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.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.