she had to get our younger daughter to take her shopping for supper.  I get occasional texts from our son’s school saying he has not done his geography homework. The 11-year-old is acting more like a flatmate than a daughter, the kind of flatmate who labels the milk, keeps their room immaculate and gives you disapproving stares when your friends come round. And the 17-year-old . . . I can’t tell you about the 17-year-old because that would embarrass her. Suffice to say that seeing her parents’ rackety lifestyle of journalism and politics is making her more determined to have a proper job as a doctor.


My biggest, if somewhat disillusioning, discovery is that it is really all about the hair. Forget values or policies, one of the essentials for being a woman MP or parliamentary candidate is the hair. Get up close to Harriet Harman’s hair and you’ll see what I mean. It’s a work of art: the different subtle colours, the smoothness. And Rachel Reeves’s hair, dark, shiny and immaculate. Barbara Castle and Margaret Thatcher used to have their hair done every day. Even when Mo Mowlam didn’t have any hair, she still used her wig to her advantage. For the first time in my life, I have invested in a proper hair dryer, but I am not sure this is enough.

Sally Gimson is a Labour councillor for Highgate, Camden and is seeking selection as the Labour parliamentary candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn

You know what to do. Photograph: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Industrial Strategy: Ensuring digital skills are included

The opportunities for efficiency, adaptability and growth offered by digital skills have never been so important to British businesses. The New Statesman asked a panel of experts, including Digital Minister Matt Hancock, Tinder Foundation CEO Helen Milner, Tech City CEO Gerard Grech and Google Policy Manager Katie O’Donovan, to pinpoint the weak spots and the opportunities for a smarter digital skills strategy.

British people spend more per capita online than any other country in the developed world. With 82 per cent of adults using the internet on a daily basis and more than 20 per cent of retail sales taking place online, it would appear that most British businesses are digitally capable. A closer look, however, reveals a significant digital skills gap between larger companies and the small businesses that make up 60 per cent of the private sector – comprising a workforce of over 15 million people, with a turnover in excess of £1.6trillion. Of these small enterprises, a third don’t have a website and more than half are unable to sell goods online. So, are digital skills taking priority in the government’s industrial strategy?

Matt Hancock, Minister of State for Digital and Culture, said digital education from an early age will be a cross-party objective for years to come: “We’re making some progress on this, and one of the most exciting things we did in the last parliament was to put coding into the curriculum from age eight. We’ve recognised that there are down-the-track requirements for digital skills, as much as with English and Maths, and we’ve got a huge array of initiatives to corral the enthusiasm for digital and make sure that it is best used.”

Hancock added that participation in the digital economy is important at every level of business and society: “I can group the facts and figures; 23 per cent of people currently lack basic digital skills, and about 90 per cent of new jobs now need some form of them. I think that what we’ve learnt following the Brexit vote is that the need to engage everybody is more demonstrable than ever before. This is a very important part of the Prime Minister’s agenda, and wider digital engagement is a key part of the broader issue to make an economy that works for everyone.” 

It is this wider opportunity to access and education that forms the bedrock of a new partnership between Google and the Tinder Foundation, aiming to deliver digital skills training to those in society who are most in need. Cue the Digital Garage. The project sees community organisations across the country provide skills support to small businesses, sole traders and indviduals, helping them to make the most of their resources.

Katie O’Donovan, Policy Manager at Google, explained: “Google has a longstanding commitment to train 250,000 people across the UK in digital skills. Since launching the Digital Garage in 2015 we’ve provided mentoring and digital skills training in Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle and Glasgow.  But as the UK faces a new chapter we want to ensure, whether you’re a student looking for your first job, a small business looking to attract new customers or a musician looking to promote your music, the right digital skills are freely available in your local community.

Tinder Foundation CEO Helen Milner recognised that a wider proliferation of digital skills would release a surprising amount of value into the economy. “Some of our research showed that every £1 invested in growing people’s basic digital skills put £10 back into the economy. But it’s not enough to save money - you’ve got to show how you can make money out of it as well.”    

