Thoughts on canvassing

In the event of there being another election soon (rumours are circulating that May 4th is a possible date if no agreement is reached between SF and DUP in the next two weeks), here are a few thoughts on canvassing, gathered from my experience in recent years.

Firstly, canvassing works. It really, really does increase votes for the party doing the canvassing. Voters do not like to be taken for granted and are much more likely to reward the party that goes to the trouble of taking them seriously and knocking their doors. If the canvasser is the candidate in person, it is even more effective. Research shows that a voter is ten times more likely to vote for a candidate that they have met face to face.

Secondly, the basis of all canvassing is Oscar Wilde’s dictum “There is no such thing as an indiscreet question.” The questioner is not entitled to an indiscreet answer. In fact they are not entitled to any answer, and not even entitled to a truthful answer. So the canvasser needs to do whatever will increase the chances of getting an answer, getting a truthful answer and getting an answer that reveals the canvassee’s actual voting intention.

Thirdly, on the basis of the above, the canvasser needs to establish the most positive relationship possible with the canvassee as soon as the front door opens. How you are dressed matters here. For most political parties a smart suit and tie or a little black number with high heels is not the right thing. Neither, though, are torn jeans and a rude slogan on the tee shirt. Smart casual usually works best. You have got it just right if the canvassee cannot remember what you wore after you have gone round the corner.

Fourthly, your route to the front door matters. Some people do not like you taking a short cut across the grass or, worse, stepping over the fence between neighbouring houses. Stick to the paths, even if it means going all the way down the long path or steep steps and all the way back up to a door only fifteen feet from the last one. Also, always leave a gate exactly as it was when you found it. If it was closed as you came up to it, close it after you on the way in as well as on the way out. This applies even if the path to the front door is only six feet long. There might be a small dog hiding in the bushes ready to escape at the first opportunity. There might also be a small dog scrabbling its way to freedom as soon as the front door opens. Helping someone chase a runaway pet is not only a waste of your time and energy, it does not win votes.

Fifthly, if there is a door bell, ring it, but listen. If you can’t hear the bell ring, then knock the door as well. Some doorbells lie broken for years, so assume that if you can’t hear it then it’s broken.

Now for the important part, the interaction. Each person will have their own patter, a form of words that works for them. After a dozen or so interactions and a few variations, most canvassers settle on their own style. The pitch I suggest to start with is along these lines. As the door opens, hold out the leaflet, introduce yourself by name and say that you are canvassing on behalf of such-and-such a party and ask “Are you planning to vote in the election next week/in two weeks/on such-and-such a date?” I have never had anyone just close the door on me without a word. Most people here are civil enough to say something. They may say “Yes”, they may say “No”, they may say “I haven’t decided yet” or they may say “That’s my business.”

The words are important, but the good canvasser is using their full range of listening skills at this point. As well as hearing the actual words spoken and what they add up to mean logically, the listener is trying to get behind the words, to understand what the person is meaning to communicate. The way someone says ‘I haven’t decided yet” can tell you that they are not prepared to waste any time with you on the door and just want to get back to their meal, or can tell you that they are genuinely in a dilemma and would welcome some more information from you to help their decision making. Their body language as they take the leaflet from you (or in rare cases refuse to take it) reveals their attitude towards your party and to canvassing. In some cases the emotion, or lack of it, in their voice can reveal the truth of their opinion more than what they actually say.

If the person says they are not intending to vote, then try to establish if they are on the register (if you don’t have a copy of that available to you already). If they are, it is worth pursuing the conversation. If they are not and it is past the final date for registration, then you are not going to get a vote for your party this time. But it is worth establishing if their voting preference in the future might be for your party, in which case it is worth persuading them to register for the next election.

It is usually possible to persuade someone who is on the register but says they are so fed up with politics that they are not going to vote to change their mind. The argument that not voting guarantees the status quo is usually accepted as reasonable. There are a few people who genuinely believe that not voting is the moral high ground and these people are not worth spending time on.

