By-election in Queen Ediths ward, Cambridge – reporting but not standing


Why I’m hoping to play a somewhat different role in this local political contest

A number of people from across my neighbourhood invited me to stand as an independent in the looming by-election. Other than not being in the greatest of health, there has been a fair amount of (unexpected) progress on the issues I would have campaigned about had I stood. This, combined with the likelihood the seat will be genuinely contested means that there is a better way of securing my main priorities – increasing voter turnout and political engagement with local residents.

A genuine contest?

Unlike when I stood in Coleridge as Puffles earlier this year, Queen Edith’s is traditionally a Lib Dem seat that Labour made big inroads into – ultimately taking one of the seats in the 2012 local council elections. As it is the Labour seat that is up for election, this by-election could be an interesting weather vane for the 2015 campaign – despite being the only ward in the city boundary outside the constituency (it’s in South Cambridgeshire).

Labour need to have a strong showing if they are to demonstrate they are on track to take Cambridge City in the 2015 general election. In a place like Cambridge, all parties need to demonstrate they can reach out beyond their solid and sizeable core votes. If Labour can hold Queen Edith’s, it’ll be a positive sign for them for 2015.

The Liberal Democrats will want to retake this seat to show they are resilient to Labour’s campaigning in Cambridge, and also to show they have a chance in the otherwise safe Conservative constituency of South Cambridgeshire.

The Conservatives will want to demonstrate they can break out of their Trumpington ward heartland and expand back into a city where they once had a sizeable presence on the council. Queen Edith’s, which neighbours Trumpington (where the peer Jean Baker – Baroness Trumpington gets her title from) is in principle a seat where the Conservatives should have a strong presence. It has a number of neighbourhoods with large, expensive homes and is on the edge of town. These parts of the ward have a very different feel to say Mill Road in Romsey and Petersfield wards.

The Greens while not having traditionally targeted this ward in the past, may want to use it as an opportunity to encourage new or dormant supporters to get involved with a growing city branch.

UKIP have traditionally not stood candidates in this ward, so if they do it will be interesting to see what impact the national media amplification has had on their prospects here – as well as who they might take votes off of.

The candidates so far:

  • Viki Sanders for the Liberal Democrats
  • Rahima Ahammed for Labour
  • Andy Bower for the Conservatives

All of the above make for interesting reading – and for a properly contested by-election. (Hence why I feel less bad about not standing). One of the things I pestered Labour over was getting more women to stand as candidates in local council elections. Now that they have found a new face to stand in the ward, and who has lived locally, it feels like bad form to stand against that candidate.

Labour candidate Rahima Ahammed with Ed Miliband outside the Cancer Research labs by Addenbrookes. Pic Cllr Dave Baigent via Twitter

Labour candidate Rahima Ahammed with Ed Miliband outside the Cancer Research labs by Addenbrookes. Pic Cllr Dave Baigent via Twitter

Viki Sanders – a nurse at Addenbrookes and a former ward councillor is returning after a break from local politics to stand again for the Liberal Democrats. Having two women contesting this ward for Labour and the Liberal Democrats is positive in that it increases the chances of helping the gender balance on the council. When I was at the Cambridgeshire County Council full council earlier, the lack of diversity in the cohort of councillors was noticeable.

Andy Bower is running for the Conservatives – and is first out of the blocks with a social media presence. Me and Andy are from completely different parts of the political matrix – he’s in the libertarian conservative bit of it. Some of you may have seen our Twitter exchanges! As Conservatives go, he’s a very serious candidate and if elected would be a very good and hard-working ward councillor.

My role?

The two things I want to do for this by-election are:

  • Organise a couple of local hustings – one on each side of the ward
  • Make some short digital videos of the candidates

It’s going to be mid-November when the voting takes place. What can we do between now and then to persuade local people to find out about who is standing, try a few new things out and perhaps lay some of the institutional groundwork around hustings for the 2015 elections?



Posted in Cambridge, Party politics | 2 Comments

What’s your vision for Cambridgeshire? Because the county council are starting the debate


A somewhat fortuitous merging of a pre-submitted oral question from myself on Be the change – Cambridge with a debate on the future structure of public services in the county

A video of most of the debate is here. (I’ve not embedded it because the file is massive. The debate itself lasted for about 50 minutes, but the full video is 5 hours long!)

The text of the motion is as in the pics below:

MotionRestructureCambs1 MotionRestructureCambs2

The text version is here.

The above actions are significant – as is the cross-party support

My question wasn’t so much a question as a pitch for publicising Be the change – Cambridge to the full council and putting the project firmly on the radars of the county council’s political leadership and the chief executive. I had a perch on one side of the hall, next to new local government correspondent for the Cambridge News, Jon Vale.

A panoramic photo of the full council - taken on a smartphone

A panoramic photo of the full council – taken on a smartphone

“Why does the county council matter?”

Because of its duties over transport, minerals and waste, and education. We have a two-tier authority in Cambridge, three tier outside of urban areas. Cambridgeshire has lots of town and parish councils.  My pitch to the county council was on the premise of our definition of Cambridge being that of its people rather than geographical boundaries. I then used examples of how our approach to problem solving was one that bypassed administrative boundaries. In particular I mentioned the rail campaigns in Wisbech and Haverhill, and how I personally viewed them as integral to Cambridge’s future in helping alleviate the housing crisis while at the same time spreading some of the economic benefits of our city.

An inclusive response followed by an inclusive debate – under the dark cloud of massive cuts

This was as sobering moment for the councillors of all parties. I mentioned the headline in the Cambridge News (see here) in my follow-up. In the debate in the video linked at the top, it seems a lot of work has gone on in the background. That there was cross-party consensus on the need to investigate alternative governance arrangements for the county took me by surprise because to be honest, I didn’t see it coming politically. Since the 2013 county council elections when the Conservatives lost control (in part due to UKIP winning 10 new seats on the council) there has been no overall control. There was also ongoing concern as to whether new governance arrangements would work.

“So…does that mean we’re going to get a unitary authority for Cambridge & South Cambs?”

Not necessarily. As mentioned in previous blogposts, the political debate will be on where to draw the administrative lines in any restructure. The debate however went far beyond where to draw lines. It also covered things like increasing political literacy of people in our county as well as which services should be brought under the oversight of local government. For local government watchers such as myself, this made for a surprisingly interesting debate. Why? Because rather than engaging in party-political point-scoring, the politicians had to come together to solve a common problem – or sink together. The county council will lose a third of its budget (on top of existing cuts, and a growing population) in the next five years. Either they solve the problem or local government in Cambridgeshire implodes.

“‘They’ solve the problem?”

This is where Cllr Ian Manning pointed to Be the change – Cambridge as one possible route for getting the ideas of more people to take on these challenges. We’ve already started looking at these – see the write up and embedded videos here.

What is our vision for the county?

For me, this is the question to start off with. All the more interesting in the context of people speculating on the future of leadership. This article says in the future, leaders will be judged on asking the right questions rather than coming up with the right answers themselves. That indicates why Cambridgeshire needs to get a comprehensive picture of what the people that make up our county imagine it could become. I’m not talking utopian dream stuff, nor am I talking simplistic big policies at a national/international level. I’m looking at taking people through a process where they can come up with their own ideas and work together to solve mutual problems.

