A good natured exchange with the Labour leader and a nice wander through the town slightly soured by a fiery Twitter exchange that highlights how a single party can have different approaches to a fun candidate raising serious issues
Ed Miliband made a surprise visit to Cambridge on the back of Labour’s long-awaited policy-announcement on the rented housing sector. There is a large slideshow of photographs in the Cambridge News – one that Labour-supporting readers of this blog may want to read.
This wasn’t the first time Ed had visited Cambridge – the last time he was here I asked him about the Oxford to Cambridge railway. It’s something I asked Cambridge Labour Party members to include in their 2013 County Council manifesto – which they kindly did. When Ed rocked into town, I asked that given it was in the local manifesto, would he back the policy at a national level – to which he said ‘Yes!’ – to the delight of local Labour friends who had been chatting with me about this previously. (See here).
I happened to be in town when the BBC’s Andrew Sinclair tweeted that Ed was around. So I wandered up to see what was going on. I wasn’t particularly interested in meeting Ed again myself – actually I wanted to catch up with Labour’s candidate in Market Ward, Dan Ratcliffe about our idea of making a short digital video on a local issue – just to experiment with new media that hasn’t been tried before. It’s something that Cambridge Green Party have expressed an interest in as well. (The offer is open to the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats too – remember the aim of Puffles’ campaign is primarily to raise turnout). Some of you may remember Georgina Howarth who made a barn-storming speech about reducing the voting age at the Labour Party conference (see here). I spoke to her co-organiser (also at her school) about them and Dan making a short digital video and the possibility of a talk on digital democracy.
Me and Cambridge Labour leader Cllr Lewis Herbert have a photocall
Lewis was in a very upbeat today – along with Dan. Lewis grabbed me for an impromptu photoshoot with one of the press, announcing (correctly) that I was the candidate standing against him who didn’t want to beat him. Also very upbeat and relaxed was Daniel Zeichner, who is Labour’s Parliamentary Candidate for Cambridge. For all three of them it was probably the most relaxed I have seen them.
This seemed to contrast with Richard Howitt and Alex Meyer who were effectively being the ‘local minders’ for Ed Miliband. Both – understandably – seemed to be ‘in the zone’ mentally. This isn’t a criticism – it’s an observation of what it can be like when you are accompanying a minister or shadow minister on a site visit. (Something I did on a few occasions during my civil service days). Basically your eyes and ears are not scanning the people in the immediate vicinity, but rather scanning the horizon to see what’s ahead.
“Ha ha! I won’t be backing your campaign!”
Me and Ed Miliband had a humorous exchange when I said Puffles was standing in Coleridge – but didn’t manage to get in the point about the nature of the campaign. Ed remembered that he’d seen the dragon on the train platform after the paralympics (I didn’t have Puffles with me today) and I made the point that in future local council elections, could we see more women candidates in Cambridge – but by this time he was in full flow asking about Puffles before saying “Ha ha! I won’t be backing your campaign!” To which I thought
“Oh! Given that Puffles is standing on a ‘don’t vote for Puffles’, does this mean that Ed wants Puffles to be elected by going against the aims of Puffles’ campaign?”
A mischievous but fun tweet. I then said to Lewis that I hoped I hadn’t upset anyone by asking Ed about Cambridge Labour getting more women to stand at future elections, to which Lewis said Labour had worked hard to encourage more women to stand, and needed to work harder for next year. To which I nodded and joined Ceri for a coffee.
Turned out I had upset someone
There then followed what I thought was an astonishing exchange between me and Cllr Peter Roberts about encouraging women to stand as candidates – which local blogger Richard Taylor has linked to here.
I’m not going to tear Cllr Roberts to bits on this blog – he’s a talented guy who wants to make Cambridge a better place. The problem here was that he tried to pick an argument where there was none, and ended up not only souring what was otherwise a nice day if you were a Labour supporter in Cambridge, but ended up alienating some of the very people that might otherwise be sympathetic to Labour.
My point here was that instead of ignoring the tweet, he decided to pick up on what I had tweeted – which is his right. He’s standing in another part of Cambridge, and as far as the rules of the local election go, I am nominally an opponent and am therefore fair game.
