These unsuspecting weekend shoppers face a political gauntlet: all the major parties are out this morning. Rather annoyingly, the also-ran third party got here fifteen minutes earlier and nicked the best spot. They don't, however, have many balloons.
We have a crowd of around twenty, enough to suggest to a passerby that something interesting is going on. Given that most campaigning involves harassing the reluctant into conversation, its refreshing and even exhilirating to have so many people come over willingly for a chat. I get asked lots of “what will you do for me?” questions. A young father asks how the party will cut the cost of childcare. An elderly man asks about pensions. A teaching assistant asks if the party will sack herThis all puts a considerable strain on my knowledge of the manifesto but I don't think I resort to fiction at any point. I can't quite decide if this is what politics should be, trying to grant everyone their wish, trying to be a universal fairy godmother.
It all seems much more efficient than the slow, hit-and-miss practice of canvassing. I think we should have done much more of it.
Eventually, we run out of balloons and are responsible for at least two children bursting into tears.
Someone rings the Candidate to tell him that the Other Pary candidate has been invited to a charity fair. Where is our invite? Unperturbed, the Candidate decides to get there before she does.
We arrive in a big gang and all have to appear extremely interested in the assorted stands. And then the Other Party candidate arrives and I'm excited about a potential face-off. In fact, they are a polite if awkward couple. They are both irritated that there is no photographer from the local paper. Meanwhile those running the fair seem bemused as to how their innocent little event got “politicked”.
Paul Pennyfeather at 12:31 AM
There was always going to be an element of risk to this event. Unlike the other hustings, all candidates were invited. With their assortment of eccentric or extreme views, they were eager to rip into the candidates of the big parties.The Other Party candidate had sensed the danger of this and excused herself, citing a prior engagement. With the other big party candidate an also-ran in this constituency, the fire was always likely to be directed at The Candidate.
Hustings are supposed to engage the public but nearly the entire audience were party hacks coming to back their candidate. What is frustrating is that there has been no serious attempt to have it any other way; the event has barely been advertised, its at an inconvenient time in a not particularly convenient place. Everyone seems quite content to have it as a cultish little affair.
For the most part, the event was very boring. The questions either had very obvious answers so that there was no real dissent or focused on miniscule issues, clearly of grave importance to the questioner but deeply irrelevant to everyone else.
The Candidate was finding it very awkward to sit next to the Racist Party candidate. He clearly felt that even acknowledgement of this man's existence would leave him tainted with his beliefs. So he angled his chair away and didn't look at him when he spoke. When the Racist Party candidate asked for the water, the Candidate slammed the jug down aggressively, glad that he had been able to show his disapproval. All a little childish.
Things liven up towards the end as the heckling kicks off. The Candidate smiles his way through it.
Paul Pennyfeather at 11:22 PM
You will often hear voters talk about wanting an “ordinary person” in parliament rather than a career politician. Despite this, the career politicians have an advantage in these public meetings.They have more experience in these situations, more polish and are good on gaffe-avoidance. The Other Party Candidate has long been a member of the Shadow Cabinet and must have had extensive training over the years for these events.
And yet The Candidate is surpassing expectations. He looks at ease and actually seems to be enjoying himself. He is the funniest of the three candidates. Irritated by this, the Other Party candidate tries to get in with a joke. It's not bad but our candidate hits back with one of his own. It all feels a bit “Have I Got News for You”.
He is rattled by a question on cutting the deficit but it's soon clear that none of the candidates have anything to say on the subject.
The discussion on local issues brings out the worst in the candidates, as they all outdo themselves in excessive declarations of love for the local area. What does it mean to be a “champion for the constituency in Westminster?” Does anyone actually expect or want their MP to get to Parliament and spent all their time making speeches on local bus routes? A parliament of “constituency champions” would be a mess. And yet people still want to see the candidates' local credentials and the candidates play the game.
Afterwards the Candidate reveals that the Other Party candidate had, just seconds before the Hustings, asked if it would be possible to record the hustings. Interesting. If the plan was to catch an almighty gaffe, then I'm proud that the Candidate didn't deliver one.
Paul Pennyfeather at 10:32 PM
The Candidate was getting the "fiendish" questions that he had asked for. He sits in the middle of the living room, surrounded by interrogators.
He takes a concerning amount of time to answer the question on why he would like to be an MP; it would be nice to believe some thought has gone into this. While responding to a question on the elderly, he admits that he hasn't read that part of the manifesto yet.