“It’s just as lucky we’ve got a general election in mid-2015″

Absolutely – because rather than having a media/TV debate-driven election campaign in Cambridgeshire, we could have one based on something completely different: one shaped by the people – and not just those that will be voting. After all, we’ve got the communications technology to assist us. There are still too many ‘not spots’ and places where broadband speed is too slow. It’s something that I’m becoming all too aware of when I upload digital videos – such as the one from Hitchin Lib Dem PPC Pauline Pearce (aka Hackney Heroine). Pauline was in Cambridge earlier to meet Cambridge Student Lib Dems to shake them out of their slumber with this number!

“So…what needs to happen between now and the election?”

The end of the motion indicates this.

“This Council therefore calls on the Chief Executive to:

  1. investigate the merits and potential of outcome and place-based budgets which encourage and enable efficient cross-service delivery;

  2. investigate the possibilities for and appetite of partner organisations to collaborate more closely and potentially to pool budgets;

  3. identify and investigate possible alternative future governance arrangements which could radically improve the way we fund and deliver services for the benefit of Cambridgeshire residents.”

Sequencing matters here. The first action is actually item 2) => Investigating appetite of partner organisations to collaborate & pool budgets. As one of the councillors said in the debate, there’s no point if savings for one organisation lead to disproportionately increased costs for another. Furthermore, ‘partner organisations’ do not need to be restricted to the public sector. They also don’t necessarily need to be formally constituted either. Some of these may be informal networks that organise using social media, or by word of mouth.

If the concept of pooled budgets and more co-ordinated systems works, then 1) can be explored. This isn’t just about chucking bags of not-much-money together. It can also be about getting developers, planners and architects to agree to more citizen-friendly processes, such as getting local residents to suggest their ideas ‘at design stage’ for developments. As far as Cambridge is concerned, one of the biggest developers is Cambridge University (and its colleges). What would development in Cambridge look if Cambridge University functioned as if it assumed responsibility for the people of Cambridge rather than just its members?

It’s only once you’ve got these principles in place that you can start looking at suitable governance arrangements => 3)

But before we do all of that…

…we’ve got to have an informed decision-making process. That means gathering evidence. Some of it will be quantitative – such as at Cambridgeshire Insight. What are the evidence bases and data sets that people want and need in order to make considered judgements? What are the evidence bases and data sets that we don’t have but need to get hold of? (Our known unknowns if you like!)

There are also qualitative evidence bases that we’ll need too. Some of these might be maps of the county – ones where we’re looking at possible transport links. Others might be blueprints and ideas for futuristic developments that are resilient to changing climate patterns (& things like increased risks of flooding) and lifestyles (such as more single occupancy households and an ageing population).

How do we ensure we have representation from across our county, and most importantly of all, diversity of experiences, knowledge and talent?

This could be a once in a generation opportunity for the county. At the same time, I’m under no illusions as to the scale of the challenge. It’s huge and it’s daunting. It’s going to need lots of people to do things they’ve not done before – or never thought they were capable of. It’s going to need people to talk to and listen to people they might not normally work, socialise or mix with. It’s going to require open minds – where all of us are prepared to leave negative myths, prejudices and stereotypes behind. To borrow a phrase and a video from a recent campaign launched by the Prince of Wales, it’s going to require a critical mass of us to step up to serve

I will. Will you?

Posted in Cambridge, Party politics, Public administration & policy, Social media | 2 Comments

On mental health – again


On finding out that you’re not alone, and a big moan about politics too

We’re losing too many good people because of our society’s failure to help people facing mental health challenges. There seems to be a pattern here – of firms and employers losing some of their best employees, as well as the longer term impact on the health of current and former employees. Think James here, and Louise here. These are two that spring to mind – not least because they are two of the most talented people I’ve ever worked with.

‘Great minds don’t think alike’

I can’t remember which newspaper coined that as an advertising slogan, but the one thing that has struck me about a number of people I’ve met and worked with who have struggled with mental health issues is how they’ve not ‘thought like the mainstream’. Others posts in an academic field I’ve stumbled across – in part related to other barriers – that are worth reading are here and here. I’ve lost count of the number of extraordinarily talented people who are facing their own mental health issues. On some days, I describe mine as ‘the black velvet’ [of depression] to my demons of anxiety.

Being ‘burnt out’ for a long time

I almost took it for granted the rumour in economics circles that graduates who went into The City burnt out after a decade because of the workload. When you think about the amount of investment that has gone into a person’s education alone, what a terrible waste of talent. In my case, I still feel burnt out. I spent much of today in bed with a frazzled head. It’s a horrible feeling – one where I still look around and wonder when it’ll come to an end – if it’ll come to an end.

Why would employers care in what’s becoming a ‘tempocracy’?

This is what worries me about the direction of travel we seem to be going in – whether the rise of the zero hour contract to the continual cutting of terms and conditions to people in the public sector. And what for? Do we have to wait for the economic upturn to allow ‘the [very imperfect] market [not least because it's riddled with information failures and assumptions too strong to be applicable in real life]‘ to drive up terms and conditions? There’s also the false economy of those ‘self-employed’ but who would rather be in permanent work. I wonder if senior politicians and policy advisers ****really**** know how people make ends meet. Because if they did, surely we’d be hearing about some very different policies. Or is it a failure of imagination from the Whitehall policy bubble?

So much talent with so much to give – and the desire to give it too…but going to waste

That’s one of the most frustrating things. The people I follow who are struggling are just a raindrop in the ocean of what’s out there. Yet they’re not getting the support that they need. In 2012 the figure of people getting mental health treatment that needed it was as low as 25%. Which made it all the more interesting to read the headlines about the Conservatives realising what a mess the Health and Social Care Act 2012 was.

A former number 10 advisor briefed the Times that “No one apart from Lansley had a clue what he was really embarking on, certainly not the prime minister. He kept saying his grand plans had the backing of the medical establishment and we trusted him. In retrospect it was a mistake.”

You think Lansley had a clue what he was embarking on??? After all he was the one that tabled and drove through the legislation that the Electoral Commission now says charities have to record every time they use social media in a political context – see here.

But getting angry at a failed politician (he’s gone in 2015 – but coming to a corporate boardroom near you) isn’t going to change much. The more I look into these things, the more it comes back to the structure of our economy and society. I wonder whether policy-makers in Whitehall that come up with a loan/debt-related policy for people to pay for things that were previously taxpayer funded considered the mental health impact of debt. That’s before I’ve even mentioned house prices or commuting prices – the latter now so high that some employers actually offer season ticket loans to their employees.

Cuts, cuts and more cuts

This was splashed across the headline of the Cambridge News recently. It just doesn’t feel sustainable anymore. It also makes me question what the senior politicians (in a nutshell, the party leaders and the chancellor/shadow chancellors of this world) have in terms of a vision for local services – and even local government. Will there be a local council left worth standing for outside of any statutory services that the law requires local authorities to provide? Will anyone want to work to deliver such services on an underfunded shoestring budget? The mantra ‘work harder for less with less’ while costs of living remain high and get higher…exactly.

Sorry seems to be the hardest word

At a recent visit to Cambridge, Green Party Leader Natalie Bennett started her speech with an apology on behalf of her generation for screwing up the planet and society. I’m halfway between her generation and the one that’s just started university. (I feel so old!) It seems strange that it’s my generation that’s moving into the frame where we have to pick up the baton – where it’ll be people and politicians my age making the decisions.

I look at the problems and the institutions that underpin them. The task ahead of turning things around is more than daunting. It frightens me.


Posted in Employment and job hunting, Mental health, Party politics, Public administration & policy | 1 Comment

Don’t expect Carswell to be a Kilroy


There’s a lot more to the by-election results than a kipper landslide

I stayed up to watch the results. The coverage and commentary on TV is an item of comment in itself aside from the results. The results are here.

