14 November 2019
UK General Election 2019.
By Richard Pooley
Last week John Watson extolled the virtues of canvassing during an election campaign: strangers talking to each other and hearing often totally different political opinions from their own, delivered without evident rancour. Okay, he didn’t say those last four words. But he did say that he found canvassing showed just how nice and sensible the British public, of all political loyalties, actually are. I wonder how many of our readers and fellow columnists agree with him. If you don’t, I suspect you have never canvassed.
I read the words of our esteemed editor a day after knocking on doors in the North-east Somerset constituency of our Greatest Living Victorian, Jacob Rees-Mogg. I have done four canvassing sessions since, two in my own constituency, Liberal Democrat-held Bath, and two in Conservative-held NE Somerset. The latter completely encircles Bath like a baby’s bib, with the front to the south-west of the city. It is one of only two in the country which has another constituency inside it. This makes for interesting politics.
There is no such thing as a safe Liberal Democrat seat. Bath, a constituency which has been sending representatives to Parliament since 1295, was Conservative-controlled for all but ten months from 1918 to 1992. For the first fifty of those years Labour was the main rival. Only when Chris Patten lost to Don Foster in 1992 did the Liberal Democrats return Bath to the norm of the 19th century when the seat, then with two MPs, was tossed between Tories and Whigs. At the 2015 election, the Conservatives wrested it back only to lose it again to the Lib Dems in 2017. Wera Hobhouse, a German/British citizen and once a Tory councillor in Rochdale, will win again, helped by the fact that Bath is reckoned to have voted to remain in the EU by 68.3% in the 2016 referendum. How do I know? Because I have knocked on enough doors and listened to what the voters have to say. Also my phone, beside me as I write, pings every few minutes with notifications from the Bath Canvassers WhatsApp group, telling me what canvassers are being told on the doorstep a mile or two away. Those who are already Lib Dem supporters, Remainers all, will stop at nothing to vote, their quiet anger just as strong as the more vociferous kind shown by the few Leavers I have met on my rounds in Bath. “Soft Conservatives”, as the Lib Dems’ MiniVAN Canvassing software system describes those who usually vote Tory but look favourably upon the Lib Dems, will vote for Wera. Green voters, of which there are many in Bath (they got 12% of the vote in 2010), are voting for her too, their own candidate having stepped down. Meanwhile I have yet to come across any Conservative canvassers in Bath nor seen a single Tory poster (whereas almost every street has a yellow one somewhere).
Why canvass, you may ask, when the result seems so clear? Because Lib Dems are a small tribe and we can’t afford to be complacent. The number of life-long Tories who will always vote blue, whatever is going on, is high in Bath. Canvassing remains the best way of checking our hunches and finding out what people really will do on election day. Telephone and online polling cannot match it for accuracy. Provided the canvassers 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.
John is right. The vast majority of people really are “nice and sensible” when you apologise for disturbing them, state clearly who you are and ask them how they intend to vote. Stand back, smile and let them tell you. And they will. Ask them why (even if it is for your party) and listen, and they will tell you why. Is there sometimes hostility? Of course, there is. But in all the years I have been canvassing I have hardly ever felt in any danger. I thought this time might be different. After all, the online abuse is real and violent, especially that directed at women like Wera (and, as she told me on Tuesday, imagine what she gets as a German with Jewish ancestry). But this election is no different to previous ones. Why? Because most people, when faced with a friendly flesh-and-blood stranger at their door, are not inclined to be rude. They are inclined to tell you the truth, especially if you listen and don’t argue. A good canvasser is more like a pollster than a salesperson; there to get data, not to persuade.
Ah, yes, you are saying but Bath – nice, comfortable, beautiful Bath – is hardly the place where you will find the hard men and women who will set their dogs on you if you so much as set a toe on their property. Well, another reason to go canvassing is to learn about your own city. In the past week I have been to places where the hardship and poverty is all too obvious and yet I was less than half a mile from the Royal Crescent and Circus. The people living there have good reason to be angry and they certainly aren’t voting Lib Dem (indeed I doubt they are voting at all) but nobody was anything less than polite.
