The Guardian recently ran a piece an anonymous local councillor under the heading ‘What I’m really thinking‘:
When I knock on your door, you tell me you never hear from me, despite the fact that I go to all your local meetings, send you regular letters and have knocked on your door several times before. You hold me personally to account for everything, from the state of the nearest tree to the war in Iraq. Some of you have awful, heartbreaking stories, and I do my best to help with the ever-decreasing resources we have. Others complain that the local high street doesn’t have any hanging baskets. The range of issues we deal with is surreal.
I had a fair number of experiences like this when I was a councillor myself. And I resented them as much as this elected representative with no name does. However, looking back now what actually seemed worse were the people who were rude or judgmental to me when I was an overly keen teenage volunteer looking to make a difference.
What I find both offputting and bemusing is people sitting at home, who think they and not the person giving up their time to try and change politics are the one who has the moral high ground.
I often found myself having to resist asking an irate voter, why if they were so disgusted by what my party was doing, they weren’t out knocking on doors for a rival party? One of the great blights of contemporary British politics is widespread sense that everything is completely terrible combined with a general disinclination to do anything to remedy this situation.
Now a fair chunk of these irate voters would claim there is no party for them. To which I can only respond that there are more than 400 parties registered with the Electoral Commission: can they really not find one whose platform they broadly agree with?
And even if you don’t agree with the people who are knocking on your door, you should probably still be glad to see them. Political parties are an indispensable part of a healthy democracy. Where you have weak parties, that creates a void that tends to be filled by unsavoury actors. Politics may come to revolve around individuals like Vladimir Putin or Silvio Berlusconi, or the role of organising political life may fall to other institutions life the church or military (e.g. Egypt and Iran).
None of which, is to say voters are of course free to tell canvassers where they disagree with the party they are representing. It negates a large part of the value of the exercise if they don’t. But they do have an obligation to be polite and reasonable. The canvasser is after all engaged in act of public service from which the ordinary voter benefits.