The perils of political door-knocking

Talk is cheap and plenty of us chat about politics a heck of a lot.

We’re living in an age of renewed political activism. The Occupy movement and the various marches and strikes we’ve seen in the last year demonstrate that. There is also a new generation of "activists" who join Facebook groups and inexplicably email their opinions to news channels.

I was always a particular type of activist. Marches, placards and ill-informed status updates never appealed to me. I always preferred being ill-informed in the flesh.

For years I trudged the streets door-knocking as a Labour Party volunteer and then as a member of staff. Speaking directly to the public on their doorstep is revealing, heart-warming, depressing and dangerous, usually all in one afternoon.

You’re grateful for the kind ones, for the like-minded and for those who keep it brief. You worry about the ones clearly leading troubled or challenging lives and you’re disturbed by the aggressive and abusive ones.  My favourites were always the ones who were a bit weird. I can still remember a few of the people I spoke to over the years. Here are some of the highlights:

The Naked Skinhead of Blaenau Gwent

He answered the door wearing nothing but a handlebar moustache. “Oooh hello mate, I’m from the Labour Party,” I said trying to not laugh or gawp at his willy. There’s no way you can’t look. It’s just there, hanging around, commanding your attention.

“Right. . Is this about the by-election?” he replied.

“Yes it is, I just wondered if you’ll be voting on Th…”

“Look at me mate. Do I look like a man interacting with the state?”

“Fair point. Taraa”.

The Dog Man of Corby

It was a wet afternoon in Northamptonshire. A young chap with angry eyes answered the door, restraining some denomination of status dog by the neck.  Realising the tense situation I opened with: “Good afternoon sir, I’m just calling on behalf of your local Member of Parliament”.

“Which party?” he asked in a way that made it sound like there was no right answer.

“Labour,” I ventured with a sickening inflection.

“You better get the f**k off my doorstep before I set this b*****d on you”.

“Oh yeah? If you want to go toe-to-toe, I’ll do you and matey right here pal”.

(I wish I’d have said this. Instead I went “Ooooh!” and legged it). I still wonder if I’d have said that I was from the Lib Dems that his demeanour would have changed and he’d have offered me a KitKat.

The BNP Man of Stoke

Never argue with someone on their doorstep, even if what they’re saying is disgusting. My mate who was door-knocking with me preferred a more direct approach when dealing with racists and almost laid one out on his own front drive. The guy was a nasty piece of work and I was next door chatting to a lovely old lady when I could hear the volume next door steadily rising. You don’t need to be a master political strategist to know that shouts of “oh yeah? Oh yeah?! OH YEAH?!” aren’t evidence of winning hearts and minds. I had a quick peek over and could see that my pal had squared up to this fella. BNP types aren’t renowned for backing down or for their use of diplomacy so I had to step in my standing at the gate and going “we need to leave”.

Dog Owners (various)

Postmen despise dogs and so do political door-knockers. My mate Paddy used a wooden floor tile as a "dibber" to shove "sorry you were out" leaflets through letterboxes so his fingers weren’t endangered by dogs on the other side. I used to eliminate the risk completely by guessing which houses had dogs and avoiding them. Tell-tale signs were paw prints on the front door, turds in the garden and a kennel. When those houses didn’t have dogs I was confused. If you’ve got a dog you’ve opted out of democracy as far as I’m concerned. Some people would die for their cause; I wouldn’t risk my fingers for mine.

I haven’t been door-knocking with Labour for a couple of years now, but writing this out has made me realise how much I miss it. Talk is cheap and plenty of us chat about politics a heck of a lot. The people who really change the world are those that go out and do something about it. My local party secretary is about to get an email offering my services. I can’t be bothered to go round to her house.

Matt Forde performs Eyes to the Right, Nose to the Left, at the Udderbelly – Wee Coo, 1st – 26th August, 4.05pm. For tickets see: www.edinburghsbestcomedy.com

A famous front door. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Matt Forde is a stand-up comedian and talkSPORT presenter. He also writes for 8 Out Of 10 Cats, Stand Up For The Week and Russell Howard’s Good News. He recently performed his critically-acclaimed show ‘Eyes to the right, nose to the left’ at the Edinburgh Festival. He used to work for the Labour Party.

