How do think tanks access the media?


A wander through the messy world of partisan think tanks and campaign groups, & why Conservative-supporting ones run rings around Labour-supporting ones

Following on from the end of my last post where I listed excerpts from a communications job spec for an unnamed right wing think tank/campaign group, this blogpost looks at the structures and relationships between organisations, parties and the media.

It was at a talk in Cambridge I went to a few years ago that former adviser to Tony Blair, Geoff Mulgan said (and I paraphrase):

“In the distant past, if you wanted to influence policy you would publish a pamphlet or a book. Today you set up an institution”

On the telly news and on the radio, you’ll often hear of various grandly-titled people from important-sounding ‘institutes’ being asked for their opinions on various things. It’s got to the stage that the spoof news website The Daily Mash invented its own ‘Institute For Studies’ (headed by ‘Dr Henry Brubaker’) to provide spoof academic credentials on spoof research. (It doesn’t exist in reality of course!) There are some restrictions on who can set up an ‘institute’ – see pg 46 here.

“How do you get to be part of a grand-sounding organisation on the telly all the time?”

In a nutshell:

  1. Get a group of you together
  2. Decide on grand-sounding name
  3. Get some people to back you
  4. Share out grand-sounding job titles
  5. Hire some premises close to the organisations you want contact with regularly
  6. Get in touch with (junior) members of staff at said institutions & invite them to networking events
  7. Invite yourself to networking events
  8. Publish press releases & publications
  9. Make yourself available to the media
  10. Organise events yourself at nice places and invite people from organisations you want to influence
  11. Repeat 6-10.

“Aren’t there transparency issues? After all, who funds these organisations?”

Good question – one that have been onto for quite some time. One case came to prominence quite recently, where one organisation decided to relinquish its running of an all-party parliamentary group in order to protect the privacy of its backers.

Transparency is essential for me as far as the integrity of public policy is concerned. Enabling the public to properly scrutinise public policy contributes to its improvement. One of the reasons why I have issues with the way political parties are funded. Whether it’s sponsorship of stalls, tents & events at party conferences through to privileged access to senior party officials & politicians, wealthy organisations of whatever disposition don’t expend such sums for nothing. They want to influence policy.

“Lobbying” getting a bad name

Lobbying has been given a bad name in recent times with numerous scandals. Yet every time we send a tweet, a post or a piece of correspondence to a politician trying to bring them round to our way of thinking, we are lobbying. The environmentalists campaigning for cleaner air are lobbying when they get in touch with politicians just as a business person asking for a tax cut for their industry when sat next to a minister at a business dinner. Obviously the circumstances and perhaps the expense may differ! But what matters is transparency – especially if (for example in the case of the economy & a market) one side is looking for preferential treatment over another.

Professional lobbyists generally are members of the Association of Professional Political Consultants. Have a look through the firms and see how many former politicians, journalists & civil servants you can see. Understandable if you are a former MP or minister to go into this field because not many people experience life in high public office, often in the media spotlight. Yet the APPC and the recently passed act on lobbying did not cover all of the lobbyists. Here’s one look at how things are working. Again for me what matters is the transparency of the public policy process.

“What about these think tanks and the media?”

This is where I compare 2 academic institutions – the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol and Cambridge University’s Public Policy SRI, with The Taxpayers’ Alliance and the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Note how several of the job titles of the TPA and IEA sound quite similar to those you might expect at a corporation or a publicly funded research institute accredited with a public university with a royal charter.

You have your chief executive or director general, director of communications, director of policy, research fellows, various ‘heads of…’ and ‘…officers.’ As far as CV points go, a history of working such organisations looks impressive. If I were that way politically inclined and a holder of elected public office, I’d be snapping up someone with CV listing those organisations as one of my policy researchers.

“How does the political left fare in comparison?”


Let’s take a few examples:

The Centre for Labour and Social Studies – CLASS is an interesting one, not least because Owen Jones, author and campaigning journalist (who used to be their media adviser) and Ellie O’Hagan seem to be the only two prominent explicitly left-wing think-tank types who appear regularly in the media sparring with numerically superior political opponents. Yet when you look closer at CLASS and type their address into a search engine, you find that their office space is in the London HQ of the big trade union Unite. (When I lived in London I used to walk or catch a bus past the towers relatively frequently).

