The Guide for Canvassers – Lesson 4 – Appear Local

One of the most important things to remember when campaigning is to appear local!

Door-to-door campaigning can be one of the most enjoyable aspects of campaigning, especially when you aren’t the candidate.

A friend and I went campaigning in an important election in autumn of 2004. It may not be as fashionable as campaigning for Barack Obama, but we flew out to campaign for John Kerry and John Edwards in the 2004 Presidential election in the United States.

We called the Democratic National Committee in Washington to tell them that we would be in town and asked where we could most usefully deploy ourselves.

We were asked to report to Lancaster City, in Pennsylvania, so we duly did.

The local members seemed a little uncertain quite what to do with a pair of Brits but we were promptly sent canvassing around a very nice suburb, which was described as Republican-leaning in the important swing state.

We began knocking on doors and were having moderate success when a man answered his door. I should add I was dressed well, as American politicians do.  He looked at me as I asked who he thought he would support.

His jaw gradually dropped as I clearly came across as being un-American, he retreated slightly and turned to call his wife.

‘Honey, the British are coming!’  Thankfully they were Democrats.


The Guide for Canvassers – Lesson 3 – Dealing with Voters


Canvassing can have its hazards - three things to look out for whilst dealing with voters

When knocking on doors for years any canvasser will be able to tell you a tale of partial dress, dressing gowns, night workers or ‘otherwise engaged’.

But there are three types of voters that are very difficult to deal with, those with dogs, those with questionable housing and those with a point.

Those with dogs

Dogs are wonderful creatures, let’s make that clear, but having received a great deal of training on postal workers they consider politicians to be fair game.

When I stood for Parliament in 1992, at the tender age of 21, I was knocking on a door in Poulton-le-Fylde.  The unmistakable bark of a large dog could be heard from within and with almost lighting speed it appeared at a side gate. We both assessed each other and he clearly decided he was faster to the gate.  I ran, so did he, I vaulted the gate, and left the dog Doberman the other side.  His owner said that I deserved his vote for that, and took a poster.

The rule to learn here is to always shut the gate on the way in, as well as on the way out!

Those with questionable housing

One MP once told the story of when he was knocking on a door in a general election.  He rang the bell and a half naked man appeared at the door, clearly in the state of dressing.

The MP said nothing, but recovered to ask, ‘Mr Jones?’

‘No!’ said the man. He pointed down the road towards a car saying, ‘I’m the milkman, that’s Mr Jones!’ and promptly ran off down the road.

Those with a point

I was knocking on doors in Callington in Cornwall during the 1997 General election; our candidate was Colin Breed.

Canvassing main roads to identify poster sites, I knocked on the door of a woman dressed in a nurse’s uniform.

I asked if he would vote for us and she said she would, but then followed up with –

‘Are you the ones who keep putting up all these posters?!’ I replied we were.

‘There are too many,’ she said ‘I’m a midwife and trust me then need no encouragement round here, trust me!’

Fair point.

The Guide for Canvassers – Lesson 2 – Assume Nothing


Charles Kennedy had been an MP for 7 years but needed canvass training!

Not long after the 1987 General Election, I volunteered to help, as a full-time member of the team, for the Mid-Staffordshire By-election.

As it was a by-election not long after the merger of the SDP and the Liberal Party, the campaign team was quite small, with a continuing SDP candidate opposing us. We, however, had an excellent candidate in Tim Jones, who was a barrister and one of the best public speakers I have ever heard.

As the team was small I was given the job of being the candidate’s aide.

This job basically entailed managing the candidate through their diary and running their work when out in public. This also involved running the canvass operation for the candidate.

It was towards the end of the campaign and we were joined by one of the party’s Members of Parliament, Charles Kennedy.  Although now a former leader and well known public face, he was one of only two SDP MPs to have joined the new party, and had been an MP for 7 years, by this point.

As we marched down our first street, in Lichfield, Charles leant over, out of the candidate’s ear shot, and said;

‘I’ve never been canvassing before, what do I do?’

Having been an MP for 7 years, I must confess I was flabbergasted at this revelation.  I think he saw the surprise in my eyes, and quickly continued;

‘Well, with such a large constituency canvassing isn’t very useful, we just do a big tour of public meetings in all the towns and villages.’

