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The Loneliness of the Long Distance Candidate

May 3, 2016

Spare a thought for the thousands of candidates up and down the country who are now in the final stretch of the race to election day. Some of them will have entered the race on nomination day three weeks ago with little expectation of success. Such paper candidates are just flying the flag for their parties, to give the voters maximum choice. Others will be foot sore and mentally wrung out after a four year marathon run for elected office as a councillor or mayor in England or for membership of the devolved legislatures in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Some candidates will be the defending champion, or incumbent in political speak. Most will be challengers, looking to topple the champions off their podiums. But most will, in the end, be losers. For there are tens of thousands of candidates in this race of democracy and there can only be so many winners for the just over 3,000 places available. They all deserve our thanks for stepping up, for without them we have no democracy.

It’s become fashionable to decry politicians. Journalists report politics as soap opera, with a cast list of tricksters, con artists, crooks and weirdos. The impression is given that they’re all in it for themselves, incapable of working together or taking long term decisions. This is all reflected back on the doorstep, often with the curious view that “you’re all the same” and equally bad. This set of poor opinions is mainly about the politicians who are actually in office and for challenging candidates the word “change” can be their most potent weapon.

To become the office holder the candidate must win an election. Most journalists, columnists and other critics of the political animal have no idea of the sheer amount of physical effort and mental endurance candidates suffer in order to cross the winning post. Politics, or at least party politics, is a team sport. The candidates are the elite athletes but they are joined in the race by teams of activists. Many of these supporters are just as engrossed in the race, willingly volunteering hours of their time to help their candidate succeed. Candidates and activists both spend a lot of their time on the staples of campaigning – canvassing and delivering. Both have their highs and lows.

The late and much missed Liberal MP David Penhaligan once told a party conference “if you’ve got something to say, put it on a leaflet and shove it through a letterbox” and delivering leaflets is a mainstay of campaigning for Liberal Democrats today. For those who have never done it, leaflet delivery must seem mundane and easy. Some streets are indeed a breeze. A team of activists can deliver hundreds of leaflets an hour to Coronation Street style terraced houses. A round of fifty detached houses with long drives could easily take an hour for one activist to deliver.

Time and volume are not the only factors in the delivery logistics of getting a leaflet inside an elector’s home. There are lots of obstacles. Gates are often fiddly to open. When entering a large garden of a detached or semi-detached house there is then that nervous moment walking up the path to the front door when you don’t want to hear a “woof” as Fido comes bounding round the corner. Dogs are the worst nightmare for the deliverer and canvasser.

The danger isn’t over when you reach the front door. Letterboxes these days often have triple layers for your flimsy leaflet to penetrate. Beyond the outer metal flap there’s a thicket of draught excluding brush and then another metal flap, with a spring resisting its opening more than a chink. You don’t want to leave your precious propaganda hanging in the wind. Householders find it an irritating advertisement that there may be nobody at home and you don’t want the risk of opponents whisking your leaflet away. The inexperienced activist will push their hand through the letterbox and then be startled by a thud on the back of the door as Fido’s paws crash into the door and his jaws close, if you’re lucky on your leaflet but it could be your hand.

One of our Bristol council candidates in 2006 had the appalling experience of the dog on the other side of the door gnawing his hand and refusing to let go. My colleague fainted in the doorway, such was the pain. When I saw him later his fingers looked like exploded sausages. Delivering political leaflets can be dangerous. I’ve always been cautious and in thirty years of delivering have had many narrow escapes but no bite marks.

Dogs and draught excluders aren’t the only irritants. The position of the letter box can be a pain. Vertical boxes, at shoulder height and close to the doorframe are hard to negotiate, when balancing your bundle or bag in one hand and the leaflet in another. But far worse are the ankle level boxes. Whoever thought these were a good design should be shot. To get the leaflet through the letter box you must crouch down, delicately poised while pushing your leaflet through the box that is just a few centimetres above ground level. Too many of these and you get bad knees and backs.

