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Cambridge candidates making election campaign videos in May 2019 council elections

Summary:

“And my work here is done!”

In 2017 I filmed and produced election introduction videos for candidates across the political matrix in and around Cambridge for the Cambridgeshire County Council elections.

Above – the playlist of 17 videos from the Cambs County Council elections 2017.

My rationale was simple: It is good for democracy for as many voters to cast informed votes having had the opportunity to hear from all of the candidates in their own words/voices who have put themselves forward for an election contest. With nearly all of the videos we did multiple takes – ensuring that the candidates were happy with the videos going out.

The format was identical so that no one would have an advantage over the other. It also made filming and following instructions much more straight forward when filming. All candidates were asked to introduce themselves, stating:

  • Their name
  • The party they were standing for
  • The ward/division they were standing for election in
  • The election contest and institution they were taking part in/seeking election to
  • The date of the election

They were invited to state up to three reasons why they were standing for election – their choices in their own words. Finally they were asked to give any social media links before finishing off with a “please vote for me” sign off.

With the data analytics giving me an average watching time of just over 2 minutes per video, I said to the candidates that they needed to get everything they needed to say all covered in about half of that time.

With so many taking part, it encouraged more to have videos filmed later on. 2017 was very much a tipping point for using videos in election campaigns. Of the videos uploaded to Youtube, many of them had over 100 views each. Several of the candidates uploaded the video files to Facebook directly – thus getting them out to even wider audiences.

Fast forward to 2019

What people did not see in 2017 was the huge amount of (unpaid) work that went into filming and producing all of those videos. Remember that a general election also happened that year.

This year, I don’t have the health to undertake such an exercise – I didn’t last year either only being a couple of months out of hospital following a suspected heart attack just before Christmas.

Candidates doing it for themselves in South Cambridge

In Queen Edith’s ward, Cambridge, both Dan Greef for Labour, and Sam Davies, standing as an independent candidate, are producing regular – almost daily campaign video clips using their smartphones. You’ll be able to see videos of all of the candidates for Queen Edith’s following the hustings on 25th April 2019 at Queen Edith’s Primary School on Godwin Way. I’ve made enquiries about a similar hustings for Trumpington ward as they have two by-elections on the same day (city and county councils) as well as the normal city council election, due to the standing down of Cllr Adey.

Older videos can be used again by candidates who stand in the same ward annually

In Cambridge we have annual elections at a local government level. It works out at three elections in four years for the city council, and in the gap there are county council elections.

CambridgeGovernanceStructure

I can’t pretend to be a fan of Cambridge’s governance infrastructure but ministers insist we have the above.

This means that some candidates who are not elected get the chance to re-use previous videos. For example Virgil Ieurubino standing again in Petersfield Ward for The Green Party, where he spoke at the hustings of 2017 in that ward.

The circumstances of 2019 are different to previous years – and not just in Cambridge

We shouldn’t be in this position regarding Westminster because in normal circumstances a prime minister that cannot command the confidence of the House of Commons should resign. And being defeated in the Commons on a flagship government policy – in particular one involving international relations – should be a confidence issue. But such is the self-built prison created by ministers that is the timetabling of trying to leave the EU, there’s no other person who commands the confidence of the Commons, and a general election would have meant crashing out of the EU with No Deal – or would have done prior to the extension to 31 October deadline.

Thus we found out last week that contrary to the expectations of the last few years, the UK will be taking part in the European Parliament elections at the end of May – three weeks after the local elections. It may be that the UK candidates returned only stay in office until 31 October – should the UK finally come to a deal to leave the EU, or just crash out. We may also have a general election between now and then as well, even though the Conservatives will be fighting tooth and nail to reduce as much as they can the prospect of a Corbyn-led government. Furthermore, in 2020, all of the Cambridge City Council seats are up for election due to ward boundary changes within the city. Again, my preference is for a nationwide policy of local government reform with a widespread cover from redrawing/abolishing/creating councils, reviewing and overhauling powers and finances – in particular giving councils far greater powers of tax and spend than they currently have. (In particular, revenue raising powers that are completely independent of Whitehall).

Candidate videos not being the magic wand, but being part of a wider and longer term process of improving our democracy

Use the technology that’s available.

261013 election candidates camcitco Alex Wood Francis Doggett

Above – From 1926, the Cambridgeshire Collection on new candidates for Cambridge Borough Council. (We only became a city in 1951).

Photographs in newspapers were still a new thing in 1926. Hence the candidates submitting official portrait photographs to the newspapers to use. Second from the right is Dr Alex Wood, the physicist, presbyterian preacher, anti-fascist and anti-war campaigner who became leader of the Cambridge Labour Party and its candidate in the 1931 & 1935 general elections. The party named their HQ after him. If you look at the imprints on Labour leaflets in Cambridge, it’ll give an address of Alex Wood Hall. This is him. On the right is Francis Doggett for the Conservatives. We named a road in Cherry Hinton after him.

Getting used to new campaigning methods – and improving on old ones too

If you are friends with anyone standing for election to a council, ask if you can join them as their guest at the election count. It’s an experience to see democracy in action. Furthermore you’ll get the sense of just how organised and complex the local party political machinery is – and they are machines in Cambridge. The templates that canvassers and activists use to collect data have all been developed, improved and refined over the years. Just as important as finding out what the residents feel are local priorities, is whether they are disposed to voting for you or not. With the rapid growth of Cambridge (along with the growth in the turnover of population too), being able to call up those voters on polling day to remind them to vote can be the difference between winning and losing a council seat that is then in the hands of that party for up to four years.

With video and social media, the techniques and skills that candidates are developing now are ones they can continue to refine and develop in the years and decades to come. For example compare the photographs from 1926 vs the ones used by parties in the last few decades. That’s a move from using a professional photographer to one where activists and candidates use their own photographs. The move from film to digital photography meant that parties did not need to go to a photograph developers to get their prints, but could import digital images into their own newsletters and produce them themselves.

Getting trained up

There are now a number of course providers in and around Cambridge who can train candidates and activists to make their own videos for campaigns. In Cambridge there’s the Cambridge TV School and Sookio are my top two to look at, along with Lenka Koppova’s Meetup Group. It’s also worth looking at the community videos Mill Road TV puts up too.

“Will more candidates put up videos in the 2019 local elections in Cambridge?”

I’m not expecting that many unfortunately. As Phil Rodgers blogs here, eight of the 14 seats up for election are safe Labour seats, and it doesn’t appear that other parties are making a huge effort to take those seats. Phil predicts the more focussed contests will be in Trumpington (due to the number of seats up for election and the large numbers of new homes recently occupied) along with Castle, Market, and the two Chestertons (East & West).

Conservatives hit Newnham with a highly-regarded new candidate.

Dolly Theis has arrived on the Cambridge politics scene having settled in to study for a Ph.D. She is also a director of the Ask Her To Stand campaign and stood against Kate Hoey MP at the 2017 general election in Vauxhall, London. This is her being interviewed by Adam Boulton on Sky News:

Above – Dolly Theis on Sky News.

Again, the advantage of having pre-existing video footage – this one high quality broadcast standard, to share with potential voters. It’s the audio in particular that makes the difference.

Using footage from past council and public meetings

Here’s an example of Sam Davies, standing in Queen Edith’s as an independent candidate, asking about a planning issue at a local council meeting.

Cambridge City Council – South Area Committee, 24 Apr 2017.

…and below is an example of an elected councillor putting on public record that she’s been successful in persuading a local authority to change its policy on something – this from Cllr Lucy Nethsingha (Lib Dems – Newnham).

Cambridgeshire County Council – General Purposes Committee, 23 Jan 2018.

This enables the public to see for themselves the candidates in action – often at meetings or events they had no idea took place. 

The challenge with 2019 – a good challenge to have, is that many of the seats have first time candidates standing for election. This means the amount of -pre-existing video footage is very limited. Message to candidates? Get filming!   