As questions are asked on every conceivable topic, things are not going well. What is needed is a“good line” for each major topic, sentences that sound so evidently true that the audience must nod in agreement. The Candidate, however, seeks to give mini-lectures which lack impact in their meanderings. His substance is just not working as well as style.
In one response, the Candidate tears into the Council on a series of planning permission decisions. This produces silence. One of the counsellors present informs him that Our Party were actually in charge of the council when those decisions were made. “Let's try and focus on decisions made in the last few years.”
It is worryingly easy to rip apart our own policy. It's particularly concerning that we have no problem coming with criticisms but are really struggling on defenses.
As the session progresses, the questions get more leftfield.
“What do you think about all these abortions that are going on all over the place?”
“Are they?' The Candidate looks nonplussed.
“Have you ever taken drugs?”
“No but I would have liked to.” Laughter followed by solemn orders never to use this line again.
“You need to make sure you mention your work in the community. It's very simple. Just begin your answer with “Well, during my time working in the community, I learnt that . . .”
Unfortunately, the Candidate becomes too keen on this and starts using it for almost every answer.
The session complete, conversation then turns to planting questions. It's strange that no-one argues against this, that no-one suggests that it's rather against the spirit of the event. In fact, this is the bit that seems to really excite the team. Perhaps it's no surprise that the murkier bits of the process are more fun.
There is evidently an art to planting questions. Type one are the "open goal" questions. This is asking a question that will allow The Candidate to rant on about one of the centrepiece policies. Easy. A subtler tactic involves “bite the bullet” questions. With these, the focus is a disagreeable topic which is very likely to come up and the art is in angling the question so as to make the answer easier.
After much discussion, someone reading through the details for the event realises that this discussion has been in vain. Questions needed to be submitted by the previous evening. Someone has been very incompetent here .
Paul Pennyfeather at 12:29 PM
Our poster woes go further. Not only are they falling down but they are being stolen. It is suggested that it is part of an undercover operation by The Other Party. Someone else is fairly sure it was the work of Friday night drunks.
Next is the issue of leaflet distribution. The plan from those on high is to distribute five different leaflets before polling day. The response to this was mildly mutinous. People didn't believe volunteers would embrace the challenge. Moreover there was a feeling that the deluge would leave much of the electorate keener to pickaxe the candidate in the face than vote for him.
Do people want leaflets or not? Junk mail is one of the banes of modern living so adding to it seems an unlikely route to popularity. Yet some voters will complain to you that they haven't had any of it. Perhaps there is some significance in the ritual of moving paper from doormat to dustbin.
Our secret weapon is the photocopied handwritten letter that every constituent will receive from The Candidate. This is seen as the final gambit. The letter's precise wording is keenly contested. Soon the classic debate of positive versus negative emerges. The group divides predictably: the hardened campaigner advocates going negative while the young idealist is disgusted by even the consideration of it. Rather surprisingly, the young idealist wins out. I'm disappointed that after all the discussion, the opening line is a vapid statement about change. But then vapid statements about change are pretty in.
The next question is whether The Candidate's biography makes him sound too arrogant. A difficult balance here. People presumably want a candidate who has actually done something and has a track record of success. Yet no one likes a smart arse.
The discussion moves onto where we should canvass. As it's impossible to reach everyone, sacrifices must be made. The Candidate is keen to campaign in an village to the north of the constituency. He is overruled. The consensus is that the area is dominated by supporters of The Other Party. The theory is that canvassing in these areas actaully helps The Other Party by reminding their supporters that there is a contest in the constitueny.
I make a point about the need to get out the youth vote. This is met by vigorous nodding but no proposed course of action. Everyone likes talking about the youth vote as a great and powerful thing. In practice, after many elections where it has failed to turn up, they doubt whether it really exists. Annoying, because I know that if anyone did capture it, they would walk this election.
The Candidate ends the meeting with a rousing speech. He really seems to believe that he can win. More strangely, I'm starting to believe it as well.
Perhaps it's impossible to undertake so much work, much of it deeply tedious, without some small belief in possible victory. The excitement of polling day's approach seems to fuel wild predictions. The improbability of victory just makes the idea more romantic. Every election will throw up a few upsets. Why not us?
Conversation turns to how the election is going nationally. There is optimisim with a hint of trepidation. The footsoldiers all know that one mistake by the party leader could render all their efforts worthless.