When I was Communities Minister one of my responsibilities was building regulations and I presided over the final stages of the housing standards review. It suddenly occurred to me that I could surely just make illegal these infernal letter boxes. I would be a hero to political activists and postmen alike. But the officials would have none of it. The proposal wasn’t in the original consultation so Sir Humphrey said “No Minister.”

Having been thwarted on the great letter box reform 2014, I propose that architects and housebuilders should be made to deliver leaflets to their houses and flats, negotiating the entry phones, coded entry systems and other barriers to the simple act of delivery. If they’re lucky they won’t get bitten but they almost certainly will get grazed knuckles, broken finger nails and paper slice cuts that really sting.

So are there any highs to delivering political leaflets? It’s moderate exercise in most streets but basement flats and upper storeys with their own entrances can turn a delivery session into a workout. It makes up for the time you don’t have to go to the gym, well almost. I quite like looking at front gardens and enjoy the novelty of doing a round that I’ve never walked before. Oh, and apart from the physical dangers there’s also the moral hazard of what do you do about the “no junk mail” signs? Personally, I ignore them. Election leaflets are essential to democracy, on a higher level to pizza adverts and estate agent guff.

Canvassing in person, as opposed to by telephone, has all the risks and rewards of delivering. But the object of the exercise is to chat to a voter and the experience is variable. The strict purpose of canvassing is to find out who either supports your candidate, is undecided between your candidate and someone else or is already firmly committed to a rival and won’t be budged. But the good candidate will use each encounter to build up knowledge of the undiluted opinions and concerns of the electorate. A month’s worth of canvassing across a mix of communities can give you more insight than any number of the focus groups so beloved of party HQs.

While most activists are prepared to deliver leaflets (though some think it’s beneath them) many are terrified about canvassing. But the truth is that the vast majority of doorstep encounters are polite and pleasant. Very few people are rude and if they are it provides an anecdote for team drinks in the pub.

A good canvassing experience would be a “full house” – everyone is in at the door you’ve just knocked, they all agree to speak to you and they’re all going to vote for you! These three things rarely go together. Going down a typical city street about half of the people are out. About 10% of the people you actually meet are not the people registered to vote at that address. When you talk to one registered voter at the address, quite often the others prefer to stay inside eating their dinner or watching Eastenders.

It’s different if you’re the actual candidate, people are more receptive and willing to chat. If you’re really lucky they invite you in for a glass of wine or in cold weather for a warm up by the hall radiator. This is a breach of the first rule of canvassing, get through as many names as possible and don’t linger. The rule may also be breached if the person who comes to the door is quite attractive. A canvassing hottie can be the highlight of the evening.

Apart from dogs (the owners invariably reassure you that they won’t hurt you) the worst aspect of canvassing is the sheer indifference of many voters. While allowing for the fact that you’ve turned up on their doorstep unexpectedly, you’re not after their money or even that much of their time. But many voters really don’t want to engage, even for a minute. You or one of your volunteers may have delivered 30 to 40 leaflets to them over the last four years and you want to spend the next four or five years of your life representing them on the council or in parliament. But you have to accept many people are neither impressed by this act of democratic munificence or interested in your much belittled trade of politics. Some can be won round to giving you a one minute audience by the use of various magic words such as “parking” or “school places” but once someone gives you the initial brush off it’s best to accept it and move on to a more willing household.

It is a shame that people don’t make the most of these chance encounters. And it really is a chance event. I was never that good at working out probabilities but given that if you’re a parliamentary candidate there could be 50,000 doors to knock on, then even at an optimistic rate of 50 doors at a time it would take a thousand evenings to get round. Remember that half of the houses will be out, so it must be massive odds against anyone actually meeting the person who could be their MP or councillor.

After a stint of canvassing or delivering the activist can relax but the candidate has much more to do before the election is over. There are letters and emails to read and write. You need to tell your social media friends and followers how hard you’ve been working. At its best social media allows the candidate to interact with many more people than via canvassing. But while most people are polite in person, on Twitter or Facebook plain civility often goes out of the window. People have always slagged off politicians while down the pub but the candidate didn’t have to hear it. Now they can be told on a daily basis that they’re a useless, lying, money grasping Nazi. At the end of 2014 I disciplined myself to stop looking at my phone after 11.30pm otherwise I’d be going to bed thinking I was the most hated man in Bristol. I slept slightly more soundly.