“Hang on – shouldn’t trade unions be able to support a much stronger public policy function? They donate millions to Labour, don’t they?”

But for how much longer? It may well be that successive legislation by the new Conservative Government pushes trade unions towards sponsoring or setting up public policy institutes to challenge an administration that is hostile to them.

That said, when you compare both the university public policy institutes and the left wing think tanks with their right wing counterparts, the last of the three are ruthlessly effective and efficient at getting their messages and publications out to the mainstream media. They are incredibly well-connected and understand the importance of being on positive first-name terms with the media researchers & bookers of high profile programmes. It’s not a case of sending speculative press releases out to generic email addresses, they will know who to contact in which media organisations at which time of the day in order for their comments to get maximum exposure.

“Why is academia and why are left wing organisations much weaker?”

Part of it I think is cultural. With academia, perhaps it’s because they have their own academic circles within which to discuss things in that not much gets out. Bear in mind how the mainstream media has a habit of distorting science research. You can understand why relationships between mainstream media and academia may not be brilliant. As for the left wing, this blogpost by journalist Laura McInernie is brilliant on shining a light on the distrust of the media and delegates at the Conservative Party Conference. This one by Ian Dunt also makes interesting reading.

Here we are talking about Chomsky but me and the young men know that if the pictures are printed they will simply say ‘yobs’.

As a general point, when you know that the print media’s response to your protest will be as above, why bother engaging with them? Just as when she said if all the delegates – even the non-party ones – were getting abuse from demonstrators heckling the route, why would they bother trying to listen?

“You’re not comparing protestors to think tanks are you?”

No – I’m looking at the relationships between institutions. My point being that political parties and movements that are anywhere left of this mythical utopia of ‘the political centre’ seems to get a particularly hard time in the mainstream media. It’s human nature to shy away from those people & organisations that would treat you as such.

It’s the constituted organisations that could probably make a better go of engaging with the broadcast media by adopting some of the tactics that their political opponents do. It doesn’t mean the objectives or strategies are the same – as Alistair Campbell points out:

“Do you think left-wing institutions could pull off such an approach?”

Actually, I think they could – but it won’t be easy for them.

Just as Labour found out the hard way that England is not a country full of left-wingers waiting to be rescued, neither is the mainstream media or the field of corporate lobbying full of dyed in the wool Conservatives. (Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have very different political cultures, but as I’ve not lived/worked there I’ll stick to what I’m more familiar with).

Essentially, the big trade unions need to get together and co-ordinate making regular, sustained grants to those organisations/think tanks they support in order to significantly strengthen their media presence. There are more than enough talented and passionate people in the world of public policy and corporate lobbying who would jump at the chance to work for a left-leaning or left-wing think tank to build a high media profile. Just like the rest of us though, they have bills to pay – hence why many of them end up in the field of working for private corporate interests.

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Do the scuffles between mainstream media & some protesters in Manchester reveal a deeper divide?


Some thoughts on the trust gap between parts of the media and parts of the public in a social media age

Polly Curtis of the Guardian tweeted:

This followed an incident where journalists Kate McCann and Owen Bennett were confronted by protesters.

At a human level a frightening experience if you’re not used to such situations – and I’m not. There’s a reason for Puffles’ house rules numbers 4 & 5.

I remember panicking when I went along to an anti-globalisation demo in London and got caught up in the ‘kettle’ – the legal fallout of which didn’t come to an end until over a decade later. I remember being fuming at the organisers because no one achieved anything from that demo. It also persuaded me to read up on who the participants were, opening up a world of permanent civil strife in circles left of the Labour Party. (Monopolise Resistance being an interesting read at the time on the use of ‘front’ organisations).

