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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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.