Page last updated at 12:23 GMT, Friday, 9 April 2010 13:23 UK

What is the point of canvassing?

By Brian Wheeler
Political reporter, BBC News

One day soon they will come for you.

Harriet Harman and Gordon Brown canvassing
Gordon Brown is pinning his hopes on meeting ordinary voters

You might be settling down to dinner with your family. You might be slumped in front of the TV after a hard day at work. You might even have decided to turn in for the night.

When all of a sudden there will be a knock at the front door...

If your heart sinks at the prospect of being pestered by a succession of general election candidates asking if they can count on your vote, you are not alone.

Canvassing - "getting out on to the doorstep" - is woven into the fabric of British general elections. It is meant to be the very stuff of democracy itself, the one time when politicians come face-to-face with the people they want to represent.

Gordon Brown is said to be pinning his hopes of victory, at least in part, on visiting "ordinary voters" in their homes for a cup of tea.

Yet most politicians acknowledge that as a means of persuading people to change their minds about who they are going to vote for it is a non-starter. There are precious few doorstep conversions.

Human spam

Indeed, most candidates are actively discouraged from getting into debates with would-be voters. It takes up too much time and risks antagonising people.

And campaign teams have had to learn how to deal with the ever larger number of people who refuse to answer the door.

Rather than laboriously knocking on every door, many candidates now "blitz" an area - walking up the middle of the road while teams of helpers go from house-to-house for them. When the activists finally find someone willing to speak, the candidate swoops.

You would imagine this kind of human spamming would have gradually died out with the birth of the internet. So why do they still do it?

Stephen Pound
Personally, I absolutely loathe the blogosphere and Twitter and all of that - if the cost is the occasional hoof in the orchestra stalls then so be it
Stephen Pound, Labour MP

"The primary objective of canvassing is to identify your supporters," says Liberal Democrat Lembit Opik, a veteran of three successful election campaigns in Montgomeryshire.

"Elections are won between polling days, not so much during the campaign itself."

The aim is to draw up a list of people thinking of voting for you so that, come polling day, you can make sure they do just that.

"At the simplest level, we hope we can jog people's memories by giving them a call. But it can go all the way up to putting a person in the car, driving them to the polling station and then driving them home again. I have done them all in my time," says Mr Opik.

It's called Getting Out The Vote and in marginal constituencies, where there might be a few hundred votes in it, it can make all the difference.

'Useful information'

But it is not just about cold political calculation. Canvassing is still the best way of getting a feel for what people are thinking and talking about in a constituency so that you can fine tune your message.

"There is no point in being a politician unless you absolutely love talking to people," says Labour's Stephen Pound.

"Also you get useful information and tips. There is no better way to take the temperature of a place. It is part of the job and I absolutely love it."

Mr Pound is a politician of the old school, who loves a bit of argy-bargy on the doorstep. Even physical violence - he claims some householders in Ealing North have reacted to the appearance of his grinning face on their doorstep by aiming a boot at his nether regions - has not put him off. It is still better than campaigning over the internet, he says.

"Personally, I absolutely loathe the blogosphere and Twitter and all of that. If the cost is the occasional hoof in the orchestra stalls then so be it."

You have got to fight the good fight
Graham Robb, former Conservative candidate

First-time candidates are often advised not to go canvassing during Eastenders or when international football matches are on TV. Mr Pound adds that those with tower blocks on their patch should always start on the top floor.

"If somebody disagrees with you on the way up, they will generally be waiting for you on the way back down again," he says.

And if all else fails you can always help them break into their own flats when they have accidentally locked themselves out, as Mr Pound did recently with one constituent.

"She said to me 'I think I will probably vote for you now, but then again I am not sure I should vote for someone who can break into a door that easily'."

'Local abattoir'

We may now be reaching the real reason why politicians love to go canvassing so much. It is an unrivalled source of funny stories.

As a regular Conservative candidate in Labour's North-East of England heartland, Graham Robb has more than his fair share of battle scars.

When he took on Peter Mandelson at the 1992 general election in Hartlepool, he recalls being told by one scary-looking gentleman: "Eff off, I eat Tories for breakfast."

"We actually walked past a pile of bones in his front garden on the way out, so we thought it might be true," laughs Mr Robb.

