With postal votes for the local elections landing on people’s doorsteps today, I thought I’d share 10 things I’ve learned from canvassing over the last few months, while I’ve been campaigning to be elected to the Borough Council as the Conservative candidate in my local ward.
- Nearly everyone is polite. I’ve counted, and it’s fewer than 1 in 100 houses where someone is actually rude. Even people who don’t want to talk to you usually just say so, politely. This never ceases to amaze me: we’re knocking on people’s doors, disturbing their leisure/chores/meals to ask them personal questions about their politics, and they’re still polite. It says something very good about human nature.
- You don’t know a neighbourhood until you’ve knocked on every door. No matter how well you think you know an area, it’s not until you’ve knocked on every house and spoken to the people there about it that you really start to. Not only do you see the tremendous diversity of people who live there, you begin to learn what the neighbourhood looks like through their eyes.
- Most people aren’t that political. For those of us who take a strong interest in politics, particularly party politics, it can be easy to get lost inside a bubble of Westminster gossip, Twitter feeds and angry debates. But most people, though they may care deeply about particular issues, don’t follow politics that closely and will make their decisions based on a wide range of factors, particularly at local level.
- Don’t stereotype. I’ve met self-proclaimed socialists in million-pound mansions and lifelong Tory voters in council flats. Same goes for race, gender and age. Everyone’s an individual and everyone has their own reasons for deciding how to vote.
- Local issues matter. Whether it’s the torn up grass verge, the bin that doesn’t get collected properly or antisocial behaviour, things that may seem small to outsiders can have a tremendous impact on the quality of people’s lives. One of the strengths of our democratic system is that it forces politicians to go out and talk to people – even if you can’t help someone immediately, just listening is tremendously valuable in understanding what people are concerned about.
- Some people just want a chat. Particularly elderly people who live alone, having someone to talk to can make a difference. Give them the time – whether or not they vote for you, you’ll have helped to make someone’s day a bit better.
- Canvassing keeps you fit. Spend six hours going door to door around a ward and it’s amazing how far you walk!
- People are feeling angry and betrayed. More now than any time in the last year, there’s a real sense of anger and frustration at politicians. Whichever way they voted in the referendum, many people are feeling disgusted at how they see MPs have handled the affair. And amongst Leave voters, a significant number are feeling betrayed and disenfranchised, in some cases saying they’ll never vote again.
- It doesn’t rain as much as we think it does. This obviously depends on where in the country you live, but in Welwyn Garden City it’s sunny a surprising amount of the time. Or maybe I’ve just been lucky.
- You get points just for showing up. It’s trite but it’s true: just by making the effort to go and talk to someone you’ll make them feel more positively towards you. You won’t convince someone who’s a ‘definitely not’, but you might well change someone from a ‘probably not’ to a ‘why not?’.
I never expected to like canvassing. Going door to door to talk to people about how they were going to vote? But though I expected to find it terrifying, it actually helps to uphold my faith in humanity. The civility and friendliness of the people you meet; the ability to listen and learn from their concerns; and the sheer diversity within a single ward combine to make it a tremendously rewarding experience.
As Chesterton said, over a century ago:
“If we were to-morrow morning snowed up in the street in which we live, we should step suddenly into a much larger and much wilder world than we have ever known. And it is the whole effort of the typically modern person to escape from the street in which he lives. First he invents modern hygiene and goes to Margate. Then he invents modern culture and goes to Florence. Then he invents modern imperialism and goes to Timbuctoo. He goes to the fantastic borders of the earth. He pretends to shoot tigers. He almost rides on a camel. And in all this he is still essentially fleeing from the street in which he was born; and of this flight he is always ready with his own explanation. He says he is fleeing from his street because it is dull; he is lying. He is really fleeing from his street because it is a great deal too exciting. It is exciting because it is exacting; it is exacting because it is alive… The best way that a man could test his readiness to encounter the common variety of mankind would be to climb down a chimney into any house at random, and get on as well as possible with the people inside.” – Heretics (1905), G. K. Chesterton,