Now, Labour as a party are pushing for more women to become candidates and to become elected to public office – see Labour MP Gloria De Piero in this article, and also Labour’s Lead for women campaign. It’s therefore a perfectly reasonable thing for me to challenge Labour in a friendly manner (as I have been doing) about what it’s going to do to increase the number of councillors who are women in the wards of Cherry Hinton and Coleridge – both ‘safe’ Labour wards where 7/8 of the councillors are men. Make what you will of the final tweet in the above image.
As I’ve mentioned on previous blogposts, long-standing councillor Jeremy Benstead in Coleridge is the councillor I would like to see stand aside on the grounds that the emails I’ve sent him he hasn’t responded to (the other three councillors have – with politeness, courtesy and with a friendly and constructive tone – even Cllr Owers despite our recent exchange – see the comments stream here). Also because locally, unlike Cllr Owers who walks his socks off on his ward rounds, we never see Cllr Benstead in the ward. Those alone are perfectly valid reasons to challenge a political party to say ‘can you find a more active candidate?’ It’s also perfectly valid for Cllr Roberts to tell me where to go – me not being a party member.
[Updated to add to reflect Dan Ratcliffe's very good, measured and calming comments here - I've taken out the 'Tweets below the belt' section as per Dan's request - see his coment].
Dan Ratcliffe‘s right – and I apologise unreservedly on my part for assuming that this is what Cllr Roberts was referring to.
Focus on how a local Labour Party selects its candidates
Not surprisingly, other people – including their political opponents started picking up on this exchange. As a result, the focus moved onto how Labour selects its candidates.
The interesting thing about this part of the exchange is that Cllr Roberts rightly highlights the challenge of finding candidates who are willing to stand for election. In the conversations I’ve had with councillors and activists from all of the local parties, this has not been easy – not least because of the political and media climate that we live in. Who would want to put themselves up to some of the abuse that you risk getting in an environment where party politics in particular is viewed with either apathy or contempt by large parts of the population? In Coleridge in 2013, turnout was at 30%. One of the things I want to help turn around is that low turnout – hence running the ‘get in touch with your candidates on social media’ campaign – the digital democracy challenge? So why would a sitting Labour councillor choose to antagonise a candidate who is to all intents and purposes the equivalent of a ‘Monster Raving Loony Party’ candidate who is campaigning in a way to create open goals for his party?
“So…what’s the problem?”
The problem is not really for me – I’m a bloke with a cuddly toy running a fun, quirky campaign that’s overturning lots of conventions in a way that a member of a political party could never do. After all, who else (other than perhaps Puffles’ chum up the road in St Ives, Lord Toby Jug of the Monster Raving Loony Party) would stand with a manifesto slogan of ‘Don’t vote for me!’ or ‘Here are the contact details of the other candidates – ask them questions and put your suggestions to them!’ I’m there to lampoon and be lampooned. That’s part of the fun – as well as testing out some new ideas with friendly local candidates in a safe atmosphere to try and increase participation and turnout.
The problem is for Cambridge Labour Party, because as a result of the Twitter exchange, there is now in the eyes of the public an inconsistent approach on how to deal with Puffles – a fun candidate raising serious issues but who is of absolutely no electoral threat to Labour.
The Green Party responds to Cllr Roberts
Again, with the final tweet in this stream, was there any need to post that? In one sense, Cllr Roberts is right. I am one voice, just like everyone else. I’ve never claimed to be a spokesperson of anyone but me and Puffles. I don’t seek to represent anyone but me and Puffles. (Hence the nature of my campaign). But by posting the final tweet in the stream, one of his political opponents – Fiona Radic of the Green Party who is one of the slate of candidates for the East of England’s European Elections decided to contradict Cllr Roberts – as did a small number of others. Nothing significant in the grand scheme of things, but it’s not a positive look.
Criticism from Labour Party members and Labour councillors outside Cambridge
In the grand scheme of things, what I think doesn’t really matter. But when you are being publicly criticised by your own members because of your tone and language, then that is in a different league. This is because normally political parties like to keep such disagreements behind closed doors.
