Cllr John Moss is a councillor in Waltham Forest.
I remember an old Conservative friend of mine railing about how difficult it was to get activists to understand how the world had changed and how the “old way” of just asking people how they intended to vote was always going to fail.
This was probably the early ‘00s. Blair was a Prime Minster rampant, Ken Livingstone was Mayor of London ,and we were a demoralised rump.
But the realisation that people no longer voted for a party year in, year out, was crucial to beginning the long journey that resulted in a Conservative majority in 2015.
The surveys Andrew Kennedy referred to a fortnight ago may be a recent innovation, but they hark back to an earlier time. Indeed, I recall reading the “How to be a Conservative Councillor” guide around the same time and “Survey Canvassing” featured prominently.
However, as we were beaten back to safe seats and wards our focus came to be on shifting a declining number of “core voters”, rather than trying to grow our potential supporter base.
The pearl of wisdom I took from my old friend was this. When you knock on a door and somebody tells you they vote Conservative, that’s hunting. You’ve found out they vote for you, but you have not increased your vote.
What we needed to do – and need to do constantly now, because of the way voters are increasingly willing to switch their votes – is more like farming.
You need to know what the issues are which that individual voter is concerned about, then you need to engage in a conversation with them over a period of time to persuade them that you understand their concerns and have answers for them. Then getting them out to vote ought to be the easy part!
For example, wouldn’t it be great if all those people who said education was a key priority for them in the 2010 and 2015 general elections had received an e-mail or a letter with a personal message from Theresa May explaining our new education policies on the morning they were to be announced?
Imagine voters receiving three or four such letters or e-mails every year as relevant policy announcements are made. That’s what the CCHQ surveys can give us at a national level, and it is possible to do that at a local level as well.
Can we imagine, as Andrew alluded to, being able to target the crucial 50-100 voters in a tight by-election so you get them out to vote and win, rather than lose by a handful? Not with a boring “Today is Polling Day” flier, but with a specific message about the specific local issue they told you was their number one concern.
And how do we do these things? Simple. Have the conversation, cultivate new Conservative voters. Be a farmer, not a hunter.
I’ve heard every excuse not to use the surveys and I admit when they first came out they were too long, better designed for direct mail than doorstep canvassing. Designing them as “Knock, Drop and Collect” surveys for areas where people are mostly at work also isn’t the best approach.
But none of these excuses really stand up. The problem is we’re Conservatives, so we don’t like change, but this is one change which we should whole-heartedly embrace.
Over the last two years, I have refined the survey we use so it takes two or three minutes to complete on the doorstep and captures the most important information for us as campaigners and candidates. We have a FREEPOST reply address for people who are out and I always tell canvassers they can still record a simple voting intention if they want to – on a blank sheet on their clipboards. (20 Acacia Ave, Male, 50, = A).
We get 5-10 surveys back from every session via FREEPOST. Not bad given we probably knock on 100-150 doors in a session and collect another 15-20 on the doorsteps.
We ask one or two local questions chosen by the local ward Councillors or candidates, there’s a write-in box for “other issues”, and there’s a choice of 10-12 local priorities from which we ask people to pick their top three. That takes up the bottom half of the front page.
The back page is standard and asks: how they voted in the last election; how likely they are to vote in the next one; the 0-10 likelihood to vote for each party; how satisfied they are with the Council; whether they want a postal vote; and, finally, if they want to help us or join the party.
Ten questions. And the way we get people to give us honest answers is simple. When we get to the “choose three” question and to the “likelihood to vote for each party” question, we give them the clipboard and pen and they fill it in themselves.
Many people also spontaneously add their e-mail addresses or phone numbers, so we’re also capturing the gold dust that represents in terms of contacting voters in future.
It does take more time, but that is something we have to accept and organise around. Those who want to be Councillors, MPs, or AMs, need to recognise this is a commitment they will have to give if they want to maintain and grow the Conservative base.
In Waltham Forest, we have three-member wards with about 4,500 households per ward. One person can knock on 20-30 doors in an hour, speaking to 20-25 per cent of residents. If you do the math, that means you need between 150 and 225 man-hours to go to every door.
Say it’s the lower figure of 150 and you have three Councillors or candidates per ward. That’s 50, one hour sessions with all three there and you need to do it three times over at least to get to those people who are out. And then people move, change their minds, there are new issues which crop up, so you need to do it again.
That’s why all Councillors, MPs, AMs, and prospective candidates for those roles need to regard canvassing as something they should do all the time, with occasional weeks off, rather than as something they do in a flurry of activity every couple of years when the election is around the corner.
It’s also something those who approve and select candidates need to bear in mind when they ask people what commitment they have shown in the past and are prepared to give in their quest to be a Councillor, AM, or MP. Because farming is a constant activity. If you stop, everything withers away.