Some thoughts following watching Rupert Read and Cambridge Green Party in action outside Cambridge Guildhall
Me and Puffles had our first street stall ever. And it scared the living daylights out of me. (Puffles was calm as ever). I chose the date because the Green Party’s lead European Parliament candidate Dr Rupert Read, along with Cambridge Green Party said they were going to be having a stall. I have a number of good friends and friendly contacts in the party – hence asking nicely if we could ‘piggy-back’ onto their presence. (***Thank you!***) The prospect of being alone with a stall is too much for me. Having five activists from Cambridge Young Greens proactively engaging with the public outside the Guildhall was a ‘friendly shield’ for a shy type like me who struggles with randomly engaging with strangers on the street. Yeah – #Anxiety #Mentalhealth #TimeToChange. For local party political activists, compare my anxiety with this (& door-to-door knocking) with the anxiety several councillors of all parties spoke of at recent area committee meetings about using social media. It’s a bit like that.
As for the stall, me and Puffles simply had to be there. While we didn’t have queues of people at our stall – it was cold and grey outside, we did get a handful of people coming to our stall asking what we were all about. Hence being able to promote the digital democracy challenge, handing out card with the weblink. We also had visits from Cllr Paul Saunders (currently Mayor of Cambridge, but not in capacity of mayor), Labour’s Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for South East Cambridgeshire Huw Jones. Also, two of Puffles’ followers who I had not met in person before visited. Oh, and we had a handful of tourists posing for photos with Puffles. Yeah! Taking #Puffles4Cambridge to other continents!
“Cambridge Green Party – a threat? I thought they were dormant!”
They were – until late 2013. I gave them a kicking in late 2012. 18 months later, the picture is different. In very little time, Cambridge Young Greens and Rupert Read have organised an active campaign to mobilise a stubbornly resilient Green vote in Cambridge that pulls in over 2,000 votes for what have previously been little more than paper candidates. This is the first time since 2010 that The Greens have been visibly and actively campaigning in Cambridge in noticeable numbers.
18 months ago, the idea of The Green Party having seven people canvassing in any ward in Cambridge would have been unheard of. Yet this is what’s happening.
Is Puffles too much of a distraction for Cambridge Labour Party? Shouldn’t they be focusing their social media actions on those who are ***really*** going to cost them votes: Cambridge Green Party?
The amount of ‘social media chatter’ aimed at me and Puffles in recent weeks from Labour and the Lib Dems in Cambridge has been disproportionate to any ‘threat’ we might pose to their vote. In the meantime, The Greens have managed to slip in (social media-wise as well as on the streets) under the ‘noise’ and make their presence more well known. What we’re yet to see in Cambridge is how resilient a raised Green party political presence is in the face of other political parties responding to a re-emerging Green Party political presence. We’ve also not yet seen hostile exchanges between Cambridge Greens and the other political parties. Rupert Read and Labour MEP Richard Howitt were supportive of each other when they shared a platform in Cambridge recently.
Party-political responses to Puffles
The view Rupert and the Greens are taking with Puffles is that they see what me/Puffles are doing as being complementary to what they are doing. This is similar to the approach Labour councillors Cllr Lewis Herbert (who recently came round for tea to talk about community action in Coleridge) and Cllr Sue Birtles next door in Queen Ediths (who I spent an afternoon with in our local coffee shop, introducing her to the concepts of social media strategy in a community action context) take with Puffles. With the Tories Puffles is cuddly but politically crazy, with the Lib Dems Puffles is cuddly, but – yeah, how are you going to pay for that Cambridge ice rink you want?
“Hang on a minute – you’re giving your neighbourhood Labour councillors free help while at the same time taking flak from councillors in the same party on the other side of town?”
“Most people would have ditched the lot of them by now”
But me and Puffles are not most people. We’re different. Deliberately so.
It may have seemed – and it felt – that some of the criticism we’ve taken in some tweets was unnecessarily personal. [Updated - I should add following Carina's comments below in response I don't see our engagements as falling into that category - on the whole I've learnt lots from the points she's put, even where I disagree with her.] (I am after all standing as Puffles the Dragon Fairy and have declared we don’t want to win!) A number of people have been in touch privately saying that they saw this as completely unacceptable. I thank them for their personal support. In the exchanges, there are common themes that have emerged. It’s not due to individuals being ‘bad people’. It’s a case of passionate people who care about their city and being part of a certain political culture turning their campaigning guns (ie ‘applying the tactics of that political culture’) towards someone on the ballot paper who’s not in their party.
My issue (highlighted by Cab Davidson’s tweet at above) is with the concept of tribal political culture and how it can be a barrier to people getting involved in local democracy – irrespective of where in the world this is. I want to demonstrate to people that you can engage in local democracy (and make an impact) even if:
- You’re too young to vote/don’t have the franchise
- You face mental health challenges
- You’re not a member of a political party
It’s not a Labour or Cambridge-specific issue. It’s just that in this campaign, the ‘rules of the electoral game’ mean that me and Puffles are a target for that culture. Given that I’ve said I want to help change the culture of local democracy in Cambridge to make it more open & accessible to more people, opposition/resistance from all parties on this theme should not come as a surprise. If The Conservatives had the same presence in Cambridge as Labour, Puffles and I would probably get just as much of a kicking – if not more so (due to political/policy differences) than what we’ve had recently.
“Given that it’s likely Cambridge Labour will win the local council elections, what will be the big challenges for their executive councillors?”
This applies to any new executive councillor of any party with no experience of running a large organisation. This is based on my observations of working with and watching ministers of all parties work with civil servants, as well as conversations with former ministers and executive councillors of the three main parties over the years. The challenge is this:
The skills and competencies required to run a large organisation with a large non-political workforce and a budget of £millions is ****very different**** to that of being a skilled political activist.
It’s a damning condemnation of any minister when it becomes clear that the biggest barrier to delivering a minister’s priorities is the minister themselves. I’ve observed both myself and in conversation with current and former civil servants how politicians highly regarded in a political sphere have been absolutely woeful in their day-to-day activities as ministers. Because of individual incompetence, some have created problems (or made existing ones far worse) than they could have been – draining time and resources to resolve them. At the same time, some of the most competent and well-regarded ministers inside Whitehall have often been those who don’t have the greatest media profile or political reputation. But they’ve understood how large organisations function and know how to get the best out of those working for them who don’t share their political views.
“If there were two things you’d recommend to future executive councillors of any party taking on the role for the first time, what would they be? (Given the above)”
- Don’t unnecessarily antagonise the council staff and partner organisations that will be working for/with you – especially in the early days. Take time to listen and suss out what makes those people ‘tick’. Influencing people in a ‘corporate’ environment is a very different skill to influencing people in a political environment.
- Ask lots of informed questions of those tasked with advising you. The nature of your role is that you’ll never have all of the information you want and need in order to make decisions. Again, this goes against the grain of a ‘broadcasting political messages’, and is also a very different skill to going door-to-door and asking members of the public what their concerns are. For example 2 standing questions in any meeting you hold for each of your policy areas are: what are the top three risks to the delivery of your policies?, and how those are risks being managed?
Food for thought?