 

 

 

 

 

 

Making Cambridge an inclusive city – at FeCRA’s AGM for 2019

Summary:

More lessons from Bristol, and a re-look at some old blogposts.

In some recent conversations, I was reminded of a couple of diagrams. At the annual gathering of the Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations recently, we had another expert speaker from Bristol – Professor Robin Hambleton. (See the video playlist here). The first was the shambolic state of the governance of Cambridge.

CambridgeGovernanceStructure

From Smarter Cambridge Transport, the fragmentation above does not cover the privatised bus services, the academised schools, the hospitals & health services, and the police all outside the reporting and accountability structures of municipal councils. Prof Hambleton was spot on saying that the UK is one of the most centralised of states in the world. Having taught in other countries, he commented that regional and local government in Germany were protected by their constitution. Hence central government could not dictate to local and regional councils in the way that happens in the UK.

The second was from a study I discovered during my civil service days.

AudienceSegmentation
What does your community look like?

The above was from 2008 – which pre-dates the explosion of multitude of social media tools bar email and Facebook. There was no Twitter for politics. back then. This, the growth of mobile video, and the impact of Brexit and Donald means that some of the above-figures may well have changed. Furthermore, the above-model does not account for those that might or do behave in a way that might be destructive to communities and societies.

Clouds and silver linings

The implosion of functioning government is at a level that I have not seen in Westminster and Whitehall. We should not be in this situation constitutionally – the convention is that when a prime minister loses the confidence of the House of Commons, he or she should tender their resignation to the Queen and either advise on a replacement, or recommend a dissolution of Parliament to make way for a general election.

But that cannot happen while the clock is ticking down for – as things stand a car-crash-no-deal Brexit. The UK leaves the EU by the automatic functioning of the triggering of Article 50 of the Treaty of The European Union. Thus we have paralysis in Whitehall. The House of Commons has repeatedly rejected the Prime Minister’s deal, and everything else too. The hung parliament cannot as yet come to an agreement on the way forward.

One of the few silver linings of all of this is the significant growth of people wanting to find out more about politics and our system of government – warts and all. Furthermore, I’ve noticed that ever since the EU Referendum we are seeing more and more new faces involved in local democracy. This year’s Cambridge City Council elections could see the biggest slate of first time candidates winning their election contests. I predict as many as eight of the 14 council seats at Cambridge Guildhall up for election could be won by first time candidates in Cambridge.

The biggest petition in the UK’s history

For online petitions on Parliament’s website, that award goes to the Revoke Article 50 petition – ten times the size of the Leave the EU Now petition. (The latter with over 600,000 signatures is still a very significant number of signatures). Can it be compared with the millions that signed the Chartist petitions of the mid-1800s? Not really because of the extra efforts that went into collecting the signatures for the latter, and also because the freedoms that we enjoy today are not the same conditions that the Chartists faced. Essentially the Chartists were taking bigger risks.

Heidi Allen MP and the ‘Tiggers’ 

The local elections on 02 May 2019 will be the first real electoral test for both Conservatives and Labour since the breakaway group of MPs now led by the MP for South Cambridgeshire. Essentially both political parties have had sand kicked in their face by different sections of the media over how they’ve handled Brexit. Keep an eye on Peterborough and East Cambridgeshire in particular.

“What’s all of the above got to do with making Cambridge inclusive?”

Everything.

My previous blogpost of Cambridge being a protesting city was well made given the rise in the number of protests that happened shortly after. Hundreds of people from Cambridge went down to London for the million-person protest calling for a people’s vote. (That’s not to say it was entirely representative of the whole country – the march was in London for a start. But to get that many people out on the streets marching against a government policy shows a significant level of unhappiness as it takes a huge amount of effort to agitate people to an extent where they are prepared to travel to the capital for a big protest).

More protests

Primary school children and parents marched against cuts to schools

Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner spoke to a separate rally against leaving the EU, in Cambridge.

….While secondary school students marched on strike against climate change.

…while the housing protests haven’t gone away either – here with Cllr Anna Smith and Montreal Square residents & supporters.

Not just the ‘usual suspects’ protesting

There are too many protesting about too many different things for any one organisation to try and monopolise any of the protests. The huge number of home-made signs reflects this. This makes it much harder for the politicians to dismiss. Furthermore, the line between taking direct action that causes inconvenience, and the line that says follow the official channels to make your case, is becoming much more blurred. This blurring has been led locally by the Cambridge collective of the Extinction Rebellion network – who blocked Mill Road not so long ago, and did the same on Hills Road for about half an hour during rush hour.  And with good reason. Asking questions of politicians alone has not worked. I’ve tried – this from 2 years ago. Air quality has gotten even worse despite actions and petitions from hundreds more people.

Blocked at every turn by restrictive structures and institutions

One of the most frustrating things to see in Cambridge is the level of homelessness on the streets – in the face of all of the headlines about the wealth the city supposedly generates. From the fragmentation of local state and civic institutions, to the hoarding of powers and finances by Ministers and The Treasury in London, to the planning system in the eyes of local residents appearing to favour speculative developers looking for a quick buck rather than a system that incentivises developers and communities to work together to solve shared problems, attempts to solve our city’s problems seem blocked at every turn. And then the city gets blamed for the inequalities within the county even though the political decisions that lead to said inequalities are taken by politicians not elected by the wards and divisions inside Cambridge City, but in Cambridgeshire County’s rural wards and divisions. Ask most transport campaigners inside Cambridge and they would welcome – and campaign for significantly improved public transport links to surrounding towns and villages. For a start such links would significantly reduce the car traffic on the roads. I’m all for rail links to Wisbech and Haverhill. I’m all for light rail links to places like St Ives, Ramsay, Chatteris and Cambourne. But successive governments have never had the courage or imagination to put in the structures or finances to deliver any of this. And as a result, no one wins. In the current quagmire of Brexit, much of the civil service policy capacity has been diverted to solve self-created problems rather than the very real long term and persistent problems the country and the world faces. And we’re not going to get those five-or-so years back.

“So…what next?”

For a start, find out the candidates standing for election in your area. The Democracy Club crew prepare a big database of candidates with video and social media links for such things – though much depends on the goodwill of crowd-sourced volunteers cleansing the data and inputting candidate links. Elections aside, it feels like everything is on hold due to the Brexit mess. At a social gathering with some of my Lost Cambridge local history community earlier, I learnt how the uncertainty was having a huge impact on small to medium sized businesses, and how pro-no-deal MPs were claiming that the increase in orders from firms were signs of a strengthening economy rather than realising that this was evidence of firms stockpiling as contingencies, leading to a shortage of warehouse space. That’s in the face of changing consumer habits as people have moved away from the traditional high street shop to shopping online – leading to a residual increase in demand for warehousing space aside from Brexit contingencies.

On educating people about democracy and politics

The points I made in this blogpost from late 2017 apply here. We had a really good discussion about politics and current affairs as mentioned above. There were six of us at the local history gathering. I learnt first hand from people running their own businesses about the direct hits they were taking, and they learnt from me about the insights from my time inside Whitehall. These included the legal differences between the Scottish Independence referendum that had automatic triggers in the event of a Yes vote, versus the EU Referendum whose result in law was only advisory – and that everything that had stemmed from it was the result of conscious and deliberate actions by Government ministers. (For example if/when to trigger Article 50). The list of things the Government has completely missed out was powerfully listed by Lord Bilimoria who robustly slapped down former Home Secretary Michael Howard in his speech here. <<– Enjoy.

When the dust has settled in national politics, we’ve got to deal with educating the public about democracy and politics – not least to deal with the problem of misinformation and ‘fake news’.

 

Some thoughts on the pro-EU march in London – 23 March 2019

 

Summary:

Observations from the dragon’s perch as a million marchers filed past us.

Because there were lots of marchers.

Lots and lots and lots…

…and those timelapse videos I filmed and produced only captured three hours of marching. There was another hour and a half I could have filmed had I had spare batteries.