It is always worth trying to find a common denominator between the candidate and the canvassee. If they share where they are from, or went to school, or a common interest, or age profile, this can help increase the likelihood of a vote. If the canvassee has an issue or problem that a candidate could address, make a note, pass it on to the candidate and ensure that a response is provided before the election. Most voters do not expect a political candidate to get back to them and are very pleasantly surprised if they do.

How the conversation then develops will inform the canvasser as to how much time to spend with this one person. If the person is already firmly in your camp it may be heart-warming to chat for hours about how good your party leader is, but this is a very poor use of precious canvassing time. Similarly, talking for ten minutes with someone who is adamantly against your party policies and is just taking the opportunity to try to change your mind is also a waste of time. Focusing on the teetering voter has the most likely benefit in terms of votes gained.

Finally, it is good to keep things in perspective. Not every interaction on a doorstep results in a conversion to your party and candidate. But some definitely do. With experience and careful listening, the canvasser can help a voter see things differently and persuade them that voting and voting differently is the only way to bring about change. In my experience the vey worst that can happen is someone (in my case an elderly lady of a very different political outlook to me) pointing down the garden path and saying “There’s the gate.”

Dale Carnegie, in his classical self-help book for door-to-door salesmen (there were hardly any saleswomen in the 1930s), a book called “How to win friends and influence people”, makes the point that not every call succeeds. However, if you know that your success rate is, say, one in twenty, don’t look at an unsuccessful call as a failure. Look at it as one twentieth of the way to your next success.


Time to stop saying “racism”?

The first use of the word “racism” is credited to Richard Pratt in 1902, but the word did not enter general usage until the 1930s. It grew in usage in the context of Nazism. Part of the Nazi ideology was that “race” should be a natural political unit and so national boundaries could be aligned with perceived racial boundaries. The horrific logical extension of this ideology was that anyone of a different perceived race who happened to be within the boundary of the Third Reich had to be expelled or eliminated.

All mainstream scientists today, whether biologists, anthropologists or sociologists, avoid the notion of “race” and will use other descriptors to distinguish between groups of people. In fact human genome research shows that the idea of distinguishable races is not compatible with genetic evidence. Most people have a genetic make up that included genes from many different sources, even including, according to recent research, from interbreeding with Neanderthals some 100,000 years ago.

It is much closer to the truth to say that all people on the planet today are part of one race that to say that they are divided into different races.

The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) does state that everyone is entitled to rights “without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” However the UN does not define “race”, though it does define “racial discrimination” as “any distinction, exclusion, restriction, or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin”. Without a definition of “race”, including this word in the definition of “racial discrimination” does not add anything. If the word “race” were omitted from both the UDHR and the definition of “racial discrimination”, would any nuance of meaning be lost? Would protection of different minorities be lessened in any way?

The problem with using the terms “racist” or “racism”, whether in a quasi-factual way or a pejorative way is that such use perpetuates the idea that there are actually different races. Would we not be better to follow the example of Norway, where the word “race” has been removed from national laws concerning discrimination? There the use of the phrase is considered problematic and unethical. The Norwegian Anti-Discrimination Act bans discrimination based only on ethnicity, national origin, descent and skin colour.

There is an alternative word that perhaps describes better the situation where people of one group classify some other people as being different from them – tribal.

In February 2014 I quoted an article from New Scientist on the subject of identity in native Americans The theme of the article was that genetics alone was not enough to justify or explain tribal identity – culture and traditional practice had a strong part to play. Of course each of us can belong to multiple tribes at the same time – the sports team we support, the music we like, the places we eat or drink in as well as national or ethnic groups. Bishop Harries uses the phrase “bundle of identities” to describe the nature of our complex relationships in different aspects of our lives.

So perhaps we should avoid using “racism” and question what a person who uses the term actually means?