The Labour MP for Aberavon, Stephen Kinnock, has seen at first hand the benefits of support for digital skills, and welcomes opportunities for partnership in his constituency. The shift from manufacturing, he accepts, needs direction and following the depletion of his local steel works he views digitisation as “the only way forward.” Kinnock added that exciting projects such as the Swansea bay region or ‘internet coast’ becoming a testbed for 5G could serve to re-energise communities which are in many ways in a state of decline. Kinnock said: “I’m absolutely delighted that we’re going to have pop-up versions of the Digital Garage in Port Talbot.”

CEO for TeenTech Maggie Philbin, meanwhile, stressed that digital education at school level must be taught through the lens of practical application. She warned: “Many young people aren’t greeted by any coherent messaging in school, so they don’t see why they’d need digital skills in the workplace. We’ve got to start getting a better message across and improve the opportunities for actual work experience that harnesses these skills.”

Karen Price, CEO at The Tech Partnership shares this view. For Price, adapting apprenticeships to incorporate digital skills will help to inspire a culture of innovation. She suggested that “if that's part of an apprenticeship that could be polished to use in a business environment, you'd have a digitally capable young person who could probably move that business on in a different way.”

Nick Williams, Consumer Digital Director for Lloyds Banking Group, views improving people’s digital skills as a matter of urgency and brought up research conducted by the company’s new Business Digital Index for 2016 which found that 38 per cent of small businesses and 49 per cent of charities are currently lacking digital maturity. “It’s no longer a matter of choice,” Williams said, “for organisations to survive, we must focus on a digital message.  Technology’s moved on and people just haven’t kept up. We have to show how these new skills can translate to greater productivity. Ability and access are the two variables to address. We are on the brink of going down the route of a digital divide – those who are capable and those who aren’t – and we’ve got to stop that.”

Rachel Neaman, Director of Skills and Partnerships at Doteveryone, was quick to pick up on this point. She warned that any digital training must not simply be for future generations’ benefit, but also be afforded to those already in work. “What are we doing for the people who currently lack these skills? How do we stop people from being left behind?” Neaman called for an “equal emphasis” on updating and upgrading the existing workforce. Julian David, the CEO at Tech UK, was also keen to highlight that digitisation is “an ongoing process” and therefore “retraining” at regular intervals is needed to cope with a continually evolving demand.

While Hancock spoke of a “unit-based standard learning system”, similar to that used in American schools, to help apply digital skills training where it is most appropriate, IPPR North researcher Jack Hunter said there were real opportunities to be grasped in the coming devolution agenda: “The new mayors that are coming in next year to drive the agenda and economic growth are going to be getting a lot more funding around a variety of different skills streams that feed directly into the digital programme.”

The panel agreed that the digital divide will only grow wider if action is not taken. Director of the Action and Research Centre at the RSA Anthony Painter said that society is being split into two camps: “the confident and creative, and those who feel held back.” Painter recommended that the latter group are given a fresh chance at being empowered digitally. He said: “They don’t tend to use the internet for professional development, whereas the others do. We’ve been having a look at this locally by creating a ‘City of Learning’ which combines a digital platform built around open badges which have micro-accreditations for learning; things that if you get someone’s passionate interest and then start feeding into more formal learning opportunities then you wrap around that a sort of city-led campaign which lets them identify with a common cause – we’re a learning city.”

Tech City UK CEO Gerard Grech concurred and went to explore the link between a strong web presence and business expansion or improvement. The problem identified is that many businesses may not realise the extent of their digital capabilities and thus run the risk of missing out. Grech said: “If you ask a window cleaner if they are a digital business, they might say no, but if you ask how they might go about quoting someone, they could find the address on Google Maps or get the Street View. That’s the idea, to show how digital can be used for them.”

Ultimately, the panel concluded, that the enthusiasm to add a digital depth to Britain’s talent pool was validated by its potential advantages. “A lot of the major challenges facing the economy,” Painter summed up, “are actually rooted in skills. Whether it’s the challenges of Brexit or the challenges of broadband, I think if you fix the skills, everything else falls into place.” The panel agreed that any government has a responsibility to champion digital strategy throughout society, regardless of location or economic standing, and equip businesses with the digital skills required to perform at their best.  

The round-table discussion was chaired by Kirsty Styles.

For more information, visit: