So what happens on the doorstep?

In all, I’ve spent about 5 hours walking around with three different Lagan Valley candidates watching and listening to them canvass, and talking to two of the other candidates about what they’re doing. I’ve a bit of experience trying to stop people at the Balmoral Show and Kings Hall to get them give their views on an organisation and fill in surveys, so it’s from first experience that I can say – rather them than me.

Most parties have been canvassing on afternoons and evenings during the week, and morning, afternoon and evening on Saturdays. Nationalist parties seem to be the lone Sunday canvassers, able to ambush greet worshippers coming out of church.

In terms of dress code, rosettes and ties are out with the UCUNF team in Lagan Valley, but in with DUP and TUV.

UCUNF's Daphne Trimble and canvassing team consulting the street map before setting off around the doors

All the candidates (and canvassers) have a fixed patter that they repeat ad nausea on every doorstep. Step forward the “personable young chap” from the TUV, Keith Harbinson.

Sorry to bother you. I’m the TUV candidate for the upcoming Westminster election. Can I ask you give this a wee read and consider me for your vote?

Most of the conversations ended there. With no question put to the householders, the majority of Kinallen residents said thanks and closed their doors. No animosity, but no real engagement.

Jeffrey Donaldson (DUP) was similarly brief.

Sorry to disturb you. I’m Jeffrey Donaldson. I’m just canvassing for the general election. There’s just a wee leaflet about myself and the local councillors in case you need to contact us.

Canvassing is definitely slower if you’re the sitting MP. “An MP who works hard has an advantage.” People are more willing to talk – generally, people who already know you or who you have previously helped.

One couple sat watching out their window as the DUP canvas team worked their way around the other houses in their cul-de-sac. And then they just continued to sit when their doorbell was rung!

I only picked up one small piece of disinformation being spread. Jeffrey Donaldson was encouraging someone that NI was ahead of the UK curve in some areas like by not having water rates. He went on to state that “we’re the only part of the UK with free prescriptions” … which was untrue. Wales got rid of prescription charges on 1 April 2007. However, he was right in thinking that England still charge. (Scotland has been gradually reducing charges and will phase them out completely in April 2011.)

Having a bit of political celeb factor definitely helps. Daphne Trimble (UCUNF) seemed well recognised on the doorsteps around Lisburn’s Plantation area. Her husband David (Lord Trimble) was knocking the doors on the other side of the street, getting a jovial reception.

I’m Daphne Trimble, standing for the Conservatives and Unionists at the Westminster election. A wee bit of reading for you. What’s different about this election for us is the linkup with the Conservatives and if I’m elected I’ll be part of David Cameron’s team. When David was in parliament he was on the outside. I’d be right in there able to influence policy.

There’s that “wee” word again! Her key difference was that she’d often then ask the householder a question. “Will you be coming out to vote?” Something to get them talking. That way a conversation was more likely to follow, and voting intentions could be directly or indirectly picked up. Women in particular responded well to her.

I was surprised that Daphne Trimble didn’t use the “change” word very often given its prominence in campaign literature and party messaging.

My experience was that about one in three doors knocked opened, and of those, maybe in only one in five houses would a conversation strike up beyond the normal introduction and leaflet handover.

Figuring out voting intentions is a bit of a (flawed) art. Despite the theoretical demographic, I heard no one take a leaflet from a unionist candidate and say “sorry, I vote SDLP”. UCUNF reckoned that core DUP supporters were more likely to verge on being rude, grabbing leaflets and closing the door as soon as possible. It looked that way to me too.

For those who did talk, the most common response was:

I haven’t given it much thought yet.

Other lines of conversation included:

  • “I don’t vote – God is in charge” from a Brethren household that leaves canvassers saying “I respect your convictions” but powerless to get them to change their minds.
  • “What’s happening about Lagan Valley maternity?”
  • “My daughter turns 18 on the 6th of May – can she vote?” (answer = yes, if she’s on the electoral register)
  • “My home is not the DUP, but I’m forced there … I’ll not be voting for you [Harbinson, TUV] but I wish you well.”
  • “Why do foster carers get larger allowances in England than NI?”

Expenses were mentioned on the doorstep to all parties, but I heard no one refer to Peter Robinson.