Hope with Realism

Memo to
Stephen Agnew, Colum Eastwood, Naomi Long and Mike Nesbitt

Copy to
The Northern Ireland Electorate


From your canvassing, you all know that there is almost universal disdain among the electorate for Stormont and the poor government it has delivered for the last ten years.

Many people say that they are not going to vote this time. They are easy to persuade to change their minds if you explain that their not voting will guarantee that the status quo continues. If you say that both Sinn Fein and the DUP have a core vote that will come out, whatever, and that the only chance of change is if people vote, but vote differently, then mostly they will change their minds and agree to vote again.

Other voters have been convinced by DUP and Sinn Fein that nothing can change in Northern Ireland, that votes for the parties that you lead are wasted. These voters have held their noses and voted, not for you, but for the party they believe will most effectively stand against the party they dislike most. But, on the doors this time, most people are accepting that this strategy has failed and they are reluctant to do the same again. Voting on the basis of negativity has not worked.

Most of these voters, though, are not yet convinced that there is a realistic alternative. They do want hope, but they need to believe that there is realism associated with their hope. They need to believe that a vote for your parties offers a genuine possibility of change from the same old same old.

Your parties have objectives that are different from each other and the electorate is now sceptical enough to react negatively if you promise that you can work together on everything. But you do have some objectives that are genuinely shared, objectives around the reform of Stormont.

Could you four stand together and offer the electorate the following propositions?

– That this is a single issue election and that issue is the reform of Stormont.
That you four promise that, if you get the majority of MLAs between you, you will put this as your highest priority for a period of, say, two years, while dealing with all the other important issues as you need to.
That, as soon as you complete this task, you will offer another election.

If the four of you unitedly send this message of cooperation to deal with the one thing that matters most to the electorate right now, and send it before the election, it is much more likely that you will get enough seats to allow you to implement these changes after the election and avoid direct rule for months and months.

If you really believe that the purpose of government is procuring the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers and that this is a truly crucial election, you need to come together and offer hope with realism to the NI people.

Little birds….

“Little birds in their nest agree, so why can’t we?” is a saying most of us heard at our grandmother’s knee.

In one of my favourite Steinbeck novels, The Winter of our Discontent, this saying is quoted by Joey, the bank teller, who adds “Horse Crap!”

For those of us who have bird feeders outside our windows, we know that the truth lies between these extremes. Individual Great Tits and Blue Tits will spend a lot of energy defending a full nut feeder from others of the same species. They waste lots of energy preventing a member of their own species from sharing in something they could not possibly consume on their own in a month of Sundays. Sometimes it seems that they spend more energy fighting others than they manage to consume in between their aggressive forays.

Goldfinches seem to vary their behaviour depending on the time of year. In summer, autumn and, particularly, winter they are very content to share the niger seed feeder. Often you will see four Goldfinches on the same feeder in harmony. But in the springtime, things change. As their plumage smartens and brightens for the breeding season they share less and fight more. Their character changes as if there was an election in the air.

Our feeder must mark the territorial boundary of two Robins. Usually two Robins are in the vicinity, displaying and puffing themselves up to look fierce, flitting at each other and chasing each other off their own patch. They hardly notice the food in the feeders. All their attention is on preventing themuns getting a claw-hold on usuns’ area. You could almost imagine little paintbrushes in their beaks!

Meanwhile, from time to time, if you are lucky, a small group of Long Tailed Tits will come through. There is often an advance party of 2-3 of them. As they land and start feeding you can hear them tweeting gently to each other and attracting others to the food they have found. Within a few minutes there may be up to eight Long Tailed Tits around the peanuts, all eating away together and chatting to each other at the same time. Genuine sharing, genuine co-operation and genuine communication. They spend less time at the feeders than the other little birds and move on happy and full. I think they realised the costs of division a long time ago.

Fake News! Fake News!

Exactly four years ago I wrote a blog about the problem of some news articles being fact and some news articles being fiction

I suggested then that media articles should be openly classified as infofactual or infotainment. In the former are articles that claiming to be true and should be judged as such. In the latter anything goes. In other words, true news and fake news.

