Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Doorstepping: Is it Really Worth It?

The Labour doorstep is a hallowed thing among Party activists and it's long been rumoured that Corbyn supporters don't bother with it. To be fair, it's often not an enthralling thing.

You meet somewhere in a huddle, get very briefly briefed, and led briskly around a few streets, gamely knocking on doors, and often unwarmly met (if at all) by suspicious residents. And normally the best you can expect is to have a nod and a "Yeah, I'm Labour, don't worry."

The worst aren't even the hostiles, who normally have means of shooing you off, on four legs and with bared teeth. That prize is reserved for a particular type of enthusiast who comes armed with enemy literature and rails against the sundry deceptions of the local Greens. Or at least that's the case in the Labour seat of Oxford East.

My doorstepping days only go back to the era of Milifandom and bacon sandwiches. Back then it was all about stopping Nigel Farage in Thanet. Now, in Oxford, the local MP is standing down. There's no candidate yet to replace him but it's safe to say the Lib Dems will gunning to unseat his successor. The Lib Dems almost snatched it off Labour in the weird days of Cleggmania and with their recent surge in Remain towns can count on a huge number of Labour waverers swapping sides. For the first time in my life I'm doorstepping where it officially, definitely Matters. Where getting out the Labour vote, and persuading reluctant voters, is the difference between having a Labour MP and not having one.

I almost didn't go. It's unseasonably cold and there have been blasts of icy rain all week. But it got to five, I shut up work, and traipsed off into the hostile climate.

Ten of us met at Cowley Road Tesco and buzzed diligently around Princes Street, receiving our orders from serious young men with clipboards (serious young men are a common sight in Oxford, but these have an additional sense of purpose). The best I had were a few startled students and shy nods. A man gave me a ten minute standing lecture on Herbert Morrison's "big mouth" - apparently still reverberating in this man's head all the way from the 1950s.

My final call as it reached seven o'clock was a tidy terrace near the start of Headington. A nice woman answered and looked relieved that I wasn't one of the local Labour councillors who she knows by name. "Didn't want to have to tell her..." she said, trailing off with a faint chuckle.

She continued more firmly: "I'm more or less Labour in the locals. I always vote. Never voted Tory before..."

My eyes obviously told a story.

She hesitated, "But I just like Theresa May."

I mock-fainted. "No, don't say that!"

"I just think she's done quite well with this whole in out thing."

She seemed curious about me. "You all know more than me, you do your research.  We just get it from the telly. What do you think?"

I thought about my answer and said, "Well, I think you can't trust her. She was Remain, now she's Brexit. She wasn't going to have an election, now there is one. I think she's very well protected by her rich friends."

She worked in a school, she said. And she knew Labour was for families and hospitals and schools. "But I'm leaning towards her just because I think she's doing well."

And then the dreaded moment happened. The question that haunts doorstepping veterans across the land. "And what do you think of that..." she paused, as if the name might upset me. "...Jeremy Corbyn?"

So I took a small breath and said carefully, "To be honest, from the bottom of my heart, I think he'd make a fantastic prime minister. He's unflappable. All the attacks he's been under, he's never once lost his cool. He's principled and his heart is in the right place. And he's spent his whole life fighting for us - for schools and hospitals. And all the things we need. He's never turned his back on anyone and he's never bowed to the pressure. I think he'd be great."

We spoke for a few more minutes and I asked her, when the day came, to bear us in mind. And I promised her that now there was an election, she might see a different side to him.

"Yeah, I'm going to look more closely. I know the cuts and everything. And I'm going to see."

And that was it. She was Tory when I arrived and still Tory when I left, if a little more open and certainly happy to have talked about it. That conversation won't be the end. She'll be thinking about it as she watches the news the next few weeks. It's up to everyone now to persuade her that we need an Oxford East Labour MP and - above all - we need a Labour government.

I waved goodbye to her and her daughter (who had crept curiously round the door but kept being pushed back inside). I genuinely hoped she would come round. There isn't much time.

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