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.