Elections cost money. This seems to be a surprise to many people, uniting journalists who tell people that donations to parties are obviously evil and campaign staff who are great at spending money but not at raising it. US Congressmen have two year terms and spend a chunk of each day after one election fundraising for the next one and if they’re unlucky for the candidacy primary that they have to win before the actual election. It’s not quite that bad in Britain but there aren’t many years without an election at local, national or European level and there are year round campaign activities that need to be funded. Local political parties will hold dinners, quizzes and raffles to raise a few hundred pounds at a time. But the serious money needed to fight an intensive and long running campaign will only come if the candidate picks up the phone and asks someone for a big cheque. It’s also true that many candidates make huge financial sacrifices themselves in order to stand for election. Only an idiot would go into British politics to make money.

So come election day, do take the trouble to vote for one of your hard working candidates. While I’ve written this piece drawing from my own Liberal Democrat experiences I’m sure it will resonate with candidates and activists from the Conservative, Labour, Green and nationalist parties.

By polling day the hard working candidate who is determined to win will have walked miles around the streets in all weather, been smiled at and sworn at, eaten too much late night junk food and if they’re careless or unlucky will have a campaign scar from a dog bite. They will have endured experiences that would fall foul of health and safety and hate crime laws if they were applying for any job other than elected office. Only some of them can win and only some of them really deserve to win. Make sure you select the right choice to work for your community in the years ahead.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. May 3, 2016 2:01 pm

    As the former chair of the somewhat tongue-in-cheek Campaign for Humane Letterboxes, and a regular shouter of the song Letterboxes at Glee, I commiserate with you for getting so near and yet so far
    Letterboxes on the door-fronts
    Should be subject to regulations;
    Never sideways, all at waist height,
    Letterboxes all the same…

  2. Roger Opie permalink
    May 3, 2016 4:13 pm


    Lovely to hear you mention David Penhaligon in such warm words —at school with me but a bit older How does a former Communities Minister feel about Government withdrawing the grant for Cornish language provision—especially one who did great work on securing special status for Cornwall. Without Alan George Cornwall seems to be losing its voice at Westminster Eurovision Song Contest has banned the Cornish flag in a list with ISIS !! Sorry to be parochial !

    • May 3, 2016 7:54 pm

      Hi Roger, yes I was annoyed to hear about the funding withdrawal but it was inevitable as the Tories never wanted to fund it in the first place. It was me that insisted on the annual grant, as well as the national minority status. At least the status is probably secure.

  3. May 3, 2016 9:54 pm

    Reblogged this on judydixey and commented:
    A superb piece – I agree with so much. As an activist, the letterbox issue rings so many bells. And I admire people who put themselves forward for all this often unrewarding hard work. It’s so important to go out and vote

  4. May 4, 2016 1:33 pm

    Thanks Judy

  5. May 8, 2016 7:38 pm

    Excellent article and great observations that i myself have encountered. Whilst feeling empathy for us canvassers facing the challenges of letter boxes, spare a thought for one household that i leafleted one day, many years ago. i was out leafleting, suffering from an infected whitlow on one finger on my right hand. I started the day with clean, fresh bandaging, tightly bound, but i am ashamed to admit, that by the end of the day, the bandage had worn loose and was soaked in a revolting combination of blood and green pus. Just as we were calling it a night, one of my last letter boxes had the dreaded draught excluder and as i pulled my hand back through, the entire, pus soaked bandage slid off, landing on the inside of the door. I rang the bell, ready to apologise profusely but no one was home. I still think of the poor home owner who came home, tired from work, opening his front door, to find that bandage on his doormat.

  6. Mike Drew permalink
    July 25, 2016 9:10 pm

    I lost a wedding ring delivering leaflets. Unfortunately I did not notice immediately and knocking on a few of the doors I had delivered to did not find it. (I lost another wedding ring setting up the Yate Liberals Focus Firework display which was a big earner in the 80s!)


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