Labour Leader Ed Miliband's ambition to secure a majority of seats in the Westminster Parliament to govern the United Kingdom for the next 5 years may depend on the ground war. To spur on the rank-and-file, he has set a target of four million conversations.
The race is on to astonish the electorate, not to mention all those cynics who on hearing Miliband's target rushed to their calculators to tell us that the target would involve an impossible number of chats per member. I wouldn't have given the matter a minutes further thought if it hadn't been for my Twitter feed which threw up the stats for #Opflight - an activity of Progress. You can read the full details here. According to Richard Angell, Progress's recently appointed new director 4526 conversations were conducted on Saturday by their teams in nine key constituencies.
But what exactly is a Labour Party conversation?
Toby Perkins Labour MP for Chesterfield conveniently tweeted the Progress director's bulletin. Excuse for a conversation, I thought. So I asked Toby what is the Labour Party's definition of a conversation. Before he had a chance to answer, Mark Houlbrook, councillor for Thorne Ward on Thorne and Moorends Town Council, asked me what mine was. Reasonable riposte! We eventually agreed this was a relevant question and rounded on Toby to clarify. We are still waiting. But my initial suspicion that an agreed definition might be desirable was underlined by Manchester councillor Kevin Peel who trilled about 4,526 CONTACTS in Saturday's #Opflight venture.
So is a Labour Party 'conversation' a 'contact'?
Are 'Not Ins' contacts? We should be told.
My first doorstep experience was over 40 years ago in Leeds. The latest was on Saturday in Weymouth with 12 comrades mainly from South Dorset CLP - split into two teams each with a leader despatching and recording the results of doorknocking. In all those years of pounding streets, clambouring up and stairs, I have learned to cope with a reality: most 'knock, knocks' are abortive - no one answers the door. That's the lot of those of us who try to engage with voters. What matters are the contacts with those voters who do open their doors to a stranger. Local political party activists call to ask whether prospective electors plan to exercise their right to vote in the next election, and for which party. If the door opens a canvasser has a chance to offer the usual pleasantries, and the contact tells you what s/he will be doing in May: Don't know, Don't Vote, Haven't Decided, UKIP, Green and so on. In my book those exchanges can not be classed as conversations. Neither can the delivery of a 'Sorry you were out" leaflet through the letterboxes of all those unopened doors.
Checking over my notes from Saturday I personally knocked on 43 doors, made 20 contacts from the opening of 17 doors, and (by my definition) had just 10 conversations. For clarity, those are the number of times I had a informal verbal exchanges with the person who opened the door beyond the normal pleasantries, and the standard questions: Are you planning to vote in May? And for which party?
So I want to know, were those 4,526 episodes recorded by Progress - contacts, conversations or just number of doors visited?