Angus Reid, a Labour member new to canvassing, shares his experience of campaigning in Edinburgh North and Leith in the recent general election.
No-one wants to do it, she said.
The campaign manager presented me with the bald fact. No-one wants to canvas in the working class communities. They’re happy to walk up and down Stockbridge and Leith Walk, but no one wants to do Granton.
I knew why I was doing it. The election had put me in a fury. I’d been through two years of careful and dutiful voting for the leadership, as is the privilege of a member. I wanted a left-wing leadership. No-one else does democracy like the left, and the process had been grindingly slow. And now, the general election was clearly a ruse, at painfully short notice, to destroy the entire movement. If there had ever been a moment to get out and work, it was now.
I was doing it for the kids. Neither of my kids got offers from Scottish universities where, for the courses they wanted to study, there is so much competition for the free places that most are turned away with no second chance. Both had places in England and were turning a blind eye – or rather, a fearful, half-opened eye – to the looming debt. Both were voting Labour. I was staying in my mother’s flat in the New Town in Edinburgh, to which I have been tied ever since nursing her through a stroke. She was undecided and finding it difficult to break with a lifetime’s distance from politics. I was doing it for her.
But I’d never done it before. How could I contribute anything significant? My anger and my desire to participate would have been fruitlessly discharged into facebook without a statement of commitment, something public, something that would make waves, and attract others. But how can I speak to strangers? How can I export a sense of my commitment to the outside world?
The windows. To begin with, all I had was the windows.
At various moments of my life I have left poems and messages on windows. The windowpane is a strange surface. It’s a transmitter. Mostly it transmits nothing, just light, but if you put a message there, then other people notice. It’s like the skin of a drum. It resonates. It might just be a patter, like rain, a few words. But make it forceful like a drum, then it’s a summons, a statement of presence, singular and emphatic. And loud. I’m not sure if we have a word to describe what a drum can do. It’s like hearing your heartbeat.
So, with as much delicacy and design as I could muster I put the message from those living here onto the windows for the benefit of the street.
We’re voting Labour. Along with the rose. And it’s personal.
Why was it that my hands shook and my heart raced? Was it because, when you make a statement, that you fear the response will be mocking and contrarian? But then again, why live in silence? Why say nothing? Why leave the space between us blank and empty?
And once I’d gone and done it, my nerves subsided. I wanted to know the response. To speak prepares you to listen. What does the neighbourhood think? And who are they anyway?
There was a put-down that had come via Twitter, with a touch of menace:
I know exactly who and where that is! Been round the doors and it’s not representative of wider new town electorate!
The campaign office had seen the tweet. They knew I’d stuck my neck out and they knew how I felt. Well done they said, you’ve got them on the run. But had I?
I’d been out twice with the canvassing team and I’d learned the rudiments of how to knock (important, as the door must open for the whole thing to work), and what to say (how to find out which issues matter to the person, and which policies to rustle up). I felt that I’d learned enough to initiate the doorstep performance. I was ready. I could go it alone.
This neighbourhood was built 200 years ago to house the people that Troksky would know as the ‘possessing classes’. It was an act of single-plan property development that sought to urbanise the fields that drop from the crest of the hill to the river below. But the actual place was inadequate for the demands of imperial, upper middle class geometry. The avenues and crescents of the New Town bear little relation to what was there before. The wealth, and its engineers, wished to assert themselves with an alternative and a completely artificial new natural order. Take India Street. To assert that their idea was natural, the garden needed to be suspended in the air, and for its trees to take root above vast empty vaults. To make the perspective work, the street ends in an artificial cliff.
But you wouldn’t know that from the facades, regularized to the golden section, designed and built to look like a drawing. The façade is the super-ego of the plan, the way it regards itself. Even World Heritage has fallen for this act of civic narcissism, and even though it’s stupid, it’s not surprising that people assume that everyone’s a Tory round here. But just take a look at the rear of the buildings where, amidst the tangle of drainpipes, you can see the chaotic bricolage that constructs the identity.
And knock on the doors.
At the top of the first flight of stairs, to my surprise, is a Nobel Prize-winning professor of physics who, in Einsteinian reverie, in an armchair in this same New Town, proposed a theory to subvert the symmetries of the ‘Standard Model’ of physics. Did he feel the social contradictions that run through the New Town, when he pointed out contradictions in the plan that governs time and space? What was in his mind when conjured mass from nothingness in the form of… in the form of what? A boson. A surge, difficult to measure or observe… Does the Higgs Boson even exist? What the hell is it?
I knock, but there’s nobody in. On the same stair a lifelong Labour member, in congenial tones, asks me how it’s going.
