Canvassing the Brexiteers

I have to admit that I quite like canvassing. There is a slight adrenaline rush as you get up to the door and ring the bell or hit the knocker. Then there is the five second wait to see if anyone is coming to the door. More often than not no-one does. Then I put a leaflet through the door. I have learnt to do this carefully as I once felt the lips of a dog close around my fingers. The dog subsequently angrily tore up the leaflet.  A lot of doors have stickers on them saying something like – no salespeople or cold callers. Sometimes the list includes canvassers though it isn’t clear whether that means election canvassing or the double-glazing kind of canvassing.

If someone does come to the door, as it opens I try and gauge what sort of person they are as I start my initial spiel. “Sorry to bother you – I’m canvassing on behalf of so-and-so for the such-and-such election”. I usually stand a bit back and lean forward to hand them a leaflet. “This is our candidate …. ” I say a little bit about our candidate and then ask them what they think about the election giving them a chance to say if they’ve made up their mind yet on who to vote for. The statement “I think we really need change in this constituency” seems always to get a nod in agreement.

A bit like they say with job interviews — you pretty much decide within the first two seconds how it is going to turn out. Ukip/Brexit voters you can usually see coming a mile away – an angry manner even before they have seen who is there. They will answer the door with a short irritable “yes”.

Mostly you can tell if people aren’t going to vote for you when they look down and don’t smile. Rarely have I had real aggression. Some will shout “not interested” or “haven’t got the time” and start closing the door. I usually say “No problem. Would you like to take a leaflet? You can read it later” and I give them an innocent, boyish smile. That usually works and takes the aggression out of the situation – though they may not take the leaflet.

It’s really great when you knock on the door of a supporter — seeing their eyes light up and the mutual appreciation, though in some ways you don’t want to say too much in case you inadvertently say the wrong thing. But it really makes it worth while that you share some hopes and dreams with people out there.

I have had “I wouldn’t vote for you if you were the last party in the world” or “You’ve got no chance”. But on both occasions they were smiling and it was a chance for me to ask if  there was a reason. In one of the cases the person was a lifelong Conservative, in the other he wouldn’t say. The most difficult to deal with, however, are the complete non-committal responses. “Don’t know”, “Haven’t thought about it”. After a few attempts at starting a conversation I have to leave it.

This is all a preamble to an encounter I had recently. We were canvassing a 1950s, slightly rundown, out of the way estate of semi-detached houses. Towards the end of the session I knocked on the door and a middle-aged to elderly woman came to the door. She took the leaflet and listened to my opening spiel. “Well, I’m not really happy with Labour and also your position on Europe. After all ..” she was about to say “17.4 million” but changed that to “the majority of people in Wales voted to leave. Why don’t you respect the result?” I responded with

“We sincerely believe that Brexit will be a bad thing”.

“In what way a bad thing?”

“Well, it would be really bad for trade”.

“It’s not to do with trade. When me and my husband went out to France with our daughter my husband fell ill. He has diabetes and internal bleeding – and nearly died. We ended up in a hospital and it was FILTHY. And I’ve worked in the NHS for years.”

At this point her husband had come out looking a picture of bad health.

“I was put right to the back of the queue and all they wanted to know was where was my card and how I was going to pay for the treatment.” He twiddled his fingers to indicate money grabbing.

The woman went on “and there’s the Gilet Jaunes. One of them was killed by a plastic bullet and that wasn’t reported on the BBC”.

At this point I was slightly scratching my head as to the relevance of this to the Brexit issue but I think what they were trying to say was that Europe was shit and we were better off out. I mentioned that the health service was a national and not a European issue but sympathised with their experience. The conversation then returned to the referendum. My defense on this was as follows.

“It was David Cameron’s fault. He called a referendum with no plan or intention to carry it out if he didn’t win. And that has left the situation in a complete mess, with Brexiteers not able to agree what form of Brexit they want. If they had agreed with each other then there would be nothing that remainers could do about it – it would have been passed.”

