To my shame I had, until very recently, successfully avoided my share of the inevitable grunt-work for the forthcoming independence referendum – the indomitable ‘canvassing’ campaign. As political performance-art goes, shuffling from door to door is hardly the balcony speech. It jostles for dubious position between god-bothering and vexed memories of childhood paper-rounds (then as now pet dogs are from the pit of hell).
But if you haven’t canvassed yet, and imagine that the only thing that will last you through the ordeal is the certain camaraderie and the promise of a drink at the end of the night (although both are to hand), I have good news. Firstly, you quickly realise that you are genuinely having an impact. People used to the snarky hothouse format of referendum debate so practised on social media will be relieved by the frankness and humanity of face-to-face discussion. By the time you talk to a dozen people on their doorsteps you will have changed at least one person’s mind about the referendum, probably more.
Secondly, people’s attitude to politics will surprise you, almost certainly for the better. I can’t claim to speak for the people of Easterhouse, but if the opinions I canvassed are even half representative, Westminster are in trouble.
On the doorstep, austerity drops deader than a hammer. People hate it. And they resent utterly that all the major Westminster parties support it. This isn’t necessarily because they feel themselves directly impacted by cuts – it’s a more general disagreement, more diffuse. This isn’t about self-interest, it’s about class consciousness. This is something ‘they’ are doing to ‘us’ – and we don’t even have the right to vote against it in general elections.
Inevitably there is a great deal resentment going Labour’s way. The Tories and Liberals are parties of the rich – this is what they do. But Labour is supposed to represent the people on these doorsteps, and it is Labour, not the Tories or the Liberals, who have robbed them of representation.
Philip Converse, the great American political scientist, held ‘doorstep opinions’ to be ‘non-opinions’ and concluded that most citizens in democratic societies are wilfully ignorant of politics. I’ve long suspected that this is a conclusion drawn from a faulty method – subjecting interviewees to long questionnaires about obscure policies and personalities.
Given the opportunity, asked first to elaborate their own views on the referendum and politics in general, people will initially be coy, wanting to avoid an argument. But as soon as they are made sure they can be totally honest, as often as not you will get an earful. It’s a familiar narrative – it’s your narrative. The rich are taking advantage, they have the politicians in their pockets, and they don’t care about what happens to people like us. As one woman concluded to me “something’s got to change”.
This is the Radical Independence Campaign’s message – and people responded overwhelmingly positively to the slogan on our material: ‘Britain is for the Rich. Scotland can be Ours’. The SNP won the overwhelming majority they did in the Scottish Parliament because they were seen as a limited alternative to the Westminster consensus. And that’s why the referendum is now happening – because people reject Westminster – not because there has been any recent surge in national sentiment. If we want to win the Yes vote it is crucial we remember this.
Of the nearly 300 people whose opinions RIC recorded on my first night of canvassing, 50% said they were voting Yes, 16% No and the rest were undecided. Westminster lives in hope that the aggrieved majority will not turnout their full numbers for the vote in September. We must work so that they do.