Puffles breathes fire into the Haverhill-Cambridge rail campaign


Crossing the county boundary to sprinkle some dragon-fairy dust to help transport campaigners in Suffolk reconnect with Cambridge – and raising the political temperature too

Puffles at Haverhill Arts Centre with a banner for the Haverhill-Cambridge Rail Campaign

Puffles at Haverhill Arts Centre with a banner for the Haverhill-Cambridge Rail Campaign

Actually, it was just as much learning as commenting in Haverhill earlier. It was through Facebook that I found out about the Haverhill-Cambridge rail campaign – see here. I learnt that the campaign has been running for quite some time and a huge amount of work has already been done. In particular the technical work alongside offline campaigning has raised the issue locally to astonishingly high levels – a petition signed by 12,000 people.

Taking the X13 bus journey from Cambridge to Haverhill

It was a lovely sunny evening – nice to see the horse chestnut trees in a state where they are not visibly affected by that horrible moth that turns the leaves prematurely brown. I’m also at the stage where I feel I need a bit of a break from Cambridge – but somewhere that’s not London. If anything just to get away from the noise.

Although not the most picturesque of countrysides – large intensively farmed fields of monoculture crops here – it was nice to get out of the city and see some green and fresh air – even if we were on a bus. We’re at that time of year when, if the sun shines it’s at just the right temperature and intensity, along with a gentle breeze. Anything more and it’s too hot for me. At the same time, I reflected on the loneliness of my escapade. Other than Puffles, there is no ‘partner in crime’ in all of this activism I’ve been doing over the years. Hence feeling even more vulnerable and exposed at doing this – which doesn’t help my anxiety and mental health issues at all.

A high accident route

The road link between Cambridge and Haverhill is full of road signs telling drivers that the route has a history of road accidents. Big red signs that you cannot miss. I spotted a couple of memorials put up by friends and relatives of those that had died in accidents. All the more important I thought that they re-open the rail link between Cambridge and Haverhill.

Rural bus routes don’t make for the easiest of journeys either. Not for the queasy. A reminder of pot-hole-Britain. But again, all the more reason to invest in transport that reduces car journeys and road freight.

Discovering good stuff that Cambridge doesn’t have

It was just as much re-treading a path not trodden since childhood in my case. For some reason I find rail travel much more suitable for ‘turn up and travel’ than buses. There’s something about the weaving and winding routes, along with the irregularity of services due to traffic that creates too much uncertainty for my liking.

The route out of Cambridge going towards Haverhill is south-easterly. Past Wandlebury (where the witches gather for hallowe’en – the first nightmare I can remember having as a child), past Abington where we went for camps (and is now the subject of a campaign to keep it open), past Linton with the zoo, past Chilford Hall where I once helped steward an Oxfam walk, and onto Haverhill. Plus there’s a fair share of inns and farm shops.

Arriving at Haverhill

It’s certainly picturesque in the evening spring sunshine. At the same time, there were tell-tale signs that not all was entirely well with the town. The alcohol prohibition zones indicated that street drinking is a problem. Getting off the bus and heading towards the Haverhill Arts Centre – the old town hall – I got the sense that the economic downturn had hit the town centre too. This despite a growing population and new homes going up. Something tells me there’s some sort of unofficial ‘Cambridge-Haverhill corridor’ that developers and firms have picked up on. Yet at the same time the public institutions haven’t yet been able to put in place the transport and civic infrastructure needed to support it.

Walking into the town hall

When I saw the building, I thought: “Oooh! This is pretty!”

The hall had a proper ‘old school’ feel to it, combined with modern audio-visual support at the back of the room. I noted that the event was being filmed – all the more important from a social and digital media perspective in getting the many important points made at the meeting out to a much wider audience.

Fifty people turned up to an event where we talked about trains

As I tweeted through Puffles, the organisers had clearly done their homework and had put a lot of effort into their campaign over the years. People in Haverhill care. The reason why I turned up with Puffles is that I got this feeling that the campaign probably wasn’t on the radar of Cambridge residents interested in transport. So we went along with the idea of changing all that and connecting their campaign up with transport policy-watchers in Cambridge.

Not the only person from Cambridge in the room

I was pleasantly surprised to meet Peter Wakefield of the Rail Future East Anglia Branch, who was one of the three guest speakers, who is based in Cambridge. As it turned out, he also caught the bus from Cambridge and had similar observations about the route between Cambridge and Haverhill. The third of three speakers, he gave us all a regional picture of where we are. The other two speakers from the Haverhill-Cambridge campaign, Chair Malcolm Hill and Secretary David Edwards gave the audience a history of how we got to where we are. (My thanks to Debra Fox from Cambridge Newspapers (in a Haverhill Echo capacity) for paying closer attention – she was also live tweeting).

“Sounds like #diversityfail on the panel”

This is an industry-wide problem. As an on-off reader of Modern Railways magazine (due to spending lots on train tickets – I want to know where the money goes), adverts for rail events show photographs reflecting a lack of diversity in the industry – particularly at management level.