The difference between Douglas Carswell’s acceptance speech in Clacton to Liz McInnes’ acceptance speech in Heywood was…well, judge for yourself.

Carswell above

McInnes above

As the Labour-supporting blog ‘Labour list said:

These are not the results of a party that is connecting with its electorate. They are not the results of a party that can be said is heading for victory in any meaningful sense.

Worse still, it seems many in the Labour Party remain oblivious to the problems we face. I can only hope that when we wake up tomorrow there will be an acceptance that a lot of work still needs to be done.

Mark Ferguson on the same blog followed it up with this blogpost asking how Labour will respond.

Irrespective of what you think of Carswell’s ideas, he’s clearly done a huge amount of thinking & research on them

He wrote a book called ‘The end of politics and the birth of iDemocracy’ back in 2012. Below is an interview about the book with the BBC’s Mark D’Arcy.

Here he is talking straight to camera about the book

I started reading iDemocracy but couldn’t get past the first few chapters because I didn’t agree with his worldview or the context he was setting things in. I also had issues with some of his assumptions on choice – which I’ve blogged about previously.

“So, will we see tub-thumping speeches like when Kilroy got elected an MEP in 2004?”

Unlikely – though some may ask how long Carswell will last in the party. The last time a high profile person joined the party and got elected, it didn’t last – Robert Kilroy-Silk falling out with UKIP within months of being elected an MEP in 2004. Yet Kilroy was one of 12 MEPs elected for the party in 2014. As things stand, Carswell’s the only UKIP MP. Mark Reckless faces a tougher fight in Rochester & Strood – especially given the vitriol poured on him by his former party colleagues. Yet having a party leader outside the Commons isn’t unprecedented. Alex Salmond in Scotland, Leanne Wood AM in Wales and Natalie Bennett for the Greens (who currently does not hold elected public office) are three examples. What will be interesting is to see how the working relationship between Farage and Carswell develops – especially as media attention switches to Carswell’s speeches in the Commons and questions to ministers.

‘If I shout my lines to take loud enough, maybe they’ll be more likely to believe me!’

On the TV footage covering the election count, representatives from the three main parties played their game of loaded question followed by lines-to-take-tennis. As the night wore on, so the responses became more and more ridiculous and comical. It also showed their complete inability to adapt to changing circumstances – making them look like they were in complete denial as to what was happening. One exchange, which I’ve paraphrased below, was particularly depressing:

Andrew Neil: “Would you form a coalition with UKIP in the event of a hung parliament?”

Tory Whip: “We’re not interested in forming coalitions – we’re in the business of getting a majority and will work as hard as we can to…etc…No parties have plans for coalition.”

Watching Newsnight now, there’s a clip of Ed Miliband talking about people’s disillusionment with Westminster. But he’s part of that Whitehall and Westminster bubble – perhaps in a similar way to what I am – or was during my civil service days. How do you convince people that your ideas to change the systems, processes & culture of Westminster will work, and that you’re the person to deliver that change?

The speech delivered by new MP Liz McInnes in the clip at the top did not demonstrate that Labour as an institution had changed its cultures and structures to reflect more fragmented and localised political cultures. For me it brought images of Malcolm Tucker standing behind the camera having just told her: “Stand there and read this!” (ie a picture of a very aggressive, loud bullying figure behind the scene who elected party reps are supposed to be subservient to within the organisation). Such a tightly-controlled media operation doesn’t allow candidates and activists on the ground to think on their feet. When you fear getting things wrong (and the consequences inside your organisation of doing so) the impact can be significant.

In contrast to the three party politicians (all men, the only one I remember being Michael Dugher MP) was UKIP MEP Diane James – who ran the Lib Dems close in Eastleigh in 2013. While she had the easier task of explaining why UKIP had done better than the pollsters had expected (vs the other three having to explain why their parties had scored as they had), it was as if the men at times had been pre-programmed to ‘not appear weak’. This then led to a series of exchanges where Andrew Neil – with hours of broadcast time to cover – was able to play cat-and-mouse with the MPs (trying to get them to concede on every other point under the sun) while Diane James came across as having given more thoughtful and considered responses. Here was one example – not with one of the studio MPs but with Treasury minister Priti Patel MP.


Miliband’s response?

He made a statement here. Yet in that statement, it is all the more striking is what was not said – by new MP Liz McInnes. Why wasn’t she allowed to say anything? After all, she was the winning candidate.

“But it was the Labour candidate who got elected – and that’s all that matters, isn’t it?”

As a headline, yes. But Labour MP Diane Abbott made an interesting comment here which reflects how party politics and communications (both technologies & how they are used by society) has changed since 1997 – and how Labour’s structures have not.

Whenever you mentioned core Labour voters you were dismissed. New Labour bigwigs insisted that those voters “had nowhere else to go”. Well now they are finding somewhere else to go: the SNP in Scotland, the Greens and Ukip.

The challenge for Labour as an institution with the above is feedback mechanisms in a social media era. How do you manage dissent and disagreement in an world where almost anyone can self-publish? A more detailed look on the UKIP challenge to Labour was provided by Professor Matthew Goodwin last here in this article.

A misinformed electorate?

Twitter users have posted a number of links quoting comments from Clacton voters who said they would be voting for UKIP because they weren’t satisfied with the Conservatives’ record in Clacton.

There have also been radio interviews like this one. Some of you may also be aware of the ‘Misinformed Britain’ news item showing that the facts did not match the general public’s overall assumptions about major public policy issues. This isn’t an argument for ‘individuals are stupid, take their votes away and let things be run by professionals/technocrats!’ If anything, it’s an argument for making our the structures and processes of our state institutions much easier for people to interact with. One example might be not having such complicated consultation processes – so that more people know which are the points they need to make their views heard and why.

A citizen’s eye view of our institutions?

One of the things I’ve been doing ever since returning to Cambridge from London is mapping out in my mind Cambridge’s institutional structure. The sheer complexity of what goes on in a city of 123,000 people (and growing) for me is part of the problem. The amount of time it takes to map and navigate that structure is huge. It’s all too easy to assume that everyone else has the same experiences, knowledge, insights and understanding that you do. Hence the incredulity of some on social media not able to understand why someone in Clacton or Rochester might say they’re going to vote for UKIP because the until recently incumbent Tory MP had been useless. With very limited time and limited information of varying partiality, it might make perfect sense to vote for a given candidate/party. With a different amount of time and more/different information, said voter may have chosen a different candidate in that same election.

What will the response to UKIP be in 2015?

There’s been a fair amount of comment about politics becoming a five-party contest in England – especially given the slow but steady rise of The Green Party. Party membership data from the House of Commons shows Labour with 190,000 members, the Tories on 144,000 and the Lib Dems on 44,000. The paper shows UKIP with 39,000. The Greens with 25,000 over across the UK, with just over 20,000 of those in England and Wales. The picture is different in Wales with the presence of Plaid Cymru (campaigning for Welsh independence) and the SNP in Scotland – especially given the reaction to the independence referendum.

I don’t think the response is going to be uniform – even though the mainstream media will want to portray it as “[insert name of party leader] takes fight to Nigel!” Competent candidates, local party organisation and activists embedded within existing civic & community networks for incumbent political parties are likely to become even more important over top-down national media campaigns.

“What do you do if you don’t like any of them?”

