PICTURE the scene. You’re not long in from work, the family is settled for dinner, then the bell rings. Muttering about the intrusion, off you go to answer the door, to be greeted by an improbably cheery person with a clipboard and a brightly coloured rosette. Inwardly, you groan as they greet you with: “Good evening. I’m calling on behalf of so-and-so, your parliamentary candidate for such-and-such...”
It’s a scenario played out thousands of times over the last few months as parties geared up for Thursday’s elections. Yet for all that we’re familiar with the ‘air war’ of party leaders on our TV screens, as any old political hand will tell you, there’s a more important yet far less glamorous side to elections. It involves the shoe leather and elbow grease of party volunteers like the one now standing on your doorstep.
Lots of people volunteer to help charities or other local good causes, motivated by a desire to put something back into the community. However, it’s probably fair to say that the party activist is a breed apart. Entire weekends can be lost in leafleting, canvassing and attending meetings, even months out from polling day. In the final few weeks of the campaign, these sleep-deprived, harassed looking creatures can be seen pounding the streets, sustained only by fish suppers and the occasional snatched cup of coffee back at the campaign rooms.
It gets no easier on polling day itself, which for some can start hours before the polling stations even open. Even when the polls close at 10pm, the night is just beginning for the party workers, with barely time for a quick shower and change of clothes before they trudge off to the count at the Exhibition Centre in Aberdeen. With results often not coming until 4 or 5 in the morning, it can mean almost 24 hours of being on the go without any sleep.
As tasks go, it’s pretty thankless and one which goes entirely unpaid, even for petrol money. So why do it? For Jacqueline Taylor from Mintlaw, a Conservative Party activist for nearly 20 years, it’s something that she actually finds quite enjoyable.
“There’s a lot of jobs to do as a party volunteer”, she said. “We have to fold and deliver leaflets, but one thing I do enjoy is door knocking. Speaking to people on their doorsteps means that you get to meet lots of people with lots of ideas. It gives folk a chance to voice any concerns they might have, and really makes me feel like a part of the community.
“The election counts are always exciting. All the parties are there with their clipboards and pens to see how things are going as the votes get counted. Most activists in all parties are good humoured and will chat away to you. It’s really funny watching everyone’s faces, as you can soon tell from their expressions how their parties are doing.
“It’s definitely a case of all hands on deck at election time. With all the walking that you end up doing, I’d always recommend some flat shoes and a foot spa, though!”
It’s a similar story for SNP activist Jennifer Harkins from Inverurie, who got involved with the nationalists in her final year as a law student at Aberdeen University.
“Our family had always followed politics closely”, she said. “As I started to think more about which party best represented my views, I decided I wanted to get involved and be a part of that process.
“I love meeting people”, she continued, “especially when they want to chat about policies. It’s a great feeling when you manage to convince someone! I went to an election count for the first time last year. The buzz and anticipation is a real thrill, which gets you totally absorbed, and makes all the lost evenings and weekends worthwhile.”
It might come as a surprise to people more used to political parties airing their differences that the activists tend to have much in common with eachother. However, it’s no exaggeration to say that without them, much of what we take for granted about elections just wouldn’t happen.
So, the next time a volunteer knocks on your door, spare them a thought. If it wasn’t for party activists’ willingness to brave barking dogs, snapping letterboxes and the wrath of the occasional voter, politics would be much more distant from people’s concerns, and elections just that little bit duller.