One householder handed the DUP leaflets back to Jeffrey Donaldson stating that he hadn’t forgiven him for moving from the UUP. But as the conversation developed, it turned out he’d be spoiling his vote rather than voting for anyone else.

While out with Daphne Trimble, I heard several people talk about having given the TUV a protest vote in the Euro elections, but being unsure how to vote this time.

None of the candidates I walked around with entered into derogatory conversations about other candidates on the doorstep. “I’ve no time for rumours” stated Harbinson plainly. Other members of their canvassing teams were less meticulous, but still steered clear of gossip.

Keith Harbinson (TUV) out canvassingIn Lagan Valley, UCUNF, TUV and the DUP are fairly organised, with multiple teams canvassing and their plans firmed up more than a week in advance. While Daphne Trimble was held back by her party’s sluggish approach to candidate selection, she was fast to get literature in the post and start tramping the streets of the constituency. The DUP and TUV seemed to put their early efforts into postering. Keith Harbinson is still working full time, and had to write his own campaign literature as the TUV aren’t yet geared up to do this centrally. The other parties – particularly the SDLP, with a smaller support base of volunteers – took longer to get their campaigns up and running.

The size and makeup of the teams varies. While there was evidence of some local councillors enthusiastically out helping canvas, many others seemed to feel that helping get someone elected for Westminster wasn’t their top priority.

From what I saw, Jeffrey Donaldson (DUP) had the largest team out, with fellow MLA and councillor Jonathan Craig joining other party workers and supporters.

Carol Black (who won the by-election for Dromore ward on Banbridge District Council in February 2008, defeating Keith Harbinson) was a passionate member of Daphne Trimble’s campaign team on the afternoon I spent with her quite early on in the campaign.

A couple of TUV supporters from Fermanagh had driven up to help canvass on the evening I was out with Keith Harbinson. With no local candidate to support – the TUV aren’t running in Fermanagh & South Tyrone – they wanted to find a way to help. They were planning to come back one afternoon later in the week to canvass while Harbinson was at work.

Both the DUP and TUV felt that the value of door to door work was diminishing. Donaldson was clear that the difference you could make during the four or five (or thirteen) years as elected MP mattered more than knocking on doors in the weeks leading up to polling day. Most parties listed boosting candidate recognition, encouraging existing supporters to turn out to vote, and stopping people saying that they never saw you as reasons for canvassing. But they admitted that relatively few people would be convinced to change their vote (or even stop being undecided) while you loitered on their doormat.

Brian Heading (SDLP) election poster in Lagan ValleyNo party had plans to visit every house. The TUV, Alliance and SDLP were being selective in their canvassing. UCUNF and DUP were aiming to knock on the doors of the majority of the constituency that could be reached by foot. (UCUNF were targeting the most rural areas with an early leaflet through the post.)

Jeffrey Donaldson pointed to constituency work over the years as an MP (as well as an MLA and councillor) that meant it was possible for him to pick up personal (and family) votes in nationalist areas too, particularly with Lagan Valley’s demographic that makes a nationalists MP a mathematical impossibility. All parties had an eye on the Assembly and local council elections. Cunningly, the DUP were handing out two leaflets – one supporting Donaldson as MP, the other listing the DUP councillors and their phone numbers in case anyone needed to get in touch. A subtle piece of electioneering pre-March 2011.

Good canvassers need to develop a sixth sense (backed up by their other five senses) to detect whether there’s anyone in a house. Windows open, marks in gravel driveways showing that one car is missing, post lying inside the front door – there are lots of tell tale signs that would save the mandatory 30 seconds waiting for a door not to open.

Some canvassing teams are better than others at covering an estate of houses with no duplication (double-knocking) and no properties left out. Others spend half their time checking with each other whether the next house has already been done. Printouts from Google Maps can help … but they’re not full-proof.

Jeffrey Donaldson and part of his DUP canvassing teamSome observations from the candidates:

  • More people are answering their doors wearing pyjamas than ever before – including when parties are canvassing during the afternoon. More shift work? Less employment?
  • Most candidates talk about losing weight during previous campaigns. Sitting down for an evening meal seems to get squeezed out of their diary, and the miles of walking makes a difference.
  • How long should you talk on the doorstep to someone? No longer than two minutes.

