Let’s stop the robot-talk and really communicate on the doorstep, says Peter Newlands

I don’t mind smiling and clapping when a shadow minister arrives at the church or community centre they’re stumping at that day. I understand the arrangement; it looks good on television to have shiny supporters filling out the screen.
The difficult part to swallow is when the cameras are off and we’re in the pub afterwards. I’ve spent many a night getting upset when an earnest young supporter defends some bizarre policy thought up by the high command.

I lie awake after returning from a day’s campaigning and wonder what goes on in the minds of these people. I struggle to believe that they are stupid, or gutless; but I also find it hard to accept that any supporter really came into politics with a gripping desire to lengthen the time we could detain a terror suspect without charge to 90 days.

I chose the Labour party because of my principles. But I do not choose my principles because of the Labour party. This should be the position of any intelligent person interested in politics. And yet, time and again, I come across these blank-eyed automata at Labour events. They preach the unfailing logic of trident renewal, or the continuing, glorious worth of ID cards; parroting the party line.

The Labour party in my opinion is not the same as the cabinet or the national executive committee. The party is bigger than those things. It was here before either of them. Everyone in the Labour party should believe in the strength of our common endeavour; in the principles of democratic socialism and in protecting the vulnerable and the worst off in our society.

Therefore, we should not just accept without question that week’s policies of central office. We shouldn’t necessarily adapt our thinking to accommodate everything that our front benchers say on Newsnight. Who knows? Maybe it’s actually a bad policy.

There is no easy solution. Certainly, the party had to learn the importance of message discipline quick and hard after 1983. But, today, people respond better to a bit of pragmatism, understanding and plain speaking.

So let’s stop the robot-speak. Next time you’re talking to a voter, drop the prepared speech and just talk to them about what the party really believes in; building a country in which money and connections don’t determine your future, and a world in which your future is determined by your talent, drive and heart.

Peter Newlands is a journalism student



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6 Responses to “Let’s stop the robot-talk and really communicate on the doorstep, says Peter Newlands”

  1. oldpolitics says:

    Frightening though the prospect is, I think you might need to consider the possibility that, as well as plenty with career ambitions who want to be seen as right-thinking, there is a contingent of people who genuinely believe the things you think they can’t possibly believe. After all, anyone under 24 or so now can only possibly have joined the party since Iraq, to take one example.

    “Next time you’re talking to a voter, drop the prepared speech and just talk to them about what the party really believes in; building a country in which money and connections don’t determine your future, and a world in which your future is determined by your talent, drive and heart.”

    To be honest that’s great if you’re trying to recruit them as a member, but if you’re out trying to get votes then (apart from the sad truth that canvassing is more about identifying supporters than persuading waverers) talking to them about what you’re offering them, their families, communities, and local areas in response to specific problems and hopes in their lives, is likely to work better than either the robot-speak or the poetic dream of a new jerusalem.

  2. Rachel says:

    Is it possible that some of us can’t get worked up about things like ID cards precisely BECAUSE we’ve knocked on so many 1,000’s of doors and literally no-one – I mean NO-ONE – has ever once mentioned them as issues or reasons not to vote Labour?

    Even *SHOCK HORROR* Iraq doesn’t get raised as often as people think. Nobody mentioned it to me on the doorstep this year, though I can’t speak for other activists.

    This many not be the case everywhere – and if there are places where people are more bothered about ID cards than they are about jobs, housing, schools, hospitals or – quite frankly – doggy dirt at the end of the driveway, then maybe the Labour party needs to understand and appreciate just how diverse its potential voter pool is. Because, if we don’t, we’ll lose them – and never win back the many who have already gone elsewhere.

  3. Rachel says:

    FYI, my doggy dirt reference was simply highlighting the fact that while ZERO people mentioned ID cards, people did moan about doggy dirt – and what the local council was/was not doing about it.

  4. Alan says:

    So basically in your view its impossible to hold those sort of views and be a young member? I know plenty of Labour Students and Young Labour members who hold those views and do so with some serious passion.

