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 http://barristerblogger.com/2014/09/28/tricked-sex-fraud-sunday-mirrors-sting-brookes-newmark-criminal/ 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 http://peoplesclimate.org/ . 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 http://bethechangecambridge.org.uk/?p=283 for an early write up with videos. See Lucinda Price’s excellent photographs of the day at http://lucindapricephotography.wordpress.com/2014/09/13/be-the-change-cambridge/

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 http://www.meetup.com/Be-the-change-Cambridge/). 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.


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

Staring failure in the face, and avoiding its slap


Learning by doing with Be the change – Cambridge

In my previous blogpost, I ended with the following:

Are you prepared to run the risk of failure in order to reach your potential?

With just under a fortnight to go, and with a big marketing push this week for next week Saturday, I am staring that risk in the face. And it is a frightening place to be. But an exciting one too.

The risk was not selling enough tickets or registering enough people for the free places for the large community action event originally planned. That risk materialised. Hence we’re going ahead with a smaller event – a ‘conversation cafe’ from 1pm with numbers around 50 as the first of a series of events, rather than a single 200+ big gathering as a starter. (See the announcement here).

I failed – and school/academia doesn’t teach you how to deal with failure

On the face of it, I promised X and haven’t been able to deliver X. In a school/education system context, think of it as ‘predicted vs actual grades’. You didn’t get your predicted grades so you failed to get into your chosen university. But who is there to help you pick up the pieces? As far as the system is concerned, they’ve washed their hands of you. There’s no obligation for them to help you after that. A very frightening place for any teenager having been institutionalised by the system to suddenly finding yourself on your own.

In my case though, the whole ‘Be the change – Cambridge’ project isn’t like an exam. It’s much more fluid and flexible than that. Everything that I and those working with me are doing with this are things that the current system would struggle to model. Why? Because we’re doing things that have not been done before. All things digital and social media are creating such pressures on the existing system that teachers can easily find themselves with less knowledge on a specific area than the young people they are teaching.

Adapting to changing circumstances and new information

One principle I adopted several years ago was that I change my opinions when the evidence in front of me changes, or when I go through a new life experience. In the early stages of putting the Be the change – Cambridge project together in mid-2014, there were a significant number of unknowns. These including people’s appetite for what we wanted to achieve, people’s desire to get involved, interest from institutions and the general feasibility of it all. In an exam, you’re tested in things you’re supposed to know or have been taught. In this case, we didn’t have various things at the start.

In terms of changing circumstances this included a growing number of event clashes. The increasing number of events that have been organised and publicised since we settled on our date is astonishing. In terms of new information, this has also included people and organisations saying they would love to get involved, but cannot do the 13th of September because of a pre-existing event.

Cambridge needs a city-wide events co-ordinating unit – ideally run & funded by the local authorities and our universities

I am putting that in the biggest letters I can find to make this point. Furthermore, people and institutions planning/organising events should have in their processes contacting the co-ordinators before finalising dates. Amongst other things it could reduce event clashes where organisers are reaching out to the same audiences.

There are a growing number of events that are now being repeated annually – which I think is splendid! In particular credit to those that have forced the hand of Cambridge University to make it more accessible to the public. During my teens I still have the voice of ‘We don’t normally hire out our facilities if you are not a member’ from one of the colleges when enquiring about an event I wanted to organise. That was as recent as the late 1990s. They’ve come a long way but still have a long way to go.

Me learning more skills – ***lots more*** skills

In my case, it’s with digital video:

  • Being in front of the camera
  • Filming behind the camera
  • Editing

Here’s another batch of voxpop clips about Be the change – Cambridge

In a nutshell, new camcorder and external microphone are a lot better at handling poor light and background noise than smartphone and older camcorder. Furthermore, I’m also using Premiere Pro for editing footage rather than iMovie, the former being far more versatile but also far more complex. It’s not a case of download, cut & paste, tweak sound, export & upload. At the same time, the increase in video & audio quality along with the change of file type has significantly increased the size of files I’m now working with – my poor laptop groaning under the strain!

