Knocking doors continues to matter

Mark Drakeford looks back on the general election from the perspective of the pavements of Cardiff West

In what follows, I make little attempt to comment on the wider political picture as it emerged during and after the May 2010 election campaign. Having spend the bulk of the month of April walking the streets of Cardiff West, delivering leaflets and knocking doors. I thought it better to distil some of that experience. In no particular order, then, here are my top ten front-line recollections, before they fade entirely from memory:

  1. The weather was brilliant: often cold, as well as sunny, but astonishingly dry. In thirty years of political campaigns in Cardiff I can’t remember anything quite as unbroken. I’ve seen literally hundreds of fantastic gardens, learned the names of new plants from political friends and foes alike, and often felt a substantial yearning for my poor, neglected allotment – reminding me that most people have a sense of perspective about life which the practical business of politics too often drives out.
  2. Knocking doors continues to matter. If this was the internet election, then the twitteratti largely succeeded in keeping it to themselves. Maybe this is one of those instances where the American experience is more obscuring than illuminating. No-one realistically expects to see candidates for the Presidency in the flesh. Everyone believes that the appearance of their Member of Parliament on their doorstep is part of normal service. In Cardiff West you’d expect me to say it, but it’s true. The Labour office of Kevin Brennan and Rhodri Morgan has long provided a first class service to constituents of all political persuasions – weekly surgeries, mammoth caseloads, engagement in community campaigns and so on. On the doorstep, this matters. Our two hour door-knocking sessions  took place three times a day: 10am – 12 noon; 2pm – 4pm in the afternoon; 6pm – 8pm in the evenings; with time off in the evenings at weekends. And I cannot recall a single one in which someone did not emerge with a story of how they had been helped with a problem which had been taken up by their Member of Parliament or Assembly Member. It’s not my claim that door knocking changes voters’ intentions. It reminds some of why they will vote in the way they intend and, importantly, may strengthen that intention. Conversely, while it may not change many minds, if you don’t do it, the absence is noticed, and held against you.
  3. Door-knocking is not the traumatic experience it is often feared to be. Almost everyone is polite. More often than not people are interested in the democratic process in action. Of course, there are exceptions. My own bête noire are those who draw themselves up to their full height to tell you, with every appearance of pride, that “we never vote here” – as if this were some higher form of civic duty. I swallow down my wish to ask them if they’d rather not have their rubbish collected. Much better, I want to say, not to be bothered with the results of having a government, as well as avoiding the messy business of helping to create one. But this is less than half the picture. My last piece of practical activity on election day was to drive an 86-year-old lady the 200 yards from her front door to the polling station. It was nine o’clock in the evening and, by now, quite dark. All day long she had hoped to find the strength to make the painful journey on foot. Defeated, finally, by the physical effort involved, she remained determined to have her vote. “I suppose I really ought to have a postal vote next time”, she told me on the way home, “but I do like to see that vote going into the ballot box”.
  4. When people do have issues to raise, they are concentrated in a relatively narrow repertoire. I was (temporarily) thrown off guard by an elderly pensioner in Caerau who, on the day before polling, wanted to know Labour’s position on the impact of rising international oil prices on domestic tax revenues. However, she was an exception. National issues were dominated by MPs expenses and, most worryingly of all, immigration. I met too many people who were able to comfort themselves with the opening shot that “I’m not a racist”, before going on to express views which left me (silently) mouthing the b-word. Yet, standing back from the anger of specific encounters, I am left with a clear understanding that condemnation is not a sufficient political response. One of the shared frustrations of the last thirteen years has been the difficulty with which the inequality juggernaut of the Thatcher and Major years has been halted and put into reverse. In the process, there are many people whose links with what the bulk of their fellow-citizens can expect have been eroded to the point where disillusionment and dissatisfaction attaches itself to those even further away from the mainstream. Incomers are always vulnerable in such circumstances, and 2010 was no exception. With an age of austerity not so much threatened, as promised with positive relish, the social consequences look fearful.
