“Hi! Good Morning! Sorry to bother you, my name’s Charlie and I’m just calling round on behalf of your local Labour Party. I was just wondering if you planned to vote in the General Election on 7th May or not?”
That’s how I normally start my canvassing spiel. Everyone I’ve ever gone campaigning with has had their own style though, with some people preferring a more formal approach or a more direct one. Or usually a less suffocatingly enthusiastic one.
Whenever my friends ask me about my canvassing experiences (which isn’t very often, I promise – they’re generally either armchair politicians or don’t care), I tell them people are friendlier than you’d think, which is sort of true.
You do get people who react with hostility to you probably waking them up at 11am on a Sunday and you do get people who support other parties thinking they can mess with you. But for every negative experience, there’s usually a voter who seems to be genuinely moved by the fact that someone would come and knock on their door on a rainy, cold Wednesday evening and talk about the state of the country with them. Or at least is good at pretending that they are so moved. And if there isn’t, then I find the electorate normally find some other way of being entertaining anyway.
Every seasoned campaigner, for example, will have had a dead serious conversation about pot-holes, or income tax, or hedgerows with a naked person. Regardless of weather, or time of day, topless men are so common they don’t even register with me any more.
A friend of mine spoke at great length to an elderly and stark naked man about tuition fees, while on another occasion a different friend was greeted at the door by a semi-dressed woman, who subsequently invited him in.
In amongst all this, I have my own way of entertaining myself. Over the last few months I’ve been slowly but surely adding to my list of people with animal surnames that I’ve canvassed. At home, I knocked on the doors of the Fox, Squirrel and Bear households. A few weeks ago I asked how a Mr Llama might be voting, and only the other day I phone-canvassed an entire household of Lambs. You do come across some fantastic names when you’re out and about finding voter ID, and a particularly silly one is always a welcome morale booster.
My experience with campaigning is also that, no matter how well you plan, the unexpected is always lurking around the corner. There are an infinite number of letters and signs that help you record various responses onto the campaign sheets, and yet every now and then you’ll get data you don’t know how to record.
I led a group last weekend, and a fellow canvasser knocked on the door of an elderly woman, who we thought was registered as having a postal vote. She said she suffered from memory loss though, and couldn’t remember if she had already sent off her ballot or not. It was a humbling experience.
The evidence shows campaigning does make a difference in who will win – just ask Oxford East MP Andrew Smith, who won in 2005 thanks in large to his team of volunteers. Talking to people face to face helps the voters and the party understand the issues at hand and gives candidates the chance to be as receptive as possible to their electorate.
But campaigners too stand to gain a lot from speaking to people like that elderly woman. Especially those who spend the rest of their time in the bubble that is Oxford.