Around here, many outside doors lead to a common stairwell and flats, and the surprising thing is that once you are past the unitary façade, no two stairs are alike. No-one seems to model subatomic particle behavior the same way – is it a field? Is it a wave? Is it a Mexican hat? – and none of the New Town builders seem to have come up with the same solution for the stairways of Moray Place. There are ovals, squares and circles; there are narrow stairs, wide stairs, precipitous cantilevered stairs; Hollywood stairs with an operatic sweep and poky stairs that hint at wartime brothels, and many shades of opinion. Particularly memorable was the man who wouldn’t let me in if I was a Tory. This is where conversation lives, among well-informed people, and everybody here will vote, for sure.
But in between the towering avenues are other streets of new houses without cupolas, curves and individual difference. These people don’t have expansive windows or rolling views. All that is to be seen through their standardized rectangles are walls. Walls topped with a frosting of broken glass. The sheer walls of the class divide. Every concrete stair-tread, every bannister and every front door is the same. I know because I knocked on every one.
This is where the vote must be motivated. This is where the anger lives. This is where other men dismiss you in silence, slamming the door. I was relieved to speak to women. Or not to speak so much, as to listen. The main purpose of my role was to be there and to show people, one by one, that I’m glad to meet them. The turbulent counter-arguments of politics are not the winner here. The conflicted discourse runs deep inside each person, and without a chat they can’t choose. The point is to allow the conflict to enact itself, and to make friends.
I want to ask these people to sit for portraits. In oils. I want to take these paintings and hang them on the courtyard walls. I want to introduce this community to itself. And because I’m curious I want to entice the possessing class, whose cliffs encircle it and overlook it, to visit this place, to cross the class divide and find out who their neighbours are. Neighbourhood portraits, neighbourhood encounters. As though the most exotic and daring anthropological expedition is the one that looks poverty in the face, right there on your doorstep.
Class differences are very extreme in these placid streets. So much for the Tory neighbourhood. And thank God for the election, for this brief license to knock on the doors of strangers. There are other ways to meet, of course, but this is a turbo-charged opportunity.
* * *
In the office the campaign manager suddenly bursts in. We’re closing in the polls, she says. In percentages it’s 31 to 33, and the Tories are out of it, 24%, or something. I ask her what she wants me to do.
Go to the Labour heartland, she says. The working class areas. There’s a lot of soft SNP. Speak to them. She gestures towards a tower of unused leaflets, bound up with rubber-bands and street names. No-one else wants to do it.
We’re two days from the vote, and it’s raining. If these percentages are right, the difference is 1500 votes. Which means, if 750 people swing, we have the result. I’m getting excited about the result and that’s why I knock every door in Granton Road West and Granton Medway, keeping up the optimism for five drenched hours. I had rapped up a dramatic line: the vote here is on a knife-edge; the country is on a knife-edge; your vote could make all the difference. Then, I half believed it. Now I know that it was true. The result was closing in.
It was immediately tough. Among the first doors was the guy who held me personally responsible for the fact that his sons couldn’t find work with companies whose workforce is now entirely Polish. He was incandescent with rage, and permanently on the brink of walking away. He talked loudly, in full knowledge that the whole stair could hear his voice and his opinion. The victory then – as so often – was that he took the leaflet rather than tear it up in disgust.
There, where rent is cheap, you meet the labour force, and all the pressures they have to bear. How people with common interests are pitted against one another. The insecurity that undermines the entire quality of life. And there’s me, unemployed, a volunteer, representing the whole Labour party and armed only with things I remember Jeremy Corbyn saying on TV: that EU citizens must have their status recognized immediately; that the point of controlled migration is to stop the practice of importing a cheap work force. I think it was important to be alone, to be vulnerable in the face of the rage, and to be able to step directly into it. The situation was so tense and so overwhelming that it seemed almost to be beyond the reach of politics. It almost seemed that the real solution might lie in neighbourhood terror, in frightening the Poles away. That was how this man was using his words: in a great cascade, as weapons, as a blunt instrument. And in return I found myself repeating again and again the same things, stating the principles. Talking principles to anger. Try that.
And then, in clusters of doors down the street, were the uncomprehending faces of Polish women and children who couldn’t vote, and didn’t know what I was talking about.
In the last of the Polish households the door was opened by an old man with a worn, friendly face. ‘No English… wait!’. His three sons all looked remarkably similar, but only one had the language. He was short with me, and rude. He wasn’t interested. He was tired. He had worked all day. No time. Go away! Apologetically the old man closed the door. Both ends of the street were competing for the same job, undercutting the wages and wearing themselves out. They hated one another.
