Hope, Slammed Doors and "Ronnie Corbett": Tales from the Campaign Trail

We caught up with four activists all of whom went out on the campaign trail for the Labour Party this spring.

The recent general election campaign saw a genuinely extraordinary grassroots ground campaign mobilising on behalf of the Labour Party. Raw new recruits and experienced veteran members alike took to doorsteps all across the country as part of the effort to get a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn into office. The campaigning effort saw Labour sweep to shock victories in places like Kensington, Canterbury and Battersea, while other previously rock-solid Tory seats including Chingford and Wood Green, Putney, and Chipping Barnet are firmly on Labour’s target list for next time. Even Southport, without a single Labour MP since the constituency’s foundation in 1885, is now in the party’s sights.

We caught up with four activists all of whom went out on the campaign trail for the Labour Party this spring, to find out more about what their experiences were, what responses they received on the doorstep and what inspired them to canvass for Labour this time around.

Hayley Masi, Swindon South CLP

I recently went out canvassing for Labour for the first time – Jeremy Corbyn, his team, and their vision of hope gave me something I wanted badly enough to sign myself up. Door knocking is often held up as the backbone of election campaigning, the difficult but righteous work that We The People must go out and do to convert the non-believers.

In reality, and to my relief, a large part of door knocking turned out to be data collection - and an even larger part, reminding people that the election is actually happening, and that your candidate exists. I went armed with policy arguments, steeling myself to hit potentially hostile voters with some facts and stats. Generally, though, you won’t need to engage people in debate about policy detail. Much of what’s required is simply knocking on the doors of people who your local Labour Party will already have down as sympathetic - or potentially amenable - to the cause, checking that they will be turning up on the big day, and asking if the party can rely on their support.

Data collection sounds less righteous than launching impassioned arguments at people, changing hearts and minds, but this is important work, and it really does help get out the vote on election day. I had reservations about going at all, of course, chief among them a concern that the people canvassing alongside me might all be anti-Corbyn slugs. As it turned out, Momentum’s visible presence in the group put me at ease, and I would certainly recommend linking up with them - or just taking a like-minded friend along for solidarity, if you are worried about being in a group that may not share your enthusiasm for the Corbyn project.

So, my verdict after my first experience canvassing is thus - it’s definitely not fun (in any reasonable person’s sense of the word) and you will get the odd door slammed in your face, but it also isn’t terrifying, and the satisfaction of chipping in to support the cause is definitely worth it.

James Lomas, York Central CLP

What inspired me to do it? Felt like I had to really. I’d joined the Labour Party to vote for Corbyn to be leader, twice, and his success depended on a grassroots movement. I’m not very good at social media, but also didn’t really believe it could ever be effective, and I didn’t fancy the idea of long CLP meetings, so I decided to help out with campaigning. The first time I did it was with the MP giving out a petition about housing, prior to the snap election being triggered. Once the election was called I tried to go once or twice per week, which was a really amazing experience.

The whole process was a little bit archaic. ‘The board’ seemed to have an aura among some of the senior canvassers at first. The board told us on which houses to knock, the questions to ask and was where we recorded data. I told a friend about some of my early experiences who remarked it sounded more like a survey than an election campaign. Over time, and guided by excellent experienced canvassers, I learned that it wasn’t necessary to rigidly stick to the questions on the board, and to be fair the strictures imposed by the board had helped me to gain confidence in the beginning knowing that the expectation was merely asking simple to-the-point questions where it was hard to go wrong. But I also learned that the board’s data was hopelessly outdated. The ward in which I was campaigning had quite a few students, and a lot of rented accommodation, so the data on the board from sometimes as far back as 2010 was often totally useless. This was a source of frustration knowing the importance of younger voters to Labour’s success. The board was of course very useful on election day to remind only Labour supporters to go out and vote.

Generally speaking I found the responses to be refreshingly open-minded. This was refreshing as during my day job I’m surrounded by academics who are often very sure of their own view, and express it in - at times - quite a condescending way. I found that people on the doorstep did sometimes object to Corbyn’s leadership, but more often than not for a decent and straightforward reason. They felt that a new leader would stop the party infighting and leave a coherent party message. But not all responses were quite so reasonable - for example, one man repeatedly told me that the reason he wasn’t voting Labour was because of ‘Ronnie Corbett’.

