You may have noticed that last week there was an election throughout the UK. I have been politically interested for the last thirty five years or so, but this election saw me become politically active, as well.
I joined the LibDems about six weeks ago; frankly, I should have joined earlier – I made the decision to join over a year ago (at least in part down to online discussions with Jennie
), but since I didn’t have a permanent address when I first moved back to London, I wanted to wait until I did so I could play an active role in a local party as well.
I originally intended my active role in this election to be rather passive: I agreed to put a poster in my window. I thought that would be sufficient – I could handle that…
But then last week, after Francesca described her experience delivering leaflets
and realising that I was going to be free on Thursday, I volunteered to help out on election day in any way I could.
I found it a very interesting, positive experience (though it is now becoming difficult to distinguish the feeling of working on Thursday from the confusion and disappointment awaiting me on Friday morning…); but it also surprised me in lots of ways.
I made my way to the “committee office” for mid-morning. I was surprised by the youth and commitment of most of the people volunteering.
I started off by “knocking up”: walking a set route banging on doors in an effort to get the vote out. This wasn’t what I had expected, but frankly if you are going to volunteer, you take what is given: I certainly wasn’t going to get fussy on my first outing. It turned out that my stint of “knocking up” lasted about five hours and took me along six miles of my neighbourhood streets on five different walks – it was a good way to explore the locality.
I started at 11ish and went through to five thirty; so most people were out. Of the people who were in, most said they had already voted, some said they would vote later and a few said they wouldn’t ever vote. There was no convincing them.
The idea wasn’t to try to get people to vote LibDem, that hopefully having been done by the canvassers and leaflets over the previous weeks; the aim was simply to get people who were reckoned to support the LibDems or be possible LibDem voters to get out to vote. Personally, I thought that getting people to vote at all would be a result – I urged people to vote whatever party they said they would support. Most people wouldn’t tell me which way they were going to or had voted. I was surprised by the number of people who said they hadn’t made their mind up – not a large number in absolute terms, but it felt significant; I would have thought that after six weeks of urgent campaigning, and all the publicity of the three party leaders’ debates, that people would know what they were going to do. Apparently not.
As we were knocking on doors, we saw Labour supporters doing the same thing. There was a certain friendly rivalry – there were stories of underhand tactics (opposing parties tearing down each other’s placards; campaigning outside polling stations – apparently a no-no) as well as more acceptable (and frankly sensible and obvious) tactics like getting people from ethnic minorities to campaign amongst their countrymen.
The area is very ethnically diverse, and that led to some of the more curious exchanges. A woman who I took to be a Muslim (she was wearing a head-scarf) told me that she didn’t know about voting – that was something she left to her husband to decide. I was dumbstruck. Several people I tried to engage with didn’t speak English (“No speak”, said one woman), and I had a few conversations through letterboxes; one of these, a middle aged black woman, opened the door when I said I was calling on behalf of the LibDems and proudly told me she had voted LibDem earlier that day.
I had one door slammed in my face. At another house, there was no reply to my knocking but I could hear a dog growling behind the door; as I slipped a leaflet through the letterbox, the dog grabbed it and I could hear it chewing it up as I retreated down the path.
The strangest exchange was with a blind man, who spent several minutes talking to me. He started off by swearing at me behind the closed door, and then he opened the door to apologise. He steadfastly refused to vote, but if he had, he said, he would have voted LibDem. He then told me how he wanted the UK to leave Europe and how he supported the BNP (who weren’t standing in the constituency). He said how politicians had made promises to him before, and never carried through on them. And then he said that he “wasn’t allowed to vote because he was blind”: at an election some years previously, he had gone to vote but the staff at the polling station refused, he said, to let his son help him vote, demanding that one of them help him. He refused and got into a scuffle with the official. He hadn’t voted, or tried to vote, since. It was a very strange story, punctuated by swearing (which didn’t bother me in the slightest). I’m not sure what he was doing on a list of possible LibDem voters – despite what he said, I doubt he’d have voted LibDem.
