Issue 225: 2019 11 28: UK Election 2019

28 November 2019

UK General Election 2019

From afar.

By Richard Pooley

photo Robin Boag

As loyal readers may know, I now divide most of my time between the UK and France, a citizen of the world and therefore a citizen of nowhere, if Mrs Theresa May is to be believed.  Please don’t say “who?”.  Too cruel.  Oh to be in Maidenhead and hear her selling Boris’ wonderful deal from door to door.  So different from hers, of course.

Where was I?  No, where am I?  In a village in south-west France.  Two weeks ago I was reporting on the pleasures and trials of canvassing in two very different constituencies, Bath (pretty safely Lib Dem) and North-east Somerset (safely Conservative surely, the domain – or should that be demesne – of Jacob Rees-Mogg).  Now, I’m helping my wife to put our French house to bed for the winter before returning to the villages and towns of Moggland for a 10-day run of canvassing leading up to polling day.

Not that I am out of touch with my canvassing colleagues.  The two WhatsApp groups I belong to keep me informed with a string of updates on what is being said on the doorstep in Midsomer Norton, Radstock or Chew Magna.

My colleague J R Thomas told me off last week for suggesting in Why Canvass? that all was sweetness and light when canvassing these days.  He also doubted if I was being told the truth of people’s voting intentions.  “Take a little salt with the sugar,” he advised.  As to the first point, I can only go on my own experience over many years in many places.  People are certainly forthright and may utter the odd expletive but I have never felt threatened.  The few harangues I have been subjected to have come out of the mouths of well-heeled Tories.  Those updates on WhatsApp show that this is other canvassers’ experience too.

As for being told the truth, J.R. appears to have missed the point I was making, which is not like him.  He is quite right that people will lie or be evasive.  So, as I said two weeks ago, a good canvasser has to “know what they are doing and why they are doing it.  Listen to what people say and how they say it.  Read their body language.  Interpret the silences.”  The trouble is that few canvassers of any party are skilled at doing this.

I saw what can happen when enthusiastic but untrained party activists are let loose on the voters.  This was during the by-election in Brecon and Radnorshire in July.  I wrote about a day spent in Brecon at the start of the campaign – I’d Rather Not Say. I could see immediately that previous canvassing results were wrong: “…partly because the people doing the canvassing are often not up to the task.”  I returned to Brecon on polling day on 1 August in order to help get the Liberal Democrat vote out.  I wasted half the day driving up and down the Brecon Beacons to find voters who were either not our supporters or who were not the people listed on the electoral register as living in a particular cottage or farmhouse.  The canvass returns in Hay-on-Wye, natural habitat for Lib Dems, were much more accurate.

However, mistakes can be useful.  One guy in his eighties I met in the morning was especially informative.  A Lib Dem canvasser had put him down as likely to vote for us.  This was nonsense.  His paternal grandfather had been a Liberal councillor, presumably when Lloyd-George ruled the Welsh Liberal roost, but he was voting Conservative.  After telling me why, he predicted that the Lib Dems would win the seat.  Did I want to know why?  Of course.  “Because most of the people on this road have already voted by post.  For the Brexit Party.  If they had known Boris would become Prime Minister, they would have voted Conservative and your Jane Dodds would have lost.”  He then gave me their names and house numbers (no worries about data protection, bless him).  I checked them later against our canvass returns: several were marked as potentially voting Lib Dem.

He was right, of course.  The vote for the Brexit Party – 3331 – was more than Jane Dodds’ majority over the Tories – 1425.  The Brexit Party has withdrawn from the contest this time, which is one reason why I am confidently predicting that the Lib Dems will lose the seat.

By the way, something I have noticed down the years: if someone says they will or may vote “Conservative”, you can be pretty sure they will.  If they say they may vote “Tory”, there is a chance they can be persuaded not to.  After all, the word was a term of abuse derived from tóraidhe, the 17th century Irish for an outlaw, later used to describe Catholic supporters of James II (just as “Whig” comes from the Scots whiggamore or horse-driver and was applied to Scottish Presbyterians who opposed James).

What then am I seeing in my WhatsApp feeds?

  1. Too much optimism from the novices.  The lifting of the spirit on finding one person who will definitely vote for you makes up for the four people before who probably won’t.  Confirmation bias taken to the extreme.
  2. Too many leaflets from the Lib Dems is turning people off.
  3. The Lib Dems are winning the poster and stakeboard war but the novices are reading too much into this.
  4. Rees-Mogg himself and Conservative canvassers have been invisible.
  5. By contrast, Lib Dems from near (Bath) and far (London) have poured in; 29 in one small town on Sunday afternoon.
  6. Plenty of the Conservatives accuse the Lib Dems of being anti-democratic.  One called us the Civil War Party.
  7. The number of genuine Undecideds among traditional Labour voters is huge.  Hardly any will vote Conservative, even those who are Leavers.  Yet those who normally vote Lib Dem, admittedly a much lower number, won’t vote Labour.

In the 2017 election Rees-Mogg got 53.6% and Labour 34.7% while the Lib Dem got just 8.3%.  Two of the five tactical voting sites say it’s best to vote Labour if you want to unseat Mogg.  How many voters here and elsewhere will be influenced by these sites?

I doubt if the Lib Dems will even overtake Labour in North-east Somerset on polling day.  It’s not what the canvass returns show but we need to be realistic (or cynical, J.R.).

Meanwhile, I hope you non-Tories enjoyed and you Tories cringed while watching Nicky Morgan v Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain earlier this week.  My 30-year old son sent the link to me.  He’d been sent it by Labour’s Momentum, even though he is a Lib Dem member.


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