The Bloody Weather, Meerkats and Schnauzers: A Short Introduction to Canvassing.

It rained on and off throughout Sunday. Not as bad as Saturday, but not weather for putting up election posters. Yet I found myself quite excited about it. I’m forty-one, so I have long since got over the joy of being allowed to stay up late; so why exactly was I getting excited about driving round east Belfast with a step ladder, plastic sheeting and a bucket load of cable ties?

It has been a few years since I was last out canvassing, but I couldn’t resist the lure of signing up for Naomi Long’s campaign. I’m not an Alliance member, but I was quickly welcomed on board and set to work. And then I remembered how much I enjoyed canvassing.

I know marching up to a complete stranger’s door is not everybody’s cup of tea, but I love the (albeit short) interaction with people. Talk is good, and what we’re really talking about is what we want in life and how can it be better, no matter whether we agree or not.

Three general canvassing rules spring to mind.

One. Smile and be apologetic; you have no right to be there, so tell the person that you are sorry for bothering them. Most people smile back at me. It may be because of my natural charm and roguish good looks, but it is probably because they feel sorry for me in the wind and rain (and on one occasion horizontal hail). In the overwhelming majority of cases, people are very pleasant. Regardless, thank them for their time.

Two. You get some discussion on the doorstep, not tonnes, but some. It’s unlikely you will change someone’s mind then and there by clever argument, so give the party/candidate’s position clearly and politely, but do more listening than talking.

Three. It’s only good fun if you have a good candidate. When the person has been doing a good job, canvassing is made so much easier. Sometimes people will even smile and say something complimentary about them; there’s a good feeling in those moments.

Those are the essentials, though I could add a couple of negotiables. Close gates for example. And if the family schnauzer makes a break for it through the gate you left open, then you do have a responsibility to hare off down the street after it (as happened on Saturday).

If it’s raining and your literature is trapped under your left arm pit inside your coat, produce it with your right hand before the person comes to the door, otherwise it can be misinterpreted as reaching for a concealed weapon. This alarms people.

Two last things. I like seeing other parts of Belfast; places I drive past, but never walk in until the canvass. Belfast becomes a little bit wider for me, and a little bit more my city when I walk down new streets. I like what people do with their homes too; the house with the windowsill covered in meerkat ornaments; the garden with a dozen rusted bicycles lying in it spring to mind.

Finally, it’s good craic. There is camaraderie among canvassers. We curse or compliment the weather together and chat between houses -and we don’t always talk about politics.

So why was I excited about putting up posters in the rain? Well, win or lose, I know I won’t regret spending time on this campaign; it has genuinely been a joy to be part of. It’s good to be part of something much bigger than me; something that’s ultimately about everyone.

Dave Thompson is a teacher in Belfast. Have you been pounding the pavements this election? Let us know your experience in the comments below. 

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  • Nevin

    “Have you been pounding the pavements this election? Let us know your experience in the comments below.”

    I’ve not been canvassing but Robin Swann had a novel encounter with some Dervock ladies!

  • Turgon

    I remember canvassing for Martin Smith 20 years ago in Toughmonagh and getting a very positive response. One or two not interested but most very supportive. I remember one man telling me his neighbour was out so not to go to that house and that he and his neighbour were in complete support. I also remember people telling my more sports interested colleagues the football scores as they were going round.

    I also remember maybe 10 years ago when I lived in East Belfast. It was election day. I had already voted that morning but went out with my toddler son to get milk: it was just after work and I was still wearing a shirt and tie. I walked past the polling station where there were canvassers from Alliance and the DUP. The Alliance canvassers were a very posh looking early elderly couple. The man strode forward handing me an Alliance leaflet asking me to vote for them clearly thinking that I was his sort of type.

    I had decided to ask them about voting for Maskey as Lord Mayor (shows how long ago it was). I stumbled over what I was going to say and mumbled: Can I ask you something. He leaned forward and I finally managed to say: “Tell me who voted for Alex Maskey as Lord Mayor”. The canvasser stepped back as if I had hit him; I clearly remember him catching the leaflet as I let it drop.

    Then the DUP lady: a much less posh looking middle aged woman in a yellow quilted jacket stepped forward beaming: clearly having heard the exchange. I said “Do not worry I have already voted” smiled and walked on.

    On my way back the DUP lady smiled and the Alliance man and the lady with him gave me a look of what I can only describe as pure hatred. It made my day.

  • Dan

    Not that anyone has bothered their arse coming round my way to canvass my vote, but on the off chance one does, I must remember to ask them if they are a member of the party they are canvassing for.
    If they aren’t, they’ve no business coming to my door looking for my vote.

  • submariner

    Why did Alliance backing Maskey for mayor upset you so much?.

  • Granni Trixie

    Why? Surely being a supporter who canvasses is OK?

  • Dan

    I’d have thought parties would be very careful who they let go round the houses on their behalf.
    Not sure if I was a candidate I’d be happy for just anyone to go round the doors for me. I’d expect at least a party membership level to go canvassing.

  • Sergiogiorgio

    You can see why they made the mistake #wheredidileavemeglasses.

  • Turgon

    Yes indeed I am an oaf and very purile in contrast clearly to your high minded brilliance. It is sad that people like me have a vote in elections equal to you: isn’t it. Actually oaf is one of the more cultured insults I have had thrown at me over the years on Sugger. Maybe I should make a compilation.

  • My memory of following canvassers around Lagan Valley at the 2010 General Election was of nearly being burnt alive wandering around Plantation with Daphne Trimble and discovering who hilly Kinallen was!

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I did my first bit of canvassing (for Labour) in a marginal seat in the Thames Valley on Monday and have to say, really enjoyed the experience. As a qual researcher I’m no stranger to conversations with random strangers about their lives – you’d really be surprised what topics I’ve held 2 hour discussions with the public on – but I’m not used to door-knocking. I was really quite nervous at first. What if they ask me some detailed question about local services, or the candidate’s CV, and I can’t answer (I was canvassing away from my home constituency)? What if they have a scary dog?

    But I love a bit of banter and really enjoyed hearing people’s stories and priorities. when I reported back to the Labour organiser on each one, I was taken with their quite hard-headed approach to who’s a possible Labour voter – they clearly have heard a lot before. One person was into hunting, not posh hunting on horses, but hawking. The organiser seemed to think “will never vote Labour” – but actually, this woman was anti-authority and anti being run by posh boys from Eton. She was genuinely a waverer. Labour won’t win her over on hunting but it might well do on the message of running Britain for the many instead of a small, rich elite. For me that is Labour’s strongest macro-message: they’ll run the country for all its people, not just a few.

    I came away with the impression that people are hacked off with the government, but are so ground down by decades of politics drifting away from them, they no longer believe they can do anything that makes a difference. Not so much apathy but actual alienation from politics is Labour’s big enemy. Not a big revelation; but listening to Labour-leaning people who agree with them still, but are reluctant to come out and vote, really drives it home. It’s sort of irrational of them; but sort of not. They’ve had enough and need a genuine step change in how Britain is run. But they’ll only believe it when they see it. Tricky thing is, it won’t happen unless people vote for it.

    I honestly think Miliband is the only man who really wants to challenge the pretty parlous status quo right now and can deliver it. Which is why I’m going back to try and get some of them down to the polling station to vote on Thursday.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    He’s Sinn Fein – who in their IRA alter ego blew up a lot of the city and killed large numbers of the electorate. Call me old fashioned, but I think that record should kind of bar them from any serious consideration as politicians.