Thursday, February 18, 2010


Every four to five years activists, MPs, PPCs, councillors and councillor candidates descend on the local community to chase votes.

Canvassing is as much a part of a political campaign as billboards, speeches and manifestos. In an election that could be as closely run as this, the canvassing process is already well on its way. In marginal and target seats all three parties are out in force. Labour Tweeters are co-ordinating and discussing their progress using #labourdoorstep, whilst the Conservatives have to carry out phone canvassing and organise door knocking.

What though does the electorate make of the process? From the point of view of an unengaged average voter, what do they see?

I would suggest that what they see is that every four years or so politicians are suddenly interested in them, and each party falls over itself to prove that it is listening. Canvassers, and if you are lucky to see them the candidate themselves, will go to great pains to listen, to listen to your concerns and to tell you what they or their party will do to address them. All of this to convince you that you should vote for them.

Come May the 6th though, how many people will ever see those activists, MPs and councillors on their doorstep again, or actively walking the streets in their community meeting people and listening. I would argue nearly none. People respond negatively to canvassing and the interruption of their evening or routine because it is a cynical ploy to get you to vote. The individual gets nothing from it, it is a one off event whose outcome benefits the candidate or the party not the individual.

If we really want to transform politics and the trust that the public have in politicians, be it on a local or national level, then we have to change the way we engage with the voting public.

Firstly, although technology is replacing traditional engagement methods, for the majority of the public face to face contact is still vitally important. It helps to build trust and to make people believe that they are being listened to. The next generation of MPs, and councillors need to ensure that their constituency contact isn’t just the carefully orchestrated photo op, or the pre-arranged surgery (where only people with issues they expect to be resolved attend), but that they effectively canvass voters outside of election time, frequently listening to their concerns and issues and most importantly responding to them.

Secondly technology has to be used in such a way that it becomes a two way medium. Collecting email addresses and mobile phone numbers so that voters can receive “newsletters” just won’t cut it. Voters need to get value from giving you their contact details and not feel that they are just a number on a list receiving a bulk communication but an individual. Successful MPs and councillors need to develop methods and technologies that enable voters and the public to engage bi-directionally and across mediums. Twitter and Facebook is a start but we need to go beyond that, to the older technologies like mobile and email that are in mainstream use every day. The challenge is not to use the latest and greatest early adopter technology but to find innovative ways to use older more mature technologies that are in use by all.

So what is my message in this post. It’s engagement, the fact that engagement is vital, and what is even more vital is  continued engagement, not just engagement at election time but in peace time too. For too many people politics is something that they only engage with every time an election is due. It’s easy to blame them, not us, for that, to talk about voter apathy, a lack of interest in how we run our nation, but how truly engaged with, and interested in, the public are our elected officials, and how do they prove that?

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  1. In Wales canvassing happens all year round in effect - for example, this year we have GE, next year Welsh Assembly elections, the year after local elections and of course last year we had Euro elections. Scotland will be in the same position.

    In many parts of England there are similar patterns of multiple elections, depending on whether you live in a unitary or still in a two-tier local government area.

    The effect of all these elections is that most parties have adopted a "seamless campaign" strategy - that uses each election as a building block for progress to the next, using indicators like new members, increased share of vote, new council seats, new candidates/activists, etc as a way of measuring success.

    Engagement is key to this process. Traditional methods of surveying, street surgeries, etc are being supplemented by new technologies - as you say, Facebook Groups and Twitter accounts are limited and only reach a small percentage of the people who are actually eligible to vote for you. Online surveys, texting and email newsletters all need to be developed into more readily used campaign tools.

    But doorstep campaigning will be with us for many decades to come and in my (getting quite long) experience in these matters, people really DO expect to see candidates and campaigners calling on them at election time - which nowadays can be every flipping year!

  2. Yes in Stratford we have council elections every year (except the fourth year), but that focuses on specific wards that are up for re-election, so once a councillor is elected you might never see them again in their ward until they're up for re-election (many councillors stand for wards they don't live in) and it's this I'm really rallying against.

    I also think that MPs are sometimes guilty of forgetting the direct engagement, surgeries are great but they only attract people who have a specific issue there and then, they don't help the public feel that they are being listened to.

    Also although new technologies need to be developed for campaigning they need to be developed and understood even more in relation to engagement and opinion gathering for MPs and elected officials