But also, on every stair, was someone undecided who said yes, I think I should vote Labour this time. People glad to have a conversation. People glad to have someone to reason with. People glad to meet someone, rather than have an opinion thrust upon them by the TV, or some leaflet, to which they couldn’t reply. For the vote that matters to Labour – the working class communities – it’s better to be there in person. To embody a social solidarity. To show that we don’t just speak up for these people. We are these people. The manifesto is great, but in Granton, the handshake is equal to the manifesto.
And also there are many people in isolation. These are the people whose portraits I should make, for whom the experience of community is nearly non-existent. The elderly woman, two strokes down, whose over-riding concern was a blocked drain; the 19 year old transsexual – perhaps the bravest and gentlest person I met – who was frank about needing to deal with loneliness and depression. What was in the manifesto about that? How would it help?
Somehow, I felt at home in these streets. In these streets, with all their dogs, where every stairwell is the same, where every letterbox is the same. Where three eviction notices had been slapped up on silent doors.
* * *
The next day the sun came out, and with it came a crisis. The Tories had been out. And the Tories had a graph…
It was a lie. It claimed, in dogmatic strips of primary colour, that only they could beat the SNP. Their material contained no policies, just pictures of their leader. You could not reduce politics to a more patronizing simplicity if you tried.
Could I… ? The campaign manager gestured toward another towering pile of neglected leaflets. … And if I was prepared to do that, could I also do these…?
I went home, drew a map and set off with two plastic bags whose handles stretched like chewing gum under the weight of paper. I cycled down, and locked my bike in a friend’s shed. He sighed. It’s SNP this time, he said. And Labour next time. It’s gonna take two elections.
This time it wasn’t about knocking doors but covering the area, criss-crossing the street and stuffing the letterboxes. There was not a single poster in a single window, as though there wasn’t an election happening at all. Halfway through, and quite by chance, I met a woman coming the other way. She had just leafleted the other half of the street. What luck! We joined forces and had the whole place finished by tea-time. But we weren’t knocking, we were leafleting. Leafleting is more merry banter than heavy argument, and is definitely best done in pairs.
I got home to a buzz of jittery text messages. Change tack, they said. Do Wardieburn. Someone else has done your streets. No, I replied, in the full glow of mission accomplished. We’d sorted that out and we’d worked together. It was 7 o’clock. It was getting too late. Must I really do more…? No reply.
But the result… The result had caught me in its seductive grasp. I was in thrall to the result. The result wasn’t something far off. It was something personal.
That was how come my very tolerant girlfriend and I found ourselves that evening in Wardieburn, buzzing entry systems and snapping letterboxes. Wardieburn is a classic of central planning, with a green in the middle and streets that set off to the points of the compass. With four people it would take three hours. But we were two people with one hour. We got about halfway through.
A young dad, walking his son home, said ‘… Yous the first Ah’ve seen roon here. Fa’ the election. Ah’ve no idea how tae vo’. Ah’ll ask the wife, she’s the boss…’. What? All these hundreds of people, uncanvassed? Why not?
* * *
My son hadn’t got his proxy vote sorted, and had valiantly agreed to come up from Manchester at midnight. The next morning we voted together, and I walked him to the station to catch the 8 o’clock train back. We were both swaying with weariness. The die is cast, I thought. A day off. At last.
Then I opened my email.
A friend, who had voted early like us and knew my involvement was asking if it was fair that the Tories had slapped up their lying graph on big posters outside the polling stations. Only the Tories can beat the SNP… No!
I knew how many people were switching from the SNP. I knew how many would vote but had left their decision to the very last minute. I knew that it took a conversation that hadn’t yet happened on thousands of doorsteps to persuade people to vote Labour.
The graph was based on a council election, held under a different electoral system, with a different turnout, in quite different wards. None of us could figure out how this statistic had been massaged into existence. But every poll at this UK election, as well as the last, showed that the Tories were not just in third place, but a far off third. To festoon the polling stations with this graph – how could it be allowed? How could it even be legal?
Unable to get through to the Electoral Commission I went and stood in their halls on George IVth bridge until I got an answer. Inside the polling stations – no campaigning. But outside, the parties can say what they like. So, in one last effort, I bundled my mother into the car to guard it while I stapled a notice onto our rain-sodden boards. It wasn’t a good notice. It was too small and too polite. But it was the truth. Chirpy SNP blokes, with beards and umbrellas, understood and smiled wryly: ‘Guid effort… but there’s naebody goan tae read it noo!’