With the Be the change – Cambridge website, I have taken the plunge going beyond the basics of ‘type and post’ as with this blog. As David said to me, do & learn little and often rather than in big chunks. It means the road travelled is a little big bumpy, but the alternative is a smooth ride before crashing into a steel barrier and getting hurt. At least with a bumpy road you can go back over it relatively easily to smooth things out. Hit the steel barrier and you’re not going anywhere for a long time. This was me with digital video. I was blogging away quite nicely, even though I noticed fewer people engaging or even viewing my blogposts. The steel wall was my fear about getting into digital video. It was only when I did the evening class that I got over it.

So, who’s coming to our conversation cafe on Saturday 13th?

1pm at the Ashcroft Business School, ARU on East Road in Cambridge. See details here. The politicians have reconfirmed, for which I am grateful for. We’ve got over 50 of us confirmed on what will be a chance for many actively interested parties to meet for the first time. We’ll also be looking at who can contribute what for the big gathering in very early 2015 as well as the essentials of how to run what is an evolving project that is generating an increasing amount of interest from a growing number of people and organisations. ‘Stakeholder management’ in this context has a very very different feel to what I was experienced in the public sector. But again, this is learning by doing.


Posted in Cambridge, Charities and Big Society, Events I have been to, Social media | 2 Comments



September is normally a time when people commit to something new – especially with a new academic season of evening classes. But the national and global backdrop looks increasingly gloomy.

Let’s start this post with a little bit of Earth, Wind and Fire 1999 stylee

There were only three times in my life where I can recall really looking forward to the future.

  • 1995/96 with GCSEs looming, leaving school and going to sixth form college
  • Autumn 1999 – leaving Cambridge to go to university
  • November/December 2006 – leaving Cambridge (again) to move to London with the civil service fast stream

I can’t recall going into a September when the national and global background to everything was so unbelievably doom-laden. Whether it’s the violence cutting a swathe from the western deserts of North Africa all the way to the Himalayas, to the horrific scandals in Rotherham where the entire public sector seems to have imploded due to the repeated catastrophic collective failure over an extended period years to protect our most vulnerable children. The full official report is here. It’s devastating in its conclusions.

Is it happening elsewhere?

With the latter, judging by Twitter’s response to Panorama of 1 Sept 2014 (watch again here, but with a trigger warning) I’m surprised something hasn’t already kicked off given the anger and rage being expressed. A number of people mentioned that this wasn’t the only place such horrific things were happening and where the responsible authorities were allegedly turning a blind eye. I hope the victims are getting the support they need and the perpetrators brought to justice. At a wider scale, there are a lot of very difficult questions many people need to answer. At the moment, we’re seeing too much denial.

Choosing to become responsible for each other

This was a theme of Puffles’ election campaign in spring 2014, from which evolved Be The Change – Cambridge. Basically I got sick and tired of waiting for the oil tanker of the local public sector to change direction – especially given the inevitable paralysis that austerity brought. You can’t have confident, outward-looking, dynamic and buzzing institutions when everyone is fearing for their jobs, watching talented staff leave and are overwhelmed by increasing demands on the back of problems in the economy. Therefore to expect a public sector alone to deliver what Cambridge needs on the back of such a big hit was never going to happen. Someone had to do something.

Too big for my boots?

It’s one of the accusations been thrown at me. And that was one of the softer ones! But then others have said those who say it can’t be done should stay out of the way of those that are doing it. After ages of nicely asking, and then more assertively asking, it got to the stage where I had to stand up and be counted – and follow that through with longer term actions. First was the election campaign, the second has been putting on this event, and the third has been the vox-pop interviews I’ve been doing. It’s easy to ignore one person who goes on like a stuck record. (I have been known!) It’s much harder when there are dozens of people with lots of ideas, all of which are recorded on camera.

