Natalie McGarry: Shocking sights on campaign trail

Tony Blair on the campaign trail in Manchester. Picture: PA
Tony Blair on the campaign trail in Manchester. Picture: PA
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It IS a question which is frequently missed from your initial training as a campaigner, but it is perhaps the most important question of them all: what do you do when out campaigning on the doorsteps and someone answers the door clad only in a saggy pair of pants?

As a seasoned campaigner, I have seen more naked torsos, spindly legs and grotty undergarments than a lifeguard at a swimming pool. The answer is a) thank your lucky stars they are wearing something and b) smother shock/giggles/horror, make eye contact and carry on talking. If the other person is comfortable, and you don’t feel threatened, their opinions are, alas, just as valid as a more elegantly attired voter. Of course, if you cannot smother any of the above, a polite “sorry to bother you, you are obviously busy, here is one of our leaflets” followed by a hasty but graceful withdrawal is perfectly acceptable, and sometimes necessary. Just ensure that you refrain from giggling until you are out of sight.

It is campaign season. This is the first year without any national elections since 2008, but if there has been a brief hiatus as a consequence, this is now well and truly over. Running concurrently are local by-elections, the Aberdeen Donside by-election, while on-the-ground campaigning for the referendum is picking up pace. The “great response on the doorsteps” tweet or soundbite from politicians is the subject of much ridicule online; but is perception of a great grassroots campaign as important as politicians think it is, and does doorstep campaigning really matter?

Forget for a moment perception and soundbite – the key function of doorstep campaigning is to gather information. Talking directly to voters enables campaigns to establish clearer pictures of voting intention and patterns in certain areas and to assess where the electorate “is” in general political terms. This information is used to target voters with key messaging. It isn’t always possible to win every election, but the work that is done in one campaign builds the basis for the next campaign and campaigns thereafter.

The SNP has been asking the “independence question” as part of its standard doorstep campaigning for over a decade now. While other parties continued to focus solely on the inter-party battle, SNP strategists had the foresight to go further and examine attitudes to independence, even before the referendum was realistically on the agenda. The SNP’s Activate campaign system continues to be the envy of other political parties, giving it a significant lead in the aforementioned “doorstep challenge” that could be fundamental to the outcome of the referendum in 2014.

I am a long-term sceptic of opinion polls, given the reliance on data collection from signed-up, interested individuals that some polling organisations rely on. A true snapshot of where we currently stand on any given matter, they are not. They are, however, good for the morale of campaigns and for motivating activists. But any campaign which is poll-led, not campaign-led, is in serious danger. Over-reliance on opinion polls creates ennui and complacency. I’d ascertain that the information provided by people on the doorsteps – however they are attired – is much more accurate.

There is much empirical evidence for opinion poll-led campaign failure. We need look no further than Labour’s 10-15 percentage point lead in voting intentions in the Scottish Parliament elections in 2011 for a germane example. If not armoured by absolute and contradictory evidence from actually talking to ordinary voters, it would have been easy for other campaigners to be disheartened. Those polls, arguably completely wrong, were certainly lagging behind the curve of popular opinion. And the result proved that.

If either side wants to win the referendum campaign definitively, community engagement is where they must begin. A more engaged electorate might be the strongest legacy of this increasingly acrimonious campaign.

This vote will be won on the back of sights many of us of all persuasions would wish unseen. For every naked torso one side sees, there is another lurking behind a door for an unsuspecting activist on the other. It ain’t always pretty out there, but every vote counts.