I always try to be nice to canvassers, even the ones from the Green Party (sorry, Greens). I do this for the same reason I’ve never been canvassing myself, despite having been a Labour member for a few years now: I can’t imagine anything more appalling than knocking on door after door to be told where to stick it. But there are, incredibly, people who volunteer themselves for this social horror. Without coercion or payment, thousands and thousands of Labour activists stomp out the pavements in seats where every vote counts and in seats where they barely have a hope of making a difference. They do it for the party.
It’s extraordinary enough that candidates put themselves through elections. (In April, I spoke to one Labour MP who casually told me they were still paying down debts from the 2015 campaign, and now facing the possibility of being unemployed in seven weeks.) But at least for them there’s the possibility, however slim, of a seat in parliament at the end of it. The foot soldiers, though – for the foot soldiers, the only incentive is loyalty and the thrill of the fight (such thrills being hard to come by when you’re getting up at 5:30am to run dawn leaflet drops). And they still do it.
The last couple of years have seen a lot of tetchy meetings in my constituency Labour party. There’s no point pretending otherwise: all the frictions in the parliamentary party have been present too in halls and (for the tiny rural branches secreted in Tory safe seats) CLP secretary’s living rooms around the country. Members honestly horrified at what seemed to them unmotivated attacks on a leader they really believe in, vs members honestly horrified at what they knew of Corbyn’s history and leadership, and painfully conscious of the opinion polls and election results which were slurping at the party like a drain.
Here’s the important thing: members turned out for the campaign, no matter what they thought about Corbyn. This year I acted as a counting agent for Labour in Bath, which means pottering around a sports hall keeping an eye on the ballots as they’re turned out of their boxes, and then watching to make sure none of your candidate’s votes end up in the wrong pile. I got to the count in the candidate’s agent’s car, squidged in alongside other volunteers – some of whom I think had last seen me delivering a passionate speech about the relative virtues of Owen Smith.
When the exit polls came in, and we allowed the first shards of cautious optimism in, there was no “I-told-you-so” lurking behind the smiles. Or if there was, it was generously buried. (No one, in any case, had really allowed themselves fully to hope for a hung parliament, having been burned last time.) As we totted up our rough tallies by ward, and started to see on our notepads the shape the night would take, we were just happy. Our candidate (Joe Rayment) wouldn’t win, of course, but he would build on the total from last time. The Lib Dems were doing well, and the Tory incumbent was falling back. The Greens were choking.
We drank tea, shared snacks, and swapped gossip nabbed from Twitter or friends in other constituencies, cheering the wins for our MPs in Bristol, pumping fists in celebration when we caught the (sadly false) rumour that the anti-feminist Philip Davies was out in Shipley. And after the result for Bath had been declared, and we’d applauded the candidates (but mostly our own, obvs); and after the result for North East Somerset (counted in the same hall) had been declared too, and we’d applauded those candidates as well (but much more our guy than Jacob Rees-Mogg, obvs); and we piled back into the car with the greys of dawn creeping into the sky; and I thought, soppy and overtired, that I wouldn’t have been anywhere else for this unexpectedly splendid loss.
The post-election atmosphere on social media has been, well, not much like that car. Some Corbyn ultras, apparently, will not be happy until they’ve seen the traitors’ bodies dragged through the town square. And a lot of this aggro, for some mysterious reason, appears to be focused on women. But a party isn’t made up of the roaring voices of Twitter, and a party that listened to them and drove out anyone who’d ever had a heretical thought would soon be dead. Instead, the activists go on, getting ready for the next round of street-stomping and leaflet-dropping (which is possibly not that far away), for the party.