Life

6 women on what it’s like to canvass for a political party for the first time

Political dissatisfaction is real – but many women still feel passionate about their party. Ahead of the general election, Stylist meets six women who’ve been inspired to go out canvassing for the first time.

Every general election has the potential to be historic. But it’s not an understatement to say that the snap election taking place in the UK on 12 December will dramatically shape the UK’s future for at least a generation. From how they want to conduct Brexit to their plans for tackling the climate crisis, the leading parties are offering radically different sets of policies and promises.

Yet many people currently feel disillusioned with the state of British politics, despite the variety of options on offer. This doesn’t mean the electorate is detached from politics as a whole: voter registration went up by 38% ahead of this year’s election, according to analysis by the Electoral Reform Society, while a study by independent research group the Hansard Society shows political engagement at its highest ever recorded level

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Nevertheless, it’s clear that many people don’t feel as wedded to specific political parties as they used to. Over the last several decades, the number of people who identify with a political party has declined dramatically: research by The Policy Institute at King’s College London shows that only 9% of the electorate said they ‘very strongly identified’ with a political party in 2018, compared to nearly half of potential voters in the 1960s. 

Doorbell
Wondering how to canvass for a political candidate?

But even as many UK residents are shrugging off their affiliation with a particular party, others retain a strong sense of political loyalty. For these people, it’s not enough to just discuss politics with their friends, shout at Question Time, then turn up to mark an ‘X’ in a box on election day. Instead, they feel a responsiblity to persuade others to back their party. 

How do they do this? By knocking on doors and talking to potential voters outside their usual bubble. Not all grassroots campaigners will align themselves politically with US Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who famously wore through a pair of shoes while canvassing during her first run for office. But they’re all putting into action one of AOC’s key beliefs: “I’m not here to watch the polls. I’m here to change the polls.” They’re also embodying the suffragette mantra: deeds, not words

Political canvassing can be daunting, and in very rare cases it can also be dangerous. The Jo Cox Foundation has warned of a spate of verbal abuse and physical attacks directed at political candidates and volunteers during this election cycle, while the National Police Chiefs’ Council has urged candidates not to go out door-knocking alone. But these cases are a tiny minority. For the most part, canvassing is a safe activity, one that’s well-organised by experienced local party activists.

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This week, Stylist spoke to six women who have been inspired to go out and knock on doors for the first time ahead of the election on 12 December. Some are lifelong supporters of their party, while others have recently switched political allegiances. Some were too young to vote at the last election, or didn’t feel seriously engaged in politics before now.

But they all now believe passionately in their party’s mission, and want to convince others to feel the same way. Here’s what they had to say.

Amelia, a 33-year-old communications director from London, is canvassing for the Lib Dems

Canvassing for the Lib Dems: communications director Amelia

“This is one of the most important elections we’ve seen in my lifetime. I’m pro-Remain, but I feel as passionately about standing up to the current government as I do about trying to stop Brexit. It’s the constant lies and the arrogance – the fact that they aren’t revealing the Russia report before the election is terrifying, and I found it genuinely chilling when Boris Johnson shut down parliament. I really feel like the country has to show them their behaviour is unacceptable or it will continue and worsen if we give them a green light in this election.

I was a Conservative voter until the referendum, but I never canvassed for them. I guess I didn’t feel like any previous elections were quite as critical as this: it didn’t seem like Ed Miliband and David Cameron were a million miles away from one another. But now both the main parties have gone to different extremes of the political spectrum, and I want people to know there is an alternative if they vote tactically.

I started off leafletting for my local Lib Dem candidate, Nicola Horlick, at tube stations, then moved onto door-knocking. One person shouted ‘traitor’ at me, but overall I’ve learned that people are generally nice, even when they don’t agree with you. We always go out in groups, and it’s very well-organised, so I’ve never felt unsafe.

And the people I’ve met through canvassing are remarkable: young people, older people, from all different backgrounds. I’m so motivated by them, and I’ve learned so much more about my area and the issues faced by other people. That’s been really inspiring.”

Preeti, a 40-year-old chief creative officer from South Woodford, is campaigning on behalf of the Conservatives

Canvassing for the Conservatives: chief creative officer Preeti

“I’ve lived in this country for 18 years and I’ve always been conservative, but I only joined the Conservative Party this summer – mainly because of Brexit. Then when the general election came, I thought: maybe I should try canvassing. So far, I’ve done it three times, knocking on doors and making phone calls as well.

I don’t believe any election should be based on Brexit, but I do think Boris can resolve the problem we’ve got at the moment. If the Conservatives win, we’ll be in a situation where we can actually leave the EU. At the moment, we’re just stuck in the middle, not knowing what’s happening. 

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Of course, when you knock on doors, some people who answer are Labour. They’re very straightforward: ‘I do not want to talk to you.’ I say, can I try and convince you? And they’re like, ‘No.’ At first, I didn’t know how to respond to that. But I was with a local councillor, and she explained that if someone says that, you should just let them be. Which is right – you can convince people to vote Conservative, but you can’t force people.