I’ll talk about postering, Facebook, walkthroughs and poster vans in the last blog post in this short series looking at campaigning in Lagan Valley. In the meantime, I do acknowledge the participation of the parties who so willingly talked to me and let me follow them around and watch what happened.

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  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Two questions.
    The UUP, DUP & TUV canvassers were obviously on “broadly” friendly territory but any break down on where they are doing better…leafier suburbs or ex Housing Executive Estates.
    Second questions…….clearly this website is no place for rumour and gossip. But was any party more confronted by these rumours and did those householders who brought up the subject seem well informed?

  • First question – I didn’t get a sense of that. I was looking at the process, rather than the politics of the piece. And I only sampled the parties once, with about 12 days between first and last. I’ll give my impressions in the third post.

    Second question – correct, Slugger is no place for rumour and gossip! Voters I heard wanting to bitch about expenses mentioned it to UCUNF and TUV more readily than to DUP (the sitting MP).

  • medillen

    Alan in Belfast, a very interesting insight, a useful experiment. I would request that you attend a Sinn Fein canvass team, particularly in Fermanagh South Tyrone, where there was a team of 150 in Dungannon and 50 in Enniskillen on Saturday alone. However a canvass team in your own home town would do fine.

  • I know that I, as a Lib Dem, would never be allowed to be so passive on the doorstep.

    LD style is rather more up front – “Will you be voting Liberal Democrat on Thursday?” and then try to identify which other party they prefer if not LD so target literature can be sent (ie “your preferred party can’t win here, so vote LD to stop the one you really hate”)

  • Mark McGregor


    Great stuff, well done.

    Though on LV when I tried to tell my Unionist/Prod/Lisburn mother about the Donaldson rumours today she said – ‘that has been the talk of the library for weeks’.

  • Mark McGregor

    Its a constit with a strong UU base – they’ve got the rumour out, its damaging. He won’t lose the seat but he has set up up to be lost next time (when he is dropped)

  • Alan,

    That’s a great post.

    Did you see any evidence of systematic voter-ID going on? Did any of them have previous canvass returns, or were they feeding canvass results into a database anywhere?

  • The Raven

    Just to add my congrats on a very interesting post, Alan.

  • Sinn Fein passed up on their chance. In the end, time meant I stuck to Lagan Valley.

  • Paul – as mentioned in the first post, only UCUNF were noting everyone’s intentions. But this was their first time, so they were effectively building their first set of data into the Tory Merlin system, rather than updating it. SDLP may also have been doing same in the smaller areas in which they canvassed door to door. They were also standing outside schools, churches and shopping malls to get coverage.

  • On the subject of misinformation, I found an example of this in the Alliance leaflet which came through our door. It proclaimed on the back that Naomi Long was the only candidate who could beat Peter Robinson, and showed results from the 2007 Assembly election as ‘proof’ (Robinson beating Long on first preference votes by only a hundred or so votes).

    This is misleading as it doesn’t compare like with like: more realistic would have been to show the results of the 2005 general election, but I think we can see why they chose not to do that: Naomi Long then came a distant third with 3,700 votes against Robinson’s 15,000 and Reg Empey’s 9,000.

    I support the Alliance and will no doubt vote for them again on Thursday, but this sort of sleight of hand does them no favours. (Another negative was a handwritten envelope awaiting us on the doormat when we came home yesterday, personally addressed to my wife and marked “By Hand.” We thought it was something serious or important, and my wife opened it with some trepidation. It turned out to be a preprinted ‘handwritten’ letter from Naomi Long [“Dear Friend…”], which my wife threw away without reading, as she was annoyed by the subterfuge. So a success in getting us to open the envelope which we might not have done if it had been on official party named paper, but otherwise it left a bad taste in the mouth.)

  • Garza

    John Self

    I also got a letter through the door in East Antrim from Alliance also spreading misinformation about UCUNF and targetting NI for cuts. Disgraceful.

