Every day, we think Labour’s leadership election can’t get sillier, then every day they find some way to prove us wrong. With two weeks still to go, I’m expecting a denouement in which Jeremy Corbyn meets a mad scientist, is blown up to be 100 metres tall and the only way to save the country from Corbynzilla is for Copper, Burnham and Kendall to fight him in a similarly-sized hastily built robotic Clement Attlee.
But for now, we’ll just deal with the decision that the party will be vetting new supporters against canvassing data they have on them in order to discover whether they’re Labour voters or not. (If they’re too young to have canvass data, then their school friends will be asked to assess and inform on their real beliefs
As someone who’s done plenty of canvassing in my time, the idea that canvass data can be used to accurately judge how people have voted seems incredibly optimistic. Canvassing – for those of you not in the know, it’s what politicos call knocking on your door and asking how you’ll vote – and canvassing returns are incredibly subjective experiences, and while the data you get from them as a whole can be useful, it’s essentially unreliable. Consider that the opinion polling industry has spent decades trying to work out ways in which to obtain useful and objective data from subjective interaction between people. There’s a huge amount of literature in psychology, political science and other fields looking at just how subconsciously biased our interactions with other people are, and this has influenced the way poll companies and other research organisations conduct their operations, especially how they ask questions and gather responses.
Political parties don’t do that. Most canvass data comes from a volunteer – who might not have been a party member for long themselves – given a clipboard (or if we’re being really modern, a tablet with relevant data loaded on to it) and rosette, pointed at a street and told to find out how people are voting there. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that the results that come back from this exercise are mixed. Send someone in an optimistic mood to do it, and anyone who didn’t threaten them with violence is marked down as being at least probable to vote for us, send someone feeling down and pessimistic and even the people with your posters in the window are marked as unsure. Catch someone at the right time and they’ll tell you how they’ve always voted for you, are happy to put up a poster and yes, now you mention it, they do want to join the party; come five minutes later when they’ve just had a bad phone call, the baby’s crying and EastEnders is about to start, and you’re lucky if they’ll even come to the door to tell you to go away.
Add to all that the fact that canvassing as it’s carried out nowadays is a legacy of a different kind of politics and society. When most people had strong party loyalties – and in most parts of the country there were only two parties effectively competing – it was quite easy to find out who would be supporting you and thus needing to be reminded to vote on polling day, and who you should avoid. Now, when there are multiple parties just about everywhere and people’s allegiances are a lot more fluid, things are very different. What someone told you about their political opinions in April could well be different in June. Canvassing now is about small pieces of reliable data in amongst a sea of false negatives and false positives: averaging it out might give you reliable figures for an area, but not about the opinions of an individual.
Labour’s move to their new system was supposed to be about acknowledging the new realities of politics, that political identities are much more fluid and people would be more willing to be be supporters rather than members or activists. Using canvassing data is an odd way to use the assumptions of old politics to stymie the aspirations of the new.