At the same time, I had a strange admiration for the panel, all of whom are at least a generation older than me. The reason is simple. It will take at least a decade before the rail connection is restored. They’ve all spent decades already campaigning on this issue. Chances are if it is completed, they will be much older than they currently are – and possibly less mobile. I don’t mean that pejoratively – rather they have been and are still campaigning on something, but something that future generations will benefit from. From their knowledge, you could see that all three were passionate about restoring the link and putting right a historical wrong. I don’t know about you, but I think there’s something ‘noble’ about that.

As someone who is a historian by heart, I was also interested to hear the personal anecdotes they retold – ones that stemmed back to a political era that, in our age of social and digital media feels like it is far more distant than perhaps it actually is. To hear about the raw emotion of how people felt when the Beeching axe took away their railways was quite sobering. (See my thoughts here).

Unleashing the power of young people

Well…given that secondary school students in Cambridge can do it (see here)…

When it was my turn to speak at the Q&A session, I told the audience that it was the existence of their Facebook page (see here) that informed me about what they were doing. Peter Wakefield also mentioned the impact of the Wisbech rail campaign’s Facebook page (see here) in opening up not just rail engineering but campaigning and local democracy up to new, younger audiences.

I then said that many of the students from Haverhill that go to Long Road and Hills Road Sixth Form Colleges – both in my neighbourhood – use the No.13 buses to get there. Had they thought about reaching out to these people in their campaigns? Or perhaps secondary school students that may be thinking of applying to those institutions? To my delight, the campaign said:

“Yes – we’ll do that!”

The way I framed the point was about inspiring people to learn both about big engineering in a hyper-local context, and about campaigning and local democracy too. I got the sense that this point clearly resonated around the room. So here’s hoping that West Suffolk College, Linton Village College (which was on the bus route and used to have a station too), Long Road Sixth Form College (whose students have been campaigning for ages for a railway station serving them and Addenbrookes) and Hills Road Sixth Form College will be hearing from the campaign, along with the secondary schools in Haverhill.

Puffles also helped things along a little in Whitehall. One of Puffles’ long time followers on Twitter is Clare Moriarty, Director General of the Rail Executive of the Department for Transport in London.

The Haverhill-Cambridge rail campaign is now on her radar. Can a new generation of campaigners go after their elected politicians (via WriteToThem) to lobby ministers about the case for this link? After all, Cambridgeshire County Council is already on the case. (See here).

“What’s the next step?”

As Debra Fox tweeted quoting the campaign, a business case and feasibility study

“That’s not cheap”

Hence the need to persuade politicians that such things will be value for money. But it needs local people that will benefit from a rebuilt rail link to make the case.

“Aren’t there elections on soon?”

That was my final point – as Debra Fox tweeted.

I invited the room to use the internet and social media to find out the politicians’ views on this.

“A message to people in Haverhill?”

Haverhill has councillors from Labour, UKIP and the Conservatives, and can all be found here. Alternatively, go to WriteToThem.Com where if you type in your postcode, it will give you details of your MP, MEPs and councillors. It also has a template for you to fire off ***lots of questions*** about what they are going to do to help things along.

Even if you don’t have the vote (for example you’re under 18), you can still ask questions, make suggestions and demand answers from politicians. If a group of year 9 students in Cambridge can succeed in changing the culture of an institution by lunchtime – something I failed to do in 2 years of campaigning, who knows what you can achieve?

It’s your future. Be the change.

(And do let me know how you get on!)



Posted in Business economics and finance, Cambridge, Campaigning, protesting and demonstrating, Charities and Big Society, Events I have been to, History, Party politics, Public administration & policy, Puffles, Social media | 1 Comment

A manifesto for Cambridge – my first draft.


My ideas on (electronic) paper

Well, this is quite a big deal for me – not least because it’s over 6,000 words of ideas. As a result, I have created a separate section on this blog’s title bar to bring the various ideas together. A 6,000 word blogpost is over-kill.

I spent a couple of days writing the whole thing up, by hand in Balzanos Cafe & deli in my neighbourhood. Sometimes you have to do things the old-fashioned way to allow your mind to work. I then typed it up on a single document and copied it onto here, broken down as set out below. Please note this is a ****first draft**** – posted here because I want to hear your comments, views & suggestions.

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve still not yet decided whether to stand as proposed in this blogpost. Support and interest has been minimal and broadly negative. (All the more reason why Puffles should kick up a fuss?)

Anyway, my thoughts and ideas are as follows – though please note Puffles’ house rules (see here) apply


Part 1 – A manifesto: Because Cambridge can be better

Part 2 – What problems will this manifesto solve?

Part 3 – Pillars and themes Part 4 – Background

The ten themes 

Click on the relevant theme number to see what I’ve written in each one.

Theme 1) Grassroots challenge

Theme 2) Supporting young people

Theme 3) Community action

Theme 4) Lifelong learning for living

Theme 5) Civic responsibility from institutions

Theme 6) Supporting our friends and neighbours in surrounding towns and villages

Theme 7) On public buildings and public spaces

Theme 8) Green Cambridge

Theme 9) A safe city

Theme 10) A healthy and active city


Posted in Cambridge, Campaigning, protesting and demonstrating, Charities and Big Society, Mental health, Party politics, Public administration & policy, Puffles, Social media | Leave a comment

Liberal Democrats’ manifesto for Cambridge 2014


Liberal Democrats playing it safe too – but they are the ones with the record to defend, warts and all

Following the publication of Labour’s manifesto for Cambridge – which I looked at here, Cambridge Liberal Democrats have done the same. Have a look at their manifesto here.