Accordingly, over the years I’ve stayed away from protests & demos that have been driven by such front organisations. With the rapid growth of social media use – in particular by activist groups, the old ways of ‘command and control’ became obsolete. I remember going to one meeting of trade union activists during the bitter end of my civil service days in late 2010 with middle-aged speaker after speaker saying it was the students that had taken the lead, and how wonderful it was to see them running rings around the politicians, the media and the authorities.

What grew remarkably quickly in those days were networks of trust. I was able to figure out very quickly who I could trust and who I could not in terms of who was out and about reporting from the front line – at a time when both the mainstream media and the authorities were really struggling to cope with this new medium.

Unpicking this trust issue

I’m not going to focus on the incidents themselves – people have been arrested and due process of law now must take its course. The bit that I want to look at is the trust issue between the public, journalists, institutions & politicians.

Broken feedback loops – all or nothing

The traditional response to not liking something in a newspaper is ‘Don’t read/buy it’. For a TV or radio broadcast, it’s a case of ‘There’s the ‘off’ switch’. There’s no halfway house. At the same time, there’s very little communities can do when publications publish deliberately inflammatory headlines that raise community tensions – something I became aware of in my civil service days. Frontline community development officers complained that the nature of some headlines had the effect of undermining work to bring together polarised communities. How could communities hold editors and journalists to account for their content without such systems becoming a form of censorship?

The old-skool response was a letter to the editor or a green-penned piece of correspondence to ‘Points of View’ at which Terry Wogan would read out a summary of the complaints about lewdness in a drama piece here and there. With social media, complaints and feedback can be seen by everyone else – thus making it harder to ignore.  (That doesn’t mean institutions have to take drastic action).

Journalists on Twitter becoming targets of online abuse

My experience of Twitter over the past five or so years has been one of multiple bubbles. What makes Twitter powerful is not its breadth, but the connections between different communities of interest and how they interact. Journalists generally need to be on Twitter because that’s where many news stories break. As the saying goes, Twitter is at its best within the first five minutes of a story breaking, then at its worst in the following 12 hours.

In recent months however, I’ve noticed a trend where journalists – in particular women journalists, have been on the receiving end of more and more abuse. You’ll have seen Twitter at its worst in the run up to the general election in 2015 – mistakenly labelled as the ‘social media election’ by some, but in reality was the print media’s election due to their ability to set the agenda with continuous aggressive headlines dragging the broadcast media with it.

From online to ‘in your face’ attacks

As a community reporter in & around Cambridge, with my filming I’m nervous about confrontation and putting up strong opinions from myself. Note on my Youtube channel I have turned off the comments – life’s too short to moderate the comments about remarks made by people I’ve filmed at public meetings.

So when journalists find themselves under threat, understandably it makes me a little nervous. The general public don’t (in my experience) differentiate between a qualified journalist and someone like me – a bloke and his dragon fairy armed with a camcorder. If it can happen to them it can happen to me.

Close proximity of multiple actors

What was unique about today was the close proximity of protesters, the police, journalists (lots of them) and politicians (again – lots of them). That’s not to say the Tories should not hold their conferences in a city where they have no councillors (Manchester) any more than Labour or the Lib Dems should not hold theirs in Bournemouth – where neither have councillors. Wherever you have a big gathering of politicians in power, there’s a chance there’ll be a protest. Over the years there have been so many in Trafalgar Square that it feels like the mainstream media treats them as no longer newsworthy. The only news outlets that seem to cover them are those owned by governments or regimes the UK government isn’t on the best terms with, or through independent media.

The messengers vs the controller of the message

This post raised more than a fair amount of comment

Given the history of Murdoch’s media businesses over the past nearly-half-century, and in particular post-Leveson, any appointment to the BBC that contains either a former government minister or a former Murdoch executive is going to raise interest in those critical of the mainstream media. Whether it’s the above-case, James Purnell (Ex-Labour Cabinet Minister) as director of strategy & digital, or ex-Chairman of the BBC Trust, Chris Patten (ex Conservative Party Chairman), you can see why questions are asked about those at the top of large institutions. Even more so the current Chair of the BBC Trust Rona Fairhead given this select committee hearing.

