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The Effective Activist: Part 4 - Canvassing

There is an immense amount of confusion about canvassing, also known as voter identification. There are four basic forms of canvassing.

The listening canvass is where one goes to find out what voters want and think. You are not trying to persuade anyone, but simply to find out what your electors think. By nature this is open ended and each interview is lengthy. You may have “prompt” questions that you ask after the person has unloaded onto you. The listening canvass often yields surprising results, because we socialists tend mainly to talk to each other.

The voter identification canvass is seeking to establish which electors are likely Labour voters. It also identifies which electors should be avoided in the run up to an election because they are never going to vote Labour.

This process becomes quite sophisticated because we need to know whether the person is essentially UKIP or Green or Liberal or Tory or in some areas nationalist. If they tell us how they voted last time we can detect trends away or towards Labour, Tory, etcetera. We can also establish their hot button issues. We also identify access issues and dangerous dogs. We can note elderly people or people for whom schools or the NHS or pensions are likely to be hot button issues. At election time people who might move to us can be sent tailored leaflets.

Voter ID work enables us to gain entry to old peoples homes and other residential locations that otherwise we have no reason to enter. If we have a candidate or a councillor they should prioritise these sites because otherwise it may be difficult to gain entry. It allows our leading person to meet people whom otherwise they would never see.

There are still comrades who think that canvassing involves visiting people at home and shouting at them until they say they will vote Labour. Should you identify such comrades counsel them firmly.

This year’s voter ID questions may well be different from last year’s questions. This is because the highly intelligent comrades running the national voter ID programme learn from the information that we generate and tweak the questionnaire to gain better information.

Postal vote canvassing is where we go to our list of Labour voters and we ask them to sign up for postal votes. Experience has shown that the percentage of postal voters who vote is always much higher than the percentage of ordinary voters who vote in the same election. It also means that there are fewer people to “knock out” on Election Day.

We lost control of Bradford Council one year. If in four wards if we could have increased the Labour vote by one half of one per cent we would have held Bradford. The Eric Pickles revolution would not have happened. Nor, probably would the Honeyford issue have arisen had Bradford Council been Labour at the time.

You see now the importance of postal votes in increasing Labour turnout!

The Voter Registration canvass is as it sounds an attempt to register voters. Most local authorities try to do a good job but some are slack. In areas of multiple occupation and high population turnover voter registration canvasses need doing every year.

While canvassing you will happily meet good socialists. Always carry with you information about Labour Party membership and the tote scheme and postal votes. Will they want a poster or posters at election time? Do they wish to know about Labour events locally? Would they be willing to leaflet their street or a nearby street?

Many canvassers are more comfortable going out in a group for mutual support. New canvassers should always be “buddied” by more experienced comrades until they say they do not need support. Then observe them for say thirty minutes. A large team is unwieldy but the team generates huge enthusiasm and covers a large area.

I personally prefer having the canvass cards or sheets for a large area and canvassing the same group of streets year after year. The kids shout ahead of you, “Its the Labour man.”

Over a few years this annual canvassing links you into that locality. You are doing what the councillor or candidate does not have time to do, which is to visit every voter individually. You cease to be a stranger. People begin to trust you. You develop information sources. You begin to build a Labour community.

The first time that Labour canvasses an area we know nothing of the people living there. As our information builds we strike from our canvassing list the houses that are a waste of time. They may be people who for religious reasons do not vote. They may display posters for other parties. They may tell us that they are hard Tories. The aim of canvassing is to gain information. We should not waste time on known opponents.

The Labour Party has bought into a database that was developed for marketing companies. It breaks down into individual post codes and tells us a lot of information about that community. We can use the data base to identify the most fruitful areas to canvass. You will be surprised that often we do not go there first. One would think that gathering the low hanging fruit would be logical.

Often we are given different areas that are more likely to generate new party members, are strategic in that they are along bus routes (for posters), or which we should canvass first so as not to be disheartened as the election approaches. We canvass our good areas as we get closer to the election.

One very successful operator I know ignores the computer. Her branch starts canvassing in the best area and works towards the less good areas. Some patches in her ward are rarely canvassed. Her view is that any Labour voters in the posh houses do not need “knocking” – they will vote anyway. We should concentrate on the areas that need voter identification.

Telephone canvassing has pluses and minuses. You can get through a lot of people in a shorter time because you are not literally walking house to house. Over one weekend I voter identified 315 people by telephone. I was warm and dry and drinking tea while my comrades were braving the weather.

You lose the body language and the eye contact. People are happier to say “No” when you are not physically in front of them.

Entering the information onto the computer is best done by two or three competent comrades who may well do this as their major job for the party. They will sometimes flag anomalies and trends. If large numbers of “Don’t Know” are now Labour, or vice versa, this is important information. If voters are trending between UKIP and the Tories this is also useful information.

If we know from our records that someone has not voted on the last eight occasions, should we canvass them? One view is “No” because they still will not vote. Canvassing them is a waste of time. My view is that the Corbyn phenomenon will bring some non voters to the polling booth. Over a third of our 1997 vote no longer votes. We all have views as to why.

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