“First thoughts?”

As with the Labour manifesto, clearly a fair amount of thought and effort has gone into the policy content this. Just not as much as with the Labour manifesto. I’m also surprised that the presentation is so poor compared to Labour’s manifesto. For a start, it’s not even in colour and there are no photographs or pictures. No group photo of the people involved, no single photographs or quotations of individuals concerned, and no links to any online content or even a mention of the website. There’s also not even a contents page.

“So…very off-putting to read then?”

I think the problem is when compared to what Labour have produced – and note they got theirs out first – is that it looks like it was produced for a past decade. At least Labour’s has a consistency of format – albeit one that perhaps betrays a little bit too much ‘central control from party HQ in London, but it comes across as much more… ‘professional’.

“Could they turn it around last minute?”

They could get in touch with some professional publishers, send a few photographs and say: “Look, make this look nicer than theirs!” for a start. But then perhaps this is a document made for mass printing on home printers rather than something produced by expensive professional publishers or printers.

“What about the content?”

The fact is that the Liberal Democrats are defending their record of political control of the council. 14 years of it as they state on in the opening text box. Hence the ‘What have the Liberal Democrats done for us?’ box. Personally I’d have gone with fewer, bolder claims that resonate with people. The one mentioning ‘clearing up after Labour’s mess’ doesn’t feel right – it’s the equivalent of Labour in 2010 talking about what the Tories did in the early 1990s.

Comparing the themes

Cambridge Liberal Democrats have gone for five themes:

  1. A place of your own
  2. A city that works for all
  3. Keeping Cambridge moving
  4. Quality of life
  5. Making ends meet to improve and protect basic services

This compares with Labour’s themes of:

  1. Protecting essential services
  2. Sharing the city’s prosperity
  3. Tackling the housing crisis
  4. Safety and quality of life
  5. Making Cambridge greener and cleaner
  6. Transforming the council

A place of your own

The first theme the Liberal Democrats look at has been scoped reasonably well. Personally I’d have gone for: “A place called home”. With this in mind, they’ve covered the city’s role on planning control and as a provider of social housing, with a column about the local plan. The problem is the column-style layout does not make for easy reading. Hence some of their stronger policy areas – particularly on the environment, and some of the past problems, such as Central Government’s bar on council house building (one of the old Labour Government’s big policy errors in my opinion) could have been more readable and more clear.

A city that works for all

This goes for both parties, but when making statistical claims in your manifesto, please include a footnote to reference them. We’re in a digital age – I expect to be able to click through from hyperlinks to the primary source of your claim. In this case the one that stands out is about Cambridge being the most equal UK city. That may be the case statistically, but I have no effortless way of finding out. Also, it certainly doesn’t feel like it is equal when I see homes in my childhood neighbourhood going for between £500,000 to £1million. (The area being the borderlands of the Coleridge and Queen Edith wards).

In comparing this theme with Labour’s theme of sharing the prosperity, the latter emerge the stronger. The reason being that Labour have a whole series of specific actions and policies. It’s not as clear from the Liberal Democrats what their distinguishing policies are. What are the things that make me as the reader identify with something that makes me think: 1) this is really innovative and 2), this is something that links to the values of the party? Again, the Liberal Democrats suffer because of the document’s layout. Labour have gone for sub-headings for each of their policies while the Liberal Democrats have gone for bold words within the text – the latter being harder to pick out.

Keeping Cambridge moving

Although content-wise there isn’t that much that separates the two parties, Labour’s comes across more powerfully because of how they have presented their content. There is a fair amount of work that the Liberal Democrats could be taking more credit for, if only they had presented their manifesto in a more professional manner. As a result, Labour’s plans come across with a much greater degree of focus than the Liberal Democrats, even though transport-wise they are very similar.

Quality of life

These have been randomly mixed in with the party’s values. The thing is, these values should be resonating with a lot of people – it’s not as if there’s a huge amount in there to disagree with. Again, because of poor presentation, potentially strong content gets lost in the text.

There have been a number of new innovative activities that the Liberal Democrats have piloted – such as restorative justice that many people may not know about. At the same time I also think the party could have taken a risk about being more open and honest with its policy failures – particularly around planning and building control. The developments around Cambridge railway station represent a massive missed opportunity for many of us that live near by.

Making ends meet to improve and protect basic services

The Liberal Democrats should have done what Labour did with this section – and perhaps had it earlier on in their manifesto too. Labour started with the basic numbers of the Whitehall funding cuts. Personally I’d have gone with having the numbers in bullet points to say that the picture is as it is because of decisions taken far outside the control or influence of local councillors.

They finish with a call for a unitary authority – something that Labour also calls for. Again, this is something that can only be delivered through an Act of Parliament. Both parties could have said something about how they will push for this to be included in national manifestos. The reason being is that we have a broken structure of public administration for Cambridge. Without that unitary authority, Cambridge will continue to struggle with the burdens of being a city with a global brand but the civic infrastructure of a market town.

“Does the manifesto inspire you?”

Not really.

“How do you think they could have done it? They have been in political control for over a decade, so it was quite a hard sell!”

