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A brief history of when canvassing goes right — and when it goes wrong

4 min read

Activists sometimes dread canvassing but at this general election we should learn to love it again. After all, we used to give trophies to the best door knockers.

In January 1906 a leading article in The Times called for canvassing to be abolished, arguing it was “wrong, antiquated and, for the most part, supremely futile”. A fundamental part of their objection was that asking people for whom they might vote ran counter to the principle of the secret ballot. Four years later, the supporters of Sir Edward Grey in Berwick-upon-Tweed even agreed not to canvass on the grounds “that it is contrary to the spirit of the Ballot Act and against the principles of Liberalism”. A letter in The Guardian in 1910 called for canvassing to be made illegal.

These arguments did not win the day, but as the election really gets into its stride plenty of those out knocking on doors might well wish they had.

Not everyone enjoys canvassing. As the Pall Mall Gazette put it in 1868: “The feelings with which a candidate sets forth upon his toilsome expedition to solicit the votes of electors are rarely cheerful." It’s hard work, and whatever the claims made on social media, the welcome on the doorstep is not always warm, albeit not as hostile as the gunsmith’s shop in Western-super-Mare in 1910 which warned that “anyone found canvassing in these premises is liable to be SHOT”. The capital letters were in the original.

It’s also a mostly thankless task, although before the war the London Conservatives came up with a way to reward their best canvassers. They established a competition – the Duncan Challenge cup, which was a sort of Strictly for door-knockers. After preliminary rounds held in the constituencies, the best of the party’s canvassers met up for the final at Caxton Hall in Westminster.

To give the process verisimilitude they erected a door on the stage. Sixteen pairs of activists would knock on the door in turn and engage with a pair of pretend voters behind it, a Conservative-voting wife and her Labour-voting husband. Points were awarded for method of approach, answers to questions, marking of canvass cards and information gained, and time spent with each voter.

The winners got a silver cup. The first pair, in early 1937, were from Islington North, then a Conservative held-seat, if less so now. The competition seems to have run on three occasions, before the war intervened. 

One person who would almost certainly not have won the Duncan cup was the self-styled “Independent Conservative Trade Union” candidate Charles Ford, who stood in Wokingham 60 years ago, and who must have been one of the least successful canvassers of all time. He claimed to have spent a decade going without holidays to build up enough money to fund his campaign.

At the first door he knocked on, he was asked to help catch an escaped chicken. He spent an hour doing so and thought he had secured the vote of the grateful householder, only then to realise that she had confused him with the Liberal candidate.

At the second door, the most pressing concern was a pet dog that had a bone stuck in its throat. Using some pliers from his toolkit, Mr Ford extracted the bone, only for the voter to confess that she was going to vote Labour anyway.

By now, Charles Ford had had enough. “I was tired, dishevelled and covered in dog hair”, he said, “So I went home. I haven’t been out since”.

Ditto for Sir Keith Joseph. The Daily Mirror followed him on a day’s canvassing around his Leeds North East constituency in 1979, in which he repeatedly demonstrated that he was perhaps not in his element when engaging with voters. At the end of the day, he had a moment familiar to many. “He suddenly placed his crinkly-haired head in his hands and started to think aloud in the front of a constituency worker’s Volvo. 'Oh, I wonder, I wonder', he lamented. 'Do you think all this canvassing has any effect at all? Any effect?””

The good news for anyone doing it, is that all the evidence is that it does – that local constituency campaigning can make a difference, albeit only at the margins. It is not, contrary to the what The Times felt, “supremely futile”, even if you don’t always win a silver cup.

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