It’s not just the organisations backing Be the change – Cambridge, but have a look who is coming along on Sat 13 Sept. Cross-party representation across local, national and European tiers of public office. We’ve also got another very special guest facilitator who we’ll be announcing this week too! Keep an eye on our website!

Back on the radio again – and doing more filming

I’m back on Cambridge 105FM later this week. Here’s a previous interview where I discuss the new laws allowing greater community reporting at council meetings.

I’m also going to be doing lots more vox-pop interviews, both as part of the ‘Be the change – Cambridge’ project but also as part of learning how to improve my use of video and audio editing software. This set of clips is an early draft that needs lots of improvement

Sing it back, sing it back, sing it back to me!

The above lyrics taken from Moloko, another circa autumn 1999 track. One of the reasons I’m still so angry about my time at university is because my experience was the complete opposite of the hope and excitement I had. I remember at the time that I was one of the last of my ‘year out’ cohort to go to university. Everyone else I had met had gone the previous year or had departed in the days or weeks before. In my mind I saw myself as being on a metaphorical runway waiting to take off – having outgrown my home town (the nest). The early parts of this scene from Forrest Gump reflect how I was trying to psyche myself up for a move to Brighton.

The only difference was that the soundtrack to driving down to Brighton was ‘Danger Zone’ by Kenny Loggins. Even thinking back to how I was feeling back then makes my heart buzz. Unfortunately I the activities I wanted to do at university – in particular the vibrant on-campus music learning environment simply didn’t exist. I remember going along to a musical chorus with one of my flatmates, and it was horrific. I was a first year, one of only two blokes there and went along because I quite liked the idea of a sing-song outside the then oppressive atmosphere of Cambridge. This one was even worse and I never returned. Fifteen years later, Andrea Cockerton arrives to sort things out. The result? This.

The Dowsing Sound Collective in Cambridge are also looking for a few more men to join us. Also, we’re expanding to Brighton, London, Norwich and York. Some of you reading this live in one of those four spots.

One of the things I mentioned years ago that I wanted to get back into was public performance. After the experience in Brighton I never believed I would sing again. Funny how things change.

Me at The Apex in Bury St Edmunds - Photo by Mike Oliver (http://photography.bymikeoliver.com/)

Me at The Apex in Bury St Edmunds with the Dowsing Sound Collective – Photo by Mike Oliver (http://photography.bymikeoliver.com/)

The picture on the left was after me and Puffles had appeared with the Dowsing Sound Collective as part of Basement Jaxx’s ‘Power to the People’ project – which has just been released as part of their new autumn album ‘Junto’. We didn’t just appear in one of their videos, I appeared dressed as a vampire – The Count from Sesame Street. And Puffles? As a vampire bat. Think about it: Puffles. As a vampire bat. In a Basement Jaxx video.

From 1m21s if you’re interested.

The plan for this autumn?

I’ve also got a number of things in the pipeline that are all related to the principles of Be the change – Cambridge. The target? The 2015 General Election. Raise awareness, make the contacts and help people get informed and educated in time for when the national politicians come to town.

So…that’s me being the change…

What about you? What can you do to make even a small positive difference round your way? Because given the toxic national and international news backdrop, people could do with some inspiration. Could you be that person to inspire them? Could you be that person who provides that essential support to someone else’s inspiring project?

Are you prepared to run the risk of failure in order to reach your potential?

With just under a fortnight to go, and with a big marketing push this week for next week Saturday, I am staring that risk in the face. And it is a frightening place to be. But an exciting one too. If you’re in Cambridge and are free on Saturday 13th September (or know someone who is), your city needs you.

Many Bridges

One Cambridge

It’s your city

Be. The. Change.

