Nicky Morgan is the Conservative candidate for Loughborough, and is a former Education Secretary.
Why is much of the media surprised that an election involves politicians meeting voters? Why is it news that the Prime Minister, unsurprisingly, wants to do more doorstep canvassing, or that Tim Farron has met an angry pro-Brexit voter?
Is it news because most journalists couldn’t think of anything worse than putting themselves out into the public domain for a swift and direct reaction. Sure, they get some pretty direct comments via their social media pages or from fellow journalists or commentators. But it’s not that direct, physical face-to-face contact which happens on a doorstep or in the market place or on a walkabout.
During the 2015 election, I invited two journalists to join me in standing in Loughborough market to see what direct campaigning is all about. Both commented at the end how very glad they were that it was me and not them standing there – and I and my fellow campaigners had gained a very positive response! Of course there were a few robust conversations – but, in the middle of an election campaign, that was hardly a surprise.
At that time, I was also Education Secretary, and one of the few Cabinet Ministers to represent a seat north of the Watford Gap. The conversations that Ministers have as MPs should absolutely shape their views and response to the issues that they are grappling with in their departments. Many of us used to report back at Cabinet on the views we’d picked up during a recent canvassing session or surgery.
Have the doorstep conversations changed in the past two years? A lot of the current conversations start with a comment about the fact we are having an election now – and then move swiftly on to our EU exit. Most people I’m coming across seem either supportive of leaving the EU because they voted for it, or resigned to the fact that it is happening, so we’d better have the right Prime Minister, Theresa May, to negotiate a good exit deal and new trading arrangement to move Britain forward.
Doorstep feedback so far shows that people have already thought about the leadership choice in front of them, and come down firmly on the side of the Prime Minister. Even diehard Labour voters (and I’ve been knocking on the same doors in the Loughborough constituency since 2004, so I know where many of the most committed Labour supporters reside) are struggling to contemplate Jeremy Corbyn as a serious contender for Downing Street.
The conversation will then usually swiftly turn to economic security: jobs, future opportunities for young people, pensions, the cost of living and investment in our local area. So turning the Brexit conversation towards economic security and putting the future negotiations in context is vital. It is right that the Conservatives show how the Government plans to secure the best Brexit deal for families and businesses, so that we avoid undoing the economic progress we have made since 2010.
Education in terms of school funding and school standards is another popular topic. Social care is mentioned more than the NHS, although mental health is a growing topic – so I’m delighted by the recent announcements on this critical issue. In particular, voters share their experiences of accessing social care services. Often that is about finding the right care package for an elderly relative.
Thanks to Charnwood Borough Council having approved their core strategy plan two years ago, the concerns about planning and building on local farmland and green spaces seem to have fallen away, although it only takes one large scale planning application to reignite that issue.
And then there are the photo-opportunities: “while you’re here…do you mind if we have a picture..?” is a phrase I’ve heard more than once in the past few weeks. As ever, some conversations are wonderfully brief: I spend longer saying I’m asking for their support – to be met with the great “We’re right behind you, always voted Conservative”; or else by a polite but firm “No thanks”.
Some interactions involve quite a lengthy conversation, and some people like a chance to express their views, often commenting that I’m the first person to knock on their door for years – which is particularly galling when you know you’ve canvassed the street before, but never found anyone at home. So: the exchanges may be different at each election, but the basic fact of needing to knock on doors to talk to voters never does.
Most politicians, whether they are party leaders or first time candidates, like to debate and discuss what they are offering, and how it differs from the other parties. This is harder for party leaders who must necessarily have these conversations while surrounded by cameras and other people – but none the less they’ve all years of experience of electioneering. Perhaps that’s why the press are surprised: they don’t have to re-apply to the public for their jobs. We do, and with that comes door knocking, robust conversations and direct, unvarnished feedback!