For the purposes of this post, I’m ***not*** going to cover the impact it may/may not have on the events of the next few days or few weeks. I’ll leave that for others. (So please don’t post comments about the merits of either side, or whether you think your side is the best thing to happen to the country since sliced bread was invented, or what insults you can throw at your political opponents – they’ll be zapped and ignored).

I’m more interested in the experiences of the participants on the day, and what impact this may or may not have in the distant future – i.e. once the summer has been and gone.

We are living in very tense political times

And unfortunately these times seem to include the sending of horrible threats to innocent people. When you start a petition and over 4million people sign it speaks volumes – but the sending of threats to the petition starter? Really?

I wouldn’t blame anyone for not wanting to get involved in party politics in an atmosphere like this. It’s utterly toxic. Credit to anyone standing for election to help make their communities better places to live in the face of such threats and an intimidating atmosphere.

This was not a march of ‘the usual suspects’

I’ve been to more than a few over the years – whether at University, through to the Iraq War March, to the anti-austerity marches, all the way through to the present day. While a number of groups had come prepared with mass-produced placards, these seemed few and far between – or rather they appeared in clumps. There were noticeably few trade union-related ‘corporate’ placards – individual branches bringing their own banners – some of them incredibly ornate & denoting a long tradition of marching and protesting. Furthermore, there was no visible far-left presence – perhaps reflected by the campaigns by more than a few of them to support leaving the EU but on a left wing platform.

Most of the banners and placards that I saw were home-made. This indicates two things. The first is that lots of people participating were not part of a heavily disciplined and trained campaigning unit – eg with identikit campaign t-shirts and so on. (Although many of these were on sale and purchased by many people – local history people please make sure samples of these are deposited in your local museums and archives!) The second is independence of thought and action. I got the sense that more than a few would find themselves alienated by very tribal politics. In which case how do those inside political parties avoid alienating those who might otherwise be sympathetic to their cause, who are now mobilised in terms of protesting, but may take issue with being told what to do and think?

The numbers on the march suggest many people taking part in a political march for the first time

This part particularly interests me. This is because for people who are not politically active and/or who don’t follow politics particularly closely, it takes a hell of a lot to agitate them into doing something active – irrespective of what the issue or cause is. (And irrespective of what the opinion of a person is). The experiences of Madeleina Kay show that opponents of the Remain cause can be just as motivated – think of those that have been protesting outside Parliament on an almost daily basis.  What we don’t know yet is what impact if any the experience of taking part in such a large demonstration today, will have on local elections coming up in early May.

No one political party or faction appearing to ‘dominate’ the march

One of the things Labour and the trade unions know how to do is to organise marches. With some of our local activists in Cambridge it’s almost like clockwork – knowing which of the authorities to inform and when, how to go about recruiting stewards, training them up and ensuring they are properly attired so that the public know who is in charge of the route. They actually make something very difficult to organise look relatively easy. But things like stewards, and electricity supplies for sound systems, and ensuring someone is filming speeches for social and local media doesn’t happen by themselves.

While lots of Labour branches were present – and with good reason, so to were the Liberal Democrats – along with one or two noticeably large Green Party contingents plus clumps of Independent Group, Women’s Equality Party and Conservatives Against Brexit marchers. There were also many who chose to march under the pro-EU banner of their local towns, staying away from party politics altogether.

Have any of the political parties looked ahead to beyond the end of the summer?

For example, what will the legislative programme of the government look like in the Queen’s Speech in the autumn? Because there has to be one. And it looks less and less likely that Theresa May will be heading that government responsible for it. Who knows – we may even have a general election between now and then.

There are challenges for both Labour and the Conservatives. For Labour, the emergence of The Independent Group means a further set of seats to win back for the party on the back of the huge decline of the Scottish Labour Party since the general election of 2010. That said, it’s not clear how many of the Independent Group MPs have strong enough personal loyalties in their own constituencies to enable them to hold onto their seats in the face of not just opposition from their former party, but other political parties too. One of the risks being that a split in the Labour vote lets in a third party. In Cambridge in 1987, this is exactly what happened. While the city was turning away from its long time Conservative tradition, the split in the progressive vote between Labour’s popular councillor Chris Howard, and the SDP’s Shirley Williams (A former Labour Cabinet Minister a decade previously) enabled incumbent MP Robert Rhodes James for the Tories to hold onto his seat with 21,000 votes. (The combined Labour + SDP total came to over 30,000 votes). It would be another five years before Cambridge got its first woman MP in Labour’s Anne Campbell.

The Tories are all over the place in Westminster – the convention of the collective responsibility of ministers in Government has gone. the organisation representing big businesses, the CBI, has stated publicly that ‘it has lost the confidence of the political class’. Saying that about Mr Corbyn is one thing – predictable almost. Saying it about a Conservative Government is quite another. Given the various statements ministers present and recent past have made in the face of Brexit, it’s hard to see which individual/s can regain the confidence of their business support base quickly enough in time for a general election.

The cleanup operation of politics and democracy once the dust has settled

For a start, I expect there to be a Leveson-style public inquiry into the circumstances of the UK leaving the EU. I expect the powers and the scope to be wide-ranging, covering individual ministers & decision-makers, departments of state, regulatory bodies and civic organisations. I expect it to go into detail on shortcomings in law and enforcement, and on intelligence gathering as well. I expect such a report to be comprehensive as it will be damning of individuals and institutions. At the same time, it might be just what is needed to help restore some trust in our institutions.

 

Cambridge – a protesting city

Summary:

A sign of a healthy democracy or a symptom of failing institutions unable to solve society’s problems?

I posted the above time lapse from the Save Montreal Square protests on my Democracy Cambridge FB Page which sort of serves as a bookmarking page for things happening in town that are vaguely to do with local politics and public services. A couple of hours earlier, the Cambridge Branch of Extinction Rebellion shut down Mill Road for the morning, protesting against the lack of action to deal with climate change.

See the Cambridge Independent’s brief report here. From Mortimer Road to Parker’s Piece, there were about 100 people there at the start – 15-20 at each barricade, and the rest spread out in the space in between on a cold, damp Saturday morning, the police having been informed in advance.

County council cuts creating multiple victims – and backlashes.

On one hand, the Conservatives brought the problems on themselves for not voting through increases in council tax when central government gave them the opportunity to do so. At the same time, it was the Conservatives in national government that slashed grant funding to local councils while not giving them real powers to raise money by other means to pay for services. One of the most striking of these is the county council’s proposed cut to a women’s refuge – Whitworth House. Fortunately it has been picked up not just by locals in Cambridge, but by students at Cambridge University too.

…the result of which has been 40,000 signatures protesting against the proposed cuts.

In the meantime, the petition to keep the historical monument of Castle Mound in public ownership is now heading towards the 1,000 signature mark. The petition’s creator, Isabel Lambourne is standing for election in Castle Ward for Labour at the Cambridge City Council elections in a few months time. Talking of which, with the retirement of longstanding councillor Jeremy Benstead in Coleridge ward, Labour are standing a new candidate in one of their safest wards in the city.

The other parties seldom canvass in this ward, so unless they pick things up, Grace should win comfortably. It also means we have gender parity in the representation of councillors in the ward – something I had been calling for over a number of years. (*And my work here is done!*)

Actually it isn’t – we still have huge problems all over the city that are not going away anytime soon

One of the problems caught me off guard a few days ago – the lack of museum and exhibition space in and around Cambridge for archaeological finds. Now, I’ve written about my desire to expand the Museum of Cambridge in part for this purpose, but I didn’t expect a similar message to come through from the head of archaeology at Cambridgeshire County Council. With all the building work in and around the city, we’re making some big discoveries – but don’t have anywhere to display them. For a city that sells itself on history and tradition this is more than a minor scandal. Hence raising the issue with the mainly retired members of the Cambridgeshire Association for Local History of which I am also a member. This year I’ve started signing up for full membership of a number of civic organisations.

