I love election campaigns, for a simple reason. It is one of the few times that I get around to knocking on doors and talking to people. And people are awesome. It is through conversations with people about the difficulties in their lives that I learn how the issues on which I campaign are truly playing out. And it is through these conversations that I try to find the language to talk about these issues.

A redeveloped courtyard in the ward

Oxford’s Carfax Ward – where I’m standing in May – is, of course, no more representaive of the country than any other ward. But it does include a good mix by class, race and age: from working class council estate to Georgian terraces, and young couples in modern conversions to pensioners in sheltered housing. Plus thousands of students.

When I canvass, I like to ask about any local issues or problems, and then any ‘national or global issues’ that the person is concerned about. Most people – especially on a sunny weekend – don’t say anything. And so after a brief pause, I tend to prompt “lots of people have talked about [insert whatever things their neighbours have raised].” After you prompt one thing, people often think of others.

The local issues in the Carfax ward are the same as you’d expect in any city centre area – noise, parking, etc, etc. The main national issue won’t come as a surprise – almost everyone I have spoken to so far has talked about the economy: some with anger, others with the resignation produced by Labour’s triangulation. But what’s interesting is that their grievances seem to fit into five distinct categories:

  • wage stagnation
  • price rises
  • cuts
  • unemployment
  • the rich

Each of these – in central Oxford at least – seems to cause about equal concern. Knock on the door of someone who is unemployed and this is their main problem. This is a significant minority. But there are more people for whom the lack of a pay rise in recent years is a problem (though perhaps their additional numbers are offset by the fact that their anger tends to be less intense).

Similarly, if we look at the focus of activism over the last two years, you might think that cuts would be the top issue reported by people. But whilst many – and particularly the most vulnerable – are cross about these, I wouldn’t say it registers as more significant than those other pillars of recession.

Finally, people I have spoken to are almost universally pissed off with the wealthiest people in society. Looking back over my canvass returns, and inspect the question “are there any national issues concerning you at the moment?” I have penned, verbatim, more than once, the reply “The rich”.

What this means for broader, non-election based campaigning is complex. I don’t know entirely, other than that it tells us what I’ve been suspecting for a while now – an anti-cuts message isn’t enough. People are experiences the gamut of structural problems in the economy. Campaigning to save services or invest in jobs is good, but we can and must demand much more. We can and must find the language in which to discuss those structural problems, and the cracks in those structures around which to mobilise people. Because as water to a dam, people are beginning to realise that they are being held back. They just don’t know how to get through, or what lies on the other side.