Andrew Vine: Smiling faces at election time hide a whiff of cynical machine politics

THE canvassers with their election leaflets are starting to arrive thick and fast as the weeks tick down to polling day.

The weekend brought them sweeping down my street in a grouping not too different from a military assault formation, individuals peeling off to target anybody spotted in their garden, the rest splitting up to start door-knocking.

It’s a mob-handed approach designed to cover as much ground as quickly as possible, and a tactic adopted by all the main parties. The Conservatives were first into action, and then it was Labour’s turn. The Lib Dems and Ukip will surely not be far behind.

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This is canvassing done with slickness and efficiency. The trouble is it carries with it the faint but unmistakeable whiff of cynicism. In the almost 15 years I have lived at my present address, I have never had a knock at the door from an elected representative except at election time.

No councillor, let alone an MP, has to my knowledge taken a stroll down the street, knocked on a few doors, introduced themselves and asked if anything troubles or concerns the residents that they might be able to help with.

Yet here’s a brightly-smiling canvasser charging up my drive with one hand outstretched in greeting and a sheet of paper in the other which he presses on me as soon as we’ve shaken hands.

It’s a survey, and he’d be really, really grateful if I could fill it in because it’s really, really important to the Parliamentary candidate that he gets to grips with the things that really matter to people like me. Okay? He’ll call again in 30 minutes when I’ve had chance to complete it. And away he charges.

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The survey is a standard one, presumably identical to those being distributed throughout the land, except it has the name of the constituency where I live in the top right-hand corner.

Tick the boxes if you’re concerned about any of the following. Potholes. Street lights that don’t work. Fly-tipping. Accident blackspots. Anti-social behaviour.

I tick the boxes and half-an-hour later he’s back for a second flying visit, thanking me for my time, and then he’s off, assuring me that I’ve done something really, really useful.

This is plainly just stage one of canvassing, and as the weeks go by the candidate himself will presumably grace the street with a visit to hear about my concerns.

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But this is machine politics. Yes, I get annoyed about potholes and street lights that don’t work, and abhor fly-tipping.

Why, though, should I have to wait five years for somebody to take an interest?

How come our elected representatives – or those who seek to be – are not spending the years in between elections touring their constituencies?

Potholes, street lights that are not working and fly-tipping blackspots would be as obvious to them as to any of the residents.

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The degree of respect for those who govern us would generally shoot up if a weekend shortly after an election – not before – brought a knock at the door from somebody announcing themselves as a newly-elected MP, or an aide, accompanied by an enquiry if anything was bothering us.

Instead, we’re subjected to this cynical charade. A parade of strangers who quite possibly don’t live anywhere near the area they are canvassing assuring us that they’re passionately interested in the things on our minds and will move heaven and earth to help – provided we vote for them.

And this cynicism will be compounded any day now, when a leaflet arrives full of photographs of the candidate posing sternly next to potholes, accident blackspots and illegal rubbish tips identified from the ticked boxes.

If he wins, we’ll see if the potholes are filled in and the rubbish disappears. If he doesn’t, we won’t hear any more about it, and there’ll be no visits from people really, really keen to do all they can to help.

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The political class overlooks how, in its turn, this way of electioneering breeds cynicism amongst the electorate, and aggravates the problems of voter apathy and low turnouts.

It is commonplace to hear people complain that politicians are only interested in them when an election looms.

The way to counter this is for more direct engagement with the electorate over the course of a five-year term.

That’s one way to tackle apathy – to get out and meet people year in and year out.

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Show them a practical determination to help and you’ll show them why it matters so much to go out and cast a vote.

By all means call on me, or any of my neighbours, and ask what concerns or annoys us, and how you can help.

We’ll be glad to see you and grateful 
for whatever you can do. Just don’t confine your interest in us to election time.