How I discovered the unexpected joys of canvassing

Away from the media frenzy, door-knocking gives you a real, human sense of what politics is about.

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In a 2010 article titled “What is the point of canvassing?” the BBC referred to those who go door-knocking for political parties as “human spam”.

Ten years ago, this was a common enough attitude to the practice of canvassing. It seemed like an oddly outdated, analogue practice in the online age.

Canvassing has enjoyed periods of popularity and decline. Knocking on voters’ doors was a central and legitimate aspect of political campaigning long before the UK Labour Party was formed in 1900. But far from seeing the practice drop out of public life, we seem to be witnessing a door-knocking renaissance.

In 2019, activists speculate that canvassing has become far more widespread than in any of the three previous general elections. This is partly explained by Momentum’s huge mobilisation drive; during the 2017 election, some 100,000 people used the campaign group’s MyNearestMarginal tool to find canvassing events in marginal Labour seats. This year, the operation is even bigger: Momentum’s objective is to knock on two million doors.

It’s not only Labour activists who are out canvassing, though. Tim Bale, a professor of Politics at Queen Mary University, tells me that the number of volunteers canvassing for the Liberal Democrats has surged. This year, there are people door knocking to campaign for tactical voting, too – Hugh Grant has taken it upon himself to canvass against the Conservatives, rather than explicitly for any other party – and for the climate. Labour for a Green New Deal has been actively attempting to persuade people who wouldn’t normally align themselves with the party into campaigning for the environment.

The Conservatives have never been able to field as many volunteers as other parties, in part because their support base is older and more comfortable with the status quo. The party’s membership has also dwindled (in the last 15 years, it dropped from around 400,000 members to 180,000).

Does canvassing work? And is it supposed to persuade voters to change their vote, or to rally an existing supporter base and gather data? Political parties and social scientists alike both accept that canvassing does make a demonstrable difference to how many people get out and vote on polling day in an area. As an example, Wes Streeting’s campaign in Ilford North had more doorstep conversations than any other seat in 2015, and he was rewarded by an increased Labour vote share of almost ten per cent​.

But as Bale puts it to me, “canvassing is often misinterpreted, even by those who do it, as some kind of conversion exercise”. Historically, evidence that it actually persuades people to vote differently has been mixed. One 2015 investigation by the British Election Study suggested that it made no difference at all. Still, in narrowly held marginal constituencies, every conversation counts. Momentum has been running targeted “persuasive conversation” training events this year, based on Bernie Sanders’ campaign, where activists learn how best to listen to voters’ concerns and engage them on issues they care about.

Regardless of whether or not canvassing actually “works” in terms of vote share, it means a great deal to those who do it. I have been canvassing for the first time this year, and, on the face of it, trudging around in the cold, the wind or the rain, knocking on doors where people are having their dinner, or simply never wish to hear the word “election” again, isn’t particularly appealing. But there are many unexpected joys to door-knocking. Away from the cold calculations of polling numbers and percentages, canvassing gives you a real, human sense that politics is about every household in the country. Will Reardon, an activist who campaigns for Labour, told me he was “amazed by how many people actually held opinions on the local MP.”

You get a feel for how local politics operates, too. I spent one recent evening driving around in the back of an MP’s car, listening to her speak about the day-to-day realities of her job, most of which are too mundane to be reported, but are integral to an MPs role in society. I learned a lot about plant beds.

For many Labour activists, door knocking counters a sense of powerlessness in the face of powerful political opposition. Heather McIntosh, a long time Labour campaigner, said “it makes me feel like I'm not alone in believing in change and left-wing policies”. One phrase I kept hearing from canvassers across political parties was that “the stakes are higher.” People told me they canvass because of cuts to schools or mental health services, or because they fear the consequences of climate breakdown. Others said they had to do something in order to counter the barrage of disinformation online (Google recently banned eight paid-for Conservative adverts for breaking disinformation rules).

Undeniably, canvassing can be good fun, with pints afterwards and a sense of camaraderie among your little team of doorknockers. But many Labour canvassers told me they’ve felt unsafe this year. It’s not just having the door slammed in your face, or the odd close-call with a dog while putting a leaflet through a letter box. “A man tried to run me over by reversing his car into me,” one person said. Another told me how they lost one member of their group, only to find her being chased by “a hugely disgruntled man shouting profanities.” 

And canvassing can be emotionally draining, too. “I’m candid with some and tell them about my parents living on benefits and my dad being found fit for work multiple times,” Stephen Phillips, a Labour campaigner, told me. “It can be painful.” Many activists see it as a duty – albeit a tedious one.  “Canvassing is a pain in the arse,” said one long-time Conservative campaigner. “On a good day you may find one or two people in ten at home and willing to speak to you.” It’s not been all that much fun for Liberal Democrats either, who have seen their party plummet in the polls. One anonymous Lib Dem campaigner said that “it’s definitely not my idea of fun. It’s hard to see how I’m making any difference.”

Many more canvassers, though, see this call of duty as a positive source of civic pride – one that involves contacting people who are otherwise lonely or disconnected. One Labour-voting woman told me about canvassing an old man whose wife had died. “He told me how desperately lonely he was and that he hardly ever saw or spoke to anyone,” she said. “He was so grateful I'd called round.”

Everyone has a story. Personally, I’m unlikely to forget seeing one Labour MP suddenly dart behind a wall at a block of flats when realising that one of the elderly locals was the notorious “naked yoga man” who had been sending her regular updates on his practice.

We keep hearing that this is the most important election in a generation. Its outcome may be significantly shaped by canvassing. Many people that I spoke to for this piece recounted conversations where they felt they had changed someone’s mind. Although the 2016 British Election Study concluded that this doesn’t happen at a statistically significant level – with party contact producing no demonstrable shift in a voter’s political ideology – the goalposts have shifted in the past two elections, not least because Brexit has shuffled voters’ traditional party affiliations.

There also seems to be an unprecedentedly high number of undecided voters – according to a recent Ipsos Mori poll​, some 40 per cent of voters could still change their mind between now and Thursday. In an email, Laura Parker, Momentum’s National Coordinator, told me that: “there are enough people who haven’t made up their mind in this election to mean that everything is to play for in these final days.”  This is certainly what the people I spoke to are intending to do. Stephen Phillips put it bluntly: “it feels like a moral obligation to canvass now.”

Update: This article was amended on 11 December 2019 to remove a suggestion that the Conservative Party paid canvassers and correct the party's membership figure. The Conservative Party does not pay canvassers and we apologise for the suggestion.

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