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David Blunkett compares Labour membership to failed revolution “from Ukraine to Egypt”

The Labour peer and former home secretary says new members need a “meaningful political education”, and accuses unions of neglecting their “historic balance”.

There are three sorts of opposition. There’s the civil society opposition, with people campaigning in their own specific areas, people who’ve got an interest group or are delivering social enterprise or a charity. I don’t think we should underestimate that because we're going to have to hang on to it as part of the renewal of civil society.

The second is the opposition formally, within the House of Commons: those who have agreed to serve as the formal shadow ministerial teams. Because of what I’d describe as the turmoil over the last two years, they’ve either not been able to be impressive – ie. they’re trying very hard but they don't have the coherent leadership or backing to do it – or they’ve got completely different interests to what it is they’re supposed to be doing, and therefore they’re not engaged with the main task.

Then there’s the third, which is the informal opposition – Labour linked sometimes to the Lib Dems and the SNP in Parliament on the opposition benches as a whole. They’re not doing a bad job with the informal opposition. People getting on with their work on select committees, the departmental committees beginning to shape policy that they can hopefully feed to the National Executive Committee, depending on the make-up of the National Executive Committee following this year’s conference. That embryo development of coherent policy thinking will be the seed-bed for the future.

I lived through, worked through, and was integrally involved with, what happened in the early Eighties, so I know it well. And people were in despair after the ‘83 election. Although it took us a long time to pull round, we did. It’s one reason why so many people, quite rightly in my view, don't want to repeat the split of 1931 or the split of 1981.

So they are endeavouring to stay in to argue to have some vision of a better tomorrow, and to persuade those of goodwill who have joined the party – who genuinely believe in a social movement and in extra-parliamentary non-violent activity, which I respect entirely – to persuade them that they’ll only be effective if they can link up with a functioning political process at national level, and at townhall and county level as well.

In other words, to learn the lessons of what’s happened across the world recently as well as in the past, from the Ukraine to Egypt, that if the groundswell doesn’t connect to a functioning party leadership, then, with the best will in the world, it’s not going to achieve its overall goals.

How do we engage with meaningful political education within the broader Labour party and trade union movement, with the substantially increased rank-and-file membership, without being patronising – and without setting up an alternative to Momentum, which would allow Momentum to justify its existence as a party within a party?

That's the challenge of the next two years. It's not just about someone with a vision, who’s charismatic, has leadership qualities, coming forward, that in itself won’t resolve the challenge because this isn't primarily, exclusively about Jeremy Corbyn. This is about the project being entirely on the wrong trajectory.

A lot depends on what the trade unions do. They command effectively the majority on the National Executive Committee. They command the key votes at party conference. And they command the message and resources that go out on the policy or programmes. It’s not just down to personality and who wins the General Secretary of Unite; it’s what the other unions are doing to actually provide their historic balance, because they always have – until now – provided a ballast, foundation, for the Labour party, through thick and thin. And over the last two years, that historic role has diminished considerably, and they seem to just be drifting.

I don’t think anybody should expect there to be a party leadership challenge any time soon. It may be that Jeremy Corbyn might be persuaded at some point to stand down. I was against the challenge against him last year anyway, purely because there wasn't a prepared candidate, there wasn't a policy platform, and there hadn’t been a recruitment drive to back it up.

People shouldn’t expect there to be some sort of white charger out there who will bring an immediate and quick end to the pain we’re going through. I think it’s going to be a readjustment, with people coming to conclusions in the next two years that might lead the party to be in a position to fight a credible general election in 2020. I’ve every intention of laying down some good red wine and still being alive to drink it when the Labour party is elected back to power.

David Blunkett is a Labour peer and former home secretary and education secretary.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition