Sunday, February 19, 2006

Tales from the Canvass Trail

Canvassing is one of Britain’s great political traditions. We live in a country where a near stranger comes onto your land and asks you about your civic right to vote in a secret ballot and then leaves to record that information on a database. In many countries, such as France and the USA, canvassing simply isn’t done. I think it is a great way of bringing the feet of politicians back down to earth. This month we’ve delivered a leaflet across the whole of Bowthorpe and Earlham and sent out roughly 5000 questionnaires. But nothing prepares you for the direct views of the population.

There are three groups of people who are, though, making life tough. The first are those people who simply won’t open their doors. I think that’s running at about 5% at the moment. They are in, the windows are open, the TV is blaring out and they ignore you.

Then there’s the next group, I think touching 10% who don’t care why you are there but want to be rid of you. One look at somebody they don’t recognise and it’s “no thank you,” then slam! Is that a “no thank you” to politics, the Conservative Party, me personally or simply anybody in the world you don’t yet know?

Lastly there are the group who tell you they simply won’t vote. Now I’ve never accepted the argument about not voting. The parties aren’t the same and yes your vote will make a difference (Labour majority in Bowthorpe and Earlham is 14 votes). However, these days there seems to have been a culture shift. During much of the previous 50 years not voting was frowned upon and even if you didn’t vote you didn’t admit to it. Nowadays people wear the “non voter” label like some kind of badge of honour. It’s almost as if some of them say, “you can’t hold me responsible for the state of the nation because I don’t vote.” Actually, it is those people I DO hold responsible for the state of the nation. As we went down the streets in West Earlham, two gents were washing a car. They enquired what we were doing (well, half a dozen people clutching clipboards and discussing what Thatcher would say about the state of the pavements in Earlham). When I explained who we were, they both said they never vote. Then one ventured the idea that no time or money was ever spent in Earlham whilst places such as Lakenham, Mile Cross and Marlpit get all the investment (never mind if this is true, it is what he thought). When I explained that if he felt like that he needed to change the people in charge – Labour have won the area since the 1960s – he said, “oh, no, voting’s not for me”. Rather like the curious argument that “I’m too old to vote” (no word of a lie, people do say that) this is a bit of a cop-out. If people like that gentleman had voted (plus 13 more), I’d have been their Councillor for two years and I think things would have been different. Also there are the people who say they don’t vote but just lie. After elections the parties are given what is called a “marked register” which lists who did and didn’t vote. It doesn’t tell us how you voted, just if you did or not. During the day 23 people told us that they never vote but had done so only last May. We know that they almost certainly wanted to hide the fact that they weren’t voting Conservatives (in fact the common view is that people like that vote LibDem but are utterly ashamed to admit it) but why feel the need to lie? Canvassers don’t attack and if you tell the truth then we don’t come back. If you say, “I might vote for you” when you don’t mean it, then we will come back! In total, we met (no word of a lie) 136 people who said they weren’t going to vote. That is more than the total number of pledges for Labour, LibDems and Greens added together. It seems all politicians have more work to do.

During our Friday and Saturday canvassing sessions we came across a variety of issues. Youth provision needs improvement and people want real street policing to be re-introduced. Council tax is too high but, sorry LibDems, there was no appetite to replace it with the higher-charging Local Income Tax. Roads and speeding came up and also the development at Three Score was a big concern.

We got 2 new members, one new poster site and a collection of very angry dogs.

We saw one naked woman, one naked male UEA student, two babysitters, three builders, three people unable to speak English, one person who didn’t know what the Conservative Party is, two people clearly still drunk from the night before, two of my ex-students, one Chairman of the Bowthorpe Labour Party, one Labour Councillor, two domestic incidents, one police van, two cleaners from the UEA and (amazingly) three people who claimed to work for the British Nuclear Authority – all in different houses.

All we need to do now is to get them to vote.


Anonymous said...

A great post Antony.

The trouble is that most people don't know what canvassing is or why you do it. I think people should know about things like the marked register and then they might not lie. I agree about the legion of proud non-voters. But what can make them vote?

Sounds like a good laugh canvassing.

Anonymous said...