"But then his next door neighbour said: 'I am so pleased to see you. If you get this man re-housed I will vote for you. He is on remand for robbing the local abattoir'."

Mr Robb is not standing at this election, but he is still looking forward to getting out on the stump to help other Tory candidates in the area. "You have got to fight the good fight," he says.

And that, in the end, may be why they do it. For all the indifference and outright hostility they meet, which in the wake of the expenses scandal could be a considerable amount, knocking on doors and meeting people just feels like the right thing to do at an election.

The internet might be a more efficient, and arguably more effective, way of persuading people to change their voting intention. But it would feel like cheating.


Below is a selection of your comments

I actually went canvassing for the first time myself a couple of weeks ago in order to find out more about the Conservative Party in Falmouth: it was certainly enlightening! As far as I can tell, the trick is not to say any buzzwords at the start: "politics", "election" and "issues" do not go down well. I'm still relatively undecided, but I think it's important to work with all political parties if possible.
Chris, Stroud, Glos

I spend a fair amount of time on the net but still think there is no substitute for seeing the whites of the politicians' eyes - at least then you can get a better idea of if they are trying to lead you up the garden path or not! I had a debate two elections ago with an MP who was the only one I spoke to as none of the other parties bothered. It was the first election I could vote in after turning 18 and didn't think I'd bother, but after reassuring me of the policies he backed I was impressed enough to cast my vote in his favour and he won by quite a considerable amount.
Darren, Dunstable, Bedfordshire

I would hate it if they came canvassing at my door - it's bad enough when I get leaflets and letters from them all the time. My house is my personal space, I don't allow door-to-door salesmen so why are they any better! If I want to see what they are offering then I can look online!!
Helen, Lancaster, UK

Funnily enough I just contacted by e-mail two of our PPCs to find out when we will be seeing them in our area. The last time I spoke to a prospective MP was Maggie Thatcher, and whilst some of her policies I disagreed with I liked her. Nothing since then, which signals to me a sort of arrogance on the part of many MPs.
Cynthia, London

I've been able to vote since 1991 and have lived in four different constituencies in that time. Not once have I been canvassed, no politician - be it for local or general elections - has ever knocked on my door asking me if I would vote for them. I'd really like to be canvassed so I can ask the candidates questions on issues that affect me, and what they propose to do about things. I wait with baited breath this time round.
A Prescott, Newport

I stood in the 1987 General Election, which was held during a spell of very good weather. Whilst door-stepping in Dartmouth, a lady came to the door with her young gandson, "Little Johnny", clasping her hand and wearing only a tee-shirt. During our short chat I felt a dampness spreading through my trousers. Looking down, I was horrified to see that Little Johnny was peeing down my leg - an early political statement perhaps! Being quite far from base, I spent the rest of the day with a wet leg and damp socks - I always carried a change of clothes in the boot after that.
Rob, Ashburton, Devon

Canvassing at the door is one of the most important parts of our democracy. It gives voters the chance to really make candidates work for your vote. I always have questions for any canvassers coming to my door.
Ben, Hartlepool, Teesside

Two of us were canvassing in the 1992 election. We knocked at the door and the occupant answered. When we looked through to the kitchen we saw the oven was on fire. We begged him to scarper but he would not. So we called the fire brigade and they arrived quickly and put the fire out.
Robert, Wimbledon, UK

I've an easy way to deal with would be canvassers. I put a laminated sign up on my door saying: "No Canvassers. Knocking on my door will only cause me to vote for the other guy." Peace and quiet guaranteed.
Chris, Kent

I'm a first-time voter this year, and I really like the idea of being canvassed. I think it shows a dedication on the part of the politicians, and it's a useful opportunity to ask questions and express concerns. I was really disappointed this other day when "they" came up our road, but didn't knock! I think it would be a real shame for this practice to die out - hasn't the internet depersonalised things enough?
Jane, Bedford, UK

I haven't been canvassed but if I opened my door to find Brown, Harman, Balls, Straw or any other hopeless Government commissar on my doorstep they would think twice about coming round my house ever again.
Les, Southend

If any politician shows up on my doorstep, from no matter which party, he will get a two-word resonse. And those two words will not be 'come' or 'in'.
Nick, London, UK

I have a sign on my door saying 'No Canvassers', but still they knock. My reaction is invariably that if they can't read or follow a simple request, why on earth would I want to vote for them?

