Sunday, 10 July 2016

When the political landscape changes, should parties do more canvassing?

Politically, at a local level, summer, and especially August tends to be the time when nothing much happens. There is a usually a break in meetings because people will be on holiday. This year things may be different.

The Conservative party leadership election is well under way. The Labour leadership election is just about to begin.

The entire political landscape has just changed as a result of the EU Referendum result. The effect of this is only yet being guessed at, and each region and town will feel it in different ways.

The Labour party has grown rapidly with a combination of people who have joined for opposite reasons. Some in support of the Corbyn project and some feel the need to rebalance the party. No one knows what the effect of this will look like in each constituency.

The Conservatives have pressures of their own with an odd coalition of people favouring the “change candidate”, and others with more conservative instincts feeling that the country needs a period of stability.

The centre ground of politics has probably shifted, and it is not clear that anyone currently occupies it.

The growing Liberal democrat party wonders if it can be the new centre, or if it needs to build a broader alliance with other centralists who may feel that their parties no longer work for them.

The discontent that brought us a vote for Brexit is still there, fermenting away, with people on both the far right and far left welcoming “disruption” as the means to finally let them create the particular new Jerusalem of their dreams. These forces are eating away at the old parties.

I will attend a CLP meeting this week.  I expect it to be noisy. I do not know how easy it will be for people to make their voices heard, or to listen to the range of views that members will have.  I understand the anxieties of people who have been members for a long time, and feel that all of this is taking us back to the bad old times, when Labour was out of power for a generation.  I have met some of the new members who signed up for Corbyn, and understand their deep enthusiasm, and untested idealism.

When I joined the Labour party it was a simple choice, I was experiencing first hand some to the big problems that we have in the country, particularly in social care, and it was clear to me that these were problems that can only be solved by collective action and risk sharing. The Labour party seemed to me the best hope of trying to find a way forward on this, though the solutions also meant reaching across party boundaries and demonstrating to many in the centre right that collective action was also in their best interests.

Political change sometimes happens rapidly, in a sudden shift, more often it seems to be incremental, with many people contributing over time to a shift in opinion. Incremental change may be easier to test, and more enduring.

We have now been through six years of austerity, Services have been cut back, and people have been hurt. Perhaps there is a particular duty on political activists to understand this impact clearly and to be alert to the changes Brexit and the financial pressures that accompany it will bring.

Many of those attending the CLP meeting, here and in other areas will know all of this, though it may not necessarily be the main topic of discussion.

Splits within parties are deeply felt, and can leave scars that last for decades. There is a risk of sowing the seeds now for many years of disharmony. I wonder if this can be avoided?

If I were to be heard, which I do not expect to happen, I would be suggesting social events to help get to know the new members and understand what they, as individuals, are hoping for.  I would also be suggesting that this is the time when we need to do a lot of canvassing.

Canvassing can seem a bit strange. The door to door conversations, checking people’s voting intentions and finding out about the issues that concern them.  I have always been a bit of a heretic about canvassing. I do not accept that it is actually going to give a particularly reliable indication of how people will vote, as I have seen too many elections that have been swung by last minute media campaigns, or by television debates. Too many people now decide on their vote, or not to vote, at the last minute, so canvassing is no longer a magical tool to predict outcomes.

So why, if I don’t believe in canvassing as an election tool, do I say we should be doing more of it, the reason is that we really must not form ideologically pure policy in closed rooms.

If we are to take the normal view that winning elections is an important part of what political parties try to do, then it helps if we can ensure our policies fit the needs of the people we serve, and resonate with them.

We need to canvass for three main reasons,

Firstly because the political landscape has changed so radically that we cannot assume we know the voting intention of anyone in the constituency,

Secondly because if we have an influx of new members they need to be working as part of a team and this time consuming task is a good starting point.

Lastly, and most importantly, because the voters are the only ones who can tell us how the party is perceived. If policies we hold dear are rejected by voters what does this mean. Does it mean that we have to do a better job of explaining, or does it mean that perhaps we may have got it wrong?

The future is unknowable, but I think we will do better if we try to find what it is that we have in common with people joining our party, and with others that share some common ground with us, and if we also keep on testing that what we think is in tune with the world as it really is.

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