The biggest issue surrounding President Trump’s continued attacks on the press and media, surrounding his repeated cries of “FAKE NEWS” is that…. he is correct. There is a lot of fake news. And the proportion of news that is fake is definitely growing when more and more people source their news from unreliable social media as well as from the traditional media sources. Many newspapers are struggling to survive financially and seem to sell more copies when they sensationalise, exaggerate or event invent stories.

The continuing steady growth of news that is fake is partly down to a collusion between all concerned. There is a collusion between the consumers and producers of fake news. The consumers keep paying (directly or indirectly) for news that is, or may be, fake as long as it is entertaining. The message sent from the reader to the writer is that more invention succeeds and that fact checking is redundant.

There is collusion between different media outlets in that the supposedly fact-based media turn a blind eye to the fiction-based media. When did we last see one of the more reliable newspapers actually state that a recent article by a flakey newspaper was demonstrably untrue? Without more self-monitoring and self-criticism within the newspaper industry, the readers get more and more confused about what to believe and not to believe. Perhaps this is why satirical papers such as Private Eye are steadily increasing their circulation. People feel they can believe what they read in Private Eye more than in any other paper?

There is also collusion between the consumers and producers of dodgy stories on social media. Again, entertainment is rewarded with “shares” and “retweets”. Boring facts very rarely go viral.

President Trump has been very successful using Twitter to bypass the conventional media channels and communicate directly with his followers. Most fact checking journalists highlight that some of his Tweets are not true. Whether intentionally or accidentally, some of Trump’s Twitter news is fake. But, for media channels that includes fake news in their offerings, to criticise President Trump for doing the same is hypocritical in the extreme.

As consumers each of us does make a difference. We need to reward media that delivers truth and we need to penalise media that is content to make money through fake news. We need to get our entertainment from different sources than our learning about the reality of the world around us. It is only when we have at least a recognised section of the media as being truthful that we can believe the press when they highlight fake news, alternative facts and downright lies from our political leaders.

Brexit Corners

In the opening sequence of Butch Cassidy and the Sun Dance Kid, a card player, not recognising him, accuses Sun Dance of cheating and challenges him to a draw. Butch gives a master class lesson on how to help someone out of a corner that they have backed themselves into.

It seems that we need Butch’s skills to help the UK and the EU out of their respective Brexit corners. The UK insists on restricting immigration from Europe and the EU insists on free movement of labour. Following through on Brexit to nominally achieve immigration limits looks like damaging the UK economy as well the economies of the UK’s closest neighbour, Ireland and, possibly, the EU as a whole. The EU’s insisting on free movement of labour looks like encouraging nationalist political parties in France, the Netherlands and other EU countries and may do further damage to European cooperation. And all this at a time when European countries need to be making a strong and united stand in the face of threats from Russia and flakey support from the USA.

What about keeping the principle of free movement of labour, but allowing each EU country to put a cap on how many immigrants it takes in any one year? The cap would be optional and set at, say, 0.1% of the country’s population. If this could be agreed it might be enough to justify a second referendum in the UK on Brexit and limit the appeal of Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders. The results might well be that the UK stays in the EU and the political parties that support the EU would gain ground in the elections due across Europe in the next two years.

Wouldn’t it be loverly

All I want is the House on the Hill
To be far way from political chill,
With no-one’s hand in the public till,
O wouldn’t it be loverly.

Lots of progress for us to praise,
Reform of Stormont and sort the Maze,
Where we can believe what very politician says,
O wouldn’t it be loverly.

O so loverly moving steadily on,
With silly sham fights and squabbling gone.
And an impartial Speaker bringing a brand-new dawn,
No-one’s guns aimed at a youngster’s knee,
Warm-hearted compromise and true parity,
O wouldn’t it be loverly,
Loverly, loverly, loverly, loverly.