As a package it just comes across as a cheap, rushed imitation of what Labour has produced. And it didn’t need to be. I know a number of people in both political parties personally. With the Liberal Democrats, I know that they are better than the document they have produced, hence my surprise and disappointment. Perhaps after 14 years in political control of the council, as well as taking a hammering for the decisions taken by their party members in the Coalition Government in Whitehall they are exhausted. As with Labour in 2010, I can’t help but get the feeling that the fight has gone out of them, and that they need the rest and opportunity to refocus that opposition will provide.

What could they have done differently?

  • Presentation and layout. Any strong content they had was lost in the text
  • Fewer, bolder themes emphasising success and partnership working
  • Acknowledgement of where things went wrong – one or two of the really obvious things that would give some indication of what they’ve learnt
  • Photographs, references, links to online content

“Is this a manifesto to win a local election?”

It isn’t – the presentation gives the game away. Imagine you are a political activist. Irrespective of the content, which document, if printed out would you be more comfortable taking out and about with you to show to people? Comparing the two manifestos alone, the local council elections for 2014 are one for Labour to lose. Theirs comes across as more planned, more focused, better presented and one that has had far more thought put into it than their Liberal Democrat opponents. The question is can they make this advantage count at the ballot box?

“Lessons for 2015?”

Irrespective of who wins and takes political control of Cambridge City Council, there are some big lessons for the Liberal Democrats for next year’s general election and local council elections. The need to produce a manifesto that looks much more like it was made in the 21st century. Not just photographs, maps, diagrams and quotations, but footnotes, references and hyperlinks. The reason being that people will be giving a damn sight more scrutiny to their manifesto of 2015 than what they’ll give for this one. There’s the talent within their party – and through their supporters and sympathisers to produce something far better than what they have produced here.



Posted in Cambridge, Campaigning, protesting and demonstrating, Party politics | 3 Comments

Parkside Coleridge students unlock democracy in Cambridge


Year 9 students achieved by lunchtime what I had failed to achieve in over 2 years of campaigning, as young people show how they can change the cultures of our public institutions

My jaw figuratively hit the floor when one of my local councillors & leader of the Cambridge Labour group on Cambridge City Council, Councillor Lewis Herbert, responded to my question at Cambridge East Area Committee. I asked him what councillors had learnt from their recent visit to Parkside’s Coleridge Campus in Cambridge.

Some of you might be aware that I have been campaigning for quite some time (with probably reduced effectiveness/impact as time has gone on) about the need for local councils and councillors to listen to young people, and for more of them to start using social media. Despite all of my connections in local government and in Westminster, despite a significant social media following on Twitter through Puffles, despite working knowledge of local government policy in Whitehall/Central Government in London, and despite having been to lots of council meetings in person, I cannot match the achievements of what Year 9 students at Coleridge achieved in a single morning: They changed the culture and mindset of an influential institution – or rather the leader of it.

I’d also like to thank Andrew Limb and his team at Cambridge City Council, and to the head of Coleridge Bev Jones and her team for making this visit happen. I’m aware that the significant pressures on the curriculum, as well as demands on councillors’ time mean organising such things are very difficult. I’d also like to thank the other councillors that went along too – including Cllr Richard Johnson who informed me that the visit was taking place. I’d also like to thank Cllr Lewis Herbert too – to come out with a statement like that took a fair amount of courage knowing the past exchanges in previous blogposts I have had with other councillors in his party. (I cover this further down).

“Splendid stuff! Now that the council is more likely to be in ‘listening’ mode, what next for Coleridge students – and young people across Cambridge?”

There are elections coming up on 22 May – for the European Parliament (see here for a video guide) and for Cambridge City Council (see here for the council’s election information). Just because you do not have the vote does not mean you do not have a voice. You’ve already demonstrated that. Now’s your chance to really make a ***massive impact*** on Cambridge.


By using social and digital media to ask questions, make suggestions and most importantly, demand answers to the issues that are important to you. Councillors, political activists and people like me all have our own specific interests, but they won’t necessarily be the same as yours, and they definitely won’t be based on the same life experiences. Now’s your chance to make your influence count – in very big numbers and all at once.

“Where do I find my elected representatives?”

The easiest way is by going to the website writetothem.com - simply type in your post code and it will show you who your representatives are on Cambridge City Council, Cambridgeshire County Council, in the UK Parliament and in the European Parliament. There is also the Cambridgeshire community website ShapeYourPlace. If you want your concerns to be made public, you can post them on there. Also, Ms Ashley Whittaker of Cambridgeshire County Council offers schools and colleges free training in citizen journalism for those of you that want to use the website. You and/or your teachers can contact her via this form.

“What about Facebook, Twitter and things like that?”

I’ve tried to persuade local parties to improve their Facebook presence, but am having no luck. Not least because so few people outside the local democracy bubble make use of them. Only you can change their minds. Before you click on the links below, have a look at the guidance on staying safe online from the Information Commissioner’s Office - click here. The Information Commissioner is the official ‘Watchdog’ responsible for protecting your privacy.

