General Election 2024: Doorstep Dialogues as a form of consultation?

Posted on 25th May, 2024

This is Blog no 69


It is forty-five years since my solitary attempt to stand for Parliament. My constituency in Wales lived up to its reputation for persistent wind and rain occasionally illuminated by that golden sunshine that reminded everyone that it contained some of the most magnificent scenery anywhere on earth. (confirmation bias acknowledged). It was fitting that despite it being early May, the declaration in Dolgellau was made outside in the early hours whilst snow was gently falling.    Plaid Cymru won; my party – and I, lost.

And ever since, I have shared in the widespread belief of thousands of campaigners from all parties and none – that those doorstep dialogues at election times are profoundly meaningful and influential.

Only now am I having second thoughts.


Everything today moves faster. Years ago, one could dawdle and be drawn into deep conversations. In my inexperience, I once fell into the trap of being lured inside, given a succession of coffees whilst enjoying a fascinating exploration of Welsh history by an engaging Professor only to learn later that he was an activist for the other party. His one aim was to keep me away from canvassing more susceptible neighbours for a couple of hours, and that he had pulled this particular trick in every Election since 1945!


Still, the conventional wisdom is that these are the times when politicians consult their constituents. Here is the opportunity to find out what they think. This is the place to try out the latest party line and see what the reaction is ‘on the doorstep’. Also, this is when – to borrow from the world of market research, you count the ‘unprompted mentions’, so you end the day realising that “People round here don’t like the proposal for electricity pylons” or “Your party leader looked a bit depressed on TV last night.”  

You can certainly pick up the mood music.


There are times when you finish canvassing a street and you’re truly on a ‘high’. The optimist in us hopes the rest of the constituency expresses as much support as the residents you’ve just met; so many had your posters in their windows, and so many had rushed to tell you how dreadful your opponents have been. On other days, you’ve hopped skipped and jumped a long and winding road where few would answer doorbells and where those you met were universally hostile. You wonder if you’re in the wrong job!


But how often have Parliamentarians obtained genuine insights from the doorsteps?  Most political autobiographies have a handful of stories – often quite amusing and featuring the usual instances of mistaken identity. But day-in, day-out on the campaign trail, the scope for dialogue is limited. Monologues are more frequent. It's sometimes just an extended handshake-parade. The daily message from on-high is usually about what to say, not what to hear! You're not encouraged to debate the merits of a policy, let alone it's de-merits. (That's the job of policy wonks at HQ). Your job is to spread the word – to represent the party’s key messages; to exude confidence and radiate bonhomie and friendliness. Above all, you are there to help maximise turnout and persuade everyone to go to the polls and vote.


It's probably one of those comfortable myths of British democratic exceptionalism that somehow matters of high public policy are debated on the doorstep. For the older generation, there are images of popular screen actors from Warren Mitchell’s (Alf Garnett’) right-wing racist to Peter Sellers’ bloody-minded trades union shop steward. They are seen browbeating a hapless candidate who retreats better-informed about a matter of some real substance. But always with good humour. If it happens today, it may be a more sinister encounter. Armed with the prejudices of echo-chambers, well-versed in conspiracy theories and worse, today’s polemical participant may be less benign, and there is always the risk of meeting someone who sent you a death-threat on social media only a week ago.


We shouldn’t exaggerate the risks, but I worry that few politicians would, these days enter into discussions on policy proposals. At the end of a campaign, what stays in the memory are the voices of the loudest, and the mood music of the moment. In a volatile environment, who knows what that mood will be next time around.


Critics have long complained that ‘consulting’ the people once every five years is a poor form of democracy. They champion the spread of direct-democracy tools like Citizens’ Juries and Assemblies, because they fear that once they arrive in Westminster, MPs lose touch with the ‘wisdom of crowds’ and become captured by internal and institutional interests rather than ‘listen to their constituents’. Parliamentarians usually respond by talking up the doorstep experience and how much they learnt during the Election campaign.

Consultation is not a vote. An election – or referendum – is not a consultation.


A consultation is a dialogue on something yet to be decided, with enough information shared to enable a genuine and balanced exchange of views, and a process that enables those views to be considered.


Rapid conversations en route to the ballot box are no substitute for properly organised exercises to debate the trade-offs and dilemmas that will dominate national – and local decision-making in the coming years.


Those who are elected on July 4th should recognise that criss-crossing their constituency seeking votes only takes them so far. All MPs need to supplement the obligatory constituency surgeries with sensible machinery to engage with local communities – regularly taking full account of equality, diversity and social cohesion. Not just at local levels. Parliament itself must do more to consult more effectively. The odd Select Committee issuing a ‘call for evidence’ (See Blog 68) is not enough and there are procedural innovations we need; for example to ensure there is always a debate after an important consultation.


Representative democracy works best when MPs can draw upon credible evidence of people’s priorities and preferences - overall. Relying upon the fleeting meetings on the doorstep may help raise their awareness of the general mood and highlight the odd grievance. But consultation it is not – and for that, we need a great deal more.


Rhion H Jones LL.B


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Having (very recently) been doo knocking for one of the parties I would say the process is even less inclusive. We are only targeting known supporters .