Posted in Cambridge, Music | Leave a comment

Vox-popping for ‘Be the change – Cambridge’


Preparing some of the ground for our event on Saturday 13 September at Anglia Ruskin in Cambridge with some thoughts of people in my community – as well as being a one-man-poster campaign.

Unlike my election campaign of 2014 (see the archive here) where it was all about me and my ideas, all things Be the change – Cambridge are about the issues and ideas of the people of Cambridge. And how better to do that than invite people onto camera to raise their issues? At the same time, it’s all valuable learning for me – a process that is very different to the academic-based learning I was brought up on. Here are what four of my friends, all with very different life experiences had to say:

I’ve not explored playing with the credits in the editing software I’ve got. My previous digital video for the Cambridge Buskers and Street Performers Festival was the first time I had properly stripped video pieces of their audio and replaced them with a single track.

The learning point from the vox-pops was all about improving audio. In this case, filming outdoors means an external mic with a wind shield is essential.

Want to say your piece to camera?

Please get in touch!

My template for this is as follows:

Three people recorded separately stating:

  • Name
  • Where they are from
  • What one big change they would like to see in Cambridge

I then follow this with a final clip of a fourth person who has identified the change they want to see in Cambridge and has started taking action to make that change happen – as Steve Turville of Limoncello on Mill Road has done with the Cambridge Lakes Project (See here). The project Steve has taken on is massive: Turning an old flooded quarry slap bang in the middle of residential East Cambridge into a leisure facility for the city. Have a look at this presentation I filmed earlier this year (2014).

There are a number of people I can think of who are also ‘being the change they want to see in Cambridge’. Helen Holmes and Jenny Debenham are two such people who are working across a number of projects to make Cambridge a sustainable food city. See one of their ideas here.

Also see Cambridge Sustainable Food City here.

My point? There are a number of very inspiring people already doing some great things. I see my role as one helping others to get involved in what is already going on, and bringing people together to get their own ideas off of the ground.

The limits of blogging and text-based social media – and the importance of traditional awareness-raising.

One of about 50 'Be the change - Cambridge' posters I have put up across the city of late. This one kindly hosted by Clowns Cafe on King Street

One of about 50 ‘Be the change – Cambridge’ posters I have put up across the city of late. This one kindly hosted by Clowns Cafe on King Street

My thanks to all that have allowed me to put posters up in their windows/on their premises to advertise the event. The only outright refusal I’ve had so far? Tescos in Fulbourn. Postcard-size only they said. Their shop, their rules I guess. Not the same as my local supermarket – a Budgen’s franchise where I used to work. Kris – featured in the video works there & was there when I worked there well over 15 years ago. If anyone has seen how South Cambridge has changed over the years, it’s him.

Ward-to-ward across central and south/east Cambridge

It reminds me of some of the street-pounding I did in the election campaign – only I was a lot more timid then. The printing of posters on my home printer (which hates me for what I’m putting it through – I’m sure!), laminating & displaying of them is something that feels more ‘automatic & zombie-like’. Put on some headphones, turn up the music & sing like the world’s not watching. Yeah – pumping out a Bros double-bill. I have no idea what the international summer school students thought of me as they headed to their end of season parties at the colleges.

When it comes to community notice boards outside the centre, we don’t really have a consistent approach. As it turned out, the Tescos board wasn’t really much of a board. The acres of glass made the display they had look a little feeble. Other supermarkets have done much better jobs, but there is still room for improvement for all to attract a real ‘community feel’. Even a site such as Addenbrooke’s Hospital – which is the size of a small town anyway, has a notice board tucked away from where most of the staff, let alone the public hardly frequent. A huge missed opportunity.

Cllr Johnson and the Cambridge Societies’ Fair

I first blogged about this event back in spring 2012 – see my blogpost here. Richard (as he was then just a candidate standing for election) backed the idea very early on.

In 2014 the idea got into the Cambridge Labour Party manifesto and upon taking control of the council, Cllr Richard Johnson found himself as an executive councillor with the communities portfolio. He’s kindly invited me to be part of a working group to make the event happen – which I’m delighted to accept. And we have a date for that event too!