Sorting out transport in and around Cambridge

The staff of the Greater Cambridge Partnership were outside the Guildhall on Saturday lunchtime only to get swamped by the Montreal Square protestors as they marched from Parker’s Piece. They’ve managed to get to a better place regarding consultations, but it has been one hell of a slog from a self-inflicted position of unnecessarily antagonising transport campaigners, community activists and local residents associations alike with unpopular plans for another guided busway. Their extended consultation on choices for better journeys (which ends on 31 March – if we haven’t imploded on Brexit day 2 days before) is one of those things that really should have been done before the original city deal was signed off in 2014.

The Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough falls out with opposition council leaders and the local media

See here – I think I’m going to take Puffles along to the next set of meetings the Combined Authority have, which will be in Cambridge this time around, because local politicians seem to behave better when the dragon is in the room. But it doesn’t bode well given the utterly avoidable problem of transport chaos around Addenbrooke’s Hospital because successive ministers and county council administrations did not build a new railway station for the huge developments happening there. The reality is that they could have done with a South Cambridge Station decades ago. Even the late Paddy Ashdown never got to see the station built – despite lending his support in the late 1980s/early 1990s.

And while Chris Grayling remains Secretary of State for Transport despite his latest policy failures costing the taxpayer even more money, I’m not holding out for big changes this side of Brexit Day. In the meantime, housing remains utterly unaffordable to the people who make the city run.

Campaign for a People’s Vote over Brexit

The uncertainty has been catastrophic across the piece – utterly self-inflicted by the Conservatives again. What’s striking is how the party for business has acted in a way that business groups have come out with the below:

This in the face of the most left-wing Labour Party leader since Michael Foot over 30 years ago. And Labour have their own problems given the recent breakaway group.

South Cambridgeshire MP Heidi Allen quits the Tories

I live in the borderlands between Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire, so what Heidi does also affects me just as much as what Daniel Zeichner does in Cambridge City. For example my local library and hospital are both in South Cambridgeshire Constituency. Anyway, Heidi is no longer a Conservative – and she has a new website at https://www.heidiallen.co.uk/ – and below is her launch speech in full, from ITN.

Above – from ITV News (I still call it ITN)

South Cambridgeshire a four-way marginal?

If, as many-a-commentator predicts, we get a general election later this year, South Cambridgeshire could become a four-way marginal. The Liberal Democrats crushed the once mighty South Cambridgeshire Conservatives in the 2018 elections – taking 30 of the 45 seats – ones which they’ll hold onto for the next few years due to their lack of annual elections there. In May, it’s the turn of the whole of East Cambs, based in and around Ely, 10 miles north of Cambridge. Given the impact of the Brexit uncertainty on a 60% Remain constituency, the Conservatives have got their work cut out to recover their losses – especially in the face of a constituency undergoing large housing growth and big demographic changes.

In the meantime, the uncertainty continues – and we still don’t know what’s going to happen even though we’re due to leave the EU at the end of the month.

In the meantime, and who can blame them, the school kids are having another strike following the success of the last one. In and around Cambridge, even some of the schools gave their backing – taking a huge risk in the process.

It paid off.

Just as the politicians in Cambridge in the mid 1980s discovered when teenagers in Cambridge protested against the closure of so many music venues at the height of Thatcher’s cuts to public services, don’t think the protesting children and teenagers are going to go away anytime soon. Just as the adults had to give way in 1980s Cambridge – their resulting legacy being The Junction arts centre, the adults of today will have to make concessions as well – and even bigger ones.

Cambridge News’ print circulation “down 34 per cent to 7,124”

 

Summary:

A huge collapse – how can it turn things around in an era of social media clickbait and declining print newspapers?

Sobering reading:

In second place was the Cambridge News – a newspaper I used to deliver on my paper round in the early 1990s, a time when they had multiple editions daily. (A hinderance when going through newspaper archives as they are all microfiched in the Cambridgeshire Collection).

Huge cuts in recent years to their staff – in particular in the under-rated but essential roles of sub-editing has led to excruciating errors like the one below.

171207 Cambridge News Headline Error with AC

Above – from 07 December 2017 – a mistake that actually led to lots of comment on the impact of job cuts in the regional media, and the impact on local democracy and accountability.

Then you’ve got the web click targets.

Mike Taylor of Somerset Live (the sister organisation to Cambridgeshire Live, the new online brand for the Cambridge News) comments below:

“Are media owners measuring the right metrics?”

You might get the click-throughs for a leading post like below…

190228 CambsLive FB clickbait example_1

…or a payment from a big theme park that requires a long drive…

190228 CambsLive FB clickbait example_3

…or a ‘read this and get angry / laugh at PC nonsense’ responses…

190228 CambsLive FB clickbait example_2

…but so what? At some stage, advertisers are going to figure out that it’s not just a numbers game, in the same way they figured that pop up adverts are annoying and can do more damage to their brands than not advertising in that manner at all.

“So, how do they reverse the decline?”

Asks every newspaper executive and journalist everywhere. And it’s hard work. Yet one of the best journalists in the business, Jess Brammar, a very long time Twitter friend, demonstrated what can be achieved by getting back to traditional journalistic values: Go to where the news is, don’t wait for it to come to you.

Another example of this is the local democracy reporter scheme – of which Cambridgeshire’s first journalist on the scheme, Josh Thomas, has just been snapped up by the Press Association in London.

The job of Local Government Correspondent in Cambridge has traditionally been one of the toughest gigs to do because of all of the meetings…

CambridgeGovernanceStructure

…you have to report from meetings at all of these places… (because Conservative ministers won’t restructure local government in England and are trying as many means as possible to keep control of Cambridge City even though they know Cambridge has stubbornly refused to elect a Conservative council since Margaret Thatcher became PM – a time when Cambridge was a safe Conservative parliamentary seat!)

The last three local government correspondents for the Cambridge News – Chris Havergal, Jon Vale and now Josh Thomas all went on to work for larger national organisations after their time on the Cambridge/South Cambs beat.

So if you’re interested, click above and apply. You will also get to work on TV and Radio.

Above – Local TV celebrity personality Josh Thomas and the case of the disappearing Donald. (Josh chased him up all the way to Scotland – something that got far more online coverage and repeat/returning viewers than clickbait). 

“So…what would get the readers coming back?”

Nothing according to Daniel Clark here:

I write as someone who buys the Cambridge News almost daily, and the Cambridge Independent weekly. Not everyone has the time or money. Furthermore, I don’t think any organisation has cracked the problem of seamlessly joining up their print content with their online content. The national dailies -esp the right-wing so-called mid-market papers effectively segregate their audiences by how they access it. The online version has the pics of glamour models having wardrobe malfunctions on beaches in exotic places in their ‘sidebars of shame’ while the print version sticks to its ‘read this and get angry’ headlines.

In the 1990s and 2000s a number of mainstream sporting magazines tried to rebrand themselves as ‘lads magazines’ but didn’t last long at all – 90 Minutes being one example before it imploded in the late 1990s. A shame as it was a very good weekly.

Getting the chance to get your name in the newspapers – for the right reasons

An old-fashioned value perhaps, but are you more likely to buy or at least read an article if it features someone in it that you know? Are you more likely to buy it if it covers things that you take part in? Growing up I remember the few occasions of local pride when some of us were mentioned in the local paper when it featured local sports clubs, local school theatre performances and so on.

Cambridge & Cambridgeshire are full of local societies – but where are the news updates from them?

This comes back to the ‘don’t wait for the news to come to you’ complaint, but also asks civic society to be more proactive in how they work with local media. One of the longest-standing societies in Cambridge is the Cambridge Antiquarian Society. It has been going since the mid-1800s. Someone has also very kindly digitised their entire back catalogue which goes back to 1859. In its heyday, the society would feature regularly in local media – not least because some of the biggest names in town and gown were active members of the organisation. (Even a young Eglantyne Jebb joined in 1908).