Lor Bird, Derbyshire Dales CLP

I went out canvassing in a few seats during the election campaign. There was North East Derbyshire - a seat which was Labour but went Tory this time, much of which is made up of former mining communities. I also went canvassing in Derbyshire Dales, a safe Tory seat which stayed that way this time. I work in Amber Valley, another safe Tory seat which also incorporates the birthplace of the EDL. The Sun and Mail influence is still strong in these areas, which are very lacking in graduates and undergraduates. I want it to change.

I was inspired to campaign once the election was called (both council and national) because I wanted to see both Corbyn and Labour win and also see the Tories kicked out. I helped out in North East Derbyshire and got the information through a Momentum email, though I haven’t gone to any Momentum meetings. The person organising the canvassing was very negative towards me when I mentioned Momentum and he also said Corbyn was very ‘Marmite’ on the doorstep. He disagreed when I said the media were biased against Corbyn. A new canvasser shadowed the person leading the session and I asked him afterwards whether Corbyn had come up on the doorstep - he said and added that the lead canvasser didn’t make any effort to defend Corbyn. I’m sure negative attitudes like this didn’t help us in our efforts to retain the seat.

On the doorstep, most people didn’t answer the door. One Labour supporter told me they hadn’t had any Labour leaflet - in the campaign room they said that tories had pulled them out of letter boxes. This was echoed on Twitter. I didn’t encounter much negativity about Corbyn. Any negativity I did encounter was more about Labour’s perceived lack of credibility – on the economy in particular. Brexit only came up once, but there was a widespread lack of trust in politics generally. Elderly Labour supporters who were very loyal miss the whole labour and trade union community that was once very strong there.

In North East Derbyshire, there were issues about Natascha Engel - the local MP - who was seen by some people as being more concerned with her career down in Westminster than with the local community. Having said that, she did have considerable genuine support locally and wasn’t disparaging about Corbyn.

One success I had was in getting a local resident to come out and join us in campaigning, after knocking on his door and keeping in touch. I’m now working with my own local CLP of Derbyshire Dales to make some changes, particularly in how we relate to elderly people. We need to arm them with tablets - the electronic kind!

Tom Atkins, Brighton Pavilion CLP

I took part in a few canvassing sessions in Hove to try and help defend Peter Kyle’s slim majority of 1,200. It was the first time I had been actively involved in anything like this, but after 2015, Brexit and then Trump I was feeling pretty despondent and felt that I needed to do something.

I was pretty nervous at the outset but it turned out to be easier than I thought. We were given a simple script to get started with, and we were advised that while people were unlikely to remember much, if any, of the conversation you had by the time the election came round, they’d remember whether or not you were nice, so the key thing was to be friendly and upbeat. Having a go at persuading someone was a bonus, but it was mainly about information gathering.

I learned two key things. Firstly, that when it comes to politics, people are much nicer on the doorstep than they are online. Even the ones who don’t agree with you will be civil, and for the most part respect you for coming out. It was like a breath of fresh air in comparison to the kind of poisonous social media sniping that you can get sucked into online if you’re not careful. Aside from anything else, this made me feel that the political situation that we were in was less bleak than I’d been led to believe.

The second was to listen. There were quite a few people who really wanted to get something off their chest. The mere act of standing there and hearing what they had to say seemed to help; they would remember that it was Labour who had made the effort to come to their door and hear them out.

In the end Peter won comfortably; there were a number of factors here - among them Southern Rail, Brexit, the appalling Tory candidate, and Jeremy running a brilliant campaign nationally - but I like to think that having a highly visible, positive and energetic team on the ground getting to all parts of the constituency was vital in growing the vote and getting it out. My views on it might have been coloured by the fact I was in reasonably off middle class Labour areas where everyone is dreadfully nice, but I found the process very uplifting, even before the results came in.