My good friend Frances Coppola faces this in Rochester & Strood – see her interesting blogpost here. As a candidate earlier this year in Cambridge, I felt it was a good touch for Carswell to pay tribute to all of the candidates that took part in the by-election at a time of ‘anti-politics’. In my case, I stood to raise awareness on local issues rather than standing to win. Simply by being there and ‘quotable’ in the media meant that other candidates and parties felt more obliged to respond to the things I raised.

It takes courage to get the nominations and deposit together and stand for national election. It remains to be seen whether the equivalent of Jury Team in 2010 will form for independent candidates to shelter under, but historically these short-lived alliances have had little impact.

Another alternative is to become active with groups or campaigns that try to get people more engaged and educated about how democracy functions – and/or how to improve it. Unlock Democracy is one such organisation. Others happen at a much more local level – for example Chris Rand’s ward-specific website for Queen Edith’s in Cambridge. I’ve started with digital video since May’s election campaign – filming the views and opinions of people local to me.


Posted in Cambridge, Party politics, Public administration & policy, Social media | 1 Comment

Using video to make local politics and democracy more accessible


Some thoughts on using digital video/filming events to bring politicians closer to the people

Over the past few weeks I’ve filmed a number of talks, speeches presentations and events. This is all part of what I can only describe as a ‘personal calling’ to revitalise local democracy and community action in my home town. Be the change – Cambridge is part of that, as was standing for election under Puffles’ name/brand in May 2014 in Cambridge.

Recording a press conference

Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party of England and Wales has been in Cambridge on a number of occasions recently. On 7 October the Green Party unveiled Dr Rupert Read as their prospective parliamentary candidate for Cambridge at a press conference at Kings College. You can see Dr Read’s speech below.

Cambridge 105FM also interviewed Dr Read and Natalie Bennett – listen to the podcast here. Julian Clover who did the radio interview was one of the journalists at the press conference – as was Jon Vale, the new local government correspondent of the Cambridge News. We were also joined by a BBC Cambridgeshire camera crew. There were also a number of students and academics, along with local party activists – about 25 of us in total. As with the mainstream media, it’s not the reporters that decide what gets published, but the editors. Yet without recorded media coverage, you don’t get to hear the speaker in their own words.

Given the nature of the event, and given my community reporting role, I felt a sort of obligation to ask questions when the floor was opened up. The sort of questions I go for are ones that are specific to Cambridge – in particular my neighbourhoods, and ones that can apply to all political parties. Unless I want to nail down a specific commitment, I tend to go for softer, more open questions that allow the respondent to ‘think aloud’. This avoids ‘loaded question vs line-to-take-tennis’.

Number of plays online vs number of people attending

For the two videos that I uploaded from that press conference, there were over 80 ‘plays’ (and even more uploads) within the first 48 hours of the videos being uploaded. In the grand scheme of things, 80 isn’t that many. But if it’s depth rather than breadth you’re looking for, that can be the difference between a couple of individuals becoming active as a result of becoming informed/inspired as a result of viewing the footage. Given how closely contested Cambridge will be in 2015…exactly.

Actually, having local digital video content for student political societies matters – especially at the start of a new academic year

Earlier on I was at two events – one with Cambridge Young Greens, followed by another with Cambridge Student Liberal Democrats. In August I did some filming for the latter, and popped into their event at Kings (ironically in the same room that The Greens had had their press conference in some 56 hours earlier) to give them the video files.

Earlier this week was the big annual freshers’ fair. That’s thousands of students signing up to every other society under the sun, people signing up for email lists, liking Facebook pages and following Twitter accounts. With digital video footage, you get human voices & faces of those that run the societies diversifying content. With the Lib Dem video, I filmed a series of interviews with local and visiting student activists, asking them what got them interested in politics. Despite the over-sensitive internal microphone, I managed to get it into a state where the interviewees could be heard. As it was their event, it’s their call as to whether it gets published or not. But to give you a feel of the concept, it was very similar to this series of clips I filmed at a recent climate vigil in Cambridge.

In the above video, there are people from across Cambridge’s communities. One of the people featured in that video has known me since I was a child. Others featured in that video were not even born at that time. You also had locals as well as people from other parts of the world. In the case of local student parties, would you want some of your members to feature in short digital video clips like that? In particular ones where perhaps you can break some negative stereotypes about either what Cambridge is like, what your party is like or even what politics is like?

“What about Labour and the Tories?”

Having met members of Cambridge Student Liberal Democrats, Cambridge Young Greens and Cambridge Universities Labour Club, they’ve all been interesting, bright and personable. I’ve not been to any of the Cambridge University Conservative Association events as they only set up their Facebook page in June 2014 so haven’t been in touch yet – though they have a number of very interesting speakers in Cambridge this autumn. (See their term card here). Both former Attorney General Dominic Grieve MP and Universities Minister Dr Greg Clark MP are worth going along to hear, for anyone interested in public administration & policy-making – not just party politics.  CUSU’s UKIP student society at the time of posting seems dormant.

“Will digital video have an impact?”

That depends on what the parties choose to do with the footage. For example Cambridge Young Greens have 179 likes on Facebook (as of 9 Oct 2014) while Cambridge Liberal Democrats (whose page has been around for longer) has 606 likes. Cambridge Universities Labour Club has 608 likes, the Cambridge University Conservative Association has 153 likes. For future digital videos it’ll be interesting to track how many plays came through from these pages – assuming admins choose to post links themselves. Ditto with individual Twitter accounts – which are slightly different in that I find it’s the personal rather than the group party accounts that are more active & have higher followings.

In terms of emotional impact and mobilising people for action, digital video for me does three things.

Familiarisation with other people

The first is that it can help familiarise viewers with people who run the societies and who are active in it. This can help answer the question of: “Are these the sort of people who not only share my values but are the sort of people I want to spend time with?”

Not being left out if you miss an event

The second one is on keeping people informed – especially where they have to miss an event they would otherwise have gone to. This is critical for those people with accessibility issues. I’m not just thinking about people who use wheelchairs or mobility scooters. I’m also thinking about people who, like myself are dependent on public transport, or perhaps those who have childcare/caring responsibilities.

A resource you can come back to

If you’re out and about campaigning, or if someone asks detailed questions on a party policy online, it might be that a digital video of an event has a speaker that comprehensively answers the question for you. One of the advantages of being in a political party is that you can rely on someone else’s expertise to deal with those detailed policy questions you don’t know the answer to.

“How do you persuade people from different parties to let you film or live-tweet from their events?”

Part of it is an issue of trust. Am I a secret renegade spying on one party for another? No. If I was, I’d have been found out by now. Given that I’ve worked in policy teams in the civil service for ministers of all of the three main parties in my time inside the system, that inevitably comes with its own responsibilities on what information you handled in your day-to-day duties. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I’ve stood as an independent candidate in a public election – under my Twitter avatar Puffles.

Puffles prepares to cross-examine candidates for the European Parliament Elections for the East of England region.

Puffles prepares to cross-examine candidates for the European Parliament Elections for the East of England region.

It’s one thing to say you’re not a member of any political party, but quite another to stand as an independent candidate against all of the other parties. (Basically you get kicked out of political parties if you stand against them in elections – e.g. if you don’t get selected as a candidate in your desired seat and decide to stand anyway independently).

Think also about both the free publicity & free service, and the ability to keep control of it. With the events that I’ve filmed at, I’ve said to the organiser/host that they are in control. If they want me to stop filming at any point, that’s their right. Ditto with making footage public. It’s their call. Some people are happy for it to be public, others prefer to have footage password-protected so only friends can see. Others prefer not to be filmed at all. That’s fine with me.

