Last week, director Andy Flannagan, executive member Heather Staff and volunteer Matthew Judson visited Cumbria to campaign for Gillian Troughton, a Christians on the Left member and the Labour candidate in the forthcoming Copeland by-election. Matthew, a gap year student who had not previously been involved in a political campaign, shares some of his experiences and reflections.
Having set off early from home in Luton, we had a long trip to Cumbria. We arrived in the early afternoon and got straight onto the campaign trail, greeting Gillian at the start of a round of door-to-door campaigning. As this was my first experience of such a campaign, I was initially paired with Andy to learn from the master. Before long, however, I felt sufficiently confident to knock on doors in my own right. Armed with fairly minimal information it was my task, with the help of a leaflet, to convince people to vote for Gillian!
We did three rounds on the Tuesday afternoon – one of which was aborted due to poor weather – before staying the night with a very hospitable host. We then did another couple of rounds on the Wednesday morning before the long drive home.
I had initially been nervous about how I would manage doorstep conversation, especially as I have a minor phobia of strangers knocking on my own front door. In the event, however, it was not as stressful as anticipated. While there were obviously a few people who did not appreciate the disturbance, the majority of people I spoke to were polite and willing to engage in some sort of discussion. Even among those who said they would not vote for Gillian, my encounters were largely civil, with most hostility coming from people who said they saw no point in voting for anyone. However, it was encouraging to hear from colleagues about encounters with people who, having originally declared loudly that they did not want to vote, were persuaded after a conversation that voting is a worthwhile activity and an important part of democracy.
While trying to avoid sounding robotic, I was able to open each encounter with roughly the same remarks, but was often was forced to cope with unscripted conversation. Most comments concerned the nuclear industry – the Sellafield plant forms the backbone of the local economy – or the health service. Gillian, a former hospital doctor, has tried to focus her campaign on protecting the local health service from impending cuts.
The experience was challenging but stimulating. It was good to have the opportunity to encounter people in their local community and to hear their concerns, entering into their lives for just a moment and sharing optimism with them. I found this very hard work, but sometimes it is hard work that feels the most rewarding.
The major drawback was probably the weather. Andy described my experience as a ‘baptism of fire’ more than once; omitting the last two words would have more accurately portrayed the conditions we were working in. The first day we were campaigning we had a run called off because the rain had made the paper list unusable.
I pronounced on my return that if Gillian wins it would be because of my efforts, whereas if she loses it will be because I was involved for such a brief period only. The truth is that, while my efforts were enough to warrant me a place on the prestigious Copeland Labour Wall of Fame, mine was just one of hundreds of names to be distinguished in this way. This illustrates the amazing extent to which politics is a shared activity, not merely an individual pursuit. Campaigning is a team effort, a chance to work with like-minded people to effect the change you all believe in. I signed next to people ranging from shadow cabinet members to part-time volunteers, hailing from constituency parties across the country, some having travelled even further than myself. Most of these are people I will never meet, but with whom I know I share a common cause. This creates powerful a sense of community and shared purpose.
My advice to anyone considering participation in this or future electoral campaigns would be to get stuck in! Campaigning is not about confrontation but an opportunity to show your passion for local communities by fighting for the things that matter to you. It is also not about having the answer to every question, but about being able to speak to people about the important issues facing communities and the country.
The election will take place next Thursday, 23 February, concurrently with another by-election in Stoke-on-Trent Central, where Labour is also defending a seat. The importance, to Labour and to Mr Corbyn personally, of holding both these seats cannot be overstated, as indeed many sections of the media have sought to stress. But politics is nothing if not multi-dimensional, and we know this is just one of many narratives. Personally, no matter the final outcome, I will be pleased to have played my part in attempting to elect another Christian MP under the Labour banner.
Matthew Judson is volunteering part-time with Christians on the Left before he starts studying philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University from the autumn.