For societies that have meetings and events on a regular basis, getting into a habit of submitting short articles on what happened, and getting to know your local reporters is something Chris Elliott, lately the Chief Reporter of the Cambridge News, advised civic society organisations in Cambridge back in 2013. The increasing social media literacy that Cambridge Council for Voluntary Services has been pushing for some time – and now bearing fruit, should make for more interesting and more diverse content than simply raw text.

Civic society and local businesses taking a stake in local media

There is an inevitable conflict of interest if the above started directed editorial policy – editors need to be independent, reporting without fear or favour, and local journalists must be able to speak the truth to power. But the risk of this can be managed. The current ownership model of local and regional mainstream newspapers doesn’t allow for alternative means of ownership – i.e. a small number of large firms owning multiple titles and brands. The syndicating and centralisation as is happening at Heart Radio doesn’t bode well for Cambridgeshire either.

“Haven’t we been here before?”

Three years ago.

“How should Cambridge communicate with its residents, institutions, and each other?”

…was the theme of my blogpost here back in 2016. At the time I was commenting on too many organisations trying to target too few media organisations in their communications strategies. Given the closure of the Heart Radio News studio in Cambridge, and the news of the collapse of circulation of the Cambridge News, it’s time for Cambridge & Cambridgeshire to deal with this difficult issue. Especially with some of the controversies happening in local democracy that really need public scrutiny.

 

 

Do ministers have a positive vision for local government in England?

Summary:

According to the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, the picture doesn’t look good.

190207 LGC localgov finances unsustainable

The headline in the Local Government Chronicle – one of the specialist sector publications covering local councils. (Read the article here).

Meg Hillier MP, the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee – and thus one of the most influential MPs in the House of Commons, didn’t hold back her criticism.

Conclusions and recommendations from the House of Commons Spending Watchdog

Which is effectively what the Committee is – the National Audit Office reports to it. Have a look at the Committee’s recommendations and come to your own conclusions.

A broken system between central and local government

Picture this: You’ve spent years – decades even – working your socks of for your political party. You’ve pounded the streets in all weathers, stood for election in utterly unwinnable wards for local elections, and have done more than your fair share of late night committee work on your local council. At the nth time of trying, you get elected to Parliament representing your home constituency/a safe constituency ages away, and have plugged away on the back benches defending the indefensible and generally keeping the party management happy. Finally you get promoted to the dizzying heights of a junior ministerial post in local government policy, where you have a team of officials and a budget on which you can spend on what you like in your new policy area.

“Central government financial support for local government continues to be characterised by one-off, short-term initiatives, which do not provide value for money, rather than a meaningful long-term financial plan for the sector.”

Above – the first recommendation from the committee: Get rid of all of those short term initiatives. But then what is there for a junior minister to do other than to defend legislation during committee scrutiny sessions that the TV news never covers, but are essential for scrutinising new laws. You can get a feel for what life is like on these committees on Parliament.TV that only policy geeks and highly paid lobbyists keep an eye on. I’ve written ministerial speaking notes during my time – it’s extensive work for a very short amount of lines that end up on the statute books. In my case it was 100 pages of speaking notes for about 3 pages of clauses being scrutinised.

Let a thousand flowers bloom!

Over a decade ago during my civil service days, I joined one of the teams responsible for delivering a new local government White Paper [Communities in Control] when the Local Government Secretary was Hazel Blears MP, and Gordon Brown was Prime Minister. This was a very different time politically compared to anything that happened after 2010. One of the things I recall from the time was that a whole host of different schemes and ideas were being supported by a significant program of funding (over £100m over three years) taking place all over the country to find out what worked, and to share that learning. This was also supported by a heavily-staffed network of regional offices (long since closed by the Coalition).

Both this approach – the offer of lots of funding but with lots of strings attached, along with the huge cuts that followed causing many councils to reduce their functions to little more than what the law requires them to provide (i.e. “statutory services”) demonstrate a lack of confidence in local government as a concept.

Has central government always distrusted local government?

One thing to remember about the pre-2010 world is that in the grand scheme of things, it predated the arrival of social media in public policy. So in one sense we’re not really comparing like-with-like as far as scrutiny by the general public is concerned. Technology has been a huge driver.

Technology was also a huge driver in the growth and development of modern municipal government in the Victorian era as politicians struggled to deal with the symptoms and fallout of rapid population growth and rapid industrialisation. The mindset – even as late as the 1860s was that the urban poor should take responsibility for themselves to improve their condition. Even enlightened minds such as Professor Henry Fawcett, the Postmaster General, made this point in his opening speech to the newly opened Cambridge Workingmen’s Club on East Road, Cambridge. It was in the 1890s that we really started hearing about some radical policies for universal public services, such as Rollo Russell’s case for a National Health Service.

One of the things that enabled the growth – including the management and funding – of municipally run public services, were improvements in technology, in particular communications. While the railways get the historical headlines, around the same time huge leaps were being made in the development of the telegraph. Successive pieces of legislation throughout the 1800s passed by Parliament empowered local councils to take on new responsibilities and charge rate payers for the costs – hence the growth of local ratepayers associations to provide a check on the growth of local taxes.

IMG_E6821

Zapped by a referendum of Cambridge ratepayers, John Belcher’s painting of his guildhall design for Mayor Horace Darwin (son of Charles the botanist) 1896/97.

World wars and big state

The growth of ‘big state’ very much happened as a result of the state’s response to the demands of wars – and then the calls to provide ‘homes fit for heroes’ and so on. Continual improvements in communications technologies made it easier for civil servants to manage things from the centre – not without its critics.

261013 Liberal Socialist farming spoof

The Cambridge Chronicle (strong Conservative supporters) of 1926 lampooning the rise of state-employed inspectors. From the Cambridgeshire Collection.

In the battles between Labour and Conservatives in the decades that followed the war years, there were ongoing battles as to what functions should be provided for by the state, and what should be provided for by the private or not-for-profit sectors.

Technology changes again

One of the earliest examples of automation – of modern technology taking over the role previously done by people – is that of the traffic police officer directing traffic at major junctions during rush hour. I still remember seeing the sight of one poor police officer in Athens stuck in the middle of a busy Athens intersection in Greece in the year 2000 when I was there for a student conference. Blue police boxed also came and went in the post war years. How many younger Doctor Who fans can recall seeing an operational police phone box?

It’s not just social media when we talk about technological changes. Automation is another one. Just as typing pools of officials who would turn written manuscripts into typed up papers pre-personal computers are now a thing of the past, it remains to be seen how a new wave of automation can improve public services. Will the long-publicised self-driving cars lead to self-driving ambulances?

Members of Parliament slam the “unacceptable lack of ambition for the sector, with no aspiration for improving local finances beyond merely ‘coping’. “

Across the country the desperate images of people sleeping in the streets were on the front pages of Britain’s national newspapers this week.

The responsibility for dealing with homelessness rests with local councils, but given the state of the housing market bubble combined with perilous local government finances resulting from the cuts in central government support, the symptoms of the lack of funding for public services is there for all to see.

The Treasury’s iron-fisted control of local council finances

Following the huge revolt against Margaret Thatcher’s Poll Tax of 1990, John Major brought in a new system of property-based taxation to help fund local councils. The amount each householder pays in England is based on the value of the property as of 01 April 1991, and the band that it falls into. Which gives more than a hint of the temporary nature of the policy at the time, and reveals that local government revenue raising has been put in the “too difficult to deal with” pile by successive governments and ministers ever since.

This leaves local councils with very little flexibility to raise money elsewhere. In Scotland, Edinburgh wants to try out a tourist tax. Which is all well and good if you have lots of tourists staying overnight, but useless if you are somewhere like Cambridge, Stratford Upon Avon or Bath, where a very large proportion of tourists are ‘day trippers’. Finally, the idea of an income-based levy to fund local services was thrown out in the 1980s because if I recall correctly, the Conservatives did not want to run the risk of having a far left Chancellor of the Exchequer in every other town hall in the country – remember that in the early 1980s this was the Labour Party of Michael Foot – remembered now more kindly as a journalist and an intellectual, but who was monstered in the print press of the day.