  5. Even so, national issues are themselves dwarfed, on the door-step, by local ones. “I can’t park my car” and “Have you seen the state of this lane?” were raised far more often than the banking crisis. It remains an immense frustration, in Cardiff, that after six years of Lib Dem incompetence in running the Council, most people appear still to believe that Labour is in charge. Pointing out the real position is regarded as somehow an attempt to evade that responsibility. Politicians with their heads in the policy stratosphere, and without their feet firmly planted in the implementational earth, risk looking exposed on the door-step. Fortunately, in Cardiff West, Kevin Brennan proves more than equal to this challenge. Able, on the one hand, to discuss the ins-and-outs of macro economic decisions to sell gold reserves, he demonstrates, on the other, a detailed grasp of the rules governing residents’ parking. It’s a comforting combination for those out meeting voters, morning, afternoon and evening.
  6. Class continues to shape political reactions more than any other factor. For me, it stood out most sharply in the way that Gordon Brown was regarded on the doorstep. The more middle-class the area, the more likely that the Prime Minister was regarded negatively. The more working-class, the more the hostility to the Tory press and the unfairness of its treatment of Brown. Indeed, the closeness of the national contest, and the partisan virulence of national newspapers undoubtedly had the effect of hardening Labour’s core vote, and winning over others for whom keeping the Tories out was a more important ambition than calibrating between different alternatives.
  7. While national issues might not appear prominently on the pavement, national moods do matter. How else could 7,000 people have turned to vote Liberal Democrat in Cardiff West? That Party has never regarded the constituency as a priority, having better fish to fry elsewhere, but even with a paper candidate, it has normally managed to produce the paper, if not the person. This time not a single elector at my address received even a single leaflet, not even the one delivered free by the post office, putting the case for a Lib Dem vote. Yet thousands of electors thought them preferable to the much more active cases put forward by every other Party. I share the general view that Lib Dem voters in Wales are generally people of leftish views, including those who told me that they would be voting Lib Dem because that Party stood to the left of Labour on issues such as Trident. Mr Clegg gives every appearance of being a natural Tory, clearly at home in the company of other products of a public school education. He won’t be finding many of those in Wales and, it seems to me, it won’t be long before he won’t be finding many too many Lib Dem voters either.
  8. Despite my continuing belief in the importance of local campaigning, the Cardiff West result shared many of the characteristics of similarly placed constituencies elsewhere. In addition to the Lib Dem rise, there was the collapse in the Plaid Cymru vote – marginalised, not by any TV debate, but by the commonsense understanding of the bit-part which the Parti Bach has to play in a General Election, reinforced by that Party’s refusal to rule out working with the Conservatives. If you were a real Conservative in Cardiff West, then you were able to vote for the real thing – and, again consistent with the national picture, thousands of people did so. That picture, so unlike Assembly elections, came through the high-volume coverage by broadcast and newspaper coverage. In many ways, this was an old-fashioned TV dominated election, with the leaders’ debates exaggerating that medium’s inherent tendency to foreground performance over content. Meanwhile, the national press continued to dig the grave of its own accelerating decline – shrill, virulent, biased and overwhelmingly unreflective of the balance of opinion amongst its readership.
  9. If there was a constituency which stood out against the tide then that was, surely, Cardiff North, not West, South or Central. On a night with its share of disappointments, none was greater than the loss of Julie Morgan, a truly outstanding MP and a voice of utter integrity in national, as well as Welsh politics. To have stemmed the Tory tide to a greater degree than any single other constituency in the top 100 Labour marginals was an outstanding achievement, which will only become more apparent as the dust settles and serious analysis of the results begins. Yet to have come so close makes defeat, in some ways, even harder to take.
  10. Finally, to record a sense that, despite the 2010 election being routinely described as a break with the past, it all looks very much like back to the future. The new intake to the next Parliament sees a return to a narrower class basis than any since 1997. The Cabinet, in its paucity of women and entire absence of any black face in any policy portfolio, is overwhelmingly pale, stale and male. The prospect of realignment on the left has somehow been thrown away, and may not re-emerge for a generation. In the meantime, yesterday the Labour Party’s website collapsed under the weight of new applications for membership, as twenty people a minute tried to sign up – and over 1,000 succeeded. I’m looking forward to seeing many of them, out there on the doorstep again, when the Assembly elections happen in less that 12 months time.

Mark Drakeford will be Welsh Labour’s candidate in Cardiff West in the forthcoming National Assembly election in May 2011.

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