  • linda

    interesting to hear about the canvass, particularly as I live in the LV constituency. However, unlike those in the post who did have their doors knocked I haven’t been so lucky – living in a rural area seems to mean that the parties don’t bother – the only leaflets we have had are those which have come with the postman and because we are near south antrim, we also got literature for that constituency!! I was out walking on wednesday night in the Magheralave area and was approached by a party (!) of DUP canvassers and thought my luck was in but no they carried on past me. Ditto the Unionists a few minutes later – is my vote not good enough????? we live close to the TUV candidate and since he hasnn’t come to my door, I though I might call at his!

  • Alliance are totally ignoring the fact that the DUP had three or more sets of posters up around East Belfast during the last Assembly election, all asking people in those areas to vote “1” for different candidates. Vital vote management. But I suspect they’re desperate to do all they can to come in ahead of Trevor Ringland.

  • confused voter

    So Alan were you out on the ground with all the canvass teams apart from SF ?

  • Floating in North Antrim

    Saw the Alliance cartoon spreading the misinformation about Long/Robinson’s relative positions last week – does leave a bad taste in the mouth.

    The only canvassers to come to my door so far have been Ian Paisley and Irwin Armstrong – unfortunately I was out when Irwin came but did get a chat with Junior. The DUP team covered the street (about 75 houses) in about 15 or 20 minutes, with 3 or 4 people knocking doors at any one time. You can work out from that how many people engaged with the canvassers. Certainly the councillor who came to my door made no attempt to find out how I was intending to vote, or even if I was intending to vote!

  • Gerry Lynch


    as a long-standing UCUNF supporter on Slugger, we can all make our own judgements on whether or not you are an impartial source here.

    I’ll put the relevant paragraph up here and people can judge, whether or not it’s “disgraceful” or “misinformation” in the context of Cameron’s Newsnight interview and the fact that the Institute for Fiscal Studies has said there is a £52.4 billion black hole in Conservative spending plans on top of the £11.3 billion in cuts they are have already committed to.

    “Many people have told me that they are worried that Northern Ireland will be the subject of vicious public spending cuts after the election. I think they are right to be worried. David Cameron has made it clear that Northern Ireland is top of his cuts hit-list, his local Ulster Unionist allies will be forced to do his bidding.”

    Sounds fair enough to me.

  • Garza

    Gerry, but why single out Tories or David Cameron exactly? Doesn’t matter if Labour, Cons, or Lib Dems (your sister party – who by the way is planning even more viscious cuts tha the Tories – only one year later)

    ” David Cameron has made it clear that Northern Ireland is top of his cuts hit-list, his local Ulster Unionist allies will be forced to do his bidding.”

    That is untrue. What DC said was Northern Ireland has a heavy reliance on the public sector (which every party in NI agrees with) that we should be weened of it in favour of the private sector (which every part in NI agrees with).

    I realise this is an election and your going to try and spin everything to your advantage, but spin=lie whatever way you push it imo.

    I wouldn’t mind so much except Alliance spouts a “holier than thou” ethos, while it is just down and dirty with the rest of NI’s parties. Shame cos I’m a Lib Dem at heart, and would be a typical run-of-the-mill Alliance voter.

  • Gerry Lynch


    Why single out the Tories? Because David Cameron singled out Northern Ireland – singled it out in an entirely spontaneous, unforced, situation. If you have a problem with me doing this, I suggest you also take it up with my Sinn Féin, SDLP, DUP and TUV opponents as well as their opposite numbers in the 17 other constituencies. What Cameron said worried everyone and has been used politically by everyone.

    Also, while none of the three big GB parties is exactly angelic in the spending plans they’ve published, the black hole in the Tories’ spending plans is vastly bigger than that in the LibDems’ and – amazingly – even Labour’s. Given the Conservative Party’s ideological position and track record, one doesn’t need to be paranoid to think that brutal spending cuts will be how this black hole is filled once they are in power.

    Finally, every other party in Northern Ireland is free to horsetrade if the election produces a hung parliament; UUP MPs (if there are any) will have to take the Tory whip. It is not credible to think they can have a deal with the Tories but welch out on it when it comes to, say, a Budget Bill vote.

    Between this and the UUP’s lurch to the right on NI issues (voting against poilicing and justice; tacking to the right of the DUP on parades), I’m amazed a run-of-the-mill Alliance voting LibDem at heart would have anything to do with UCUNF, let alone spend months on Slugger praising them to high heaven. But hey, that’s democracy.

