Banging on thousands of doors and delivering hundreds of thousands of leaflets during an election campaign can promote a huge thirst in the best of us, but constituency teams across the country turned the tea break into another way of making contact with voters.

House meetings were a key part of the Obama campaign– bringing opinion formers together to hear more about Obama with the aim of getting them involved, or just spreading the message to their friends and neighbours.

These house meetings now get people together to discuss policy, and have seen upwards of 4000 people holding them across all States in the US. Back here in England many constituencies took the idea and adapted it for their communities and their campaigns

Some of the constituencies in Devon and Cornwall represent the most rural areas in the country, and campaigning in them has its own challenges – not least the amount of petrol used and miles clocked up in getting from one end of a constituency to another.

 

House meetings were something that hadn’t really been part of the election campaigns in this area before, and were coupled with the normal routine of door-knocking, leaflet delivery and public meetings in order to get candidates seen (and heard) by the largest amount of people possible.

The idea behind these meetings was to get into a community and meet with opinion formers so that our positive messages about local, hard working candidates would spread in the areas that the team might not necessarily otherwise get to often.  It was about building a network of volunteers and strengthening the core vote – it was particularly useful for shoring up the support of “soft” Lib Dems.

As well as providing the opportunity for candidates to meet people in a relaxed and personal setting, the meetings provided an excellent opportunity for some of the older members and supporters who couldn’t deliver leaflets or canvass to play an active part in the campaign.  Hosting a House Meeting really made them feel part of the winning team and in turn they became a strong advocate for the candidate.
The initial meeting was planned before the start of the campaign, with members and supporters being asked whether they would be willing to host a meeting.  Some needed reassuring that it didn’t need to be a huge event with prestigious catering – just a cup of tea and a few biscuits would do – something that everyone could cope with preparing.

Hosts were encouraged to invite their friends and neighbours, with the promise that the candidate was going to stop by for a chat, and the active team often delivered leaflets on the day or morning beforehand to local properties, telling them what was happening.  We learnt that in order to get the best number of people, and to get word spreading through the community, it was important to let people know about a week in advance.

What started as a one-off experiment often grew into a weekly occurrence, with more people offering to host an event.  Focus leaflets that went out had a new tick box on them so that people could indicate that they wanted to take part, and word spread among members who also clamoured to host the get-togethers.  Potential hosts can also be found through canvassing – maybe adding the question to positive “Definites” on the phone or doorstep when we usually ask them to deliver or put up a poster.

Other campaigning activities were set up alongside House Meetings, so on one occasion an action session took place in the morning, with volunteers invited to join the invited guests for a cup of tea at the end of it.  

It was really important to ensure that these events didn’t stop people from doing anything else, so whilst the candidate was taking part, other members of the team carried on campaigning elsewhere.  It was a way of bringing new people on board, and key activists who could do other things were encouraged to do that rather than hosting one of these events.

One of the key things we learnt whilst trying out these House Meetings is that the candidate doesn’t need to stay for the whole event.  Arriving for a chat when people are already settled keeps the event relaxed, and leaving after 30 minutes to carry on with other campaigning means that the people who have attended can carry on the discussion.  These events, whilst useful, shouldn’t replace other campaigning.

Some candidates have adapted this idea, and visited local pubs instead.  Although the dangers are obvious (!) it is a way of meeting a larger number people and could be an excellent end to a day’s delivery.

House Meetings were certainly complementary to an already huge campaign, and wouldn’t have worked if the rest of the team weren’t out delivering the campaign plan.  For the future, these events would be scheduled to fit in with campaigning activities so that leaflets were going out in the area earlier, and door knocking taking place in the days beforehand so that people could be reminded to attend.

If you want a gold-plated campaign, bringing in new volunteers into the campaign to host a House Meeting is the ideal way to reach different people.  It certainly doesn’t replace leafleting and canvassing, but could add a different dimension…I take mine with 2 sugars!

Cllr Marie Jenkins is the Portfolio Holder for Communities and Regulation on Teignbridge DC and was a Campaigns Officer in Cornwall during the General Election marie.jenkins@yourtdc.org

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