Cambridge Conservatives

Cambridge Green Party

  • Facebook – They are here as a fan page, which at the time of blogging is standard. They also have a Cambridge Young Greens fan page too. While anyone can post content, conversations are limited.
  • Twitter – @CambridgeGreens, though as with the Conservatives, a few broadcast-style tweets. No local regular Twitter activists sparring at a Cambridge City Council level, though @FionaRadic covers at a county level, and @GreenRupertRead at a regional level.
  • Website/blog – they are here.

Cambridge Labour Party

  • Facebook – They are here as a fanpage. While anyone can post comments, only admins can post content. Cambridge Universities Labour Club’s Facebook page (see here) is much more vibrant, and anyone can post content.
  • Twitter – @CambridgeLabour – nothing since 2010! In stark contrast to a wealth of active Twitter users, including deputy leader @CarinaOReilly@CllrRJohnson and@AnnMSinnott.
  • Website/blog – They are here, but the new-style website based on a centralised template (see similarities say to Harlow, here) needs populating – particularly on campaigns and events.

Cambridge Liberal Democrats

Cambridge UKIP

  • Facebook – None
  • Twitter – None, though the (former) UKIP group leader @PeterReeve on Cambridgeshire County Council has been a regular tweeter for some time, and has a sizeable following.
  • Website/blog – the only one I could find was this one.

“What should I ask about – and how?”

Ultimately that’s up to you. You may want to ask about:

  • Something in your neighbourhood that could be improved
  • Something that is stopping you from doing or achieving something you are passionate about
  • An injustice – something that you feel is wrong and needs dealing with

Remember that some issues will be more suitable for discussing in public than others. For issues that are private and/or sensitive, you may want to speak to an adult in a position of trust first. In Cambridge there is also the youth charity Centre33 (see here - they were excellent with me a few years back) and nationally, there is Childline.

“How can we increase our impact – and get the changes we want?”

For a start, getting together with other people. If you and a group of friends post similar questions together to local political parties and candidates, the greater their incentive to respond. Remember at the moment, few people outside Cambridge’s local democracy social media bubble use social media to engage with councillors. You can change that.

There are also local campaign groups that might interest you. How many of you cycle regularly? The Cambridge Cycling Campaign (see here) is one of the most active. For those of you on Facebook or Twitter, are you following them? For those of you interested in the environment, how about Transition Cambridge? (See here). For both of those local groups, it would just take a couple of you from each secondary school or sixth form college in Cambridge getting involved with them to get them campaigning for and with you on like-minded issues.

“Just how significant is the achievement by Parkside Coleridge students?”

Very. It’s a ‘game changer’ potentially.

My blogpost and the conversation stream that followed in here shows just how entrenched the views of different people were. To note in the comments stream, George Owers and Carina O’Reilly are both Labour councillors for Cambridge City Council, and Ian Manning is a Liberal Democrat councillor on Cambridgeshire County Council – all based in Cambridge. Note that as recently as January 2014, both Cllrs Owers and O’Reilly were stating that as far as public administration is concerned, Cambridgeshire County Council has the main responsibility for young people – not Cambridge City Council. (Technically correct).

Fast forward less than three months, and the leader of their party is saying publicly that councillors need to significantly improve their relationship with teenagers. The point being that the way the councils are set up encourages councillors and council staff on Cambridge City Council to put ‘young people’ in a box marked ‘For Cambridgeshire County Council. Cllr Lewis Herbert has effectively said this has got to change.

“Message to students at schools and colleges across Cambridge?”

Start discussing the local issues with friends and family. Come up with questions that you want to put to councillors, candidates and parties. Just as importantly, please give them feedback on what you think of their responses. Did they answer your question? Did their response satisfy you? Did it annoy you? Did it make you want to ask even more questions/make more demands? Did you ask them further questions? Where appropriate, did you share the responses you got with other people? Finally, how will you use the new found knowledge? Will you influence how adults around you choose to vote? Will you join a local campaign?

If community action is your thing…

Have a look at National Citizen Service in the East of England – see here. It’s run 3 times a year and aimed at students in years 11 and 12. There’s lots of outward bound activities and lots of community action where you get to design and run your own project. Have a look at this.

Cambridge: It’s your city. Be the difference.

Posted in Cambridge, Campaigning, protesting and demonstrating, Charities and Big Society, Education, training and exams, Party politics, Public administration & policy, Social media | 1 Comment

So…should Puffles stand for election in Cambridge?


Decision time is coming up. Should Puffles stand? 

Puffles with a baby dragon fairy outside a polling station in 2012

Puffles with a baby dragon fairy outside a polling station in 2012

This is something that I’ve been asking a few people about ever since the Cambridge News reported on an angry blogpost I wrote regarding engaging with young people, and social media (see their article here).

The only party thus far to publish a detailed manifesto that I’ve seen is Cambridge Labour Party – which I commented on in this blogpost. Essentially a good but very ‘safe’ manifesto. I’ve also noticed a reduction in informal social media chatter compared to their Cambridge Liberal Democrat counterparts in recent weeks. Both nature and frequency have fallen, and the tone has become more… ‘formal’ if I can put it that way. Understandably so given the narrow margins and the tightly-contested nature between the two mentioned parties.

“So, are you going to stand as an ordinary candidate on a standard manifesto?”

Definitely NOT.

“Why’s that?”