Don’t believe me? Then let’s move across to Rees-Mogg land. North-east Somerset no doubt conjures up an image in the metropolitan mind of rolling countryside dotted with farms and small villages. Conservative forever. Not so. Yes, there are large tracts of farmland and plenty of small and not-so-small pretty villages. And since becoming MP for this new constituency in 2010, Rees-Mogg has increased his vote every time. But the constituency brought in areas which had once formed part of a safe Labour seat. It takes in the old Somerset Coalfield. This finally closed down in 1973 but go to Midsomer Norton and Radstock as we canvassers do and you will speak to people whose fathers and grandfathers were miners or connected in some way with the mining industry. Drive between Bath and Bristol and you go through the unlovely though ancient town of Keynsham, site of a major Cadbury’s factory employing 5000 people at its height but closed down in 2011 by new owners Kraft who moved production to Poland, thereby breaking promises they had made when taking over Cadbury. This despite a vigorous campaign to stop the closure led by the then Labour MP. Perhaps this partly explains why NE Somerset voted 51.6% to leave the EU. In the 2017 election Rees-Mogg got 28,992 votes (53.6%) and Labour 18,757 (34.7%) while the Lib Dem got just 4,461 votes (8.3%).
So, why canvass such an unpromising seat for the Lib Dems? Because of Rees-Mogg and because in the local and European elections this year, the Lib Dems emerged victorious. Polling done by Survation in the constituency in October shows that Labour has haemorrhaged support. 405 people responded to the following: “Imagine that the result in your constituency was expected to be very close between the Conservative candidate and the Liberal Democrat candidate, and none of the other parties were competitive. In this scenario, which party would you vote for? 38% said they would vote Conservative, 32% Lib Dem and 8% Labour. As you can imagine, the leaflets we have been handing out on behalf of Nick Coates, the Lib Dem candidate, make much of this: Dear Labour voter, your party can’t win. Vote for us and get rid of Mogg. The Tories have cried foul, claiming that we are playing fast and loose with statistics. As if they would never do such a thing. Labour? Not a word. Just as in Bath we have yet to come across either Labour or Conservative canvassers in NE Somerset. However, several people told me that they’d heard Rees-Mogg himself was knocking on doors, accompanied by his youngest son. Sounds like child abuse. And yet probably he gets as polite a reception from traditional Labour households as I have got. Many I have spoken to loathe the man, most of them because he is a rich, out-of-touch hypocritical toff. Others, not just Tories, love him, often because he is unquestionably a conscientious MP who has worked hard to solve the problems presented to him by his constituents. He’s marmite.
Here is what a Lib Dem canvassing in Keynsham wrote on the Stop Mogg WhatsApp group chat this Wednesday morning: “Neither of us found anyone admitting to being a Labour voter. Red vote already squeezed here?” A fellow canvasser, a Lib Dem peer no less, replied: “That’s close to my experience all over the constituency. I’ve had one couple that are sticking with Labour but otherwise Labour supporters have already decided to vote tactically for us or just need a little nudge in that direction. It’s important that you record that they usually vote Labour so that we can send them a targeted message near the end of the campaign.”
Unlike Bath, so many people in NE Somerset are genuinely undecided as to how they will vote. My guess is that this is the same in a huge number of seats across the country. Bath is not just one of the few (30 is my guess) where the Liberal Democrats will win. It is also an outlier in the low number of Undecideds on canvassing returns.
Canvassing is not just useful to your political party. It is also good for you, the canvasser. John alluded to this last week. Every time I start canvassing, I feel a little fearful. Am I about to subject myself to a load of abuse? At the end, I always feel good. Not because I may have unearthed unexpected support or found most people were actually at home. More because I have conquered my own shyness and most of all because I have heard some new stories, learned some new things from total strangers I am unlikely to meet again.
That peer I quoted earlier urged a group of us last Friday to “speak to as many voters as possible”. I corrected him: “No, listen, not speak.” He looked offended. I added: “As canvassers we should be listening to people’s opinions. That way we get the data we need. And people who listen are the silent persuaders.” He nodded approvingly.