Cambridge Societies Fair: Sat 28 February 2015 at Cambridge Guildhall

It was published in the Cambridge News here – but not online yet.

The announcement of the Cambridge Societies Fair in the Cambridge News

The announcement of the Cambridge Societies Fair in the Cambridge News


As the article states, if you’re interested in helping organise the event, please contact Cllr Johnson at richard.johnson [at] cambridge.gov.uk

It’s also nice that the Cambridge News wrote an op-ed welcoming the fair, even though part of me wanted to shout: ‘Oi! It was Puffles’ idea!’

"It was Puffles' idea! Twitter says so!"

“It was Puffles’ idea! Twitter says so!”

The real news story is the co-operation between several different people to get to this stage. In the grand scheme of things it’s not so much who comes up with the idea, but who are the people that work together to make those ideas bear fruit.

Sequencing things post-Be the change – Cambridge

This event for me is a nice follow-on from ‘Be the change – Cambridge’. If anything, I’d like to see Anglia Ruskin Students Union and Cambridge University Students Union putting on a community action gathering for further education students in and around Cambridge at the end of January 2015. Its purpose? To get them interested, generate ideas & gain some momentum, and then unleash them all onto the Cambridge Societies’ Fair. Can you imagine what this could do not just for community action in Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire but also for local democracy with a general election coming up? Remember that Andrew Lansley MP is standing down, so South Cambridgeshire is guaranteed to get a new MP. Without the incumbency factor, we could have a much more lively general election campaign in South Cambridgeshire than we’ve had for years.

So…things looking bright locally on the community action front?


But we need your help.

Want to help us make it happen? Join us on Saturday 13 September at Be the change Cambridge. Arrive at 9:30 at Anglia Ruskin University’s East Road Campus – volunteers in dark blue hoodies will be there to greet you!

  • Standard tickets £10 + Eventbrite’s £1.25 booking fee
  • Concession tickets – free (with no booking fee)
  • Under 21s  & ARU students – free (with no booking fee)
  • Event volunteers & activists – free (with no booking fee) – and a free hoodie!

Tickets available at http://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/be-the-change-cambridge-tickets-12158252661

Many bridges. One Cambridge. It’s your city.

Be. The. Change.

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

Community reporting & political parties / ballroom dancing jumps shark


Insights into community reporting on all things democracy, and on a vanquished dancing dream

A week of editing footage awaits as filming over a series of days comes home to roost. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – it’s just going to take me ages, that’s all.

Throughout this year I’ve been to gatherings of all of the main political parties in Cambridge – somehow keeping hold of my political independence while maintaining a good level of trust. Part of that comes from having worked with ministers from all three parties in my civil service career, part of it comes from having stood as an independent candidate as Puffles earlier this year. Whenever you stand for election, that’s on your political record for all time. In tribal party terms, it effectively means I will never be seen as ‘one of us’ by any political party should I choose to join one.

A well-trodden political path is when a journalist, TV presenter or columnist becomes a politician. Matthew Parris, Michael Gove, Gloria De Piero and Austin Mitchell are all examples of this. There’s also the path of journalist to civil service communications director. Martin Sixsmith and George Eykyn are two examples. But how many go the other way? How many use their knowledge of how large organisations work to report and analyse what happens? The only one that really springs to mind for me is financial reporter Frances Coppola – who I should add is a good friend of mine.

Community reporting and filming for local political parties

One of the things I tried to get local parties to do in the run up to the Cambridge City Council 2014 elections was to produce some digital video materials. The only party that took up my offer to film things was the Green Party – and that was at a national and European level where I gave them film footage of their campaign launch and press conference.

