I was a canvasser for Labour in the North West, in 8 different constituencies that we’ve lost, and this is what I learnt
I had the privilege to dedicate the final 15 days leading to the general elections yesterday to canvassing intensively for Labour. Together with hundreds of volunteers, I commuted daily from Manchester to eight North West marginal (all but one Leave) constituencies, where I canvassed from dusk to dawn, in rain and storm, usually for 10 hours a day, all of which we eventually lost. Having knocked on tens of thousands of doors, and met with a wide range of targeted voters, I was not very surprised by last night’s results. Anyone who has been listening openly to the repeating narratives and emotions at the doorsteps of these traditional Labour voters, could not have expected a different result.
While totally broken politically this morning, I do feel a great sense of gratitude for the opportunity I had to visit and converse with the people of Leigh, Crew, Bolton, Calder Valley, Altrincham, Blackpool, Bury, Newcastle UL, etc. Indeed, we lost all these seats, but this fieldwork was an invaluable experience of getting familiar with, listening to, and touring in person mainly working class and poverty areas, outside of the big metropolises, that I have never visited before. I saw their towns, homes, communities and lives. I walked for many hours up and down their streets and estates and front gardens or front doors. I saw the different ways of living, smelt the smells, heard the sounds and voices, saw their neighbourhoods and sometimes neglect or distress, and sensed the places in which they experience. I listened to their stories, saw their faces and bodies and clothes, shook their hands, and felt their frustrations.
Fearing that I was a pessimist about the doorstep responses — given the late pre-election polls that made me doubt the extent to which what I heard repeatedly was representative — I kept my views almost entirely to myself, so as not to demotivate my comrades. Now I can find a cringing solace in knowing in retrospect that my qualitative research senses, sadly, still work very well.
But, in all honesty, it wasn’t all that difficult to know. Many voters were very open outright about not giving us their vote this time, while emphasising that they have never voted Tory before, and many still preferred not to vote altogether over having to vote Tory now, because they knew what that would mean to their rights and condition, yet they would still not vote for us either.
Above all, four frustrations surfaced time and again on almost every doorstep, and the most common among these was, without a doubt, Brexit. (With the exception of one Remain marginal). For many Remainers, the unclarity and secrecy about the full meaning of “Brexit” correctly serves as evidence of it being a smoke screen, full of disinformation, that distracts us from all the other political issues. Leave voters are also sometimes seen as ignorant, brainwashed or racist, images that did not corresponded with my own impressions overall. However, for Leave voters, Brexit now symbolises the way in which their voices were being ignored, repeatedly and undemocratically, by the losing Remainers, whom are also associated with other classes and more privileged social groups. The way they see it is this: before the referendum, all the parties pledged to respect its results, but then didn’t. After the referendum, Parliament [stupidly] voted to activate Article 50, thus effectively promising that if no deal will be struck within two years, we would [shoot ourselves in the foot and] leave the Union without an agreement. But when that time came, we again did not leave. As far as they are concerned, Labour (and others) did not fully respect the will of the working class, and a democratic result. They feel betrayed, and any attempt to ‘educate’ them about how Brexit ‘took them for a ride,’ or feeds from wrong information or fears, or will make them worse off, or that a Tory deal is bad, or that it distracts them from other issues, is simply not only irrelevant (or, as relevant as any misinformation affects an election), but striking the exact cord of the middle class urban deaf-eared Left that thinks that they know better. I suspect that had Labour advocated Leave in these elections, thus respecting the vote of the working class and the results of a democratic referendum, things would have looked different for Labour today.
The second most common issue was Corbyn’s image. Surprisingly, Only a relative few, in my experience, resonated the vilifications that they were fed through the media, (like that he is a terrorist sympathiser, an extremist or an anti-Semite). It was more common to encounter a vague emotional negative hunch, a discomfort from the way they ‘felt’ about him. For whatever reasons that they struggled to verbalise when asked, many explicitly ‘didn’t like him,’ regardless of their strong rational agreement with his social policies. The media contributed to this image, sure, but if I may guess, I think that the voters did not want a ‘nice old man,’ who ‘never did any wrong’ almost inhumanely, who always engages in calm discussions, but would favour a more relatable and animated person, who gets angry sometimes (after all, we have much to be angry about), and whom is perhaps more dominant in conversations and offers simple messages, like Jonson, or better yet, Bernie Sanders. Remember that people vote more emotionally than rationally, as an expression of their identities and wishes, and, sadly, our leader, whose policies and personality were my own reasons for joining the canvassing, wasn’t screen popular with the masses.
A third topic was the breadth of Labour’s manifesto, especially when compared to the oversimplified non-manifesto of the Tories, which they hammered repeatedly in soundbites over and over again. Simply put, our broad scope has backfired. It felt to many like too much, causing the plan and its funding to feel unrealistic and risky. ‘How are you going to pay for all that?’ and ‘You will never be able to achieve so much’ were common responses. Of course, we had our answers to such statements, and some canvassers did turn many people around, yet overall, we only met with small parts of the general population, and for a very short time, so the main benefit of these conversations was allowing us to listen, sense and make sense of these interactions, rather than, again, to ‘educate’ the voters about all the things that we can teach them.
Finally, a fourth frustration was seeing us only before elections. Here, we should have had an advantage, because nobody would ever volunteer to canvass for the Tories, whereas we brought large numbers. Still, the timing and our plea for votes inevitably casts doubt on the purity of our intentions, although, understandably, it is difficult to mobilise volunteers – who usually have their own work, study and family commitments – outside of election times. Nevertheless, it is important to surface this dominant issue and think about it further.
Finally, my biggest lesson from the intense canvassing was one of humility, to which I can only hope others on the Left in middle class and big cities would be willing to listen to, too. I truly learnt a lot from these two weeks, about being there, seeing and listening, and about the task ahead for the British Left, if we are to overcome their alienation and justified sense of being left, forgotten and not listened to. While last night brought us horrible news, which will affect ‘them’ worse than me, and that the scope of which we can only dread, this outcome is not necessarily the end of the Left in Britain, but can be, if we dare listen more openly, a new beginning.