How about charging people who don't vote 50% extra tax and banning them from using public services? If they don't want to participate in government then they shouldn't participate in the results of government.

James.R.Skinner said...

Im sorry to be a bother, but i was just wondering if you would consider adding my site to your links column. Im currently trying to advertise my site, and have already added your site to the links section on my blog. If you could do the same for me I would be most grateful.
Thanks very much.

ian said...

What if none of the available candidates sufficiently represent my opinion?

Standing myself is an expensive, and probably fruitless waste of money.

My vote, thanks to the first past the post system is wasted, even if enough people throughout the country agree with me for us to collectively deserve representation by one MP.

If the two main political parties really wanted enfrachisement, they could have it. But they don't, because it would upset the status quo and decrease their power base.

So why should I vote?

Tory Convert said...


thanks to the first past the post system

if you don't like the political system, you can join a party which argues for changing it (that is the first and only time I am ever going to incite someone to join the Lib Dems, and only done because I feel so strongly about politically non-involved people wallowing in the idea that it is others' responsbility to read their minds and give them what they want).

I think the fact that we don't have an ideal political system has to be tempered a little bit with some sympathy about the pressures that politicians are under, the limited resources of political parties, and the fact that politicians aren't omniscient, and they cannot gauge the opinions of people who withold their voice. It is a little naive to expect political parties to be prepared to decrease their power base - they're in the business of getting elected, after all.

Please expand on what "real enfranchisement" means to you.

DP said...

Nice to hear Bowthorpe and West Earlham haven't changed. I still think a theme park would be a better use of the land. BTW, the main river running through Burma (Myanmar as it's now known) is the Ayeyarwady (formely known as the Irrawaddy). Just in case anyone else asks!

ian said...

Real enfranchisement to me means a system where every vote matters, not one where some people, due to a quirk of their address, have important votes, and others have no effect at all.

What we have at the moment is government, with a minority of the votes (albeit larger than anyone else's minority) who still have a huge majority in parliament, which allows them to pass undemocratic, unwanted laws, and embark on undemocratic, unwanted wars.

I don't expect the major parties to decrease their power base. I just don't expect to be patronised by them at the same time by their claims that my vote matters. If it does matter, then it clearly matters less than them getting elected by any means necessary. So if their interest in the result over the principles, why should I validate their egos?

So I ask again... why should I vote?

Anonymous said...

Because you have no right to complain as you do, if you do not vote. If you want something desperately enough then go out and change it. You seem to take two remarkable attitudes: 1) that no one represents your views. If you care that much, then represent yourself! If it costs (which it does) then do some fundraising and get people of a similar mindset to sponsor you. 2)That everyone in parliament is only there for their own gratification; "why should I validate their egos?" One day I hope to become an MP and possibly even make it into the cabinet. Not because of my ego, but because I want to change this country for the better. Don't be such a pessimist - other people have morals and ideals too.

Tory Convert said...


I can't get into a discussion of FPTP vs alternatives, because I'm not knowledgeable enough, but I realise there are large problems. Personally, I'm annoyed that the Conservatives have to win a much larger share of the vote to win a majority, for example.

Why should you vote?

Because the rest of us are under no obligation whatsoever to give a monkeys about your dissatisfaction with the electoral system if you don't at the very least vote for a party which argues for changing it.

Your attitude seems to be just to get into a sulk with other people because they're not giving you what you want. But that is not solely their/our responsibility. If you really feel that strongly about the electoral system, you should commit some of your time and effort to doing something about it. Don't hold those of us who do make a commitment to the political process responsible for not making your arguments for you.

Sometimes political arguments are made because politicians genuinely feel that they are morally and practically right. Sometimes they are made because opponents push them into taking that position through fear of losing power. That external pressure of the fear of losing power is crucial for the system to even vaguely work. It is comprised of actively involved citizens.

Politics is a long haul. People expect everything to be tailored for their individual needs these days, and they expect to get them now. That is possibly one of the reasons why we have seen such an increase in political apathy.

Incidentally, if you are angry about the unresponsiveness of the poltical system now, here are some more reasons to make sure Labour don't win the next election.