By Norman St. John-Stevas
0SHE election is now coming -Iup to the last lap with Labour still favourites to win. I have spent most of the last two weeks canvassing on the doorsteps and I must say that though I have detected a proLabour swing it is nothing like the one described by the public opinion polls.
Party allegiances are remarkably stable in England, but our electoral system is such that a very small change-over in votes leads to a much greater change in seats.
Television has much diminished the importance of local election campaigns. Time and again when I have spoken to doubtful voters on the doorstep they have told me that they were waiting until the television programmes were all over before they finally made up their minds. The local candidate does still however have some importance.
I have found that work done between elections bears much fruit. People remember it and appreciate it, and I hope they translate their gratitude into tangible votes.
But what of the actual election campaign at the time? Indoor meetings are still held, but they arc usually only attended by the faithful so that in themselves they do not achieve much. They do however provide the audience with points which they themselves can put across to the electorate, and this can be useful.
I think also that village meetings are much more important than town ones. My constituency is equally divided between urban and rural areas and I know that the villagers expect the candidate to hold a meeting in their village, and are aggrieved if he does not. Village meetings also have a wider effect than is at first apparent. The villagers talk among themselves the following day and a candidate's reputation can soar, or drop, throughout the village.
Open air meetings of course can get to the non-faithful, and I am having half a dozen of these during my campaign most of them outside the factory gates. They tend to be very lively with plenty of heckling and questioning. In my experience these meetings also are very useful for getting to the electors.
There remains canvassing. While some rate this as a vital activity, others think it merely a waste of time. I think it has very definite uses if intelligently done, but good canvassers are hard to find. First of all if a voter is genuinely doubtful a visit from the actual candidate may well sway that vote over to the candidate's side. Helpers can also bring this about. but it is more difficult for them.
Then postal votes can be discovered on a canvass, and in a marginal seat these may make all the difference between victory and defeat.
Lastly canvassing can be useful to enable a party to assess its own strength and get its vote out on polling day. Cars can be arranged for old voters and those who are sick. Special arrangements can be made where required.
On polling day itself all canvass cards are meant to be fully marked up with the political allegiance of the voters. Tellers take poll numbers at the polling station, and these are then taken to the local committee rooms to be struck off the master list. The idea is that by about six or seven o'clock runners can go out and knock up party supporters who do not appear to have gone to the polls.
There are two weak points in the system. Canvassers are notoriously optimistic and frequently put down people as party supporters when they are quite the reverse. The second weakness is often in the knocking up. I once took part in an election in London where the system of recording votes was perfect but there were no knockers-up to get the laggards out.
Of course the candidate is greatly helped by canvassing to keep his feet on the ground and know what issues people really think are important. In the election so far I have found that political leadership in personal terms is vitally important and here, clearly, Mr, Wilson has the edge.
On the other hand, housewives are extremely worried about the cost of living and this is a bull point for the Conservatives. The Common Market is mentioned a surprising amount. and so is Rhodesia. In my experience, support for Mr. Smith has dramatically waned.