The Candidate makes a joke about how he is in this to get a new job. It is at most a half-joke.
Paul Pennyfeather at 12:13 PM
We begin the day by trying to break into a block of flats. The use of questionable means to get into places that we really aren't allowed in is an important part of canvassing. Like burglary.
We wait patiently until someone leaves and then we slip nonchalantly in behind them. The day involves several more break-ins. Our more advanced method involves tenuous links to someone who lives there, normally of the “friend of a friend of a friend” variety.
I realise that something has gone wrong when the woman starts offering me money. There is a language barrier in operation here. When I asked here whether we could count on her support, she thought that I was begging. I try to explain that I want her vote. She smiles, showing no sign of understanding, and I smile back and offer a leaflet.
Next door I can hear a fellow canvasser trying to convince a bored-looking old woman to vote for us. Personally, I'm against attempting doorstep conversions. Give them a leaflet, try politely to find out their intentions and if they are undecided let them be. When we start preaching about the party, we all sound like dubious salesmen. Besides, there is a delicate balance between a greeting and minor harassment.
Today is full of animals and children. I am knocked over by several large dogs. It gets to the point where I start backing away from the door as it's opened. The children are quite fun. A couple of hooded kids on bikes come over and circle around us for a bit. They are very bored and offer to hand out some leaflets. One kid who opened the door mistook me for someone important (perhaps its the badge) and stared with awe. He nodded solemnly when I asked him to pass the leaflet onto mum and dad.
I thought things were going to end badly when one small boy pointed an impressively large water gun at me. He had already soaked all of his friends and here I was, a new target. I hadn't been trained to deal with a conflict situation. What to do? He smiled and ran away.
The Candidate is full of swagger today. Such is his confidence that he even hails a man two floors up, who is relaxing on his balcony. His efforts aren't met with affection.
Paul Pennyfeather at 12:12 PM
The fat man's loud declaration is met with laughter. The group that has been happily chatting in the street moves away at the sight of us. We are “the politics”and nobody wants to talk to us on this Thursday afternoon.
The biting cold hasn't stopped a large team coming out for canvassing and The Candidate means business with his monstrously large rosette. Time to chase The Public. We are in second place in a constituency viewed as a safe seat for The Other Party. Winning would require an improbable swing.
Canvassing is about putting voters into boxes. These determine how much they will see of us before polling day. If you are a definite voter for The Other Party, we will not waste another moment on you. If you are a definite voter for our party then expect to be harassed on polling day. If you have been put down as “Soft” Other Party, you will be hit with a ton load of paperwork and possibly even the smiling face of The Candidate on your doorstep.
“I don't know who he is. Never seen him. Why are you here and not him?”
I almost say “he can't visit everyone” but the man has a snarling disposition and wouldn't appreciate a lecture on the impossibility of The Candidate visiting over 70,000 voters. Instead I say, rather weakly, that “he is doing his best to see as many people as possible”. The door promptly shuts in my face.
During canvassing, my feelings for The Public shift constantly. When you are on a run of rude and obnoxious households, I start to dislike democracy. And then you knock on the next door and someone greets you with enthusiasm and intelligent questions. I want to hug them. The unsurprising conclusion is that The Public are neither all careful voters nor all idiots.
“You won't be getting my vote.” I'm about to shut the door with a quick “thank for your time”, but the man comes closer. “You see, I know him (The Candidate). I know what he's really like.” Walking away, I'm a little bit disappointed not to have heard “what he's really like”. The Candidate seems so solid, almost tediously wholesome, that I would have enjoyed some slanderous gossip.
I then get a ranter.
The apathetic aren't the problem when canvassing. They are normally polite and by quickly telling you they don't care, they save time. The devils of the campaign trail are the ranters.
They are nearly always males over the age of fifty. The conversation begins with them telling you (loudly) how disinterested they are. But as you thank them for their time and begin to make your escape, they launch their assault. “I'd shoot the lot of them. Bunch of crooks. None of them have got a clue. No matter who you vote for they all screw you over.” And so on.
I can understand the ranters. They are angry with the system and they never get the opportunity to express this to the political establishment. I might not be a politician but I'm someone with a badge who can be shouted at.
End of the day and everyone feels positive. There seem to be more undecideds here than five years ago.
Paul Pennyfeather at 12:11 PM