But, after all that, my mother voted Labour for the first time in her life. And then singled out the SNP guy on the pavement: why do you want another referendum? She didn’t know what came over her, she said. She doesn’t pick arguments in public. So, that was a small triumph, but we didn’t get the result. The SNP hung on despite a decline in their share. Labour stayed the same and the Tories came third, as predicted, and nothing had changed. Or so I thought. Because I didn’t recognise what the real result had been until a few days later.
I mean, why didn’t we do better? The Labour manifesto had cemented the party together and stood it up on sturdy Socialist legs. It had cut through across the UK. Just not in Scotland. Here, the message had fizzled out.
Now, I joined Labour because my vote counted in the election of a leader. Half a million people joined for the same reason. We all wanted left-wing leadership and we all voted for it. But with my one membership card I am the member of two parties that do not operate in tandem. They don’t mesh. Down there in Westminster, and at long last, the leadership is socialist. They have a vision, an alternative, and they are a government in waiting. But up here the leadership is centrist, and conflicted, and not the same. They don’t have the nerve to do national vision like Corbyn’s Labour. The two parties face one another across a border, blinking, like estranged family members. And this is a terrible weakness, because there will never be a UK majority without the Labour vote in Scotland.
What I would like to see is Scottish members elect a Scottish leadership that can apply Corbyn’s manifesto to Scotland. Id like to see a Scottish manifesto that complements his, worked out in the same room at the same time, that applies his radicalism to this country with specific commitments. But that didn’t happen. Scottish Labour wasn’t speaking socialist with the same clarity, and he wasn’t addressing Scotland for what it is. I heard Corbyn give speeches in Scotland, but these were stump speeches with *[insert Scottish statistic here] running through them like a fault in the rock. We’re miles apart, and the distance has to be made up. Given two leaderships that worked together, I’d like to see Corbyn recognize the autonomy of Scotland in a genuine way. Scotland is different: in it’s immense potential as a supplier of energy, in its hunger for social equality, in its recognition of workers’ rights, and it’s right to banish Trident… There’s another adult in the room, Mr Corbyn, and among the ancestors of that adult are the founders of the whole labour movement. But the family understanding isn’t there, the federalism, the partnership of equals. Labour doesn’t understand Scotland, and Scottish Labour doesn’t understand itself. And without that coherence – as this election showed – the right will fill the void.
Here in Edinburgh, here, between the castle and the sea, what we were fighting were the terrible natural laws of democracy. When the left has no unity, so – like Higgs’ theoretical forces – out of nothingness and made of nothing, the right will surge. What we were really doing was fighting this movement in the void, the Tory surge. And our real achievement, this time around, was to contain it because their vote was the only one to increase, up 10 points. 10 points that they achieved with no policies, one personality and misinformation. The widespread disaffection with the SNP worked to their advantage, and those votes should have been ours.
Let’s face it – Scottish Labour was unprepared and sceptical of Corbyn. Compared to the English party, they haven’t tapped the same energy. They have not democratized in the same way, empowering people and becoming a mass movement. Or not yet. That’s why there was no-one campaigning in working class Edinburgh. And that’s also why there was no significant injection of volunteers, knocking doors, from momentum or the campaign for socialism. Or at least not until election day itself, when most were doing telephone canvassing, that 11th hour exercise that is nine parts panic and one part persuasion.
But we didn’t collapse, and that was sweet to me. It turns out that in the New Town, and in the ‘heartlands’, the Labour vote had swung from 2:1 against, to evens. Every doorstep had been worth it. Face-to-face is the only effective way. And I want to give this experience to those who will campaign next time, to take a lead, and to be present in those communities.
I struggle to find words adequate to describe the extraordinary and wonderful experience of what it was to go around the estates, to be happy to talk to people and to listen. This is the vital skill, to impart, to learn, and to be prepared for. It employs many human capacities and my words in English are poor.
So let’s go elsewhere for advice. The Aboriginal people of Australia have a word: Dadirri. It means, all at one go, the-deep-and-spiritual-act-of-reflection-and-respectful-listening. They have a word for it because they have a point. That’s where you start. And, to describe the art of door-knocking, the Portuguese have a useful word: Desenrascanço: the-art-of-disentangling-oneself-from-a-troublesome-situation. There is art in the tactfulness you need for that. But the best and the most essential is a native American word from the Wyandot Iroquois people. Here, in Edinburgh, in Scotland, in the UK, as an individual on a doorstep in an unfamiliar neighbourhood that is suffering, and poor, and angry, and fed up with politics, what you need above all is Orenda. The-power-of-the-human-will-to-change-the-world-in-the-face-of-powerful-forces-that-seem-as-insuperable-as-fate.
Share the Orenda, comrades.