This weekend, Liberal Youth had a gathering in Cambridge in my neighbourhood. So me and Puffles rocked up to do some filming for them. It wasn’t a journalist-to-politician grilling. My view is that there isn’t anything ‘at entry level’ that encourages and inspires people to get involved in politics or local democracy. Hence my approach is filming as many people as possible and asking things like:

  • Please introduce yourself – who are you and where are you from?
  • What got you into politics?
  • Where do you see yourself in five years time in a political context?

On one side I have tripod and camcorder, and on the other I have smartphone attached to handheld tripod/monopod. Apart from trying to compensate for over-sensitivity of the former, I also want to show that most people in party political circles can either afford or already have the kit with the latter in order to make their own digital films. It’s not a question of intellect. Quite often I have found that many people are either not aware of what can be done with the kit they already have or can easily access, and those that do are unwilling to use it. Prior to my intro to digital video making course was in the latter position.

Is there more that unites rather than divides young political activists?

Whatever the stereotype and/or truths about professional politicians, most of the young party political activists are not in it for the headlines or status. Many of the ones I am meeting are and have been campaigning on issues that until recently did not have the highest profile. Online privacy and mental health are two good examples. Go to meetings of Young Greens, Young Labour or Liberal Youth and you’ll probably find in a comparison of the three a great deal of common ground. Mental health, women’s rights, sustainable energy, are all issues where the big principles are very similar.

Dare I say it, but there are also similarities in the personalities of the people that I’ve met as well. Educated, articulate and cerebral people are conspicuous by their presence. At the same time, there is also a level of passion and even ‘intensity of personality’ that comes with it too. This can have positive and negative consequences. Positive in that someone can really go into the policy detail of something that few others would consider (thus being an asset to a team) but negative in that this intensity can sometimes put people off.

Not everyone goes to university

And perhaps that’s what’s missing. I can’t recall meeting the young apprentices, the labourers, the full-time shop workers, the bus drivers, the highway patrol people, the mechanics, the hair dressers etc at these gatherings. What would targeted campaigns about that demographic by the parties look like, and what impact would it have on local parties?

Ballroom dancing jumps shark

I remember nearly a decade ago having really high hopes of what had become a passion of mine sparking something of a mini social life revolution. Having been to Vienna and experienced the formal balls in the grand palaces, along with what was the first series of Strictly, I was hoping that it would create a critical mass of people who would want to replicate the best bits of Vienna’s formal dancing scene in the UK. But that never happened. Instead – and perhaps predictably, subsequent series moved away from the dancing and focused on making celebrities out of the professionals.

With the ex-pros now appearing on other non-dance TV shows (e.g. here), what could have been a renaissance in ballroom – where people from all backgrounds could go to big gatherings and balls in their towns, seems to be over. There are many reasons why it never happened – in the grand scheme of things the non-dance-related media appearances of strictly’s professional dancers wasn’t the biggest by any means. One was a lack of vision and leadership in the governing bodies of dancing, and the other was and is out-of-control land prices that price out many community activities. As a couple of small-business people in the local Conservative Party told me, you could not run a traditional large ballroom venue at a profit in today’s economy. And because of the unstable income that is associated with trying to run a dance school, who can blame the professional dancers for trying to squeeze every penny possible out of their time in the limelight?

I’m still deciding whether to go dancing again this term. I don’t know if I have the physical fitness to get back into it. But for those of you in or near Cambridge who are interested in a dance workout and the option of competing, one of the offshoots from the Cambridge Dancers Club (who are back in October), the XS Latin Formation Team are recruiting new dancers. See here for more details.

Posted in Cambridge, Events I have been to, Party politics | 1 Comment

GCSE Results Day


Comparing then with now.

I stumbled across this blogpost which nails it. Same stuff, different year. Commentators moaning about exam standards not being as tough as they were in the good ol’ days.