One thing I did learn was a huge respect for postmen. Walking down a path, knocking on doors and sticking leaflets through letterboxes was surprisingly hard work. Letterboxes seemed to be designed to stop one sticking leaflets through them, and that is without paper-chewing dogs on the other side.
I was surprised by the paucity of the data: like the blind man and others who clearly weren’t going to vote LibDem; others who didn’t match the target on my list. The list was meant to have been updated with the names of people who had already voted so that we wouldn’t disturb them (and waste our time), but since we didn’t have real-time data, it was bound to be out of date.
All in all, interesting, and possibly necessary; but also rather disheartening. I am not sure what I achieved, other than giving voice to an angry, disenfranchised blind man.
* * *
After my last round of “knocking up”, they asked if I wanted to do another, but I felt I had banged on enough doors and walked enough streets; so I was asked to go and be a teller at a polling station, instead.
I had no idea what this entailed, but I was told the guy I was relieving would explain it to me – which he did. Tellers are the guys – one from each party – that you see in huddles outside polling stations. I had to stand outside the polling station and ask voters as they went in what the number on their polling card was, and then write it down: this could then be input so that we’d know they had voted, and hence not be disturbed by someone else “knocking up”. I was told explicitly not to campaign (just as well, as I wouldn’t have had much of a clue what to say!). No one had to tell us their number; we could only politely ask.
When I got there, there were three tellers – one LibDem, one Labour and one Green. The Green Party teller wasn’t recording any numbers – I suppose he was simply being a presence which might prompt voters to go Green (very few did). The guy from the Labour Party was more engaged – we worked as a team, sharing polling card numbers. We chatted as we did this – competitive bonhomie - it was intrinsically boring work, enlivened by conversations and the enthusiasm of those coming to vote.
The diversity of the area shone through: there were Greeks (the polling station was in a Greek social club) and Turks; many, many shades of brown; and I noticed many Slavic names. Everyone seemed pleased to be there, aside from one woman who harangued us for standing outside the polling station. “You want to see me now,” she said when we asked if she would tell us her polling card number, “but no one’s been to see me during the campaign at all!” This rather non-plussed us: someone complaining that they hadn’t been disturbed by canvassers. I politely explained that actually I had been knocking on doors for five hours that day, but she huffed and stomped into polling station. The man with her shrugged his shoulders, smiled, and followed her in.
The suave Labour teller was meant to be relieved at 7pm, but his relief didn’t come; he left at 7.30pm (when I was meant to be relieved myself – pretty much a full day’s work!), and I stood alone for fifteen minutes. Then another Labour supporter, a very jovial trade unionist, arrived. She called the voters “love” and chatted to them all.
There was a steady stream of voters; in the two and a half hours I stood there in the cooling evening, about 250 people went in to vote, more coming after 6pm as they returned home from work. I have no idea if that is a lot or a few. There hadn’t been any queues by the time I finally left at 8pm. The highest polling card number I recorded was about 2,900, so 100 people an hour doesn’t sound a lot. The constituency turn out was 67%, the council ward turnout was 56%.
At 8pm I went back to the committee office to drop off the polling card numbers I had recorded. It was too late for them to do anything with them; the main point had simply been to be there, to be seen to be there, rather than actually record any data. It did enable us to engage voters as they went in, to show them we were there, remind them of the parties they could vote for.
* * *
I will do the same again, I think – though maybe I shall get involved earlier and help canvas and leaflet in the run up to the election (which might be sooner than expected).
I am not sure what I achieved during the day other than support the candidates and the party. For once, for the first time, I voted for the winning MP; but the council candidates I had been “knocking up” with failed to get elected.
The whole process felt archaic: in the digital age, we still vote by putting a cross on a slip of paper so someone can count it. The electoral system feels archaic, too: feudal and unfair.
They are still discussing how to resolve the hung Parliament, but I hope that some effective electoral reform comes out of it.
I won’t hold my breath, though.