Monday, 22 April 2013

Then and now - a trip back to electioneering in the 1970's

I was chatting over the weekend to one of my opposite numbers in the Labour Party. Like me, he was born with a rosette pinned to his nappy, and spent his formative years parading up and down suburban streets carrying a clipboard or delivering leaflets. Despite being on opposite sides of the political divide, we get on well. This time, the conversation turned to how modern local politics and campaigning is laissez faire compared with the 70's and 80's when we were both learning our trade.

I recalled, back in the 1970's, how different campaign technology was compared with now. No MERLIN, BlueChip or Fileplan. Even Silverjay was just a twinkle in Len Harris' eye!  Yet despite the laborious nature of so much campaign organisation, I believe candidates and activists were far more focused, even dedicated, than their modern counterparts.

Here, for want of anything exciting happening today to blog about, is a wander down 1970s election memory lane. Feel free to add your own memories and thoughts in the comments section.

Canvassing cards: no such thing as computer generated canvassing cards, it was my job in January each year, to cut-up a single-sided electoral register and paste each road onto pre-printed sheets of stiff cardboard (odd and evens on different cards). Sticky, gum covered cards would be spread over tables, sideboards and floors for days on end!

Canvassing rota: the street canvass was meticulously planned. No such thing as a weekly canvass or a token effort, covering just the best roads in the ward. Back in the 1970s each and every road would be canvassed every year. In March, the branch agent (each candidate appointed his or her own election agent, who in turn reported to the professional constituency agent) would draw-up a canvassing rota, commencing in early April. The rota would list a start point and then each road to be canvassed that night in sequential order. (ie, Meet corner of Chapelhill Road and Hoylake Road at 6pm. Canvassing: Chapelhill, Carnesdale Road, Lomond Grove and Pinetree Grove - total 285 houses) and canvassing would continue until all 285 houses had been visited. At the end of April there would be blank days for 'mopping-up' any roads missed due to inclement weather. It was taken as read that the candidate, agent and members of the branch committee would be out each and every weeknight during April to complete the canvass.

Pasting-up the boards: it was not only pre computer but also pre NCR days, and the approved system for the Campaign HQ  Committee Room was to have giant hardboard sheets onto which another copy of the electoral register would be pasted. Each night after canvassing the completed canvassing cards were dropped off with the person responsible for the boards, who would transfer the voting intentions to the pasted up register by underlining voters names with either red, blue or yellow ink (to signify their allegiance).

Introductory leaflet: this was an A5 leaflet containing a formal portrait of the candidate with a brief potted biography. This was normally delivered at the very start of the campaign, to 'introduce' the candidate to the grateful electorate. Quite why they needed to know that Lucy Kennedy was 42 and enjoyed knitting and crossword puzzles, or how this would demonstrate her suitability as a councillor, I never established.

Election address: as far as I remember, each ward designed, printed and paid for its own election leaflet; they only control being the constituency agent had to 'approve' it before it was printed. This resulted in a huge variety of leaflets, styles and promises - with wealthy wards demonstrating their power and success with glossy, professionally printed leaflets and the poor country cousins using the hand turned office gestetner machine!  No leaflet, however produced, came folded - and this was another laborious job for evenings after canvassing; sitting watching TV folding and bundling leaflets.

Committee Room: There was no happy medium; Committee Rooms were either in a grand house owned by an ageing pinch-faced widow who spent all day worrying about you damaging her mahogany dining table, or else in a draughty village / church hall with smelly lavatories and no heating. In this respect, little has changed.

Car Calls: These were the big thing of the day - I recall every Committee Room had a wall mounted board with dog-eared envelopes stuck onto it, each marked 8am-9am, 9am-10am and so on up until 8pm-9pm.  Each of these envelopes could contain up to 20 or more slips of paper, each designating the name and address of a voter (usually an old lady) who wanted a car to take her to vote. This seemed to be the main raison d'etre of the day, with a fleet of Allegros, Minis and Moris Minors scuttling around taking lavender smelling old dears to vote.  Postal voting for all has killed-off the car call!

Postal Voting: In the days before universal postal votes by choice, signing-up a new postal voter was quite exciting. In my ward we never had more than 50, almost all of them Conservative. If my memory serves me correctly (and I suspect one of the retired agents who read my blog will correct me if I am wrong) there were three different forms: RPF7, RPF7a and RPF9 (covering ill health, work commitments or military service). Each had to be countersigned by either a GP, SRN or employer.

Loud-Speaker Cars: The Association had two speaker units which would be mounted on  suitable cars with a roof racks. These would tour the constituency following a long established route (each travelling in opposite directions). Two members, selected for their RP accents, were in charge of the broadcasting. Unfortunately one of the men was a well known boozer, whose accent turned into a drunken slur as the day went on. It all ended in (inevitable) tears during the 1983 General Election when, at 2pm (after several refills of his hip flask) rather than informing shoppers they should "Re-elect Lynda Chalker" they were instead instructed to, "look at the tits on that". Sadly, this signalled the end of his budding career in public service announcing, though he did continue as a councillor until he was photographed by the press, several years later, with his trousers around his ankles whilst urinating into the fish pond in the garden of his Labour opponent. 
What did Enoch Powell say about all political careers ending in failure?

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