“So…who has a positive vision for local government?”

In my opinion not the current administration because so much of their policy capacity has been diverted to deal with the self-inflicted wound called Brexit – of which we’re going into the final straight that runs the high risk of destroying both the Conservative Party and the Labour Party as we know them. I can’t recall a time when high profile MPs from both parties have threatened to resign over the same policy issue at the same time.

With Brexit dominating the media political discourse, there simply isn’t the media space to have what probably is a much-needed discussion not just on how to fund local councils in the 21st Century, but how to tax multinational corporations and large digital companies who may be domiciled elsewhere.

Local government is complicated

But it also has huge opportunities for national politicians who feel they may have hit a dead end. Look at the likes of Sadiq Khan in London and Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester for Labour. Both were senior ministers in Gordon Brown’s administration. Mr Burnham left Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet in 2016 to stand for Labour as their candidate for executive/metro mayor, while Mr Khan resigned his seat in Parliament the same year, after not taking a shadow ministerial portfolio in 2015.

One thing that both mayoral politicians have been able to do is to take political viewpoints not always in line with the leadership in Westminster. This is because being outside of Parliament and having their own direct mandate from the voters as mayors, they can argue that they are not directly politically accountable to the leader of their party for every move they make or word they say. (Whereas both Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet run on the convention of collective responsibility).

A short blogpost isn’t the place to set out a complex vision for local government that deals with things like providing public services in the face of both climate change and an ageing population – while trying to take on the low levels of trust voters have with the political class generally. (Again, are the levels unprecedented historically or have they always been low?)

The challenge from the Public Accounts Committee for me goes far beyond just admonishing ministers, but goes for all of us. We’ve got to get serious about deciding what services we want our local councils to deliver/provide – and even more so get real[istic] about how we ensure they are provided with the funding, powers and resources to do their jobs.

 

Tapping into Cambridge’s economic wealth to support local heritage

Summary:

What can town institutions and archives learn from our larger University-backed cousins?

The Fitzwilliam Museum has posted details of how to support it on its website here. The much smaller Museum of Cambridge has details here. The Cambridgeshire Collection – despite repeated prodding by me (and through no fault of the over-stretched staff, I’m laying the blame at the feet of the executive councillors who are the decision-makers) haven’t got anything on their landing page on how to donate financially to support it or our archives. (The Cambridgeshire Collection’s landing page is here).

Back in September, I had a look at the figures for additional income from Libraries from the County Council. It’s not great.

Phil Rodgers picked up on the Library Extra membership. The thing is I’ve not seen any evidence of a huge communications effort by councillors and the council to promote this to constituents.

“Isn’t there a ‘donation’ button”

There is – but it’s hidden away and you’ve got to look for it. (See the link here). Given the financial problems the council faces, and the talk of further cuts to library services, I’m surprised that Conservative councillors have not been far more vocal about getting more support for our libraries, and that this isn’t reflected by the county council’s social media activity. Given the number of Facebook likes Cambridgeshire Libraries has, it really should have links either to Library Extra membership, and/or to the donations page. For all its fees and critics, a simple Paypal button may also go a long way. Note the County Council is on Instagram here.

Patrons of Cambridge and County local history – could the Fitzwilliam Museum’s model work?

The Fitzwilliam Museum sources donations from very wealthy people and organisations through its Marlay Group. Benefits for that include:

  • Private Views of major exhibitions at the Fitzwilliam and selected exhibitions in London and across the region
  • Exploration of the Fitzwilliam collections with opportunities to see the curators and conservators at work and learn more about the works of art
  • Visits to private homes, country houses and gardens
  • Annual Director’s Dinner at the Fitzwilliam
  • Study trip abroad including exclusive private visits
  • Annual Marlay Lecture at the Fitzwilliam
  • What’s On guide delivered termly, allowing you advanced booking for all public programme events

Now, in the grand scheme of things you won’t get visits to London exhibitions, study abroad trips and glamorous on-site receptions with local heritage – not least because we don’t have the big premises that we could have if we got our old Assizes Court on Castle Hill rebuilt.Shire Hall Court House 28184

A model of the old Assizes Court on Castle Hill, inexplicably demolished in the 1950s to make way for a car park. 

What could a patrons network offer in return for ‘expensive membership’? 

Well – that plus how would you split the funds raised? The Cambridgeshire Collection is hosted in the Cambridge Central Library, the County Archives have been moved to Ely – not without controversy, and the Museum of Cambridge is a separate organisation altogether. Ditto the Cambridge Museum of Technology.

For me, part of the backing could come from local historic businesses – or businesses that occupy historic buildings. The University Arms Hotel, the soon-to-be-opened hotel at the Old Police Station, and the Old Addenbrooke’s (i.e. the Judge Institute) are all places that have important civic histories – and that’s before we even look at The Guildhall and Shire Hall themselves. There’s also scope for teaming up for joint fundraisers with institutions such as the Arts Theatre at an older end, and The Junction at a more contemporary end – not forgetting the old theatre now part of the Cambridge Buddhist Centre.

It’s not just about the money with a patrons’ network

It’s the influence far beyond the day-to-day things that can make a difference on some really big things, and can be as simple but effective as a personal introduction. I’m also of the view that Cambridge still isn’t functioning anywhere near to its potential. We could be so much greater than the sum of our parts, but all too often we fall short. From my vantage point watching local democracy, local institutions fighting against each other is one of the biggest problems. But how do you persuade the current lot of ministers that local government reform would be a good idea in the face of the political crises of this era?

Making local history relevant to the people who live and work in Cambridge – and vice versa

I’ve sometimes wondered whether people in major decision-making roles – whether for public, private or not-for-profit sectors ever see themselves as makers of local history. It’s something that can quite easily be forgotten. During my civil service days, one of the things I fought tooth-and-nail to secure funding for was this neighbourhood centre in Oldham. I didn’t see myself in anything like the role of a ‘history maker’ for that neighbourhood, and still don’t now. Yet for the thousands and thousands of people who are in and have been in the civil service, they all have their equivalent projects that they championed that made a positive difference to a local neighbourhood. This just happened to be my one.

The break of the links between capital and neighbourhood I believe is one of the reasons why we see far too many unpopular development schemes getting the go-ahead. The institutions that put the money up in the first place are not the ones that have to live, eat and breathe in the developments that provide them with the financial return. The system we live in provides a much stronger incentive for developments that provide a greater financial return for the financier than for the people who spend their lives either living or working there. The developments around the railway station in Cambridge is a classic case of developers being accused of gaming the planning system for such purposes. In his article in The Guardian, Olly Wainwright pulled out some pretty scathing quotations on the CB1 Development. All of the recent developments around the railway station could have made someone’s name (or the names of a number of people) go down in local civic legend for the right reasons. Instead all we have left is some vague memories and photographs of buildings that should have been preserved.

181211 Rattee and Kett Station Road Buildings.jpg

Rattee and Kett’s buildings on the corner of Station Road, Cambridge – long since demolished. From the Cambridgeshire Collection. (See why local archives are important?)

Prioritising local heritage in an era of long-term austerity

Why should we spend an extra penny on local heritage when there are homeless people sleeping outside in the cold in front of all those old buildings? The same could be said for the Government’s wine cellar. Or nuclear weapons. Or controversial Cambridge University graduate Prince Edward. (Controversial because of his grades vs entry requirements). I can’t pretend to be a huge fan of the Royal Family, but even their visits to Cambridge are part of our heritage, just as much as our former Member of Parliament, a certain Mr Oliver Cromwell is – noting that the Lord Protector used King’s College Chapel as a military parade ground during bad weather. (Which is why the stained glass windows are still there according to the tour guides that took me round just after Christmas – his soldiers wanted to keep warm so didn’t smash the windows. The other college chapels were not so fortunate).

