Robert Bartram: Why bother with traditional election campaigning?

Written by David Singleton on 3 July 2017 in Opinion

Before 2017, I had given up on the idea of knocking doors for candidates. 

There can be many reasons for campaigning – that is, helping a candidate win an election by doing more than just voting for them. Intense passion often lies at at the core of this support. Sometimes it is a passion for the values and policies of the party you support. On other occasions, it can be a deep distrust of the ‘others’. Sometimes support is purely tribal, inspired by generations of family and community loyalties.

But, aside from helping your team to win, there is another great reason to campaign: working as an activist, even briefly, flips on its head any preconceived notions and truisms about election campaigning. This is especially the case with our current obsession with social media: if it’s out there, it must be true. Well, no it isn’t, and if you don’t believe me try it for yourself, and see what happens.

Take for example our most recent, and unexpected, general election. I had not campaigned in any sort of election for at least 15 years, long before social media was even a glint in a programmer’s eye.  My youthful enthusiasm – inspired by reasons two and three above – had long since transformed into an almost-middle-aged, almost-complacency and I had long ago given up on the idea of knocking on another door for a political candidate. 

But a text message changed all that. A few weeks before the last election, my friend and local Labour MP Phil Wilson told me that he was worried he might lose his seat. With a majority of just 6,000 and the seemingly unstoppable Tory advance, it really did look as though he might become a victim of Theresa May’s apparent tactical genius. His defeat would not just have been a personal loss for him and a numerical blow to Labour: for the last 10 years, Wilson has represented Sedgefield, the seat previously held by none other than Tony Blair. Victory for the Tories would have a massive symbolic resonance too.

So that text message from Phil himself swung it in the end. This was a personal request: clearly, I was needed.     

It’s just possible, however, that I might have ever so slightly exaggerated my own significance by the time I arrived. People did not cry out with relief as I walked through the door, and I can safely report that no-one leapt up to hug me as I introduced myself. This is not to suggest for one moment that the team was not friendly and welcoming. They were certainly glad to have an extra pair of hands: there were four people in the office that day, including Phil himself, the only four who had been able to work full-time on the campaign since the start. So, lesson one: one individual can make a difference.  

Any residual air in the inflated balloon of my ego was soon dissipated by my first foray into the front line: delivering leaflets. Not in the fact of delivering leaflets itself, more just that it was a healthy reminder that campaigning on the doorstep can come up against several different forms of obstruction. Sometimes it is the difficulty of actually locating properties – encouraged by the bizarre tendency of UK town planners in avoiding the number 13 – and getting lost in unfamiliar estates. Nor should campaigners ever underestimate the most frustrating stumbling block of all: that householders have the temerity simply not to be in said household when you call round.

But on this occasion, another factor was at work: the weather. As soon as we stepped into the car it began to rain. As soon as we started to actually deliver the leaflets it rained harder – and these were targeted leaflets to specific households, so no mere matter of going from house to house – and after finishing the first round, we abandoned the outing altogether. Both leafletters and leaflets were utterly drenched.   

Still, every cloud, and in this case, it was telephone canvassing. On returning to the Campaign HQ, I spent the next two hours phoning a hundred or so constituents. Many were not in, but here comes lesson two: those I spoke to were in the main friendly, even those who were not going to vote Labour. Overall, telephone canvassing is worth it.  

The next day the rain had cleared completely and there was blue sky as far as the eye could see. That day, I actually spoke to some voters for the first time on the doorstep. As with their counterparts on the telephone, they were very friendly. Lesson three: door-to-door canvassing, along with leafleting, can make a difference, and even in this oh-so-clever internet age, voters respond well to it.  

I might not have helped myself on polling day itself by an extended visit to the local pub the night before. Still, polling day was polling day, and I manfully struggled out of bed at 6:30am for the early morning leaflet drop: with polls opening at 7am, we were hoping to encourage people to vote before they went to work. Unfortunately, the wet weather had returned with a vengeance: it was raining, and hard. Phil muttered repeatedly that he had never known a polling day to be so wet. Tradition has it that rain is supposed to mean a low turnout by Labour voters, a truism that set us on edge when it became clear that all polling stations were reporting that turnout was unusually high. And so it was the rain – not the Tories, not UKIP, not even the gentleman who informed me that he would he would be voting Green “because he didn’t want anybody to win” – that was without doubt the main opponent that day.  

As we trudged around estate after estate – I lost count of how many in all – I tried to comfort myself with the knowledge that it would all be worth it. But conversation again centred around turnout and, convinced that the UKIP voters had defected en masse to the Tories, Phil spoke worriedly about having to write two speeches for the count: one each for victory and defeat.  

And so, after this all too brief respite, we trudged off into the rain again. It was cold, it was wet, it was the north-east of England. We knocked on doors, rang bells, banged letterboxes, anything to get voters to speak to us. Afternoon became early evening, and we headed back to Newton Aycliffe for the last push. By now, most people we spoke to had indeed voted, and just as we set out for the last time, at 8:30pm…the sky cleared and we were bathed in glorious sunshine. Yes, somehow ‘everyone’ seemed to have voted and now the sun had come out. So that’s lesson four: Labour supporters will vote in the rain, just as much as anyone else.  

I headed home for a meal, a drink or two, and the exit polls. And after 14 hours of door-knocking, it was the last of the three that truly re-energised me. Surely they had to be wrong? I had to see it to believe it – and so I duly glued myself to the TV for the next 12 hours. Lesson five: Jeremy Corbyn had quite definitely not killed support for the Labour Party. The highlights of that extraordinary night have been written about elsewhere, but top of my list was without doubt the BBC strapline that flashed across the screen in the early hours of the morning: “Phil Wilson re-elected in Sedgefield.” And I had been reminded what campaigning was really about.



Picture by: Steve Parsons/PA Wire/PA Images


About the author

Robert Bartram was a member of Labour Party staff between 1996-1997; a researcher at the House of Commons for Labour MP Martin Linton, 1997-1999; and Special Adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair at 10 Downing St, 1999-2001.

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