Peter Smith is a lawyer who works in central London. He has previously worked in Parliament for Edward Leigh MP.
As spring picks up, and elections draw near, party activists and sundry campaigners around the country will be shuffling around streets near you. As a candidate in a key ward in a Tory borough in London, here are some tips I’ve picked up doing the rounds over the winter months. (The list is non-exhaustive: please leave your own suggestions in the ‘comments’ box below).
First, preparation. Decided what you want to do ahead of time: a leaflet drop, a canvass of voting intentions, a petition. Whatever is strategically useful and tactically possible. Print the materials having checked and double-checked the designs (even the best of us cock up the spelling from time to time: a promise to ‘see you shortly’ has less stature if it is missing an ‘L’). Check canvassing details. Remember that electoral register often out of date and beware of addressing ‘Mr’ Annabel Smith without thinking.
Second, get a team together via email. Advertise widely and well in advance to get as many as possible: all hands, especially gnarled but even jaded ones, count. You want ideally a mixture of incumbent councillors, keen newbie candidates (that’ll be me), and old hand activists. There may have a star showing (it won’t be Boris, but might be a Cabinet member or prominent MEP if you’re luck). Try to set a meeting place all can find; second left at the third tree on Acacia Avenue really won’t do, especially if it’s far from the Tube. Try to make it convenient for public transport, and don’t start too early.
Third, turn up on the day at the right time and place and with the right people, and you are halfway there to a good session. Choose what questions canvassers are going to ask in advance – it’ll be the session’s theme – but keep them simple. After knocking and taking a step back (it’s easy to appear weird and overbearing, especially at 10am on a Saturday morning when there’s a pyjama-clad housewife peering back at you) no one wants to ask complicated and difficult queries.
Fourth, chose how you canvass the area. Pairs work well, as streets tend to have two sides (duh!). Keen and experienced, male and female, posh and, er, trendy: opposites compliment and first-floor dwellers surveying the street from behind a netted curtain will be impressed if they see different flavours of activist.
Fifth, on the doorstep, read the signs carefully. Pick arguments with non-experts: don’t ask a medical professor what she thinks of the health reforms, and try to stick to local issues for the local elections. The voters are not choosing the national government this year, so there’s relatively little the council can do about defence, foreign affairs, immigrants, etc. That said, there’s no way a Tory majority will be returned without a strong national activists’ network, and councillors do a lion’s share of General Election campaigning.
Be prepared for some good debates on the doorstep – but expect lots of potential voters not to be in or disinterested. Some are down-right hostile, but generally a rarity. Smile pleasantly when half-dressed people open, particularly when their face clouds as it clicks, you’re not the postman. Ignore the smell of weed emanating therein (and probably note down as LD or G in the voting intention column).
Old hands will tell you to carry plenty of leaflets on a range of matters and to have team business and contact cards (you will need a bag or a coat with lots of pockets), but consider wearing gloves when pushing leafleting to protect against letter box baffles.
Listen out for the danger heralded by the Romford scuffle: not a dance from the Roaring Twenties but the tell-tale scratch of paws when you approach the door, the seconds of silence as the dog builds up speed, then wham! The door frame-shattering impact of the beast and its raucous barking. Not likely to be Tories anyway (Labour, Ukip or, more exotically, BNP).
Think of novel ways of gaining entrance to so-called ‘fortress flats’: blocks, often newly built, with no easy way in. Saying ‘I’m here from the Tories’ won’t get you in; saying, ‘I’m interested in your vote’ will leave you out in the cold. Deceit is as useful as charm. Many places have ‘trade’ buttons, which magically let you into the stairwell without a key, but often only at limited (early morning) times.
Lastly, keep your cool, smile, and enjoy it. Once May’s past, you won’t have to do it again until 2015.