Back in the mid-1990s I was ambushed by BBC Radio Cambridgeshire about 5 seconds after opening my results envelope. I was trembling, clutching a slip that told me I’d scored all As or Bs. In the grand scheme of things, this was the biggest deal in my life up until then. I can’t recall having worked for anything as hard as those exams. With hindsight, the only thing I ever really threw the kitchen sink plus more at was my civil service fast stream application – which like my GCSEs I was successful in, in that it got me to the next stage of life as hoped.

‘Aww! My followers just got their results!!!’

A number of long-time Twitter followers received their A-level and GCSE results recently. As you can imagine, many of them are absolutely buzzing – and quite possibly as drunk as I was this time all those years ago. Funnily enough I’m going to be filming three of them as they perform more musical masterpieces in and around Cambridge in the next few days.

Now is not the time to talk about falling exam standards

It really isn’t. It’s not censorship. It’s self-discipline and tact. I remember during my university days a Guardian journalist trying to work out how easy A-level sociology was by enrolling himself to take the exam on deadline day and revising for six weeks before doing the exam and getting an A in it. He was subsequently ripped to pieces for not checking his privilege – in particular:

  • Being older & more educated than nearly all of the other people taking the exam – he had a university degree which most 18 year olds don’t have
  • Only taking one exam, not the three or four that other candidates took
  • Not having the pressure of taking an exam as if your future depended on it

I found out the difference during my year out between college and university, when I did A-level history in an evening class. With my university place secured, I positively enjoyed the exam – something that could not be said for my compatriots in the hall. But because I had been where they were the previous year, it wasn’t something to be all cocky about. Rather it was a case of ‘I know how you feel’.

Collective success vs individual success

Perhaps the difference between GCSE result and the Fast Stream was the latter was a collective celebration, whereas the latter was an individual one. In the grand scheme of things, the talents and successes of young people are criticised more than celebrated. If it were the latter, the political establishment wouldn’t be putting so many barriers in the way of that talent and potential being realised. It’s not just tuition fees but the burden of training and education generally being shifted from employer and state to individuals – at a time where there are fewer ‘jobs for life’ and re-training is now par for the course.

Adults in the wider community have a responsibility to help young people reach their potential

Looking back, one of the things that was never really apparent during my college – or even university years was the desire of the older adults in the wider community around me to take an active interest in my progress (or otherwise) in those years. Certainly not more than any box-ticking system required. The impact probably changed not only the results I got at A-level, but my choice of university and subject too. And inevitably career path. That said, given my health disposition there is every chance I’d have ended up back where I currently am even if I had followed the ‘life on a piece of paper’ path.

This is where organisations such as the Cambridge Area Partnership come in. I’m particularly interested in the way institutions function. The problem I’ve found over the past couple of years is that when it’s one person jumping up and down, institutions don’t listen. It’s only when you get other people involved and put pressure from multiple directions that they start shifting. The other thing I’ve found is continually evaluating and adjusting your approach also keeps institutions on their toes. 2014 has been a case in point as far as my actions are concerned. Almost outspokenly assertive early on in the year, I made my point by unexpectedly standing for election as Puffles. The result of that was repeatedly raising issues that helped influence local democracy and local policies.

Having ‘banked’ that, I’ve switched approach again. Once you’ve stood for election, you know what it involves. Standing for election again is less of a big issue second time around. Although I don’t want to do it in 2015, it’s not something I’ve entirely ruled out. It depends on progress on the issues I care about. My current approach is about setting an example by doing. This ranges from being a community reporter for Shape Your Place (see an example here) to organising events such as the repeatedly-mentioned Be the Change – Cambridge. To see how far we’ve progressed, have a look at the sponsors we’ve signed up here.

Significant progress? I’d like to think so

What’s really good to hear from the sponsors I have spoken to is the importance of young people to the city. That’s one of the big reasons why they are getting involved. A generation ago, such an event like this would not have happened. It really wouldn’t have. The problem then was the mindset of the institutions. This is something that is slowly beginning to change, but only because a critical mass of people challenging that culture is now forming. Not only that, we have the tools, technology and networks to bypass hierarchical and archaic structures that otherwise get in the way. That combined with enough people from diverse backgrounds who are persisting with the pressure.