Making it easy to for people to stumble across our local heritage

That’s one of the reasons for having a local blue plaque scheme – run for Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire by Cambridge Past Present & Future. (I sit on the committee that assesses the nominations). This scheme was founded by former mayor of Cambridge John Durrant, who sadly passed away only a few days ago. A further loss following the tragic passing of Mayor Nigel Gawthrop only a couple of weeks ago. That’s two huge civic presences we’ll be missing, and both local history makers in their own right. Who will be inspired by their examples and step forward to fill their shoes whether in local democracy and/or civic society in general?

 

 

 

 

40 this year? Where did all the years go?

Summary

Personal ageing in an era of [political] hopelessness

An ad for Dodie Clark’s new album was thrown across my screen a few days ago, with a description that she’d become famous through posting self-composed online music videos plus a cover-version or three. I stumbled across this song she performed with her younger sister Hedy, some years ago.

For those of you with children, don’t let them do this challenge that the two of them did.

Every so often you stumble across a musician and artist who is able to work in a way that was just not possible even a decade ago. Dodie’s video Freckles and Constellations is one such example – where she crowd-sourced the entire track from her followers and spliced it together. While I’ve seen the concept of individuals recording separate parts of a track in their own rooms and sending over the footage to a central composer for the latter to put together – such as Eric Whittaker’s Virtual Choir  – which did the rounds in the run up to the 2010 general election as an example of what this new social and digital media world of pioneers was doing while the mainstream media danced along to Bucks Fizz here – innocent times indeed.

Almost a decade since the 2010 General Election

Sometimes it feels like yesterday, sometimes it feels like a lifetime away in another world somewhere. And how politics has changed. I remember during my civil service days our permanent secretary at the time telling us that Parliament would matter much more in the day-to-day work of the civil service than under Blair and Brown. Compared with today, I’m almost embarrassed for Labour that they allowed their backbenchers to become little more than rubber-stamping machines for an all-powerful executive in the decade from the start of the new Millennium. For all the complete clusterfuck that politics currently is at all levels, at least the House of Commons is now dominating the news agenda on policy, rather than the press releases from Downing Street plus a bit of gossip. Not that many of us could explain what “No Deal” actually means – nor “May’s Deal”, nor “The Backstop” either.

My lost decade since 2010

For want of another term, I burnt out in 2011 around the time I was due to leave the civil service anyway, and spent the whole of August 2011 with late mornings and early nights before finally having a mental health crisis of early 2012. Work-wise it was a lost decade – not being able to work full time. There’s no other way to describe it.

I never recovered

I’ve also not seen much improvement in the availability of mental health care to the extent it gives people the genuine chance of making at least a half-decent recovery. My first mental health crisis that I went to see a doctor about was almost two decades ago, in the year 2000. I lost too many friends and acquaintances in the course of my mental health crises that followed. Then there was my time in hospital with a suspected heart attack just over a year ago – which we never found the cause of it. But what no one else could possibly see was the impact, the mental and emotional impact of going through something like that had on me. The anxiety that’s brought on from every single minor internal itch, ache, pain – and the fear that it could be something major is something that is so utterly and grindingly exhausting that it is difficult to put into words.

So…where next?

Last October I wrote how I never found my tribe. Even if it were standing right in front of me with a big *Welcome* mat, chances are I wouldn’t have the mental headspace/spoons to interact with them anyway. For some reason it has become all the more harder to get motivated to do stuff during the winter months. It didn’t used to be a problem, whereas now the exhaustion feels permanent.

Having to pull out of some activities

The hardest one is pulling out of my singing group as they move things up a gear (so if you are a tenor vocalist in/around Cambridge, do give them a go!) They are doing more ‘In the dark’ performances this year – in Suffolk, London and Cambridge – although the Cambridge tickets sold out on the day they were released. Again.

I think I sang in 19 of the 20 performances in the Round Church, Cambridge, as well as two further performances in Ely Cathedral’s Lady Chapel between late 2017/early 2018.

The rehearsing, memorising, more rehearsing, and the travelling lined up is going to be too much for me – especially given the increase in some of my academic commitments following enrolling on a p/t undergraduate course in politics & sociology at Cambridge University as a means to retrain my mind before applying it to my research in local history – hopefully within the University’s academic framework. Not enough people signed up for the local history course this academic year – hence launching a new Lost Cambridge Meetup Group where I host monthly talks at the Cambridgeshire Collection – still being run on a shoestring of a budget by county councillors. My frustration is that Cambridge has got such a rich collective history within its city boundaries but for all the wealth we’re told we have, we’re unable to use even a small fraction of it to tell and share some of the most incredible and inspiring stories I’ve ever heard.

Out with old books, in with even older books

Seems to be the order of the day of late – and not because the Kondo effect has been in the news. Periodic clearouts are normal for me where books are concerned. Mainly it’s the books that I bought with the intention to read but never did – finding out a few years later that they are obsolete or have just aged big time. Like the 2007 era book on using SPSS to introduce statistics. Because it looked like a reasonably fun-yet-powerful program at the end of my first degree and I’d need to get more statistically competent in future, wouldn’t I? So I’m replacing many of those academic books with some long lost books from Cambridge’s distant and more recent but forgotten past.

…as well as some more recent numbers

One person who has caught my eye is John Cornford, who I wrote about here. He’s the third Cambridge hero I’ve read about who went to Spain to fight the fascists in the Spanish Civil War, after Leah Manning and Frida Stewart/Knight. Hence doing some background reading on the conflict.

“We were only waving to the crowds – honest!”

At no point during my childhood were we ever told about the atrocities committed by the clerics of the same institution that I had to go to as a child – it was only something I would find out about in my study of history. Hence seeing images such as the above make me sick to the stomach. The war is still a hotly-contested era of history to this day. John Cornford’s surname lives on in my neighbourhood because John’s younger brother, Hugh, trained as a medical doctor. In the late 1950s he returned to Cambridge and bought a house on the corner of Wulfstan Way in South Cambridge. Rather than acquire separate premises for a surgery, he set one up in his house to serve the still-being-built housing estates of Queen Edith’s Ward. Today we call that surgery Cornford House.

A repeat of politically hopeless times?

Last summer I went through every single copy of the Cambridge Daily News from 1935-39 while doing research on the artist and author Ronald Searle – another town hero. The grinding hopelessness of political headlines – in particular the international ones, are something that resonate with me today. How many of you can name the lead politicians of Neville Chamberlain’s Cabinet? How many of you could name who his predecessor as Prime Minister was? The Labour names of 1945 might be more familiar – Attlee, & his ministers Bevan, Bevin, Morrison – they may have been socialists but at least you’d heard of them. Today’s equivalents in ministerial office? Non-entities. It’s lucky there isn’t a very hot war on that’s approaching our doorsteps – but then the historical record shows governments making the mistake of preparing for the last war rather than the next one, which arguably has already broken out and is one where the weapons are information and disinformation.

And that’s the hard bit: every gadget that gives us access to the internet is also a potential battlefield over which today’s geo-political battles are being fought. My challenge as I tread my solitary path (in a realistic rather than a *woe is me!* mindset, because the latter won’t get essential stuff done) is dodging those negative thought-spirals and mind-weasels that all-to-often leave me emotionally flawed. Unfortunately this level of historical researching (i.e. for Lost Cambridge) is not a group activity or a team sport. It is a deeply intense, and time-consuming slog through a huge amount of information. And sometimes the little engine inside your soul tells you to plough on through it.

In the meantime, if anyone can think of any unwilling potential political heroes who look like they might be able to get us out of at least one of the political quagmires that we’re in, I’m all ears.

 

 

 

 

 

Can we commission a giant Cambridge women’s suffrage mural like East London did?

Summary:

The mural for Sylvia Pankhurst is huge and magnificent. Cambridge is full of bland walls on new buildings that could host something like it, celebrating the women who made modern Cambridge. 

It’s quite impressive, don’t you think?

190118 East London Sylvia Pankhurst Mural.jpg

Picture credit – Inspiring City

The artist behind the above mural is Jerome Davenport

It’s not like Cambridge has a shortage of candidates – you can read all about many of them in Sue Slack’s book Cambridge Women and the Struggle for the Vote <<– Click on link to order your copy.