    Also having worked in a number of seats I can safely say that no one has mentioned Iraq or ID cards on the doorstep for years. Certainly not during the recent election campaign.

    Finally I’m all for genuine listening and good conversation but I hope you are not knocking the National Voter ID questions. There is a script for them for a reason as they are a powerful tool that are incredibly helpful for organisers if applied consistently and over a sustained period.

  5. I did get complaints about ID cards, but mostly from people who weren’t going to vote Labour anyway. I say complaints – I mostly mean harangues, where the voter tried to convince me that Labour had abolished the right to trial by jury in all cases and I only kept talking because it was more amusing to wind them up.

    That said, what people get wound up about on the doorstep by is not something to form your opinions of a policy on. Just because ID cards didn’t wind people up, doesn’t mean they were a smart policy that was likely to prove highly effective. It was wasteful security theatre. And whilst we shouldn’t be beginning conversations with, “I’m from the Labour Party but I hate ID cards,” we should still analyse policies on criteria additional to how they’ll play on the doorstep.

    I’m in a Lib Dem constituency with a lot of special-interest voters, so my experience may not be entirely typical, but I tend to introduce myself on the doorstep by saying I’m from Cambridge Labour Party. That way, if they’re interested in our ideals, I can give them the pitch on fairness and all the other economic objectives, whereas if they want to complain about Iraq, tuition fees, the postal strike, Trident or whatever, I can talk about how the local party takes a different line from the national party on some issues.

    But to be honest, don’t give a speech full stop. Ask them how they’re planning on voting and why. Ask them about problems in their local area. Ask them about any particular local campaigns you’re running. If they have a national issue, they’ll raise it. If not, they’d rather know what you’re doing for them and their patch.

  6. Peter Newlands says:

    Thank you for your responses. I’m really pleased that everyone has responded in a civil manner.

    The main thrust of the piece is that the unblinking acceptance of any and all policies from central office is a bad thing. I was asked to write about something that excites or enrages me about the Labour party at the moment and the one thing that frustrates me the most is that there are lots of people I meet when campaigning or at other events (and typically they are young or student members) whose beliefs, amazingly, seem to match up exactly with official Labour policy. I think that this is not really a good thing.

    oldpolitics, I’m not suggesting that we don’t talk to people about what’s important in their lives, that’s almost exactly what I AM saying. But that we do it in a way that is about having an actual conversation with people rather than employing stock answers. I can only speak from my experience in the Crewe by-election and in two London constituencies at the GE, but when you’re told to “just say if you vote Lib Dem the Tories get in” etc instead of having a conversation with a voter it becomes disheartening for both you and them, I feel.

    Rachel, ID cards was just one example I used to demonstrate what I was talking about, I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that they were the biggest issue in the election or anything like that. But I have had a couple of people bring them up and they were all negative reactions, in fact the only times i’ve heard people talk positively about them was some young Labour members, who thought they were brilliant. You’ve no doubt knocked on more doors than I have and as I said in the previous paragraph. Talking to people about things that are important to them is the best way to a) help with those things and b) win votes. And as you say we’ve got to recognise the diversity of the British public, and doggy dirt can be the issue that makes some people vote for you or not, no doubt

    Alan, “So basically in your view its impossible to hold those sort of views and be a young member?” No.

    At the risk of being suggestive, I feel you might have misunderstood my point. I merely want a) people to be less robotic when they’re talking to voters and b) Labour members to not accept central office’s line without question.

    Edward, I appreciate what you’re saying and I think it’s along the same lines as what I’m trying to get at. “Don’t give a speech full stop” and “Drop the prepared speech and just talk to them about what the party really believes in” aren’t exactly the same but I think you would agree that a conversation that is responsive and persuasive is better to one that isn’t.

    This is merely my opinion about something that winds me up, and I’m willing to accept that my opinion might be flawed or lacking. Hope that helps.

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