I would also have liked to have pointed out that if our party had voted for Brexit in parliament we would be open to accusations of hypocrisy and if it all goes really badly people would say “well why did you vote for it if you knew it was going to be so bad?”

“That’s because it is a ‘remain’ parliament. There is only one type of Brexit and that is to LEAVE”. said the man and turned away.

I pointed out that there was the “Farage model”, the “Boris model” and the “Labour model” using my right hand to map out the different positions on the spectrum. They thought that Labour was campaigning to remain but I explained their soft Brexit stance and that they hadn’t yet decided whether they were going to campaign for or against it.

“You mean stay in the single market and the customs union. I wouldn’t like that.” I nodded.

“Farage is the man”

“It was so sad watching Teresa May day after day. I know I’m going to have to compromise. I understand that. But I’m just hoping Boris can do it for us.” She gave a look like a football fan praying for an equalizer in the last seconds of a championship final.

The man returned to the conversation “And they talk about lies. The 350 million on the side of the bus. Well what about the Treaty of Lisbon and Maastricht —  that was lies. We weren’t told about that when we joined the common market. Nobody said we would be controlled by un-elected bureaucrats. ”

I pointed out that we could have had referendums on these at the time as Ireland and Denmark had but the UK governments hadn’t wanted to. I also agreed that Mastricht has brought in some undemocratic elements which we should have dealt with at the time. But again this was a conscious decision by both Conservative and Labour governments rather than EU forcing us to do anything.

“… and we have to put up with uncontrolled immigration. All those Romanians coming here and living in shared houses. I’m not against immigration, but we should only take in the people we need.”

My counter to this was “Only half of the immigration comes from the EU. That means the government could halve the number tomorrow if they wanted to. But they can’t for economic reasons”.

“They don’t want to” replied the man. But they both looked a bit perplexed at this.

I agreed that that was possibly true, but they had promised to cut immigration to the tens of thousands and had failed. I would have liked to have pointed out that the UK had ways of limiting immigration from Eastern Europe – but Tony Blair and subsequent governments had decided against it.

“I’m British” said the woman. ” .. we used to be such a great country. I remember the 70s and 80s. But look how things are in the EU. The NHS is falling apart because there are so many immigrants coming in and there is the housing crisis. Have you seen how many people are living rough out on the streets in Cardiff?”

I was really astounded by this statement. “That’s not the EU – it’s the conservatives starving the NHS of funds and bringing in austerity after the banking crash. That was nothing to do with the EU.” I thought perhaps they were mixing up with the Eurozone so I said. “The austerity in Spain and Greece was the EU (well EU related) but not this country.”

“No, it’s the EU. They control our budget.”

“No, … no” and I laughed slightly. They laughed also and looked at me as if I was extremely naive not to realise this.

“Well, you can read up about it” said the woman and the man said “We’ll turn you into a Brexiteer in the end.” As I backed away the woman kindly said “don’t fall over the step now.” I thanked them for their time.

What to make of all this? To begin with these people weren’t horrible. I honestly liked them and I think the feeling was mutual. They were in no way stupid and well able to hold an argument. I could agree with some of their arguments and can also admire their resolve in backing a principle despite the known, inevitable economic hit.

But what is disconcerting was the deep nostalgia for past glory and that in their minds the EU and immigration are the cause of all problems in the UK. This, despite the fact that only ten percent of laws come from Brussels. And looking around the estate, there were no Romanians in shared houses but plenty of empty houses with ‘For Sale’ signs outside them. Where had they got all this from?

Some would say this is all the fault of the right-wing press. However I tend to think that some people are more susceptible to these sentiments. Maybe it seems far-fetched to them that their own elected government caused their problems by cutting and under-funding services after the banking collapse. For them all ill comes from outside forces.

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To clarify I am a member of Plaid Cymru and was canvassing on their behalf in the election.

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