Canvassing: Engagement or Ritual?

On Sunday 15th January I went out canvassing for the County Council elections in the West Bridgford North ward that Liz Plant is contesting. Again on 28th January and 4th February I was out canvassing for Nadia Whittome in West Bridgford West.

Sure, it was a bit wet, but I do find it a really enjoyable thing to do. First, its gets me out doing things with other Labour Party members and whilst it is a serious business, we do have a laugh. Secondly, I get to talk to voters – well those that are in and open their door to us. Politics is about conveying a message and you do meet some lovely people willing to listen. But it is also challenging and not everyone embraces our political priorities. I have had someone almost hyperventilate when I mention “the Labour Party”. Thirdly, I get to know a lot more about my local community. I never knew about Midland Cottages but there is a lovely community down there. Not only did I have a conversation about cycle paths and our sustainability programme, I got talking about someone’s house renovations and the history of railway cottages. There is also sadness too, such as finding out one lady had recently died aged 103. It is always a privilege canvassing with Alistair MacInnes (one of our Rushcliffe Borough councillors); his encyclopaedic knowledge of the residents in “his patch” is humbling.

There is another side to all this though. We were an unusually large group on 15th January – there were about 12 of us – which was encouraging. But with a membership of well over 800 in Bridgford this has also to be disappointing. In the 90 minutes we were out, I only encountered 4 people (one Labour, one Conservative, and two Don’t knows) – and that isn’t so unusual, I find most canvassing sessions are a bit like that. I am genuinely surprised at how many people are out (or rather don’t open the door), or are in bed on Sunday morning. I like to believe they might think we are Jehovah’s Witnesses, UKIP or selling double glazing. I am also surprised at how many houses don’t have door bells and some don’t even have letter boxes!

In my professional life as a social researcher in areas of social deprivation, I’m used to resolving the difficulties of gaining access to residents. Yet the canvassing strategy widely adopted seems rooted in some historic view of our communities. I am not convinced it is efficient tying up our activists for hours at weekends, knocking on doors to empty houses or having conversations with diehard Conservative Party voters. In an interesting (but depressing) book on “Why the Tories Won the 2015 Election” * author and Daily Telegraph journalist Tim Ross describes how Lynton Crosby, the Conservative Election strategist, derided the Labour Party for its blanket canvassing and leafletting – spending thousands of pounds delivering leaflets to Tory voters.

During the Referendum campaign in June I went canvassing in Lady Bay and I found myself one day working alongside two organisers of the Conservative Party (in the Stronger In campaign I think). Their organisation was scarily impressive. Each house had a bar code, and they knew exactly which houses were not worth visiting. When we canvas, we tend to blanket an area, knock on doors, ask who they vote for, record it and move on. This gets uploaded to Contact Creator (the Party’s database software) so on polling day we can make sure our supporters get out to vote. All crucial. But it has to be more than that.

In a recent Branch Campaigning Workshop, Jamie McMahon from Ruddington spoke on how to make canvassing most effective: target key Labour areas, canvass when people are at home, get phone numbers (and I would say email addresses), leave reply slips/postcards. In short, target, focus, and record. The software Nation Builder which we subscribe to, has the facility to produce maps of supporters, and collate street lists. In short we need “geodemographic segmentation”. In the Branch we are very lucky to have so many people with important social and technical skills and we need to draw on that. But we also have lots of members. We could so easily set up groups of members with responsibility for key streets around where they live, who could get to know local residents, keep a local record of visits and voting intentions so our canvassing becomes a form of community engagement. That way we can no longer be accused of “only coming round when you want my vote”.

We can find out about local issues and concerns, developing not only visibility, but also relationships. We can find out why people might not vote for us. But we can also educate people. No-one I spoke to even knew there were elections in May, or realised just what Liz Plant and Steve Calvert had helped Labour achieve in Bridgford and Nottinghamshire: introduced the living wage for staff, established a 20mph limit around schools, cutting energy costs by fitting low-energy LEDs in street lights, increased spending on care and support for the elderly, invested in the libraries, and so it goes on. Voting Labour improves – and saves – people’s lives. Let’s get out and spread that message.

*Anyone interested in how we lost in 2015 might want to read:

You can get these from Five Leaves Bookshop, ( an independent book store in central Nottingham (14A Long Row) owned by a Labour Party Member.