Five Encounters on the Doorstep: Canvassing for Labour

I had never done door knocking before this election. Although I have some disagreements with Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto, inevitably, I still feel hugely excited and inspired by it. What I have been unable to understand is the way in which the waverers have liked his manifesto but sought to distance it from him by saying, ‘we like the manifesto but we don’t like him’. Hang on a minute, isn’t he responsible for the most radical manifesto that we have seen in a long time? It might be a team effort but under his leadership he has swung some and dragged some of the Labour party to support policies which have been unthinkable since Blair came to power in 1997.

Encounter 1: Armed Burglar on a Leafy Street

We are briefed before our canvassing session. It will be all about Brexit and bins. There’s a crib sheet to go with it too.

Having shadowed an experienced doorknocker for an hour, I could never have imagined that my very first solo doorstep encounter would be with a talkative ex-con whose licence doesn’t expire till November so he can’t vote in the elections anyway. The worst kind of encounter. Apparently. Not because he’s an ex-con, but because there’s no vote to be had, plus a lengthy conversation stops you from knocking on other doors. Within seconds, he tells me that he has been convicted for armed burglary, that his brother is a Tory politician (naming no names) and that he would have voted for Corbyn if only Corbyn had pledged to bring Blair before the war crimes tribunal. All the other residents in the building are ex-cons. It makes me chuckle wondering if the residents of the detached houses with remote-controlled electric gates in that street would choke on their canapés if they knew they had a convicted armed burglar for a neighbour.

His take on immigration policy is finely graded and based on his family’s long service in the British Army, going back to the days of his great-grandfather who had served in India and his own two tours of duty in Afghanistan. So he says (perhaps in deference to my skin colour) Indians are welcome, Afghanis are welcome, Iraqis are welcome – they have done much for our country. But Romanians?!!! They come here, beg, an old woman takes pity, gives them a tenner and they go and rape a woman. How to respond? Canvassers are not supposed to get into an argument on the doorstep but you can try gently reframing the argument – it’s quite a skill. So I say many Romanians come here to work and they work very hard often for really poor wages. Europeans come here because the British economy needs workers. Oh, he had no problem with the Poles because the Polish pilots had rescued British bacon in WW2. But definitely not the Romanians.

When another canvasser comes looking for me wondering what had happened on my very first encounter and tries to rescue me by saying we need to move on, the ex-con declares, ‘So the Labour Party has no time to speak to me?’ I had spent 15 minutes with him. Some people have no gratitude.

Encounter 2: Causing a Domestic Row

I ring the buzzer of Flat 1 in a block of flats. A man answers and informs me politely that he and his wife will be voting Labour. Just then, a woman comes screaming behind him, ‘No I f****** won’t. I can’t stand that f****** dickhead, Corbyn.’ Click. The intercom was switched off. Oops!

Encounter 3: A Tired Paramedic

Sitting on the doorstep, having a stealthy smoke, a tired, bearded man who looks like he’s homeless asks for a Corbyn poster, saying, ‘do you genuinely think Corbyn will get in? Don’t get me wrong. I love Corbyn. He’s a decent man, but he doesn’t have a hope in hell, does he?’ This is soon after the elections were called. He has a point although I don’t have to work very hard to convince him that Corbyn has managed to shift the focus from Brexit to the cash-starved public services. He unzips his coat to reveal his NHS uniform saying how much the NHS needs a man like Corbyn.

Encounter 4: A Jewish Businessman

He very pleasantly tells me that he thinks Corbyn is ‘disgusting’ in the way in which he handled anti-semitism in the Labour party. When I point out that Ken Livingstone has been suspended for his remarks – that is not enough. It‘s when he says that Naz Shah too is ‘disgusting’ that I realise he has quite an extreme position on it. Most people think that her apology has been genuine and heartfelt. Even the rabbi in her Bradford West constituency has talked fulsomely about her work with the Jewish community. He looks at me pointedly and says he can’t understand how anybody from an ethnic minority could support the Labour party. I mention all the anti-poverty measures which would benefit black women who are at the bottom of the pile. He’s going to vote Tory. Later, the rest of the team tells me that I should have simply said that Tulip Siddiq, his local MP, sits on the APPG (All-Party Parliamentary Group) against anti-semitism. If only I had known that.

Encounter 5: A Guy in a Wheelchair

He opens the door just as I’m about to sneak in a leaflet or two. He wants to talk about Corbyn’s support for terrorists. When I argue against that and try to move on to the benefit cuts that he will be restoring, he says he can’t be trusted any more than May. But I protest even his enemies concede that he’s a decent bloke, a man of principles, sticking by his beliefs even when they’re unpopular. We talk at length. I ask him who he’s going to vote for. He says Labour, of course. He was just giving me a hard time. He laughs uproariously.

Another scalp that I can’t claim. Have I really done my bit for the Labour Party?

Rahila Gupta is a writer and journalist. Her last book, Enslaved: The New British Slavery explores the role of immigration controls in enslaving people with no formal status here

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