A snipped on quality of footage

It was the experience of filming the Liberal Youth event in August that persuaded me to get a professional external microphone for my new camcorder – which itself is at what they call the ‘prosumer end’ of the market. This is all part of me learning about how use digital video in a manner beyond the ‘home video style’ content. A standard camcorder or smartphone would have really struggled with the climate vigil – both lighting and audio.

It isn’t a case of ‘shut up and film’ – as I’m finding out. A couple of the regular venues that host meetings or events are not the easiest to film in when it comes to lighting or acoustics. Unfortunately given the perilous state of funding of community venues in particular, I can’t see many of them being in a position where they can pay for a refurbishment that would make them ideal for filming in. With public events you’ve also got to consider the audience in the room. It might be nice to have a camera close and at eye-level with the speaker, but that often blocks the view of the audience in the room. You’re then left with a choice of a worm’s eye view (which is seldom flattering) and a reasonably clear voice, or reasonably good visuals but a less clear voice.

Hence why functioning microphones and speakers in AV-equipped rooms are your friends!

Posted in Cambridge, Education, training and exams, Party politics, Public administration & policy, Social media | 1 Comment

Coleridge shines on its open day – breaking a generation of negative stereotypes


On how one of our local secondary schools is demonstrating what investment and leadership can achieve – for this was an open evening that busted a number of negative local stereotypes

The signs across a number of houses in my neighbourhood stated clearly:

“Coleridge Open Day – all invited”

So I went along – in part because of my role as a governor at one of its feeder primary schools, but also to see the place for myself. With a public administration hat on, I also wanted to talk to the teachers to hear their perspectives on the challenges they face.

You’ve come a long way in a short space of time

The interesting thing compared to when I made the transition from primary to secondary was the lack of open evenings in the autumn with the local secondary schools – something that was to change shortly after. I remember spending a half-day at the school in the early 1990s and not getting the sense that the school completely dispelled the negative things the community of parents in our part of town were saying about the school. As recently as 2003, the school was in special measures – see here.

One former student of that time – UKIP activist Michael Heaver wrote of his time there in this comment piece. I completely understand his anger and frustration – if anything they are some of the same emotions that I felt with the institutional shortcomings I faced at school, college and university. I also completely understand him blaming the political party in power at the time – just as I did with the Thatcher and Major administrations that starved our schools of much-needed investment in infrastructure. The bit where I screwed up was lack of courage – not speaking up when I knew in my heart of hearts I was not comfortable with the situation or original choices I had made.

“So…what’s changed?”

Although the front of the building remains unchanged, the new structures behind it are unrecognisable from the 1990s. The music and drama facilities in particular were quite breathtaking compared to what I was expecting. Big, spacious, modern, new and well-equipped. The next challenge is matching those facilities with competent and inspirational teaching.

Musical theatre – the first thing you see and hear

The design of the new building helped immensely, as one of the new halls is what you walk straight forwards into. They put it to good use for the open evening, with a series of musical numbers from a joint production of ‘The Wiz’ that will be on at the Mumford Theatre at Anglia Ruskin University. (22-24 Oct – tickets here). Put yourself in the situation of a year six child going into the school possibly for the first time. You walk into the hall and you see several dozen students from years 7-13 dancing and singing a quite-complex choreographed number. Co-ordinating that many people is not easy – let alone performing it. (As someone who has danced, choreographed and sung for public performance in very recent years, I can testify to this!)

The impact? A huge embrace for the year six students. A sense of ‘I want to be doing what they are doing!’. Rather than just having year seven & year eight students, it was across the age range. The impact there? You’ll be able to make friends with people who are older and bigger than you. For anyone worried about bullying – the fear of which cast a dark shadow over my time at school – knowing that you’ll have the support of older and wiser peers can be massively reassuring.

“You don’t have to worry about the bigger students – they are just like you, except taller”

Just after her speech, the principal Bev Jones threw some questions to a handful of year seven students who had come from the main feeder schools plus a few others. In that act alone, seeing students who the year six visitors were familiar with talking about the school must have been reassuring. Bear in mind that twelve months ago, some of the year six students would have been in the same class at primary school as the year seven students on the panel.

Again, the testimony from the year seven students matched that of a couple of year eight students I spoke to with their drama teacher a few minutes earlier. Both the year eight students were part of the production mentioned above, and I asked a series of open-ended questions about the impact being part of such a large musical theatre production had on them. The rehearsal commitment – several evenings per week, was huge. They said this made them much more disciplined with homework. When I asked them what they would say to a small group of shy year six children from my school, they talked passionately about how being part of a large musical chorus brought shy students out of their shells, and increased their confidence. Their drama teacher was delighted – not least as she said she didn’t have to answer any of the questions. The students answered them comprehensively.

It was at the principal’s speech that I found former Labour MP for Cambridge and now chair of governors, Anne Campbell sat next to me. Mrs Jones was appointed fairly recently – in 2012, having worked in schools across the city as well as having been an adviser in regional government across East Anglia. In that regard, she has experience of breadth as well as depth.

In her speech, Mrs Jones didn’t shy away from the school’s historical problems. Instead, she dealt with them head on in particular the Ofsted reports. (See here). If anything, it was a textbook response of how to account for shortcomings raised in an inspection. Accept the report and give a point-by-point response on how you are dealing with each of the main issues, why you’re taking each action, and what impact you expect each action to have. What would have been reassuring to parents is both the focus on progress for all students, along with clear procedures on how to deal with disruptive students in a manner that does not disrupt the education of the rest of the class.

From a public administration perspective, with a respected former MP as your chair of governors and a head who’s prepared to deal with issues head on very publicly, you’re in reasonably safe hands. That’s not to say ‘job done’ – there’s still a huge amount of work to do. But today I got a real sense of momentum that I wasn’t fully aware of until this visit.

Community input

In the entrance to the main hall were two stalls. One was from Cambridge University Press – the school’s business and mentoring partner. They provide mentoring and work experience to students at the school. Put yourself in the shoes of the parent of a prospective student. Would one of the biggest publishing brands in the world want to put its brand at risk by associating itself with a failing school that had no hope of turning around?

On the other side was the Mill Road History Project – and one of the most well-known and respected tour guides in the city, Allan Brigham manning it. This says: “Our links with our local community are so strong that we have the local community represented here on our open day”. Now, when you have a community as diverse as Mill Road on your doorstep, a wealth of teaching and community resources are on your doorstep.

Year six prospective Coleridge students indicating their favourite historical period - taken with the kind permission of the school's history department

Year six prospective Coleridge students indicating their favourite historical period – taken with the kind permission of the school’s history department. Note ‘The future’. There was also ’20th C social policy’ too!

The view of the staff?

When you come into an institution with the job of turning it around, there’ll inevitably be some staff turnover. I’ve seen it in the civil service and in other institutions. Mrs Jones mentioned this in her speech, and I spoke to a number of staff who said they had only been in the school for a short amount of time when I started asking more detailed questions. The reason why this was reassuring was this reflected consistency of action. The new senior management ‘manages out’ the staff that don’t share the vision and sense of purpose, and you bring in new staff that do.

With a number of staff, I was pleasantly surprised to find a number of mutual friends and acquaintances from times gone by. This was along with a familiarity of the school I am a governor at and the children that come from it to Coleridge. What was really interesting for me was the insights they were able to give about the students that come from my school to theirs, and thoughts on how we can improve further the transition process.

Time for South Cambridge to open its mind?