It’s different when you speak to Conservatives. They’re very nice, they want to talk. So you meet quite a lot of different people. I’ll do a few more sessions before the election. It’s nice to get out – and even if I can just persuade a few people, that will make a big difference for my side.”

Georgia, an 18-year-old student from Glasgow, is pounding the pavements for the SNP

Campaigning for the SNP: student Georgia

“This is the first election I can vote in, so it was really important for me to go out and get involved. I’ve been campaigning for the re-election of my local MP Angela Crawley – I started volunteering for her when I was 16, but this is the first time I’ve actually canvassed on the doorstep.

I first went canvassing in a wee quiet area in Hamilton [in South Lanarkshire] with Angela and a local councillor. I shadowed them for the first few goes, but then I was like: ‘I’m gonna go for it.’ There are set questions you ask people, so you can always just stick to the script if someone doesn’t want to have a good chat. 

None of my friends from school go out campaigning – it’s not their thing. But I’ve met a lot of young people who are also interested in politics and campaigning through the SNP’s youth wing. We’ve all got each other on Twitter, and we’ll text each other to meet up and campaign together.

If you’ve got a passion for politics, then I’d highly recommend it. It is nerve-wracking and you do get ignorant people; you do get rejections. But that’s just life, isn’t it? And the more you do it, the more confident you become.”

Nicola, a 29-year-old retail director from Suffolk, is volunteering for the Green Party 

Canvassing for the Green Party: retail director Nicola

“This election is actually the first time I’ve felt certain about which party to support. Before now, I was always torn about who to vote for and why; I never felt like I knew enough about politics, even though there were so many things I wanted to put right in the world. Then someone told me, the best thing you can do is pick one cause and focus on that.

The environment is the thing that bothers me the most – I just don’t feel like the problem of climate change is being taken seriously enough. Things like Extinction Rebellion are bit extreme for me, but I really wanted to be active in the cause. Then it dawned on me: I should be supporting the Green Party. 

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I did worry I might be in over my head before I went canvassing for the first time. I’ve read the Green manifesto, but I was still nervous about being questioned on something I didn’t have the answer to. But actually, people don’t really want to grill you on your opinion. They’re much more interested in talking about their own views. The worst negative response I’ve had is people rolling their eyes, because they’re just not interested in politics.

Campaigning definitely feels meaningful. I work on my own, so I don’t really see anyone day to day apart from my other half – and going out and about and meeting people has really helped me feel part of a community.”

Christina, a 27-year-old charity worker from London, is campaigning for Labour 

Canvassing for Labour: charity worker Christina

“I’ve always been vaguely political, but I never used to feel like my actions could change anything. But now I feel like not only can I make a difference, I almost have a responsibility to try. I can’t bear the thought of a hard Brexit that puts our NHS at risk, and I hate the fact that things like homelessness, education and women’s rights are being ignored while politicians argue about one issue.

Having said that, I was really anxious before canvassing for the first time. You’re going into someone’s personal space – albeit just their doorstep – and asking to put forward your point of view. It’s such a divisive time politically in this country, you’ve no idea what response you’ll get. 

But once I did it, I felt invigorated. It’s really good to feel like you’re doing something, and nowhere near as scary as I expected. I was apprehensive about not having memorised all the right facts and figures, but once you start, you realise you know much more than you thought. It’s almost like talking about politics down the pub.

I’ve realised there’s no point moaning to my friends about politics, doing nothing proactive, then complaining when the election results aren’t what I want. If there’s anything I can do to change things – no matter how small – I should do it.”  

June, a 39-year-old businesswoman and part-time student from Carmarthenshire, is knocking on doors for Plaid Cymru

Volunteering for Plaid Cymru: businesswoman June

“I used to be what I call ‘legacy Labour’, because that’s how my parents and grandparents voted. I got disillusioned with politics in my 20s and early 30s, but migrated towards Plaid predominantly because of their focus on Wales.

Wales tends to be bottom of the list when it comes to investment, and over the past 20 years I’ve seen my local area go downhill. It was thriving when I was younger; now it’s just empty shops. I saw so many inspiring women within Plaid – like Leanne Wood, Helen Mary Jones and Mari Arthur – that I thought it was about time I joined in and gave help to the cause.

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I suffer with anxiety and don’t leave the house much, so canvassing for the first time felt like a big deal. But we had training workshops on how to handle whatever questions people might ask, and we go out in a team, so there’s always support there.

And I was surprised by how easily I took to it. I love it, absolutely love it. As soon as you cross that first barrier and knock on that first door, it feels natural, you know? All that walking is a great workout, and it really does lift your spirits and boost your confidence knowing you can talk to people. It’s definitely an experience I would recommend, especially for women with low self-esteem. I feel empowered by it.”

Images: Getty Images; supplied by interviewees