The problem – and this isn’t particularly the fault of local councillors here, is with the system bequeathed by Westminster. Essentially it’s a ‘winner takes all’ with little room for compromise. Furthermore, my historical neighbourhood is one that crosses local boundaries and local committee areas. Essentially the southern part of the Coleridge ward, the northern part of the Queen Ediths ward and the western part of the Cherry Hinton ward. (See Richard Taylor’s map here). The latter two wards have issues covered by the South Area Committee while the ward I live at the edge of – Coleridge – is covered by the East Area Committee. The way the boundaries are carved up simply don’t reflect my experience of growing up and living here. They are artificial.

Conventions on standing and campaigning

Again, the nature of a ‘first past the post’ system is that you pick a ward to stand in, campaign as hard as you can and hope you get elected. But what if the things that I want to campaign on cross ward boundaries? What if the things I want to campaign on are things where I agree with the political parties? What if I quite like some of the candidates standing and don’t want to stand against them – and possibly might want to campaign for them, irrespective of party? Dan Ratcliffe of Labour I think would make for a cracking councillor. I also like Cllr Sarah Brown but also rate her Labour opponent Ann Sinnott – both of whom have raised important issues on equalities.

In a nutshell, I’m anything but a tribalist. I’ve worked with ministers of all the three main parties/seen them in a working environment and have seen some very good and some shockingly poor examples in all three at first hand. Hence not being able to take political party institutions on trust.

Finally, there’s mental health

The simple fact is I would have a big mental health crisis if I stood and campaigned as a standard independent candidate. In the very very unlikely event of winning, I simply would not be able to cope with the burden of being a councillor, with the 20+ hours a week of commitments being a councillor requires. People all too often forget this: Councillors generally put in a hell of a lot of work – which often goes unacknowledged and unappreciated. Until things break down. Then people moan even more.

Sorry everyone, but me as a standard ‘independent’ candidate with the aim of getting elected, and serving as a councillor, is just not going to happen. Even if I was a candidate for one of the two main parties, it still would not happen. My fragile mental health simply is not cut out for the demands of that sort of campaigning or that sort of public office.


“So…what are the options?”

To stand as Puffles.


To stand as Puffles. And other than complying with the law, break all of the ‘normal’ conventions to show that there is a different way of doing politics – one where the normal conventions don’t apply.

“How does that work?”

First of all, the only reason for standing as a candidate – in this case as ‘Puffles the dragon fairy’ is to gain media profile for the issues I want to raise. And that’s it. This means:

  • Not campaigning for votes
  • Not campaigning against other candidates
  • Directing people to the campaigning email addresses, social media accounts and websites of the candidates and parties standing
  • Encouraging voters to ask questions, make suggestions and demand answers – by using social and digital media
  • Encouraging people that do not have the vote to do the same: Just because you are too young/ineligible to vote does not mean you don’t have a voice!
  • Raising awareness of the policies and campaigns from other parties and candidates that we like
  • Campaigning outside of the ward Puffles stands in
  • Campaigning outside of the council area Puffles stands in
  • Experimenting with fun and imaginative digital media to raise awareness of serious issues

“If you don’t mind me saying so, but that’s effing crazy”


“No – really. No one’s done anything like that before. You’ll get laughed at!”

Yeah. But I walk around down with a dragon fairy. People should be laughing already.

“Why would you want to do that?”

Because my two aims for such a campaign would be:

  • To increase turnout in my neighbourhood
  • To increase the number of people feeling able to cast informed votes – as a result of being able to contact and put questions to the candidates. What those questions are, and what criteria they judge candidates on is entirely up to them. Puffles in this case is just a signpost
  • To show local councillors and candidates the opportunities with social and digital media
  • To show social and digital media enthusiasts (including myself) the limits of a social-media-based campaign that doesn’t have lots of door-knocking/street pounding at its heart.

“So, what would ***you*** want to campaign on?”

Local ‘big picture’ stuff that doesn’t often get debated by politicians or the media in any big way. At the same time, I want to set out a positive vision of what Cambridge could become – if local people and institutions come together. This is not about a big ‘powerful’ city mayor directing stuff from the top. Basically, I have three pillars:

  1. Inclusivity: Many bridges, one Cambridge. Civil rights, civic responsibility, help not hatred
  2. Digital, dynamic, passionate: We must be/embrace all of these together if we are to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow
  3. We’re all in this together: A city greater than the sum of our parts – but only if we give power to the people

“Bland, cheesy…and I kind of like it. But they could be improved”

Hence once I’ve written up my mini-manifesto, I’ll be crowd-sourcing it for comments and feedback. There are eight themes in it. They are:

  1. A co-ordinated grassroots challenge to councillors, politicians and public institutions
  2. Supporting an energised challenge from young people to our elected representatives and our civic institutions – just because they are too young to vote does not mean they have no voice
  3. An exciting vibrant atmosphere of properly-supported volunteering and community action, breaking out of the small-town mindset while recognising the essential long term support we need
  4. A city that supports and values lifelong learning -> learning for living, not just for work
  5. Civic responsibility (including to their students and local residents) from schools, colleges, universities, private institutions – in particular language schools and ‘cramming colleges’
  6. Supporting our friends and neighbours in surrounding towns and villages – whether on infrastructure campaigns like on rail links from Wisbech and Haverhill, or things like the Chisholm Trail and a Cambridge Cycle Orbital, to advertising community events that people in Cambridge can get out of the city to go to
  7. An overhaul of how we build and manage publicly accessible venues, buildings and public spaces – irrespective of who runs them, combined with a single website for community events and booking venues
  8. Green Cambridge – unlocking the talent within our universities and communities to make the city far more environmentally sustainable than it currently is.

