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Confessions of a Conservative canvasser: Part I

Robin Askwith will not be getting any casting enquiries on the back of this. While canvassing may be many things it would make a very bad film, even by the standard of the British film industry in the 70s.

But since it’s taken up so much of my time over the past few weeks – just as it will have for anyone who is really involved in politics – I thought I’d come clean over it. Today, a few words on what canvassing is, and more importantly, isn’t. Tomorrow, my reflection on what we’ve learnt on the doorstep in this campaign.

I’ve hesitated a lot about this post. Part of me wonders if being in a party isn’t a bit like the Magic Circle or the Masons. By talking about canvassing and revealing some of the secrets isn’t it just the same as saying “look, I want my tongue cut out, then buried at the low water mark by moonlight”? But of course the ‘secrets’ are known to every party, on the ground we all campaign in pretty much the same way. It’s actually the public who don’t always know how and why we campaign the way we do.

Myth 1: You’re here to spend an age trying to convert me
I almost feel cynical in saying that no main party will send a canvasser around to try and ‘convert’ you. Actually though, the clue is in the name, canvass means to question (someone) in order to ascertain their opinion on something. This becomes especially true during elections, when time is limited. In my ward of Shaftesbury, for example, there are over 11,000 electors living in something like 6,500 houses and flats, there just isn’t time to go to each house and try and persuade people of the merits of my party.

This is not to say you can’t ask a canvasser about party policy, but they aren’t there to try and force it down your throat. After all, even if we did spend 20 minutes persuading you to vote for us, what is there to stop another party coming round tomorrow and undoing all our hard work.

Myth 2: You only come round at election time
How I wish this were true! If it were I’d only have to canvass for four or so weeks a year. I obviously can’t speak for other parts of the country, or, indeed, for the other parties in Wandsworth, but we make an effort all year around to get out and speaking with people.

We have a regular programme of canvassing and surveying. It is certainly more relaxed outside of election periods, but it’s still there. And just like election canvassing it is still heavily focussed on your opinions, often taking more of a ‘street surgery’ style when we try and find out what you think about local and national issues as well as giving you an opportunity to raise problems or concerns that we might be able to tackle for you.

Of course, what may well be the case that we’ve not spoken to you outside of an election, but it’s a pretty fair bet we’ve knocked on your door at some stage and just not got you in. If that’s the case I can only apologise that we missed you before, but also congratulate you on having better things to do than wait in for Conservative canvassers.

Myth 3: You don’t want to hear bad news
This is a myth you probably didn’t even know existed, because if you’d even thought about it you’d have guessed that we get a lot of doors slammed in our faces. In fact, that’s pretty far from the truth (I’m not including 1997, which was a real exception to this rule) and the vast majority of people are polite. In fact, they are too polite.

An odd concept, you might think, but you find many people actually don’t like giving the ‘bad news’ that they will be voting for the other guys. Part of it is human nature, most people are pre-disposed to be positive towards our fellow man, and it’s actually quite hard to let people down, even the complete stranger on your doorstep asking about your vote.

Something a regular canvasser quickly learns are all the ways that people try and let you down gently. A common one is the phrase “yes, I’ll be voting.” A phrase which doesn’t actually mean “yes, I’ll be voting for you” even if it sounds similar. Also common are the “I’m too busy right now because…” which might be true, but even quicker would be “I’m too busy to talk right now, but I’m voting for…”

The fact is we know lots of people vote for the other parties. We have the most unpopular government ever, but 1 in 5 people still intend to vote Labour. The last time we had a deeply unpopular government, in 1997, there were still over 9,600,000 (out of 31 million) votes cast for the Conservatives.

So if you don’t support us, or just don’t want to say, just tell us – we won’t mind and won’t try and change your mind.

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  • Confessions of a Conservative canvasser: Part II | JamesCousins.com

    […] Yesterday I highlighted some of the things canvassing is not. Today I want to go through some of the things canvassing is, and my thoughts at the end of this particular campaign.  While the media will concentrate on Cabinet resignations and pressure on Brown, the life of a party activist is less glamorous and less dramatic; we knock on doors and talk to people. […]