So, election day has finally come round. 48 million people can vote for their representatives in one, or a combination of, the following: Their local council, assembly member, Parliament or one of the devolved assemblies, police and crime commissioner or combined authority. Much attention has been paid in the national media to the Tory surge in the polls and the expectation that the Party will pull off a ‘hat trick’ by winning the Hartlepool by-election and the contests for the Tees Valley and West Midlands combined authorities.
But spare a thought for the people have spent weeks pacing the streets, knocking on doors and delivering leaflets. They are unpaid, largely unthanked and unrecognised (and the leaflets they deliver have to pass what is known as the ‘three second test’ for delivery of message – reflecting the amount of time it takes to pick them up and put them in the recycling) but they play an important role in keeping local councillors in touch with local opinion about a range of issues – including local development proposals.
If you are one of the 99.99% of the population who has never taken part in canvassing or leafleting here’s what you need to know:
- Local issues: If a local issue is important to people you will know all about it after you have been canvassing. This is one of the ways that councillors understand the extent to which people have concerns about proposed local development. However, remember that people raise other issues as well – and these can include problems that arise from not enough housing (and, in particular, not enough affordable housing).
- Keeping their ‘finger on the pulse’: Councillors are almost the only people who regularly go door-to-door speaking to people about their issues and problems – of anyone in the area, it is they who know what is, and is not, important to the community. Also, remember that any councillor worth his or her salt will ensure that they canvass their local area between elections as well as at election time.
- Marginal wards: If you have a project that falls within a ward where one or more parties either hold seats or are within shouting distance of winning a seat, it will receive a lot more attention from the local parties, even outside of election campaigns – and, therefore, your project is likely to receive more attention.
- Who actually does the work: In my experience of canvassing and leafleting (I am not the most active but I have clocked up a fair number of hours since the mid-90s) most of the work is undertaken either by councillors, council candidates or a limited number of active members. The pool of people who actually do the work is therefore relatively limited. This is obviously more of a burden on those people; however, it also means that they are more likely to shape opinion during party meetings.
- Relations between activists from different parties: I have rarely encountered any unpleasantness when I have crossed paths with activists from other parties. We often enjoy a nice chat, take it in turns to make each other tea and coffee when we are on ‘telling’ duty (‘telling’ is when party members ask how you have voted when you exit the polling station – it helps them to understand which of their supporters have, and have not, voted) and we share information. It brings to mind comments from Chris Mullin, former Labour MP, in his valedictory speech to Parliament: “I count it a privilege to have been born in a democracy … Differences are ultimately resolved at the ballot box. One side wins; the other side loses and the loser lives to fight another day.”
So, as you make your way to the polls, spare a thought for the people behind the knock on the door, the leaflets and the Vote Labour/Vote Conservative/Vote Liberal Democrat posters. They are important for democracy and play an important, if indirect, part in the shaping of local opinion.