  • Salem

    I live within Lagan Valley and my door has not been knocked once apart from the TUV at 10.30 on Monday !

  • Funny enough, I’ve been out when two of the parties have called at my door.

  • argosjohn

    The Unionist candidates like to festoon themselves with red, white and blue, usually in the form of the Butcher’s Apron. Whilst this is totally understandable from their point of view, in England, per the Daily Mail, ordinary decent citizens/subjects have been slapped with racism charges for using htose self same colours. Why not have sauce for the goose here and charge the Unionists or is Ireland once again an exception to the Pox Britanica?

  • Mr E Mann

    > slapped with racism charges for using htose
    >self same colours.

    Har. This is a good thing in a canvasser. If Harbinson came to my door attired as in his picture above, I’d say somthing like “Sorry, Slab is out right now. I’m the electrician…I don’t live in this constitutency,” and let him go on his way. I suspect that’s what he intends. Why waste either his time or mine?

  • YelloSmurf

    In the European election Alliance and the DUP were the dominant parties in Eat Belfast, the UUP were nowhere to be seen. The 52 votes is a bit of selective reporting, but the fact remains that Alliance have established themselves as a credible alternative to the DUP in East Belfast.

  • YelloSmurf

    because while you’re wasting his time he’s not talking to someone who he could convince to vote for him? Actually, I don’t think that I could be bothered stalling the TUV either.

  • YelloSmurf

    The figures are entirely true, Naomi Long was 52 votes behind Peter Robinson in 2007.

    5635-Peter Robinson
    5583-Naomi Long

  • YelloSmurf – lies, damned lies and statistics! She might have been 58 votes behind Robinson, but she was 5572 votes behind the total DUP vote in the constituency. Check out the reality … ARK’s East Belfast page.

    Peter Robinson MP (DUP) 5635 (19.0%)
    Naomi Long (Alliance) 5583 (18.8%)
    [Sir] Reg Empey (UUP) 4139 (14.0%)
    Wallace [Lord] Browne (DUP) 3185 (10.7%)
    Dawn Purvis (PUP) 3045 (10.3%)
    Robin Newton (DUP) 2335 (7.9%)
    Michael Copeland (UUP) 1557 (5.3%)
    Niall Ó Donnghaile (SF) 1055 (3.6%)
    Jim Rodgers (UUP) 820 (2.8%)
    Mary Muldoon (SDLP) 816 (2.8%)
    Stephen Agnew (Green) 653 (2.2%)
    Glyn Chambers (Conservative) 427 (1.4%)
    Thomas Black (Socialist Party) 225 (0.8%)
    Joe Bell (Workers Party) 107 (0.4%)
    Rainbow George (Make Politicians History) 47 (0.2%)

    DUP took 38% of first pref votes; UUP 22%; Alliance 19%; PUP 10%

    If you correct to take account of the boundary changes –
    DUP 41.5%; UUP 22%; Alliance 17.4%; PUP 9.8%

  • A very credible alternative as it turns out! Next time, we’re going to listen and believe (nearly) all the Alliance rumours!

  • Comrade Stalin


    Yup. Looking back over the weeks I think we painted an accurate portrait of what we were seeing in East Belfast on the doorsteps, and that would still be my conclusion even if we had lost, because if we hadn’t taken the seat it still would have been damn close. There are a few Alliancers who post here fairly regularly and none of us were predicting an outright Long win. Instead we talked about very good chance of a win. It is an old and comical cliche to say “we’re getting a great response on the doorsteps” and I certainly studiously avoided repeating this, but in this case it was assuredly the truth. The response we were getting at the beginning of the campaign five weeks ago was extremely positive, and it took even us by surprise. The decision by the party to throw everything it had at East Belfast was one based on the returns we were getting.

    If you go around the place, as the underdog, telling everyone how you’re going to win and predicting how many seats you’ll take, you run the risk of not being taken seriously if you lose. In that spirit, even though we are right after the poll, Naomi will have an uphill task ahead of her to persuade East Belfast voters of her worth against the formidable DUP electoral machine. Her 2015 (or possibly earlier) campaign starts now.