Back on the canvass
Knocking on doors is practically the raison d’etre of the foot soldier. My Brownswood, Hackney North and Stoke Newington Labour Party ward resumed campaigning mid-January. We met up at our usual starting point – outside the Brownswood pub – on a chilly and damp Saturday morning. As we stamped our feet and rubbed our hands to get warm, our dynamic ward organiser, Sharon, swept into sight, arms laden with a big box of leaflets, full of business. “Now,” she reminded us,”we may all have our opinions on Brexit, “ but we’re here to present Labour’s policy, as decided at last Annual Conference, but most of all to get our members and supporters views and feelings on how things are going for Labour since we last called.”
She then went on to remind us of some local issues that may be raised on the doorstep, asking us to refer residents, if necessary, to one our local councillors, Clare, who accompanied us on the canvass. We were each issued with a bundle of leaflets: ones with contact details of our councillors and mayor; ones with a summary of Labour policies and a card giving to new occupants details of how to register to vote – very relevant in the dense, multiple-occupancy houses of “bed-sitter” land we were about to visit.
A “churn” is how the more experienced canvassers describe the turnover of residents and Brownswood is a high churn area. When the ubiquitous clip-boards were distributed with the boxes on past, present and future voting intentions to be ticked, she exhorted us to engage with people about their issues, not be satisfied with just ticking boxes. Bloody music to my ears!
In the five, or so, years since I re-joined Labour, on my retirement to London from Ireland, I’ve canvassed as far afield as Croydon in the south of London to Stoke-on-Trent in the north of England. In that time, I’ve rarely seen as organised an approach to canvassing. She even had a bundle of pens and note-paper for those who may have forgotten to bring their own. But, mostly, and importantly, she set the tone. And it all paid off.
Many of our members that we spoke to were confused and disappointed with how Brexit was going, and there was the odd negative comment on Corbyn leadership. It reminded me of the early stages of the 2017 General Election campaign – though then the Lib Dems were regularly mentioned as an alternative to Labour, which doesn’t seem to be the case now, at least in our part of London. The job of the canvasser now and in coming by-elections or a General Election is to listen and reassure – and plead. Ticking boxes alone won’t cut it. People need to be heard too – especially our own supporters and members.
At the monthly Hackney North delegate conference a programme of canvasser training was announced, I’m pleased to report. No details were given. But, from observations on canvassing I think it should have three, inter-active elements.
One: political education, ideally based around a familiarity with the 2017 Manifesto, to give it focus.
July last, I attended a Momentum workshop in Durham on how to run a Manifesto Study Group. It included sessions on the Manifesto content, run by Mike Phipps, editor of “For The Many: Preparing Labour for Power,’ OR Books, 2017, a collection of critical essays examining each of the 12 sections of the Manifesto. John McDonald gave us an inspirational foretaste of the Manifesto “Mark-2.”
Two: role-plays around talking to people about Labour policy on the doorstep, via phone-banks and the street stall (my favourite campaigning activity). No question in my mind, any future election, General or By-Election will be won or lost on the issue of people’s perception of Labour’s ability to run the economy, and our ability to convince them that “For the Many, not the Few” is real and achievable.
Three: electioneering tactics. In my experience of foot soldiering outside my own ward I’ve seen a squandering of Labour activists commitment in the way election campaigns are organised. In fact most of what I’ve seen on the ground has been wasteful, sometimes shockingly so. The foot soldier puts his hand in his own pocketto finance a trip out to a distant marginal constituency to have a clip board and a street map extract shoved into his hand and be pointed in the general direction of where the canvass is to take place. No local person allocated to brief on local issues in the area to be worked; often, I don’t exaggerate, insufficient leaflets provided.
The worst case of this squandering of resources was a canvass of Kensington/Chelsea in the 2017 general election headed up by Owen Jones and Emily Thornberry. So many arrived, we were tripping over ourselves, the local party couldn’t be expected to handle the number of volunteers that turned up. There was insufficient election material. Meanwhile, other, nearby, constituencies could have done with more bodies.
Before I end this diary entry. I’d like to present a positive example of electioneering organisation I participated in: what electioneering tactics should look like done right. .
In last year’s local elections, when it was clear that my ward’s two councillors were home and dry, I was asked to go, instead, to a neighbouring ward in Hackney North, Cazenove, to help “Get the Vote Out” on election day. Well, it was like a military operation. After a briefing – and plentiful home-made cakes and buns, washed down with welcoming tea – teams of people were directed by Laura in the election centre to the parts of the ward where the turn-out was low and the potential vote was highest.
So, under the leadership of John and Sam, himself a candidate, we moved back and forth across the ward throughout the day getting the vote out, with a purposefulness that was inspiring. Access to the large council blocks of flats, often gated, the bane of canvassers, had been, in many instances, pre-arranged with the council Caretakers that John and Sam had obviously made it their business to get to know.
The result? Three council seats were won in a ward not held by Labour for over 20 years. I rest my kit bag.
To mark his gaining a council seat, I gave to Sam, of East End Jewish Labour stock, a copy of David Marcus’s fine “A Land not Theirs,” the story of a Jewish family in Cork and their part in the National Revolution. Both his parents, also Labour Party members in. Cazanove, are looking forward to reading it, they told me at a recent delegate meeting. Sam, a new councillor on a steep learning curve, can forget about novels for a few years.