Yes – and more. It’s time for the whole community to start throwing its support behind the momentum that the school and its supporters have now generated. Because it’s going to need that support as it deals with the challenges of serving some of the more economically deprived wards in Cambridge.

A city-wide approach to supporting our schools?

I delivered a couple of large careers workshops for Soham Village College for the Cambridge Area Partnership last week. Rather than running a ‘what job do you want to do?’ workshop, I got their year nine students (13-14 year olds) exploring the sort of life challenges they want to take on, and the life experiences they want to have when they are older. I then got them thinking about how they might go about achieving this and what skills they’d need to learn/knowledge they’d need to acquire as a result. So when one of them said:

“I wanna be a space pirate!”

…I said:

“OK – let’s run with that. What are the skills you are going to need to be a space pirate? How are you going to get from being down here on earth to up there being a space pirate? What are the issues and problems you’re likely to face? Remember there is no repair van in space!”

This was part of a wider ‘careers day’ where the school also invited in the further education colleges and some of their recent past students to talk to college students about what they had gone onto immediately after their GCSEs. Feedback from the teachers was that testimony from recent former students and from people who were practitioners in the fields that students wanted to go into had a big influence.

The big problem? How to co-ordinate all of this.

The goodwill is there from across the city and beyond. What we don’t have – and this was something I discussed with former MP Anne Campbell, was having an overarching structure to oversee and manage that co-ordination – but without it being ‘top down’. This is something the Be the change – Cambridge project is bringing the city together to solve. Have a look at the videos from our first event here. Drop me an email at antonycarpen [at] gmail [dot] com if you’re interested in taking part.

Posted in Cambridge, Education, training and exams, Music, Public administration & policy, Social media | 1 Comment

By-election in my neighbourhood – Should Puffles stand?


Sue Birtles, until recently the Labour Councillor for Queen Edith’s ward has stood down to concentrate on fighting the South Cambridgeshire seat for the 2015 general election. So…should Puffles stand? Should I stand in my own name? Should refrain from standing and organise hustings instead?

News of the by-election is here. If there was a ward other than Coleridge I was going to stand for in the Cambridge City Council elections in May, it was Queen Edith’s. I live by the ward boundary and am a governor at a local school in the ward. See the archive of the earlier campaign here.

What are the issues?

Addenbrookes Hospital

This is an issue that never seems to go away – one of the biggest issues being commuter parking in residential neighbourhoods around the hospital. It’s something that continues to come up at South Area Committee meetings, and never gets resolved.

Unsuitable development

Queen Edith’s is on the edge of Cambridge. The Green Belt is inevitably vulnerable as the city expands – even more so from predatory developers. Hence concern about the Worts Causeway development – see here. Some of the new buildings in South Cambridge are hideous – here’s an example. Queen Edith’s has a lack of community facilities – it still doesn’t have a pub for example. (We await the reopening of the long-closed ‘The Queen Edith’)

Improving the main secondary school

Netherhall school’s leadership failed to respond substantively to repeated correspondence from Cambridge City Council councillors.

Not long after the latest Ofsted inspection (see here), the school announced new leadership arrangements (see here).

This contrasts with the approach Coleridge Parkside school took – they embraced outreach from the city council. The result? Councillors and council officials are regularly engaging with the school and recently ran a local public policy workshop with students there. See their report here.

Community action

South Cambridge has the skills, talent and the people to have a much greater positive impact on our city than we are currently having. One of the biggest barriers to this is that our institutions are not working collaboratively. They are not sharing resources or information nearly as well as they could be. As a result, community facilities are under-used, and people are perhaps needlessly isolated. Young people are less able to take advantages of opportunities on our doorstep, and ultimately we’re not reaching our potential. This I we can change.


Standing for election requires a huge commitment and also costs money that at present I don’t have. Also, last time around the only local resident helped me on Puffles’ campaign. As things stand, neither of us are in the greatest health. Oh – and I’ll also need a different set of proposers as it’s a different ward. Unlike last time, I can’t stand alone.

Other parties standing

Cambridge Conservatives – I expect Chamali Fernando and team to sink their teeth into this one given that South Cambridgeshire Conservatives are still selecting their PPC. Queen Edith’s sits within Cambridge City Council boundaries but is in the South Cambridgeshire Parliamentary Consitituency.

Cambridge Labour – The ward with the massive Addenbrookes Hospital in it, Labour will want to hold onto this seat given the emphasis the NHS will have on their general election campaign.

Cambridge Liberal Democrats – Traditionally a safe council seat for them, Sue Birtles broke through a couple of years ago, defeating longstanding city councillor, Cllr Amanda Taylor (who won the following year for the same ward but for Cambridgeshire County Council). This might be seen as a ‘weather vane’ campaign for the 2015 clash between Julian Huppert and Daniel Zeichner.

Cambridge Greens – Traditionally dormant on this side of town, will they try to follow up a strong showing numerically in the European elections? A campaign here could raise their profile and flush out a few new activists.

Cambridge UKIP – This will be their first test following their announcement they intended to contest every ward seat in Cambridge following a successful East-Anglia-wide showing in the Euro-elections – although they were beaten by The Greens and Conservatives into 5th place in Cambridge. (And beaten by Puffles in Coleridge!)

National Health Action Party

They have a Cambridgeshire Twitter account at @NHA_Cambs with a view to standing in South Cambridgeshire in the 2015 general election, but will they stand in the ward that Addenbrookes is in?

Posted in Cambridge, Party politics | 4 Comments

Will local issues be even bigger factors in the 2015 general election?


With the three main parties facing competition from beyond each other in an era of low trust in party politics, will this – combined with continued growth in social media use mean candidates having to raise their personal profiles over that of the parties they are standing for?

On the latter question, quality of internet connection is a significant contributing factor. Step outside of Cambridge and a few miles out it’s not to hard to find a 3G ‘not spot’ where you can’t access the internet from your mobile. Something perhaps us city dwellers take for granted.

‘A good old-fashioned political sex scandal! It’s just like the good old days of the mid 1990s!’

…was my initial reaction to the tribulations of former minister Brooks Newmark. Yet very quickly a number of legally-aware bloggers and tweeters started indicating that all was not well – and the newspaper concerned could find themselves in serious trouble. The blogpost at by Matthew Scott is a superb example of legal blogging – analysing an incident through the lens of the law rather than through the lens of media-driven ‘public morality’.

‘And political betrayal double-bill too!’

This being the cases of Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless – both of whom defected from the Conservatives to UKIP. Older readers might remember the defections of George Gardiner from the Tories to The Referendum Party following his deselection in 1997, or Alan Howarth defecting from the Tories to Labour in the mid-1990s. The amount of teamwork and volunteer hours it requires for an individual to become first a candidate, and then a victor in an election campaign, is significant. Therefore to defect from one party to another inevitably means kicking lots of sand in the faces of people who made significant sacrifices for you – many of whom will be personal friends and trusted advisers.

What makes these betrayals so fascinating for politics watchers is that it uncovers emotional human sides to politics that are all too often crushed under the party and media machine. Ignore the official responses from senior party members, it’s the responses from close political friends (or ex-friends), the constituency parties and the volunteers that are most likely to reveal the raw emotions – as Mark Reckless seems to have found out here.

Trouble in Labour’s Scottish heartlands

Unlike the mid-1990s when the Tories were tearing themselves to pieces over Europe like the are today, Labour are not approaching the 2015 general election from the position of strength that perhaps they could – or should be. Furthermore, the implosion of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in local government in a number of towns and cities, you have the rise of ‘one party councils’ such as Knowsley. The issue here is of scrutiny and accountability – something that has also been discussed inside Labour circles following Rotherham.