In the Palmer Clark archive in the Cambridgeshire Collection we have all of the glass plate negatives that we’ve had developed that artists and muralists can work with.

Above – Eglantyne Jebb and Clara Rackham – from the Palmer Clark Archive in the Cambridgeshire Collection, colourised by Photo Restoration Services.

There are also enough scenes from their lives that can be incorporated into such murals. Dr Deborah Thom gave an interesting lecture about the life and times of Clara Rackham at Anglia Ruskin University.

Cambridge Public Art Grants

Cambridge City Council has guidance on these here. That said, I’d like to think that for something really big we could get further sponsorship and crowd funding to top up anything that the city council was able to contribute.

Additional to the Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire Blue Plaque Scheme

In 2018 we unveiled civic plaques celebrating Millicent Garrett Fawcett and Clara Rackham.

Cambridge’s first woman MP, Anne Campbell, unveiling a blue plaque for Millicent Garrett Fawcett at Cambridge Guildhall’s large hall. The scheme for blue plaques for Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire is run by Cambridge Past, Present and Future. You can find details of how to nominate individuals here. [*Declaration of interest – I sit on the committee that decides on who gets plaques and who doesn’t. Please note the criteria – which includes the nominated individual must have been deceased for at least 10 years before a nomination can be made. Furthermore, the cost of the metallic plaque alone is several hundred pounds. Hence the fundraising requirement of £1,000.

“Where would you put such murals?”

I have more than a few ideas, but then I don’t want them to be only in the places in Cambridge that I’m familiar with. That said, Addenbrooke’s has more than a few empty walls that ***lots of people*** walk past every day – so that sort of site is ideal for something like this. Where would you have such murals created? Got ideas of your own? Let your city/district/borough councillor know – drop them an email via https://www.writetothem.com/

 

Encouraging more diversity in our local theatres – a case study with The Junction, Cambridge.

Summary:

Spring 2019 shows a welcome improvement in diversity in their lineup for this season.

Because I’ve complained about the lack of women in their line ups in the past – and that’s before mentioning other protected characteristics on all things diversity.

…as well as trying to encourage those inside the industry to book shows and guests at a venue built to support young and new talent in the arts.

…because in 2013 if I recall correctly there may have been only one woman on the line up.

Recalling The Junction’s history

In the post-war era, venues were closing one-after-another as the town declined economically, leading to large areas becoming very run down. Castle End by Shire Hall, The Kite where The Grafton Centre is, the old Cattle Market by the railway station, Newtown between Hills Road and Trumpington Road, Mill Road too all experienced at various stages this blight that affected the city.

It’s still something I’m trying to get my head around today in the face of Cambridge being in the eye of the international property bubble. Cambridge lost a number of venues from 1945:

  • The Masonic Lodge (Under Lion Yard Car Park)
  • The Alley Club (Under Lion Yard Shopping Center)
  • Dorothy’s (Now Waterstones)
  • The Lion Hotel (Somewhere under Petty Cury/Lion Yard Shopping Centre)
  • Beaconsfield Hall (now houses)
  • The Kinema
  • The Tivoli
  • The Victoria Cinema (now M&S Food Hall)
  • The Playhouse (now Sally Anne’s).
  • The Co-operative Halls (now Primark)
  • St Andrew’s Hall
  • The Rendezvous at Magrath Avenue (now housing)
  • The Drill Hall on East Road

In the grand scheme of things, very little of note has taken its place other than The Junction. Since the Millennium, we’ve grown by the size of a small town (30,000 or so) but haven’t had the growth in leisure facilities nor the transport infrastructure that gets people to and from said venues. By the 1980s, with the threat of the closure of the Cambridge Corn Exchange and the non-delivery of a new concert hall, young people joined an occupation in a squatted warehouse on East Road – then experiencing major planning blight with the protracted regeneration involving the Grafton Centre.

Riot police were involved, and various councillors demanded that something must be done. It was into this mix that three Labour councillors were at the start of their political careers. One of them was Cllr Anne Campbell – who became our city’s first woman MP in 1992. It could have been Shirley Williams at the 1987 election but in the end the left-liberal vote was split and historian Robert Rhodes James kept the seat for the Conservatives. Today, Conservatives in Cambridge tend to be a) old and b) rare. Therefore you can get a decent price for them on the Antiques Roadshow.

Another new councillor – like Anne, on the county council, was Melanie Johnson for Cherry Hinton – who got elected to Parliament in Welwyn/Hatfield in 1997 and became a Treasury Minister. The final new arrival to local government – this time on the city council, but next door to Melanie, serving the People’s Republic of Romsey Town, was a certain Mr Barry Gardiner – today the Shadow International Trade Secretary for Labour and a regular on telly. (See all their names here, along with their terms of office).

It was as a result of young people campaigning to get a new youth venue built that they finally settled on The Junction by Hills Road Bridge/Cherry Hinton Road – in my childhood neighbourhood.

That’s not to say other ideas weren’t tried out – the proposal for the East Road flying saucer was thrown out by the Tories on the County Council who were the transport authority.

A breeze-block-box in the middle of an old livestock sales site with half-demolished buildings and a make-shift car-park

You wouldn’t think that the old Park and Ride (south) site was on what is now Cambridge Leisure Park, but it was. A few car parking spaces were given up for the new venue to be built, and it opened in 1990. My first visit on the outside was in 1993 when they hosted a drive-in cinema for that summer. Two summers later I went to my first club night. Yet since the regular club nights of the 1990s, the number of events aimed at young people has fallen back from its heyday – mainly because of the failure of national politicians to work out how to deal with the centuries-long issue of children and youths drinking alcohol.

Adding additional stages and expanding

In 2005 an addition to the complex – The Junction 2, was added on the back of a Lottery grant. Although various stand-up comedians have said it looks like a prison inside the main auditorium due to the liberal use of metal, it has a better acoustic than the minimal-cost breeze-block-box next to it that, if we’re honest is more than showing its wear and tear. That extension has also meant that a more diverse range of entertainments can be put on. But – as the tweets above show, the diversification of artistic types represented hasn’t always extended to those headlining.

Addressing diversity in the arts world.

In some seasons gone by, you’d be lucky to find a comedy event not headlined by a White male from an affluent background. Even the comedy cabaret nights with multiple short acts struggled to book a slate of acts that weren’t simply a line up of men doing stand up comedy. I remember asking some acquaintances about why this was such a problem. Part of it was that The Junction is simply a venue that independent production companies book, rather than having the in-house production company that can decide for itself. In stand up comedy, especially in the world of political satire, the lack of diversity is still a big problem. I gave up on Mock the Week ages ago.

190116 mocktheweek diversityfail tweets

I think I got bored of Cambridge graduate Hugh Dennis making one-too-many genital-themed private-school-oxbridge type jokes. Hence a few years ago making the decision to go and support more local acts breaking the negative sterotypes. Thus I’m particularly pleased that Ellie Taylor has been booked for this autumn.

Even Madonna is a fan.

Also appearing this year are:

We’re also seeing a few more young women musicians at The Junction’s monthly “Fiver” nights – a showcase for young local bands in and around the city. This is another area that has been difficult to get gender equality on line-ups. Pubs, cafes and small bars can be seen hosting more than a few women singer/songwriter musicians but all-women four+ piece bands are still rare compared with the boys. That said, this year there have been a number that were on January’s line up and are on one or two of the future ones, but many of these musicians are still at school. The outstanding act from January’s show was 16 year old Gabby Rivers.

…who – now with backing band, commanded her audience like a veteran of many years.

There’s still a very long way to go though. And with the Cambridge Live Trust having to be brought back in house by Cambridge City Council, along with continued austerity from central government, financial room to experiment and take risks feels more limited. Yet in an era of social media, I’d like to think as a city we could be building some new, bigger venues, and improving some of our existing ones too, in order to make them more financially sustainable and create the space for more diverse line ups to flourish.