Observations on the Shadow Defra Secretary’s talk to Cambridge University Labour Club
I was pondering whether or not to take Puffles with me for both of these, but in the end instinct got the better of me.
Softly spoken, but hitting the Lib Dems where it hurts
This was the first time I’d met Maria. I’ve seen her lots on BBC Parliament & also became aware of her and her sister, Angela Eagle MP during their days as junior ministers under the last Labour Government. The loud, shouty bolshie politician Maria is definitely not. If it was a tub-thumping bash-the-Tories and their Lib Dem conspirators, you’d have probably come away disappointed. That’s not Maria’s way of doing things.
I picked up from Facebook the news that she was coming to visit Cambridge - somewhat at the last minute. What I’m trying to do (as mentioned in previous blogposts) in Cambridge is to spread the news on local notice boards whenever a senior politician of the main parties is hosting a speaking event open to the public. Picking this up late on meant I couldn’t make posters in time. My reason for doing this as well as encouraging people to turn up is to encourage organisers to do the same thing – so that one day I won’t have to. (Printing isn’t cheap either!) Anyway, about 40 of us were there for her talk to Cambridge University Labour Club.
“But you’re not a member – you can’t come in!”
They’ve not barred me yet. (About 18 months ago, the local green party barred me and Puffles from their AGM on the grounds we were not members). It’s a tricky call for political parties: judging when things should be ‘members only’ and when they should be open to the public. Obviously I’m in favour of the latter – the ‘management’ of senior politicians in particular, making them less accessible to the public has helped toxify politics in the minds of people. I remember debating with Clare Short when she visited my university in the 2001 when she asked for my vote. I explained I wouldn’t be voting for Labour that year because of its failure to tackle climate change seriously. We had a good-natured and pleasant debate until her ‘handler’ pulled her away and said:
“Come and meet some real Labour supporters”
Thus began my hostility towards political party managers of the ‘In the thick of it’ mould. In any case, in this social media-equipped age, such micro-management of politicians – and their messages – is now obsolete. Broadcasts and posters of the late-1990s era are quickly hijacked and lampooned online.
The first thing that struck me about her was how softly spoken she was. It felt like less of a public speech and more of a conversation. Secondly, there was a complete absence of ‘testosterone’ in both tone and content. Think Dennis Skinner MP in his prime, shouting loudly about how ‘orrible the Thatcher Government was. Maria was much more forensic on the public policy issues – in particular on the lack of representation of women in politics generally. She also made a series of interesting observations about Labour in rural areas – giving examples of how headline policies that have high impacts in urban areas (eg promises to freeze gas bills) have little impact in rural areas (where homes have to buy oil separately for heating, or rely on expensive electricity because they are not on the gas grid). Only recently I picked up Labour making a direct pitch for rural votes on Twitter (see here).
Where I thought she was weakest was on things specific to Cambridge as a city. But then she was speaking to an undergraduate student audience rather than a city audience. To any student political society, whenever you are having a senior representative of your party visiting to give a talk, give them a 1 page briefing note about the village/town/city they are visiting. Population, 3 key characteristics, 3 good things, 3 really big local challenges, name of MP, name of prospective parliamentary candidate standing for your party at the next election, and political control of the local council.
If Labour get elected in 2015 and Maria becomes a cabinet minister, the civil servants there will be fortunate
That might sound a little biased, but Maria (in response to a question from a CULC member about the bureaucracy) clearly demonstrated an excellent understanding about how to get the best out of the civil servants working for them. She listed a number of things that she said civil servants are looking for in a minister – and found myself nodding to each one. She then listed the things that the Coalition has done to alienate the civil servants working for them (and impacting negatively on their policy delivery accordingly). And I nodded again. This wasn’t a party political thing. This was more about how to run a large organisation well. And they don’t come much bigger than the civil service.
At the same time though, Labour had their share of poor ministers in its last government. I remember saying a few years ago that I had to be careful about political jokes as I might end up working for some of them. (I jest! I jest!) So for those in the Labour Party looking to aim for ministerial office in the future, have a work with Maria on how to get the best out of your civil servants. (For the Tories, I’d probably go for Michael Hestletine given his autobiography Life in the Jungle).
The disconnect between Maria’s messages from Labour HQ and Cambridge Labour Party on the ground regarding representation of women in South Cambridge, and on social media
In my exchange with Cambridge’s Cllr Carina O’Reilly (who I rate very highly) in my blogpost here, we debated about the lack women councillors, and the lack of social media use by Cambridge Labour councillors south of Mill Road – basically in South Cambridge. Maria had spoken strongly about getting more women into politics and public office, and on changing the way Labour organised. She commented on the challenge of the refusal of some ‘old school’ types in Labour that don’t like policy crowd-sourcing actions that go beyond the party membership such as Your Britain. Accordingly I picked up on both these.
I mentioned the Coleridge and Cherry Hinton wards of Cambridge & the profile of councillors – you can find them here. (The wards named are two of my three childhood neighbourhoods in Cambridge, both safe Labour wards where other parties seldom campaign). I said they were all male and that none of them used social media regularly. Given the presence of three secondary schools and Hills Road Sixth Form College in/near these wards, and given what she said about getting more women into public office, I asked her what she would personally do to ensure that Cambridge Labour Party selected social-media-aware women to stand in Coleridge and Cherry Hinton in the local council elections in 2015 (it’s too late to influence 2014 local council election candidates) & engage young people.
“That’s an evil question!”
And a hyper-local one that links her core message to what is going on at ground level. In recent times, I’ve tried to make the point to local Labour activists and councillors about the gap between the messages coming from their shadow cabinet ministers and what’s happening in my neighbourhood – with little impact. This time, I was able to put the point to a shadow cabinet minister.
She said Labour is not a ‘top down party’ and she could not go around ordering local parties who to select – but said that they were serious points which will have been noted by the local party organiser in the audience. (As I was speaking, I noticed she was taking her own detailed notes too).
What I had done was a textbook example of how to escalate something in a large top-down organisation. If you spot an issue that you feel needs addressing – and is one that has been acknowledged by the organisation as an issue as well, you start off low down. If progress is too slow or zero, you go up the next level – and so on, and so on. I did this all the time in the civil service. All I did here was to wait until the next Labour shadow cabinet minister came to town and put my point to them in person. What happens next is ultimately an internal party issue. What matters to me is that I feel I’ve been able to have a positive influence on something that has been identified as a problem across political parties. For now, I can take a step back and see what happens over the next 12 months.
“You manipulative little so-and-so!!!”
At the same time, there were a number of young women in the audience. (Though I would have liked to have heard far more of them ask questions – despite Maria’s best efforts to encourage them) This is significant because Cambridge Labour Party has a good history of bringing through young activists to become local candidates in Cambridge for council elections. Could it be that one (or more) of those in the room step forward to become local council candidates in Cambridge in 2015?