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On Canvassing

On what can (& cannot) be learnt

The Labours of Labour

Parliamentary socialism, including its British variant, has limitations (see Ralph Miliband and pre-Catholic Alasdair MacIntyre for details), but one of these that’s not so commented on is how easily this form of political organisation wastes opportunities for political education. Canvassing is an interesting special case. Let’s put aside the overt and necessary function of such activity — the doorstep activation or conversion of voters during elections, local or national — and look at its role in the internal culture of the party, the Labour Party that is — and presumably all parties, for that matter — and how this role is intellectually bankrupted even if it need not be.

The primary purpose to which experiences accumulated by canvassing are put is, sadly, to shore up one factional narrative against another. The person who thinks we should focus on the local presents a litany of nimbyism, the other who prefers an international (caveats allowing) focus will duly inform comrades that this is a higher priority for constituents than might be expected. In different senses perhaps both or neither of these comrades is right, but we are certainly not informed much by such earnest pleas of ‘I heard x,’ countered by ‘but I heard y’.

Clearly, informal ‘polling’ is useless, even if only as a weapon in the sophist’s arsenal. If we were to charitably ignore the obvious issues with sample sizes or that people, at worst, lie, and at best creatively misremember, the notion that even the best, most attentive canvassers have zero influence on the direction of a doorstep conversation is a nonsense. There are so many methodological problems that beset serious polling (which does not, to my view, utterly disqualify its validity when carefully applied in some arenas) that this kind of folksy data can only be regarded as exerting an obscuring influence.

But if not as an accurate gauge of concerns to be weaponised against one’s fellows, what can be gleaned from canvassing? As it happens, I would contend quite a lot could, some of which is indeed of authentic political merit (chiefly for the canvassers themselves), and some of which is even worthy of some aesthetic appreciation.

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