Ian, London

A local councillor knocked on my door and I berated him about the amount of dog mess in the streets round our house. He informed me that it was not a great problem since he had been elected some years ago and that I was perhaps exaggerating the problem. Ten minutes later when walking down to the newsagent I saw him trying to get dog mess off his shoes on a patch of grass. I called over to him and congratulated him on trying to remove the problem. Needless to say he did not get my vote.
Michael, Southampton

I had the misfortune to live in a hotly contested marginal constituency during the 1987 General Election (Portsmouth South). I was also a final year student, fast approaching my final exams and registered to vote at my parents' address. During the campaign we had canvassers almost every night and in the last days had all three main parties every night, though I think almost everyone had stopped answering their doors by then. Don't politicians realise how counter-productive such tactics must be ?
Ian, London, UK

I dont answer the door to unexpected callers. i know who i will vote for and don't need these people wasting my time or theirs.
robin, swindon

I am a parliamentary candidate and I have to agree with the above comments. Canvassing is great fun, you meet lots of people, get a feel of what concerns them, and collect some great stories. Email and the internet are not the same.
Keith, Sittingbourne

I have a printed notice on my front door stating - NO POLITICAL PARTIES OR RELIGIOUS CULTS..

I still get both types knocking on my door.

Why do they feel that they can ignore polite notices and still spam your doorstep?

I ask them why they thought it was ok to ignore the notice? I will not ever get into any discussion about politics or religion with anyone on my doorstep ever - I wish there was a UK sign we could display stating that at this house we do not want to be sold politics, religion, betterware or kleeneze or take part in any survey.
Steve, Swindon

I never talk to politicians on the doorstep. I keep pretty well up-to-date on current affairs and have always decided which way to vote long before any election.

I object on principle to being assaulted in my own home by by people selfishly wanting something for their own benefit, not mine.
Jan-Clare, Ramsgate UK

I like to meet the candidates in person - I think it's as good for us to realise that our MPs are real people as it it for MPs to remember that they are elected by real people. However, I was dismayed one year by the candidate who turned up at the crucial moment in the Boat Race; unbelievably, he was the Tory - he must have been trying to distance himself from his patrician image.
AJ, Dorset, UK

Hearing a very faint knocking on the door, I sprinted to it and discovered the mail person! but stuck through the letter box was a signed piece of propaganda from our local MP saying he was sorry we were out and he had missed us . . . don't know how many cars he thinks we have - 2 were in the driveway!! - seems a light knock and a quick sprint, just in case!!!

But why wasn't he at work, in Westminster????

Still I will vote for him, not because of his Party Politics, but for him as a person and what he has done for people in our constituency. More people should vote for the person, not the Party - the Parties should realise that they are the reason why people are not turning out to vote - look at the purile drivel coming out of their mouths at the moment - door to door canvassing should show what candidates are really about and should get people back to vote - either for or against the door knocker!!
Steve, Norfolk, England

Since I do not live in a marginal constituency and the seat always goes conservative, none of the parties bother to ask my voting intentions becuase Reigate and Banstead is a forgone conclusion. I would like my vote to count, but its hard to get excited about an election in which I am effectivly disenfranchised. I would love to live somewhere where my vote was important - so roll on constitutional change.
James, Tadworth, UK

I'm an occasional helper for the Labour Party in Bolton North East; this report is very accurate indeed! I dread doing it, the knocking on doors, meeting strangers and asking a personal question - who do you plan to vote for? But the reaction here in Bolton North-East is always the same; a pleasant and polite one, even if the person is planning on voting Tory or Liberal. Many times it is simply, 'I'm voting for Dave [Crausby] again, send 'im my best!' By the end of it, we're always stoked up and that bit happier as a group. It's fun!
Daniel, Bolton

I've done canvassing in my time, and I can say that for the most part the public are amazingly pleasant, but also very varied. Some can't stand the idea of "politicians" coming anywhere near them, and will even take offence at something being put through their door; others will complain if they're NOT canvassed and be annoyed that no-one's come down their street to talk to them.

As for whether it works... it is a way to identify supporters and potential supporters so that you can contact them accordingly, but it only wins you NEW votes if the person answering the door fancies you. So canvassers, dress up elegantly, do your hair and flash that winning smile!
T D Smith, Bristol, England



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