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3 February 2015

Late decisions, the Ukip temptation, and NHS fears: a Labour MP’s doorstep marathon

Britain is undecided: we must help it decide, one conversation at a time, argues Dan Jarvis, who went doorknocking in nine regions in nine days.

By Dan Jarvis

The clock is ticking down to the general election. But though the lights may still be on in parliament, the real politics is taking place far away from Westminster.

That’s why I’ve been out on the doorstep.

I’ve just got back after a nine day, nine region campaign marathon, travelling more than 900 miles to 27 seats that will help decide whether Ed Miliband walks into Downing Street on 8 May. From Thurrock to Plymouth, up to Bury, Redcar and a lot of places in between. 

Why did I do it? Because I believe Labour is working to achieve something that no other party is trying to do – win for the whole country. We’re the only party fighting to win seats all the way from the south coast to the Midlands, through Wales, the North and into Scotland.

What did I find? Some people are undecided. That’s only natural. For the first time ever, we have a fixed-term parliament and people know when the election is. They know they’ve got time to weigh things up. Others are focused on paying their bills, getting the kids to school and haven’t given any thought to politics yet. One man in Chatham thanked me for stopping by to tell him there is an election in May. “I promise to look out for it,” he said.

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That’s why my feeling is that this will be a “decide late” election. As a Labour MP, that gives me confidence. Because when it’s a close election, what happens on the ground is all the more important.

At a time when people are increasingly asking who it is they are sending to bat for them in parliament, Labour have fantastic parliamentary candidates. We’ve got more organisers than ever before and we’ve got the most committed campaigners in the country.

The Conservatives seem to me like an increasingly virtual party. In many communities they appear to exist only on billboards and the glossy leaflets they pay people to deliver. By contrast, Labour supporters are stuffing envelopes and pounding pavements at all hours and in all weathers.

Two things very quickly became clear during my time on the road:

First, no matter where you are, people have a very human respect for those who are willing to spend a cold January evening on the doorstep. They care about which party is taking the time to come and knock on their door. 

Second, the increased focus on our NHS in our national debate isn’t some party-political construct. It’s a reflection of what people are feeling across the country.

The NHS was raised with me more than any other issue. I remember the conversations I had in Harlow with Livingstone, a nurse who’s worked for ten years at the local hospital; with Caroline, a public health registrar from Worcester; and an elderly couple in Lancaster, worried about the services they rely on. They all told me that they would be voting Labour to protect our NHS for the future.

These concerns about the health service speak to a wider feeling I felt across the country.

People want a government that is on their side. To protect us from forces and dangers that we cannot face alone. And to get big things done so this country will work for the many. The battle we have to win is convincing them that this is still achievable through the ballot box.

There’s a popular wisdom that we should blame political disenchantment on the expenses scandal, the two-party duopoly, Nick Clegg and tuition fees, or controversial conflicts overseas. But I think it’s more than that. There’s a basic feeling that our problems have outgrown our politics. Our lives are now shaped by complex global forces. Tumbling oil prices, wages being eroded by globalisation and new technologies, our livelihoods being thrown into crisis by property speculators on the other side of the world.

Questioning whether traditional politics as we’ve known it can make a difference is not a disillusioned response, it is a rational response. I heard it first-hand from a man called Michael, a father and a gas-fitter, on a freezing evening in Morecambe. He told me how we was leaning towards Ukip because he felt Britain’s only option was to shut the borders for five years. “We’ve got to get our house in order,” he said.

But as we talked about immigration and Labour’s priorities, it became clear that Michael didn’t feel any particular warmth for Farage or his party. He wanted reassurance about how a future government would make life better for people in his shoes. We shook hands and parted on good terms, with him a little closer to a decision.

There are countless other Michaels out there. And for many, the decision they make on polling day won’t be who they vote for, but whether they vote at all. The only way we can build a better Britain for them is if we boldly make the case, one conversation at a time.

Dan Jarvis is Shadow Justice Minister and the Labour MP for Barnsley Central

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