.@Ed_Miliband Any comment on the behaviour of Cambridge Labour party on the day of your visit to launch the campaign? adragonsbestfriend.wordpress.com/2014/05/01/ed-…—
Andy Hicks (@andyjameshicks) May 01, 2014
One of Puffles’ earliest Twitter followers @AndyJamesHicks, a hard working and active Labour campaigner (who is on the same wing as Cllr Roberts) has pulled up a couple of Cambridge Labour activists up before, cautioning them on their tone. I don’t see this as something for the press to get hot and bothered about – personally I see this as part of the learning experience. When I tweet or post something out of tone and someone pulls me up on it, I review and learn from the experience – however emotionally difficult this might be. It was the intervention of Labour Councillor Nina Killen in Sefton that helped change the tone. (Thank you Nina for your intervention!)
Note the final ‘favourited’ tweet where people started to indicate that they too felt the tone of Cllr Roberts’ tweets was below that of his normally high standards as a councillor. Not only that, I also received a complaint on Facebook about the transphobic nature of the comment
Also, a separate comment from another friend via Facebook:
To be clear, I do not believe for one moment that Cllr Roberts is transphobic – he’s not. Also, he and his party have got a track record locally of campaigning against extremists. That said, we all make mistakes in life and fall short – sometimes saying things that on reflection were best phrased differently or not said at all. This for me is the case here. I myself didn’t spot the transphobic element until a couple of people raised it with me several hours after the original blogpost. Hence posting it here and something for all of us to learn from.
On being a candidate – fair game?
Ever since Cambridge City Council approved my nomination papers, I ceased to be one lone voice. I (through Puffles) became a candidate…in the ward that his local party leader is standing in. Now, my platform is a very clear ***Don’t vote for Puffles unless you are really unimpressed with the other candidates – and only vote for Puffles if you’ve come to that decision after having put questions to and received answers from the other candidates*** platform. (See the opening parts of this blogpost). I also said to Lewis earlier today I would be producing leaflets along the lines of:
“Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens! If you don’t vote in the local council elections on 22 May, your next councillor could be Puffles! Now wouldn’t that be silly!?!” (Followed by a link to the digital democracy challenge).
Puffles is about as electorally threatening as a wet sponge.
Thus I don’t understand the need for these sets of tweets to women who values-wise are sympathetic to Labour/Centre-left, and in response to Andrew Harvey’s case is demonstrating he hasn’t quite understood that I’m not campaigning for a single vote – as I stated clearly in this Cambridge News article.
Success for me includes:
- a significantly increased turnout – not just in Coleridge but across Cambridge
- a greater number of informed votes – where voters feel they have had the chance to question all the candidates standing in their area before casting their vote
- a greater number of new faces – including young people getting involved in local democracy
- a greater number of people using social media to engage with their elected representatives – most importantly to stay updated about what councillors are doing so that they can become more informed about the work councillors do – for long hours and minimal expenses
- Puffles getting zero votes
“Puffles getting zero votes as success?”
Because – and on an increased turnout (fingers crossed) that will show that the voters of Coleridge have confidence in the parties and candidates standing. In the case of Coleridge, the parties standing candidates are doing so pretty much across the city. Therefore they have a chance of delivering their manifestos and policies. Me and Puffles don’t. The manifesto is simply a platform for discussion.
“A message for Cllr Roberts?”
You’re a talented and hard-working councillor – and I wish you the best of luck in the election. If elected, I know you’ll work hard for Abbey Ward. Given the challenges the ward faces, they need councillors like you.
But please, tone down the aggression. Through the screenshots I’ve highlighted above you are unnecessarily antagonising some of the very people that might otherwise want to support Labour. Not only that, you are being criticised publicly by activists and your fellow elected members in your party. It creates easy opportunities for your political opponents. Something you and Cambridge Labour want to avoid in the run up to what will be one of the most tightly-fought general election campaigns in Cambridge for nearly 20 years.
It did have a cordial ending – if anyone from the mainstream media is wondering
So if the mainstream media are watching, while me and Cllr Roberts had and will continue to have disagreements, don’t expect me to get into personal attacks on him or other councillors and candidates. It’s not my style. And like all people, there’s always room for us to improve and learn – which if you remember is one of the key themes of Puffles’ campaign :-)