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Pastimes: Out on the doorstep

23 February 2010

by Nicholas Hillman

HUNDREDS of thousands of people across Britain are members of poli­t­ical parties. Although many simply pay an annual subscription, others join to meet like-minded people at social events. It is only a small min­ority who pound the streets, knock on doors, and try to sell a particular message.

As we enter the busy General Elec­tion period, this seemingly eccentric hobby will become ever more im­portant. I should declare an interest (as they say in Parliament): I am the Conservative prospective parliament­ary candidate in Cambridge. The rationale of political volunteers, and the experiences they face are similar, however, irrespective of the colour of their rosettes.

In general, people are surprisingly grateful to see a political campaigner on their doorstep, but there are occasions when campaigning is less fun. My particular hate is the silent dog that lurks beneath a letterbox waiting to pounce the moment a leaflet inches through.

When political campaigners con­fess to their hobby, it tends to elicit two responses — a dislike of the habit of intruding on others to deliver an unsolicited political message, or a sense of grievance that no one from X political party has knocked on their door for Y years. A campaigner should tackle this conundrum by listening to voters’ concerns before at­tempting to sell his or her message.

At the 1997 General Election, Boris Johnson fought a seat in Wales which he had no chance of winning. After­wards, he wrote: “I fought Clwyd South, and it is fair to say that Clwyd South fought back.” But I have no doubt that he had a great time doing it. In all the routine political coverage, the one thing that gets lost is just how much fun politics can be, close up.

I implore anyone with spare time to think about contacting the local office of his or her preferred political party (details can usually be found on the main website of each party). If you do, you may be sur­prised by the warm welcome: rare in­deed is the local branch of a political party that does not need help.

I know people who have revolu­tionised their social lives after making an initial approach, and, whenever I have moved to a new area, I have always been overwhelmed by the re­sponse. On two occasions, I found myself appointed the deputy chair­man of a ward committee at the second meeting I attended. The comedian and Labour activist John O’Farrell recounts a similar experi­ence in his book Things Can Only Get Better, although he admits: “The reality was, of course, that there were fewer active members than there were posts to be filled.”

None the less, the person who can give only an hour a month to fold some leaflets will be just as warmly welcomed as those with more time to spare. You do not need to be a member of a party when making the initial approach, although it clearly makes sense to join if you are to become truly active. Membership fees vary.

The main thing to remember is that, at heart, all politics is local, and all change starts small. As in the case of Boris Johnson, you never know where the journey might end.

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