A very long way to go

I spent much of 2013/14 being rebuffed and ignored by a number of local further education establishments on community outreach. Emails ignored, follow-ups not taken forward – that sort of thing. Hence switching approach and going through local council committees, repeatedly following up actions. For example in Cambridge in the ‘open forum’ items:

Although the minutes have not been published, the new Chair of the Committee Cllr Sue Birtles has said with one of the institutions, she’s going to make a spot visit because 9 months of being ignored is now in my book a contempt for democracy. I put this point to the full council in June 2014 in ‘Public Question Time’.

Furthermore in Cambridge in the open forum items…

The great thing about East Area is that we’ve had significant progress with Parkside Coleridge School. Cambridge City Council and ward councillors are now much more engaged with the school, and are visiting more frequently and doing a greater variety of citizenship-related activities than before. I spoke with the head of Coleridge, Bev Jones not long after the GCSE result were released. She was glowing with pride – and with good reason given the challenges Coleridge has faced over the years.

We’ve shown a glimpse of what we can achieve if we take responsibility for each other

This is the ‘be the change’ approach. We’re asking people ‘what can you do to make the change?’ rather than ‘Can you give a list of reasons why you can’t do anything?’ Hence the challenge at the end of our event (“Buy tickets here!!!”) is for people to make a small behaviour change or commit to one small one-off action. Because if over 200 people do that all around the same, the impact could be just enough to create a momentum that’s unstoppable.

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

On being lonely


I stumbled across this post via Urban75 in a thread about ‘Relate’s report on the state of relationships. It’s on loneliness – something I’ve blogged about previously.

Originally posted on The Secret Life of a Manic Depressive:

I’ve written about pissing into bottles when I’ve been depressed, and yet to me, this is a blog  whose responses I fear the most. Because admitting that you’re lonely seems to be the most shaming thing you can do. We’re meant to be glitzy! Instagramming! Vineing our awesome lives! And this will sound like one long self pitying tract, which it is, really. All I want from it is to get some thoughts out of my system. It is not a plea for contact because as I will explain I must do those things on my own terms and not be forced into them or feel obligated because I find that scary and overwhelming. Like someone who hasn’t eaten for a bit- I’ll be sick and not want to eat again if I have a big meal. I need to have little nourishing small things that I am comfortable with.

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Final version of my film of the Cambridge Buskers Festival 2014


I’m strangely proud of this – for being proud of work I’ve done is an emotion I rarely feel.

Here it is:

Visually it’s not perfect – I’m still trying to figure out what happened in the conversion process that blurred it. I chose to go with the audio from Cobario’s album rather than with the audio footage I filmed. The track is called ‘Showdown’ and is available on iTunes.

“Why proud?”

I think it’s because it’s something I never saw in myself. My early digital video commissions were the result of my lack of digital video editing skills. We didn’t actually do much editing in the evening class I took recently. The focus – and I think rightly so – was on filming good clips. As a couple of the books on the subject have said that you cannot compensate at the editing stage for poor filming/positioning.

At the same time, the whole experience has got me thinking differently – and learning differently too. This was something I hadn’t really comprehended before. In the case of the filming, it’s learning a little and regularly. In the case of editing, there were a number of barriers that I came up against with the editing software that involved various searches to overcome. The perfectionist in me wants to work on the blurring of the footage which seems to have come before the compressing stage but after the filming stage.

The difference this entire project seems to have made is that I’m experimenting with software in the manner a creative type (such as my sister) would do, rather than expecting everything to work first time every time. This one got her nominated for the Next Director Award 2014.

One for owners of four-legged friends? Her other video work is here. Recognise any from telly?



Posted in Cambridge, Music, Social media | 1 Comment