As Ed Miliband said in an interview at his party conference, Labour are seeking to return to office after one term in opposition – something he said had not been done before. But did the conference give signs that here was a PM and a government-in-waiting?

“A flat and uninspiring conference in Manchester had none of the tingle of a party striding confidently towards power

 One member of the shadow cabinet, who has had the memo from Ed Balls about no unfunded spending commitments, groaned: “We weren’t allowed to say anything.””

So said Andrew Rawnsley in today’s Observer.

This contrasts with the ‘UKIP-U-turn on the luxury goods tax policy – which other parties would probably have got a roasting from the media had they done this.

“I am very happy to give the freedom to our spokesmen and spokeswomen to float ideas but I’m pretty certain that while I’m leader that will not be in our manifesto,” [Farage] said in an interview with BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show.

…quoting The Independent on Sunday. To what extent do people want ideas floated at this stage of the electoral cycle vs having a solid nailed-down manifesto?

Party conferences not buzzing and not full?

I’ve just finished watching footage on BBC Parliament of William Hague’s keynote speech – his last in frontline politics before he retires. What surprised me was that the hall was by no means full. Not only that, the hall was much smaller compared to the conferences of the 1980s & 1990s. This was followed by footage of Mark Reckless MP announcing to a celebratory hall of UKIP activists he was quitting the Tories for UKIP. Whatever you think of the policies and politicians of both parties, the contrast in terms of the atmosphere coming through on the TV was marked. One ovation was stage-managed and robotic, the other being an uncontrolled release of energy followed by football-stadium-style chanting.


Are the central offices of the big three parties paralysed by fear?

One of the No campaign’s slogans: “It’s not worth the risk” reflected a media narrative of ‘safety first’. What might seem to a policy expert as a reasonable judgement call does not necessarily make the best campaigning slogan.

Contrasting hope vs fear? Pic via @ElisabethJane

Contrasting hope vs fear? Pic via @ElisabethJane


This contrasts with the Yes campaign in Scotland, which although did not succeed, seems to have unleashed a wave of political energy if the increases in SNP and Scottish Green Party membership is to be believed.

Political leaders lacking in authenticity? Room for local candidates to shine?

This was the conclusion of an Ipsos-Mori study for MumsNet. Does this indicate candidates will be less able to rely upon party branding from their central offices and have to do more to to build their personal brands and personal relationships with constituents? If so, how?

In Cambridge, we know that the candidates for the five biggest parties in England will be:

  • Lib Dems: Dr Julian Huppert MP
  • Conservatives: Ms Chamali Fernando
  • Labour: Mr Daniel Zeichner
  • Greens: Dr Rupert Read
  • UKIP: Mr Patrick O’Flynn MEP

The results from 2010 are here. My analysis post-May 2014 elections, and on who needs to do what, is here. Details of Michael Ashcroft’s detailed polling of Cambridge for the end of September 2014 is here. Note Pg8 and who respondents said they definitely would not vote for. All five candidates are active on social media – but I still think Cambridge is too close to call between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Also note that in the recent Iraq air strikes vote, Julian rebelled against the party whip and voted against the Coalition, and Daniel Zeichner also went against his party’s policy too. Opposition to the 2003 war within the local Labour party was particularly strong – don’t expect it to have been a case of one local politician following another. Both Julian and Daniel consulted people across the city first. Will we see the growing influence of local political ‘microclimates’ making Westminster that little bit more unpredictable?

Going beyond the ‘glum councillor in the local paper’ look

Remember the tumblr account ‘glum councillors’? It’s gone dormant now, but it used to catalogue pictures of local councillors and politicians pointing at bad stuff like potholes and broken fences while looking miserable. Perhaps we’ve got FixMyStreet to bypass things. That’s not to say these things are trivial or not worth bothering about. If it’s your car that’s taking a battering because of potholes down your road, or if it’s your garden that is being broken into as a result of broken fences, these things are very serious indeed. But what’s the best method of keeping residents updated on repairs and correspondence while at the same time inspiring the electorate to get involved in local democracy?

‘Have you had your media training?’

The lack of formal media training has been a reason a couple of people who are party activists or in campaign groups have declined to be filmed by me locally. For me, that reflects the uncertainties many people and institutions have with non-mainstream media. At the same time, the local parties that jump first and familiarise themselves early with digital video will be the ones with the head start. We saw this with the Scottish Independence referendum. The Yes campaign ran rings around the No campaign with social media. The referendum aside, the energy created by how many activists using social media created is something that seems to be going far beyond the referendum campaign itself – one that could well have a longer term impact on how Scotland does politics.

In the 2015 general election, I think there will be a number of constituencies where digital video will come into its own. I reckon it’ll be due to small but very competent groups of digital enthusiasts bypassing the mainstream media and creating their own content; content that is interesting, relevant and local. It won’t have the broadcast slickness of the BBC. But the tools and skills that some have means the quality will be good enough to have an impact.

‘What impact will it have?’

I don’t think you’ll be seeing ‘It woz soshall meejah wot wun it!’ headlines. The impact is much more likely to be below the radar – for example individuals who are already sympathisers to individual parties becoming mobile as a result of seeing something that they can make a difference with. For example notifying people that they are having a neighbourhood stall, or having a visiting national politician coming to town.

Stop hiding your events, actions and visiting politicians!!!

The three mainstream parties are the worst at hiding the presence of national politicians visiting – frightened that they will be ambushed by political opponents. If national politicians are that good and that competent, they’d take such political ambushes in their stride. Unfortunately, what we have are well-hidden visits that are suddenly sprung upon an unsuspecting population. The first thing people find out about the visit of a senior politician is when they hear it in the news that evening or the following day.

At a simple level, one of the best things local parties can do is to give residents sufficient advance notice of when and where they are going to be campaigning, and when senior party politicians are going to be visiting. Give people time to consider and prepare questions to put to your activists and politicians. Take it as a given that your opponents will be campaigning around the same time as you. If your candidates and policies are sound enough, they will stand up to scrutiny both from your opponents and the electorate.

Furthermore, I think there’s a huge opportunity for local parties to open up some of their meetings and gatherings to the general public. I remain surprised that we don’t see regularly scheduled party meetings that are open to members of the public. Which are the local parties that will combine offline meetings with social media conversations to encourage people to get more involved in local democracy?

Why does this all matter?

Governance and oversight on who makes the laws and on how taxpayers’ money is spent. In a nutshell. As Julian Huppert said at our Be the change – Cambridge conversations cafe, the decisions are made by those that turn up. In recent decades, the ability of citizens to oversee and scrutinise decisions has been diminished – not least by the fragmentation, outsourcing and privatisation of public services. How can people make informed decisions if they don’t know how institutions work, let alone know how they can influence them and make their voices heard?

Posted in Cambridge, Party politics, Social media | 2 Comments

Cambridge Climate Vigil, Climate March, Scottish Referendum


Ramblings on three events – one local, one Scottish, and one worldwide

The world ain’t a happy place at the moment – has it ever been? I watched the Scottish independence referendum through both the mainstream and social media lenses. In the end, it was the No campaign that won 55% to 45%. Already Labour and the Conservatives have fallen out about what to do next – leading to accusations from Yes campaigners that the Westminster parties broke their promises within hours of winning the referendum.

