How the media stereotypes the National Front. Door-to-door canvassing is vital in changing this image. [Editorial note: the above cartoon appeared in an East Anglian newspaper in the late 1980s)
A NUMBER of years ago a council by-election arose in one of the West London boroughs which was contested by the National Front. The significant point about the election was that the branch fighting it resolved to try what was, for it, a new approach as a condition of entering the electoral fray; the approach was that of mass door-step canvassing. It was decided that before a single election leaflet was delivered that at least half the ward would be canvassed.
The ward itself, which had never before been contested by the Party due to its lack of potential, was a mix of private streets and council estates, almost exclusively white and regarded as a safe Labour seat.
So weak was the Party within the ward that we only had three known supporters on whom to call to sign our nomination papers, the remaining signatures being obtained by knocking on residents doors and appealing to their better natures.
A map of the ward together with a copy of the Electoral Register then in force was obtained from the Town Hall. The streets falling within the ward were classified into one of three groups in terms of likely support; good - council estates, fair - small private residences, and poor - large up-market residences. Our first priority was to canvass the council properties where we believed our potential support existed, before moving on to the areas designated as 'fair'.
During the three weeks leading up to polling day we had a canvassing team out virtually every day. The size of the team varied, never more than six, often only two people. However at the end of two weeks all the 'good' streets had been canvassed and work started on the not so promising areas.
Each canvasser was equiped with a clip board and a number of photocopied 'response' sheets. Each sheet had a box at the top that recorded the street and canvasser's name. The body of the form was divided vertically into seven columns headed as follows;
House number - the number of the property being canvassed.
Hostile - Ticked if the resident was unduly hostile.
Not - Ticked if the resident was definitely not going to vote for our man.
Possible - Ticked if the resident possibly was going to support our candidate.
Definitely - Ticked if the resident was definitely going to vote for our candidate.
Don't know - Ticked if the resident was a don't know or couldn't care.
Comments - Anything interesting concerning the resident.
People were asked whether they would be voting for our candidate and their replies recorded accordingly. 'Definites' and 'possibles' were given a free back copy of the Party's newspaper.
By polling day, excluding 'not-ins', we had some fifteen hundred responses on record, of which almost five hundred were either 'definites' or 'possibles'. The number of 'hostiles' encountered during the exercise were very low, certainly less than a dozen. In one particularly memorable case a middle aged couple who had described themselves as 'possible' voters had their copy of the paper ripped from their hands by a young lady, presumably their daughter. This paragon of democratic virtue then proceeded to tear up the paper whilst screaming abuse at her elders, and betters, for speaking to 'fascists' and reading their 'filth'.
On another, almost fatal, occasion, an elderly gentleman nearly suffered a stroke following an over-energetic verbal attack on two of our canvassers. Having 'fought against your kind in Spain' as he put it, he was none to pleased at being asked for his support for our candidate. All persons recorded as 'hostile' were latter identified through use of the Electoral Register. Interestingly, both the young lady and the old man were both found to be members of the Labour Party, the former an activist and the latter the secretary of its local ward committee. On polling day our candidate had some three hundred arid sixty votes, about eleven per cent of all votes cast. It was obvious when the ballot boxes were being opened that our votes came almost exclusively from areas we had canvassed, in particular from the council estates. This fact was not lost on either the Labour Party, who had lost the seat, or on the local press who reported that 'National Front intervention had lost Labour the election'.
However our interest in the ward did not end with the declaration of the result. The weeks that followed were busy ones as we went back to all the people we had listed as 'definites', about two hundred, with the purpose of selling them a copy of the Party's paper - about ninety people bought. As the months passed by these people were revisited with the latest edition of the paper and in most cases they continued to buy. After three or four months our 'paper-round' stabilised with about seventy house-holds buying the paper and, perhaps, a hundred copies being sold. So within a matter of months our sales of the paper within that ward increased from one or two copies to about one hundred, and in addition we possessed the addresses of literally hundreds of supporters or potential supporters.
Consequently we began door-to-door paper selling, using the same techniques, in a more favourable ward. Our sales of the paper within this ward rocketted such that within a short time, even though we had not even canvassed half of it, it rivalled those in the ward in which we had fought the bye-election. We estimated at the time that it would have taken us three years to canvass the entire constituency, but we would have not less than fifteen hundred regular subscribers. Although we more than tripled our order for the paper over six months it remains an unfortunate fact that all the good, work was largely undone through the regular non-appearance of that publication followed by a destructive internal 'split' within the Party.
However a very important lesson was learned as a result of all that activity. There is no substitute for personal contact with the public. It should be remembered that for most people the only knowledge that they have of us is that generated by an unsympathetic media, the appearance of one of our activists upon their doorstep can only serve to enhance the image of the Party. The Party will not grow in isolation from the public - it has to sink roots based, more often than not, upon personal contact.
Door-to-door selling makes it difficult for our opponents to gauge our strength or weakness, it reduces the risk of planned physical assault because it is difficult to predict your where-abouts, bad weather is likely to increase sales as more people remain at home, it allows you to identify your purchaser and raises the possibility of a repeat sale when you return the next month, it is effective throughout the week, it allows you to pick up local news and concerns, and above all it is effective in terms of man hours spent and papers sold.
The lessons learned from that bye-election are as true today as they were then. If we want to progress from the fringe to mainstream politics then we have got to get onto the door steps.