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.

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.