45% of an electorate despising a system so much that they voted to set up their own country is not a stable steady-state to be in

What the fallout from this both within Scotland and the wider UK remains to be seen. From my couch in Cambridge, I spotted a number of people from both the Yes and No sides in the media that I have met in person. Seeing the emotions on both sides showed a lot of people threw everything they had into the campaign plus more. Yet on the No side the visible emotion was one of relief, not triumph. On the Yes side, ‘gutted’ is an understatement.

A constitutional convention?

Unlock Democracy have called for one – as have a number of other groups and individuals. Now, call me old-fashioned but if you are part of an institution, aren’t you in a position to be able to get on with organising the damn thing? Why wait for someone else to do it? That’s the mindset we’ve taken with Be the change – Cambridge. We had our first event on 13 September 2014 (see here) and are building momentum autonomously rather than waiting for a large institution to take the first step.

Negative vs positive campaigning, top-down campaign vs an uncontrolled movement

The overall impression I got was that the Yes campaign had much more positive vibes about it, and was much more of a movement that went far beyond traditional political circles. On the other hand, I saw large predominantly London-centric institutions panicking on the back of an opinion poll that said the Yes campaign might win. There was a noticeable split between how the mainstream media reported things vs what was coming out on social media. Despite some of the abuse that was being thrown around, I got a sense of ‘hope’ from the Yes side that I didn’t feel coming from the No side. The list of bad things that the headlines that I read in the national papers gave me the impression of just how wrapped up our political system is by very wealthy interests. This contrasted strongly with debates outside the political parties on the Yes side that had spilled out into communities that were otherwise disengaged with party politics.

Was this ‘social media’ firing warning shots for future general elections?

Yes – but…

Yes – but don’t expect the impact of social media users to be equal across constituencies. There will be a whole host of factors that will either amplify or diminish the social media impact.


The competition between candidates – a safe or a genuinely contested seat will be one. In Cambridge there is a chance that all five mainstream party candidates will get over 5,000 votes each, judging by the European elections earlier this year. Yet in neighbouring South Cambridgeshire, Andrew Lansley was returned with a 27,000 or so votes – 7,000 ahead of his Lib Dem rival. And that was on a 75% turnout.

Digital literacy and accessibility

Is there a critical mass of people using social media? Do they have the hardware, software and internet connection to enable this? Even if they have all of these things, do they have the desire to use social media for democracy? My experience shows that at the moment, few outside political circles do.

Local political culture & local single issues

This can range from people getting used to being able to use social media to get in touch with politicians to the complete implosion in trust of the public sector as shown in some of the recent abuse scandals. There is also a greater possibility that local single issues could rise to the top in individual constituencies. This could amplify the messages of single issue candidates, or make/break candidates from established parties depending on how they handle the issue concerned.

Think global, act local?

There were a series of climate marches that took place on 21 Sept – see . These were organised to coincide with the gathering of world leaders in New York. I wanted to go to the London march but it clashed with a rehearsal, so I took camcorder along to what I thought would be a handful of Green Party types gathered around Reality Checkpoint on Parker’s Piece, holding candles. As it turned out, about 100 people took part all lined up from the University Arms hotel to the centre of the park.

Quite a few people had already left by the time I filmed this clip – not long afterwards about fifty people stayed around for a final group photo. I was originally planning on doing some more Be the change – Cambridge voxpops, but with so many people there I thought the best thing to do was to get people to explain on camera why they were there.

I was surprised at how reluctant many people were to put their views to camera. I assumed – incorrectly as it turned out, that people prepared to turn out for a public protest would have been comfortable to explain why they were there and what they were protesting about or raising awareness about. But then I saw a clip on TV by Allegra Stratton from a Labour Party meeting hosted by Ben Bradshaw MP (former Culture Secretary) about English devolution.

The people attending when collared by Allegra with cameras rolling looked like rabbits caught in headlights – they froze. Only Bradshaw seemed the least bit bothered. And yet this was a meeting involving a group of people so passionate about politics they will turn up to a political party convention, giving up a weekend and possibly annual leave too. (When was the last time you took time off work to go to a political or campaigning event?)

Community reporting with digital video for the 2015 general election?

Something to ponder, as I expect there will be a greater amount of footage filmed from hustings and other events far beyond the traditional broadcast media that will go beyond soundbites. With a limited number of broadcast media outlets in 1997, it was relatively straight-forward to run a very tightly-controlled and centralised campaign. Short soundbites with lines to take were the order of the day. With a much larger and far less disciplined social media world awaiting the 2015 campaign, it’ll be interesting to see how party machines cope with candidates going ‘off-message’.

Posted in Cambridge, Campaigning, protesting and demonstrating, Party politics, Social media | 2 Comments

We did it!


*****Thank you***** to everyone that took part in our conversation cafe! Over fifty people kick-started Be the change – Cambridge. Now the really hard work starts.

See for an early write up with videos. See Lucinda Price’s excellent photographs of the day at

It still hasn’t quite sunk in that we were able to get that many people at such short notice together to crunch through issues and ideas on making Cambridge greater than the sum of its parts. (Remember our definition of Cambridge is its people – including those that commute in to work/study and/or visit regularly).

Civic leaders listen and engage

Even now I have to pinch myself to think how we managed to assemble a gathering that overall included participation from:

  • The prospective parliamentary candidates from the three main parties represented on Cambridge City Council
  • Representation from local, national and European levels of government
  • A visit from the Mayor of Cambridge
Vicky Ford MEP (Con), Julian Huppert MP (Lib Dem) & Cllr Lewis Herbert (Lab) discussing some of the issues with participants.

Vicky Ford MEP (Con),  Cllr Lewis Herbert (Lab) & Dr Julian Huppert MP discussing some of the issues raised by participants.

My personal thanks to Vicky Ford MEP, Dr Julian Huppert MP, Cllr Lewis Herbert, Daniel Zeichner and Chamali Fernando. Thank you to newly elected Cambridge City Councillors, Cllrs Dave Baigent and Tim Moore too.

What was really nice to see was how party politics was put to one side by elected representatives and activists taking part. Everyone focused on collective problem-solving, bringing different perspectives to shared problems.

Learning to let go

As an organiser of a large event, it’s always tempting to stamp your mark on things – showcasing your ideas rather than taking a step back. The big test for me was letting go of it all, and allowing things to proceed at their own pace. Although the only mini-crisis of the day took me out of the room for part of the ‘throw everything onto post-it-notes session’, I’m glad to say I had no input in what people came up with that they wanted to discuss. My view is that I had my say during the local elections. Now was everyone else’s turn.

As David Cleevely and Anne Bailey, our co-chairs for the day said, it turned out to be quite fortunate having a smaller event before a larger one. For a start, we identified many of the teething problems associated with organising and running events. This was the first event of this type where I was a co-organiser & responsible for much of the ground work. Previously as a volunteer for other events, I simply signed up and waited to be told what to do on the day. It’s very different when you’re giving the orders to when you are willingly taking them.

I cannot multi-task

In my case, I tried to do too much on the day. Organising, speaking, live-tweeting and filming – not a good combination. At the larger event we have planned for early 2015, my focus will be on organising. I won’t need to say much – hopefully. We had a critical mass of people live-tweeting – Ceri Jones running our @BethechangeCam twitter account, along with Richard Taylor and Kate Atkin providing regular updates. Also, forgetting to pause and restart during the main presentations meant my laptop crashed and burned the stupendously large file that had some of the most important digital video footage on!

So…what next?

35 people and counting have already joined our Meetup group (see We’re going to have a wash-up session in the next week or so and follow this up with ideas and actions that emerged from the conversation cafe event. Watch this space.


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