Everyone’s doing it so why can’t I? Election introspection, 1

Everyone wants to share what came up on The Doorstep. I am quite suspicious of doorstep insights; I can’t think of any campaign when I had the kind of synoptic, oversailing insight people tend to claim. The experience isn’t like that. This time out I campaigned in four different constituencies, and instead of a sense of a broad public mood, I remember a succession of encounters with the unknowable other behind the next doorbell, trips to the primal space of politics, as Sita Balami put it, often jarringly different within a few paces, and I’d say as much for every campaign I’ve done.

Rather than everyone on the doorstep telling me Jeremy Corbyn was a dangerous sympathizer with IRA terrorists, plenty of people told us they would vote for him, and one voter told us their next-door neighbour was an IRA terrorist. Rather than denouncing Corbyn as an anti-semite, a fascist postman goose-stepped up to our street stall, making the Nazi salute, and shouted that we were race traitors. I imagine, if anything, he thought we weren’t anti-semitic enough. People turned us away because they were too hungover for politics, while next door the party was still going on, blasting disco classics at them. I was offered free coffee because I was wearing Labour stickers. In ultra-marginal Chipping Barnet, someone whose main concern was Brexit managed to be undecided.

I’m not sure what to make of that little lot. But Julian Todd, who used to host this blog, reminds me of a good reason to doubt people, especially candidates with pat stories about what they heard on the doorstep. That reason is: they don’t get any systematic feedback of what happens on the ‘step except their own contacts and what people tell them about theirs.

The app Julian is talking about is, I think, the one that spits out the paper canvass lists for the boardrunners. I actually have a lot of time for the canvass process as technology. Once you have a team of four or more activists, a good boardrunner can cover ground really impressively fast, and I think faster than if they were fiddling with a phone. Also, the process is very robust – whether the network is up or the computers are working or even the electricity is on or not, you can get out there and knock, and in a real pinch, you could use the marked-up paper forms to get out the vote.

Anyone who’s ever done any technology activism will be familiar with the enormous amount of time and effort it takes to get everyone set up with the developer environment and working, and the painfully high percentage of volunteers who don’t make it. In this case, the onboarding process is absolutely minimal, and I was enormously impressed by the first-time canvassers who didn’t even know we had lists but who blossomed with confidence within the first three houses. Finally, I’m pretty sure looking down at a screen isn’t the best look if you’re trying to have a persuasive conversation. These are good things and shouldn’t be given away in the name of shinyness.

We could do much better, though.

Basic things like logging people who will need a lift to the polling station are achieved at the moment by the boardrunner scrawling in the margin and hoping someone reads it. The more and bigger campaigning sessions we do – and we had better because it’s not as if the media is going to get less bad – the worse this gets, as the number of boards out on the street goes up and the runners are less likely to know the agent or the candidate.

Canvassers are advised to get phone numbers from people with specific concerns if the candidate isn’t immediately available, but again, the form doesn’t actually capture this in any way other than scrawling in the margin, and it provides even less scope to record what their concerns are. We actually have software for responding to people via WhatsApp or SMS, as well as the Dialogue distributed phone bank, and this needs to connect with the canvassing effort. I did wonder whether the most important information in the system was everything there wasn’t a box on the form for, even though voter ID and knocking up are pretty fundamental to any kind of electoral politics.

Going in the other direction, the current campaigning process doesn’t do enough to support the canvasser. Pretty much everyone who wasn’t a first timer was using the Momentum difficult conversations script (Listen, Isolate specific concerns, Address with policy) so I’m not sure there’s much validity to the talking point about “only doing voter ID”. The process, though, doesn’t do much to help canvassers with the “address” bit. The digital content was great, but it would have been useful to get it to the doorstep.

There is apparently a Doorstep app, but I haven’t seen anyone use it, nor did I find out about it until the week after the election.

5 Comments on "Everyone’s doing it so why can’t I? Election introspection, 1"


  1. I had the flu, so I mostly pitched in where I could with random computer based admin work in this election. But as I said in 2017, I agree completely that the experience of talking to voters is just not statistically significant. You have no idea who you have really talked to and how representative of anything they are. So in the end, any stories from the doorstep get you not very far.

    On tech vs paper, etc. I think the key reason to pursue a tech angle is that if we’re going to run a strategy where we concede* the “air war” (media) and the “ether war” (Facebook) then we have to start talking to people more than once and in a utopian world, at some points over the next five years before the election. I can’t see any easy way to keep track of that on paper.

    *not by choice, but the media is the media and as this election has shown there are very simple ways for the Conservatives to use their massive money advantage and their network of “PR people who don’t work for the party, honest, they are just private individuals placing FB ads” to dominate online ads and conversations.

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  2. Some quick thoughts on the FB arena which I didn’t track the way I did in 2017, but I still seemed to keep more of an eye on than 90% of journos.

    Changes to the algo mean Skwawk/Evolve/Canary were much less useful this time around. Novara never had the same “go viral” focus, but it too reached fewer not-already-fans.

    This cleared the board for advertising to matter more. (Yes, Lab & Momentum did better with viral content, but not as better (virality wise) as they did in 2017, the Conservatives caught up a bit.)

    Also, Conservatives spent a lot pre-election. (And again, a lot through their undeclared network.)
    What’s interesting is that the techniques were essentially 80s US ad techniques, but because we don’t have a culture of political advertising (pre-net we basically had billboards, so not a big channel) it worked well. Basic character assassination, hammered home over a period of years at a low level, higher intensity pre-election months. And of course, it all fits neatly with the press views on LOTO.

    I have thoughts on the vulnerability of this LOTO to this approach and what it means for the likely successor (looks like RLB) but maybe that’s for another day.

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