Thornberry, white vans and taking canvassing on board

Emily Thornberry, in a red coat, alongside Sarah Jones in Croydon yesterday. Anyone seen Tony Newman?

Just what are those political party activists, armed with clipboards and little slips of paper, doing when they come knocking at your door at election time? KEN TOWL set off to find out

On Saturday at 10am, Emily Thornberry was to meet Labour supporters at the Builders Arms for a pep talk before a canvassing session.

This is in the Croydon Central parliamentary constituency, where Sarah Jones converted Conservative Gavin Barwell’s wafer-thin 165 majority into a win for Labour in 2017 by 5,652 votes. Croydon Central is not in the bag for Labour in this year’s General Election, but pollsters YouGov’s recent seat-by-seat projection has it as a Labour hold.

But then there was the attack on London Bridge on Friday, and all political campaigning was suspended. 

Unaware, I strolled to the pub, arriving at 9.59am to find myself alone. Ominously, given Thornberry’s notorious “Image from Rochester” tweet that led to her resignation from Ed Miliband’s shadow cabinet in 2014, there was a white van parked next to the pub.

At 10am precisely, a guy turned up and tried to get in. “Are you here for the Emily Thornberry thing?” I asked. He said he was. We introduced ourselves – he was Fergie, and I discerned from his accent that he was from Scotland. Glasgow, he confirmed, and he said he had not canvassed before but wanted to do something because he was so sick of what the Conservatives were saying and what they seemed to be able to get away with.

The Builders Arms yesterday, neatly teed up for the visit of Thornberry

Another man crossed the road to join us. He was wearing a Labour sticker and a nervous smile. It was 10.05. We considered whether the event had been cancelled and that we hadn’t been told. This turned out to be the case when a woman with the air of some kind of organiser appeared and said all canvassing was suspended until 2pm. We promised to return.

I went home, had lunch and did a few of the mundane things you try to get done at the weekend, and then returned to the Builders.

I bumped into a team that was heading out, a couple of Croydon Labour members plus a nice group from Lewisham. “Is it safe where you are?” I asked.

After I said it, I feared that I sounded like Laurence Olivier’s Nazi dentist in Marathon Man. But they understood what I meant, and it was safe.

Activists from safe seats are encouraged to go along and help at more marginal or target constituencies. Croydon Central’s need is greater than Lewisham’s, it seems.

The candidate and VIP made speeches on autopilot, as they are expected to do

We were sent to doors by the “boardman”, a local member whose job was to say things like “42A, Ellie and Joe, don’t-knows, Ellie has a postal vote”, and we would have to knock on the door and ascertain whether the info was still true and whether the postal vote had gone.

Usually, we reported back that there was no answer. On a Saturday afternoon, a lot of people were out. I have to confess I longed for a better boardman. We spent a lot of time hanging around queuing up to find out what the next number was. Little did I know that my wishes were soon to be granted.

At 4pm, we returned to the Builders and there was Emily Thornberry in her bright red coat. The drill was observed. It goes like this: Local candidate makes short speech explaining that we need a Labour victory and thanks the VIP visitor. Then VIP visitor on autopilot makes short speech extolling the virtues of local candidate and the fundamental importance of the door-knocking work by party members, without which etcetera and so forth… Marginally encouraged and refreshed by the oratory, we go out once more into the breach in order to identify more voters, without whom, etcetera and so forth.

This time I was lucky. I picked out Stephen Mann in the crowd. This was easy. He is, I would guess, some 6ft5in tall and I saw that he was setting himself up as a boardman and recruiting team members.

Into the night we went on canvassing. Stephen Mann was easy to spot

Off we went, a team of six, and we blitzed down the local streets with what felt like military precision, not a second wasted. Though, on a Saturday evening, a lot of people did not seem to want to answer the door. Those that did, though, were friendly enough and many of them enthusiastic about voting Labour.

After a couple of hours, we knocked off and returned to the pub, where Stephen handed in his sheets and board. I got myself a pint and then said hello to Fergie as he walked in accompanied by Councillor Paul Scott and a bouncy enthusiastic young Momentum member.

Fergie (who has recently moved, appropriately enough, into Clyde Road) and I got chatting about Glasgow while Councillor Scott started to take out dozens of strips of paper from his pockets, meticulously press them flat and order them into piles which he then clipped together with bulldog clips.

After he had been compiling his strips for a while, I asked him what he was doing. He explained to me at great length his antipathy to the whole concept of the “boardman”, and the inherent inefficiency of the system. Not for him the calling out of numbers and names “that you have to remember!”

No, he simply handed out pre-cut strips and people either handed them back amended or simply kept them if there was no new information. Fergie and Momentum Boy smiled and reached into their pockets, pulling out handfuls of wrinkled unamended strips. They were converts. Councillor Scott’s system was a winner.

I only hope that Sarah Jones is the winner of the Croydon Central seat on December 12. Today I met some lovely people helping to make that happen. The people of Croydon could do a lot worse.

About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
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