It’s that time of the year when politicians start posting pictures of groups of people smiling eerily while holding party placards and claiming that they’ve just had a ‘great response’ on the doorstep.
For the uninitiated, this sounds as though the people opening their doors in each street are just thrilled to see said eerily smiling groups of campaigners striding up their garden paths. For those of us who spend election campaigns following politicians of all hues around on doorsteps, we know that a ‘great response’ is more likely to mean that only three people in a very long street were both in and disposed to opening their front doors.
The clip that recently went viral of Theresa May knocking on a series of doors of properties whose owners were all out was amusing enough, but it was also pretty standard for any door-knocking session. Not many people are home during the day. Still fewer want a conversation with a politician, not least because they weren’t actually waiting at home for said politician to turn up. If someone really offers a ‘great response’ on the doorstep, it’s most likely that they’re a party member, a journalist whose sad ambition in life is to be asked to do jury duty, phoned by an opinion pollster or canvassed by local parties), or someone who has a problem with their drains and wants to bend the parliamentary candidate’s ear about it - even though the drains are something a local councillor should be sorting.
Many slightly more lukewarm responses involve voters in their pyjamas who are peeved at being disturbed. Slightly hotter responses that campaigners I’ve interviewed have included a Tory MP who walked up to a front door, raised his hand to knock, glancing as he did through the window. On the kitchen floor were the owners (presumably), having sex. The MP thought it best not to knock, and walked away. Another, campaigning at the time of the poll tax, rang the doorbell of a home in Brent East. A man opened the door in a state of undress and started talking to him. Then suddenly a woman came down the stairs in garb that showed exactly what her occupation was, and started asking him questions about how the policy applied to those who worked from home.
When an unsuspecting voter does give in and open their door to a canvasser, the conversation that ensues also often needs as much translation as ‘great response’. Party canvassers tend to have a script that they launch into about the election coming up and whether the constituent has decided how they might vote yet. Nervous canvassers gabble for too long, talking at the voter rather than giving the impression that they might at some point listen to what they say. When the voter does get a word in, but says they haven’t yet decided how to vote, the inexperienced, nervous canvasser walks away thinking that this constituency is still up for grabs for their party. The seasoned politician knows that all too often, ‘don’t know’ means ‘I’ve made up my mind, and I’m not voting for you but because I am British I am not going to say this to your face’. This was particularly obvious during the 2015 election in Scottish seats, where the MPs from Labour and the Liberal Democrats who I followed as they battled to save their seats heard countless people say ‘I haven’t decided yet’. I thought this meant that half of Rutherglen and entire streets of East Dunbartonshire were sitting at home agonising about their choice. The candidates in question knew that this meant that for this household at least, they were toast.
Still more seasoned campaigners claim they can tell how someone is going to vote on the basis of their front garden. A sofa on the lawn generally means non-voter, but the types of planting and levels of attention to pruning and lawn trimming apparently all mean something. A garden full of roses and hanging baskets can mean Tory, one councillor explained to me recently, but regimented rows of pelargoniums can indicate a traditional Labour voter who is concerned about immigration. There are regional variations: London seats with front gardens full of vegetables contain Labour voters of a Corbynite tendency, one anti-Corbyn (and perhaps anti-vegetable) MP claims. One MP who campaigned for ‘No’ in Scotland in 2014 claims that the tidier that the communal gardens around blocks of flats were, the more likely their residents were to vote no. This isn’t just a weird horticultural pursuit: it’s about understanding what is important to people in their lives. If your council-owned flat has rubbish in the garden, you may feel as though the status quo is making your life a bit, well, rubbish. So why not start to wonder if a change like independence might be worth the risk?
The best doorknockers are the ones who don’t talk at the person standing in the doorway, but who give the voter a chance to talk at them. And those who listen to what the voters say (and know how to translate polite comments to discover their real meaning, as well as understanding what different gardens mean), rather than trying to argue with them about why they are wrong, finish an election with a very good idea of what their local electorate worries the most about - and what problems their own party has.
This creates a problem for parties who lose the election, though, and it is one most recently manifested in the Labour party. The politicians and seasoned activists return from the doorstep having learned one thing about the voters, but the wider party membership may have reached a completely different conclusion. One example of this was the way Ed Balls included the education maintenance allowance in his list of issues that Labour appeared out of step with the public on in the 2010 election, but quickly realised in time for the party’s leadership contest that the EMA was an important touchstone issue for Labour members. In 2015, the Liz Kendall campaign made the same mistake, returning from the doorstep with a clear idea of what voters thought was wrong with the Labour Party, only to discover that the Labour membership that was choosing the leader had just not heard the same things at all.
Good politicians knock on doors and listen to voters all year round. But the intense campaigning of an election means they reach polling day with the best picture of what their constituents needed from their party. The problem comes when their party is not in a receptive mood to learning those lessons straight after an election. Because by the time you are back on the doorstep with weeks until polling day, it is far too late to get your party into the shape that the voters hiding behind their front doors need it to be.