“Nothing about the private sector?”

The way I’ve written the manifesto (which I’ve not typed up yet) weaves this into the themes, so as not to have a public vs private sector divide. The way many public sector employees have been outsourced to private providers means the definition of who is and who isn’t public sector is now much more blurred.

“What if someone reading all of this says: ‘Actually, I quite like what dragon dude has written – how do I vote for him if he’s not in my ward?’”

The first thing to do is to get in touch with the local political parties – I’ve hyperlinked all their social media accounts and websites at the end of this blogpost to make it easier. Tell the parties and the candidates what you like about it and start a conversation with them. See if you can get them to commit to the things that you like – and get it in writing if possible so you can post it up online.

If none of the responses convince you enough to vote for them, but you still like these ideas, simply write on your ballot paper: #Puffles4Cambridge. (Which is technically spoiling it but it still gets counted).

If my ideas don’t inspire or interest you, and none of the parties do, please turn out and vote – and spoil your ballot paper. Again it still gets counted. If the number of spoilt ballot papers significantly increases or is particularly high, normally there then follows an investigation as to why.

“Spoiling ballot papers – that’s a bit negative isn’t it?”

Not at all – it’s a positive vote saying ‘I’m not convinced by any of you.’ What I’m calling for is for the people of Cambridge to give the candidates from the main political parties a chance to respond to their questions and concerns first. That for me is positive too. It is encouraging local political debate – in particular on social and digital media. Politicians locally are not convinced about social media. I’ve tried but can go no further. The only ones that can convince politicians about the merits of social media in local democracy are people like you. The more ‘new faces’ that contact and put questions to local political parties, the more convinced they will become of using it. (Please keep questions polite and informed – based on your experiences rather than what you read in the headlines!)

Having met many of the councillors, most of them are pleasant, talented and personable people. Demands of being councillors, political and community activists, as well as jobs and families mean that few have had the chance to do what I’ve done – basically take a big step back and spend a few years listening, learning, blogging, tweeting, getting things right, getting things wrong, and forming a picture of my home town. I’ve also changed and grown in the process – and still am. Personally I’d like to see as many new faces getting in touch with local councillors and candidates to put their questions & concerns to them. You never know, some might even join as new activists, campaigners and future candidates. All the more important for the 2015 general election too.

“So…are you going to stand as Puffles then?”

That depends on you and others reading this. I have until 4pm on 24 April 2014 – the deadline for submitting nominations. (See here).

Some of us are meeting for a pub lunch/afternoon drinks in Cambridge on 13 April (see here) if you’re interested. Even if I ultimately choose not to stand as Puffles, I still want to run a ‘Digital Democracy – Beyond the Ballot’ campaign which I’ve posted here. If you’re interested in supporting such campaigns, do get in touch either in the comments section, via Twitter (@Puffles2010), via Facebook here or via email (antonycarpen [at] gmail [dot] com)

Other than that, I’ll leave you with this digital video made by some young college students – their version of a Monster Raving Loony Party campaign video, from 2007.



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

On the importance of ‘safe spaces’ for those of us with mental health challenges


Visiting the Lifeworks occupation protest in Cambridge – care in the community

‘Care in the community’ got a bit of a bad name in the media during the 1990s after a series of high-profile murders combined with inflammatory headlines. I remember at the time wondering why there was a policy of care in the community – why didn’t everyone who was even a slight risk locked up out of sight and out of mind? That seemed to be the media’s message to us. At the time I was completely ignorant of the symptoms of my own mental health issues. It almost seems appropriate that I’m writing this blogpost 24 hours after having taken a fairly strong tranquilliser pill to help give me a good night’s sleep after 2 sleepless nights in a row. (I didn’t wake up until about 3pm, got my dates mixed up and missed the Social Media Surgery – so another apology from me!)

Earlier on my friend Ceri took me along to the Lifeworks occupation (see here), with the responsible authorities on the receiving end of tough questions from Cambridgeshire County Councillors over their handling of it. We got a warm & friendly welcome from the occupiers, & for the first time in quite some time I felt the weight of … ‘stuff’ being lifted from my shoulders. (This happened just before I read and replied to the very important things in my previous blogpost).

What I learnt from the people there is that they are extremely clued up on the issues – and on how ‘the system’ does not work for us. They know far more about local public health than I do, which made me realise the importance not just of ‘communities of interest’ – in this case service users, but the links between the communities and wider societies.

High profile awareness campaigns not matching the picture on the ground

I blogged about this here. Over the years I’ve been treated for my mental health issues, there have been funding cuts after funding cuts. Nothing about any significant increases in resources, or about new treatments or facilities coming on stream. The best treatment I had from anywhere was from the local youth charity Centre33. In one sense I’m gutted that I’m too old to be a service user now, because they got lots right with me.

Something about the structure of our economy and society?

