When I wrote about getting the election buzz last week I had forgotten that my least favourite part of the campaign was about to hit.

Of course, I say that in a relative sense (since I have seen far too many similar comments misconstrued recently). This isn’t a demoralised, disenchanted or defeatist activist rambling on, but someone who has done enough elections to recognise that he enjoys some parts far more than others!

Having spent the past few weeks (months, years) identifying our support through fairly extensive canvassing much of our work now is about reminding them that the election is on Thursday (many people manage to forget) and how and where they can vote. I’m not sure I find it the least enjoyable part of the campaign. Perhaps because it’s the change from continual canvassing to something different or perhaps because it is difficult to do socially (you normally canvass in teams, but end up doing this alone). But whatever the reason, I’m still out there doing it because it is important, this time especially so because we have two elections on the same day and most people will have four votes to cast – one to choose their MP and three to choose their councillors.

In Shaftesbury I’d be flattered if you could cast your vote for me – I’ll be lurking fourth down on the yellow council ballot paper – but also for my colleagues, Jonathan Cook and Guy Senior for the council and Jane Ellison for parliament.

Way back when I first stood for council in 1998 we had a simple campaign slogan: Wandsworth is Conservative.

The Conservatives had taken a hammering in the 1997 election and a significant number of people believed the council was also Labour controlled. We knew people rated Wandsworth highly, and wanted to vote to continue that, but needed to let them know that if that’s what they wanted, they needed to vote Conservative.

And 12 years later it’s still worth repeating that message.

While knocking on doors the other day I met one voter who told me that they would be voting Conservative nationally, but Labour in the local elections. With a slightly bruised ego I asked why.

“Labour have had it nationally,” I was told, “and there’s no way I’ll vote for them, but they do such a great job running the council I want to keep them in here.”

Needless to say, I quickly corrected them so they knew who had been running the council and providing those services.

Wandsworth has the highest public satisfaction rate in the country. If you want to keep those great services and great value voting Conservative is the way to keep them.

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.

Canvassing to identify support
At its simplest level canvassing is about identifying your supporters so you can encourage them to vote. If you imagine a constituency in which exactly half the population support the Conservatives and exactly half support the Labour party the winner would be decided by who was best at getting their supporters out to vote for them.

Canvassing as an opinion poll
But it also works as a simple opinion poll. Because we are continually canvassing on issues and support we can track changes. It isn’t as statistically valid as proper opinion research, we can’t select a ‘representative’ sample that reflects the country as a whole, but we do get an idea of the way things are going. If you canvass ten people and one has switched, that’s a 10% swing.

I will say from the outset that I don’t actually know any of the figures in Wandsworth or Battersea, I’m no longer involved at that level of political campaigning – I’m just an activist who goes where I’m told. But that doesn’t mean I don’t get a feel from the doorstep.

The feel on the doorstep
And that doorstep feel is an important indicator. The 1992 general election was the first I was actively involved in, and many will remember that, when called, it was seen as being incredibly close. A few days before the actual election one of the older and wiser heads in the association I was involved in told me that we’d win nationally. Not because of the polls, but because “you can see people aren’t ready for Labour”. I wrote it off until some months later when Neil Kinnock, in a documentary interview, said he knew he was going to lose not because of any polling, but because when he met members of the public he could “see it in their eyes”.

Its important to remember that while opinion polls give broad projections, it’s the people who go and vote that decide the result of elections, not the people who answer pollsters.

These are my opinions based on my own experience and during this campaign almost all my canvassing has been in Wandsworth, most in Battersea and the largest part of that in my own ward. If someone tells you its totally different next door in Lambeth or Richmond, they may well be right.

The BNP
It’s a real pleasure to be able to say that I’ve only canvassed a few BNP supporters, indeed I could count on the fingers of one hand the people who have told me they are voting for the BNP. In Wandsworth, at least, they are not a political force. Hopefully that is the case everywhere else in the country.

Minor parties
Again, these have not featured on the doorstep, which is totally at odds with the recent polls showing UKIP in third place ahead of Labour. They may well achieve that level of support, but it won’t be in Wandsworth.

By far the most popular of the smaller parties has been the Greens. Not a huge number of them, to be sure, but certainly more than any other party.

I’m also going to include the Liberal Democrats in this category, although I do so with some caution. Wandsworth has traditionally been a two party borough, there are no Lib Dems on the council, although there are some areas in the borough where the Lib Dems are active. It might be because I’ve not been in those areas that I’ve met so few intending to vote that way.

Labour
It’s safe to say Labour are not having a good time of it. And it shows on the doorstep.

Their vote is definitely soft. Many who rejected the Conservatives in favour of Blair’s Labour Party are returning to the Conservatives if they hadn’t already. But I think the real problem Labour face are their supporter who just won’t go out and vote. It was very much the problem we faced in 1997, people wouldn’t vote against us, but we couldn’t get them to vote for us either. Around three million people fewer people voted in 1997 than had in 1992. Less people voted Labour in 1997 than had voted Conservative in 1992. Blair won not just because Tories switched to him, but also because they stayed home in huge numbers.

Oddly, one of the ways I see this relates to ‘Myth 3’ from yesterday’s post. It means that people can tell us they aren’t voting for us, but give us good news as well: “I always voted Labour, but I’m not doing that again.”

I find it hard to believe this isn’t going to be Labour’s 1997. The electorate want to punish Labour, and will; the question is whether they will be satisfied by this election, or whether the anger will carry over into the general election when Brown or his successor calls it.

Who’s winning?
Easy one for me. The Conservatives. As a Conservative each successive election since 1997 has been nicer than the last, but the change has been much more marked over the past two years. People are pleased to see us and enthusiastic about voting for us again.

Of course, the electoral system for this election means it’s impossible to predict a result. The final scores depend as much on the spread of votes between minor parties as it does on the Conservatives’ lead. I wouldn’t put a bet on the numbers of seats. But I’d put a bet on Cameron being the leader with the biggest smile when the results come in on Sunday.

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.

Warning signEven though this is Battersea, not Broughton, I hesitate to post this sign I came across while canvassing at the weekend.

On the basis it’s visible from the street and the photo doesn’t actually identify the location (OK, it’s in Wandsworth, but which of the 280,000 residents actually put it up?) I’m going to publish and be damned.

It’s certainly a lot stronger than most of the ‘No junk mail’ stickers and I quite like it.  It is specific and provides a clear indication of what will happen if you choose to ignore the request.

All too rarely are people actually made to consider the consequences of their actions, but this forces the deliverer to directly link their actions with potential negative reviews, costs to their company and complaints.

I’d love to know how effective the sign is, or whether I’m the only one who read it and thought it all through!

If you can’t quite read the picture the notice warns:

Please don’t leave us junk mail. If you do I will write poor reviews abour your companies, return the junk to your company in unstamped envelopes and report to whoever I can.  I will do this.

Thank you I’m sure we’ll get on fine

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