Satisfied he wasn’t having me on I showed him a canvass card, and ran through the questions he should ask to try and find out how people intended to vote.

He was really good at it.  But the moral of the tale is, don’t assume, however experienced the person campaigning with you is, that they know how to canvass. Train them, or listen to them, before you let them lose on the public.

Full details of all the candidates who fought the Mid-Staffordshire by-election, can be found here.

The Guide for Canvassers – Lesson 1 – The Basics


The Elgin Marbles - it would surprise you the issues that voters will bring up on the doorstep!

Following the Agents Training that was published last week, I was reminded, by a few friends, of a number of canvassing incidents that might benefit from publication.

I have been campaigning for Liberal Democrats, and the SDP/Liberal Alliance before that, for almost 25 years now, and still one of the most memorable canvassing moments was from my first General Election campaign in 1987.

Previous to this I had campaigned on a by-election in Knowsley North, for the now Labour MP, Rosie Cooper, caused by the resignation of Robert Kilroy-Silk to become a TV personality.

This gave me a sound grounding in campaigning, meeting such great Liberal campaigners as David Penhaligon and Paddy Ashdown whom were both churning out leaflets at the HQ when my mum and I arrived to help campaign.

So, having had all this training in Huyton and Knowsley to prepare me, I was ready for the streets of Warrington in the 1987 election, campaigning for Ian Marks. I went to my first door, with canvass leaflets and posters under my arm, to be met by an apparently normal woman who eyed me with general suspicion.

I said I was there on behalf of Ian Marks, the Liberal/SDP Alliance candidate, and wondered if she was likely to support Ian in the election.

She gave it a moment of consideration and said; ‘Well, you’ve definitely got my vote, because you want to send all the blacks back, that Enoch Powell had it right.  But, my husband is another matter!’

As you can probably imagine, this being my first door, and having a relatively good grasp of party policy, I was not under the impression that this was indeed our policy, but before I could reply she called for her husband, who came bundling to the door. I feel certain that I raised an eyebrow.

‘What’s your policy on the Elgin Marbles?’ came the question.

For a moment I was lost for words, neither knowing what they were, or whether the party even had a policy, but, after a moment’s consideration, I responded: ‘what do you think?’

After 5 minutes he had explained what we should do, which was to keep them, and then having taken a poster to display I tripped happily back down the path.

When asked by the candidate who they voted for, to mark the canvass card I replied, ‘two votes for you and they took a poster!’

I didn’t think it was sensible to tell him how broad the church was that allowed them to support him.

Why does David Cameron always look constipated? Is it because he is ‘weak and marginal’?

David Cameron
Why does David Cameron always look so constipated?

Eton, Oxford and the Bullingdon Club may have taught Mr Cameron a certain type of debating style, but it’s one that makes my skin crawl.

Whatever you say about Gordon Brown, even if you oppose his politics completely, he does actually work very hard, if at times ineffectually, for the country. I quite like Gordon really, and I can’t say the same for, the apparently permanently constipated looking, Mr Camero

So why is Mr Cameron taking on this apparently disapproving air.

I think his attacks on the Labour leader are calculated, like so many policies of the Tories at the moment. He, and his front bench, are of a type that thinks jeering and bullying are normal forms of dialogue that are expected of parliamentarians. Only their sort of parliamentarian still believes this.

Mr Cameron’s attempts to move his party to be more inclusive and open to the 21st Century are completely undermined by this hooray-henry attitude. He has, this week, been described as ‘weak and marginal’ with his little gang of Euro-thugs that make up his new grouping in the European Parliament, by the chairman of the EPP.

The EPP is made up of all the mainstream members of the European right and Mr Cameron’s party would once have placed itself squarely with this group. Mr Cameron is not a Conservative, in the way people remember the Tory party of Churchill, Macmillan, Heath and even Thatcher. It is  more extreme and anathema to British politics.

It may seem like a jolly wheeze to form their own group in the European Parliament but his playing fields of Eton antics make his party look increasingly politically constipated and objectionable.