I guess I ‘burnt out’ in some respects. I couldn’t cope with the life of a long commute. I have no idea how others manage. This is where the experiment in Gothenburg, Sweden will be interesting – moving to a shorter working week with six hour days. What would that look like over here if we were able to combine it with people able to live much closer to their places of work, rather than having the high-rise office blocks supported by over-stretched public transport systems.

In terms of the worries associated with insecure employment and costs of living, Nyika Suttie – one of Puffles’ earliest followers, in her first column for The Guardian is spot on here. How can you plan for the long term future if you don’t know whether you’ll have a job at the end of your fixed term contract? Hence perhaps Hannah Fearn’s piece about a citizen’s income (see here). It’s something Ed Miliband tried to pick up in his speech recently talking lots about the lack of ‘middle income jobs’ (see the transcript here). As I’ve seen written elsewhere, technology (and how we use it) has led to the demise of more than a few of these jobs. The people that ran photograph processing shops and record/music shops are just a couple of examples.

As I said to the friendly people at Lifeworks, were it not for support from my family, I would be in a much worse place health-wise than I currently am. They told me how Lifeworks helped them manage their health, and the positive impact that the service has for them. Just as importantly, such services give us the chance to contribute to the wider community in a manner that’s meaningful to all of us – and that makes a real difference. When senior public service managers and ministers look at such services through the narrow lens of a spreadsheet, they inevitably overlook the wider benefits to society that financial models struggle to account for. As the people at Lifeworks told me, removing prevention and support services has a knock-on impact down the line with acute and emergency services.

Cutting community support services might help a short term balance sheet, but – and as the protest sign in the community room said – in the long term, it’s a false economy.


Posted in Cambridge, Charities and Big Society, Mental health, Party politics, Public administration & policy | 1 Comment

“I’m sorry, I got it badly wrong, here’s what I’ve learnt…” A much-needed reality check


Me taking responsibility for my conduct when I misjudge things badly.

This relates to a conference I was at on musical inclusion – which I blogged about here. Just over three weeks after the event, musician Martin Case posted a long and powerful comment really taking me to task over my conduct – it’s worth reading his comments in full here. Because this will explain why I am responding as I am.

Firstly, me apologising not just to Martin but to others regarding my interventions – including the organisers.



I misjudged the event and the audience, and clearly completely failed to show the sort of self-awareness that I like to think is one of my strong points. That fault is mine and mine entirely.

That is why I am publishing this blogpost response (and just as importantly publicising it), and publishing & publicising unedited Martin’s comments in full.

Secondly, how and why did I get this so badly wrong? – A reflection

When I first read Martin’s comments, I felt like I had just been kicked in the stomach very very hard. My friend Ceri was with me at the time and could see that I had read something that had hit me hard.

“Wounded pride? Why not fight back?”

Walking back from town, the phrase from one of my favourite books, Dreadnought by RK Massie was screaming in my mind.

“In testimony before a Royal Commission investigating the errors of the Boer War, a British general had described the marksmanship of the naval gunners sent to help in the defense (sic) of Ladysmith as something “which would have disgraced a girls’ school” [Admiral and Second Sea Lord] Fisher was furious – the more so because he knew it to be true.”

I am furious – with myself. I am angry – with myself because it took someone else who I don’t know to write a well-written and thought-through response on my blog telling me so. And I’m hurt.

How and why?

Martin’s spot on. I went with an agenda all about me and my history. Combining that with what I can only describe as ‘misguided passion to slay some historical demons’ made for me being a ‘toxic delegate’ the very sort of delegate that in other tweets/blogposts  at other events I have probably criticised myself.

Even though there were a number of really interesting and innovative projects, my mindset on the day was all too focused on me, me, me. On reflection, I didn’t do nearly enough of what I try to do normally at events – which is basically to be like this big sponge absorbing as much information, knowledge, energy and inspiration from those there. As a result, I pissed off too many of the very people who Cambridge (my home) ***needs*** the help, guidance and support of. It was utterly avoidable on my part and again, I am sorry.

“So…what have you learnt from all of this? What change of behaviour will you make as a result?”

Again, on reflection (I’m actually finding this more emotionally painful than perhaps I had expected when I started writing it – but that’s part of the learning process), I think I was probably due a ‘dressing down’ like this. Some of you will have noticed the tone of my blogposts have over the past 12 months become that little bit more aggressive. A couple of people have mentioned that I probably want to tone it down a little. Hence seeing Martin’s timely comments as that ‘wake up call.’

In terms of specifics, things I’ve already done include:

  • This post for a start – the response and the publicity of it
  • Getting back into listening-mode again
  • Spending much of the next year in active learning mode as planned
  • Reducing the number and scope of things that I’m getting involved in/following – learning to say ‘no’ when it’s not my time/space to pass comment/judgement
  • Walking away from confrontation – of which there is ***lots*** in the political/public policy sphere.

So, thank you once again to Martin for his piece – in particular for taking the time and effort for writing it. (For those of you less familiar with blogging, it can be an emotionally draining process even on issues you’re passionate about). I hope you’ll accept this post in the spirit it’s been written in.

Best wishes & good luck!


[Updated to add follow-up tweets - apology accepted & all is well and good. A lesson learnt by me.]

Posted in Events I have been to, Music | Leave a comment