With decision-makers relatively hidden, do those frustrated about the mainstream media then take it out on those they see on their screens?

This is not to say “Why ain’t they spitting at the bosses instead?!” Rather, it’s the opposite of the big name chief executive such as Richard Branson: with no visible, accessible and accountable senior executive, the only visible ‘targets’ as far as social media is concerned is whoever is on the telly. With social media as I mentioned, the whole world can see who has said what in response. Thus the virtual whirlwind gathers speed.

It wasn’t just high profile journalists such as Michael Crick of Channel 4 targeted, it was less known ones too. Once it became known they were journalists, for a small minority it was open season. This makes me think that part of the problem is sector-wide for the media. Given the number of women journalists who have said (independently of each other) how more aggressive Twitter is becoming, combining this with some stepping over the line to face-to-face confrontations, it’s time to take stock.

Much more transparency needed – in particular on the criteria editors, directors and producers use to select which stories to lead with and how much content to include

One of the most frequent complaints about the mainstream media I see is why certain events & incidents are not reported in the mainstream media. What I’ve yet to see is anyone from the news institutions coming back with a response stating why such stories are not being covered. As a result, too many people are kept in the dark about how the media really works. Inside that vacuum, myths grow. It’s similar with the civil service – if Whitehall isn’t transparent, the public understandably leans towards believing the worst. I’ve lost count the number of times I’ve had to explain the difference between civil servants and politicians. They are not the same.

“What ideas would you like explored?”

Two big ones really.

A regular public cross-examination of editors in the print, broadcast and online press over the articles they produce and publish. 

This would be post-publication/broadcast, so wouldn’t act as a censor. What and how this would be done I’m open to ideas. An independent commission appointed by and accountable to Parliament? A parliamentary select committee? Something that allows the general public to petition whoever is the ‘scrutineer’ (I don’t like the term ‘regulator’) and one where the public can attend and/or watch online live.

A series of nationwide public conversations/gatherings where those in the media regularly seek the views of the public on how to improve content & coverage

These for me would be just as much about educating the public on how the media works as well as shining the daylight of public scrutiny to incentivise broadcast media institutions to improve their systems & processes. The other thing to remember is the cohort of journalists we have needs to reflect the society it serves. It’d be interesting to see data on members of the Press Lobby that have regular access to Parliament – see the Twitterlist here.

Much more transparency over how panellists, guests & interviewees are booked

Every time a representative from a partisan think tank is interviewed on a prime time news programme, my Twitterfeed goes into meltdown. What many people are not aware of is that those think tanks are ruthlessly efficient and effective at getting their representatives in the media. Credit where it’s due – they know how the system works and they work it to their benefit. To take an anonymised job description for a full time communications officer for one, it is as described below:

  • Build and maintain relationships with national and regional media outlets. Ensuring [we are] featured regularly on media platforms on both [our] initiatives as well as general topics is critical to the organisation’s mission.
  • Create new and manage established contacts with journalists and policymakers through building relationships.
  • Raise the visibility of the organisation by scouring relevant news stories that can be used as entry points for the [us] to be involved in the news agenda.
  • Represent [us] at events and meetings and, where appropriate, as a spokesperson.
  • Draft and disseminate press releases, quotes and comments to the media.
  • Organise events such as media briefings and party conference events.
  • Maintain and improve an effective media monitoring system in order to maximise opportunities for [our] media exposure, and to track and log appearances.
  • Manage and increase the impact of [our] Twitter, Facebook and other new-media accounts.
  • Manage the maintenance and development of the media sections of [our] website.
  • Handle and respond to out of hours media calls.
  • Other duties and projects as assigned

The above approach is systematic, proactive, personal (a focus on 1-2-1 relationships with influencers inside institutions they want to influence) and devastatingly effective. As far as the Conservative Party goes, for think tanks that back their policies it allows ministers to decline interviews but suggest someone from said think tanks to defend their policies. With an unreformed media, I can’t help but think that opponents of the Conservatives need to adopt similar strategies, otherwise they will continually be playing catchup to a well-funded and well-oiled media machine.

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Cambridge’s street communities on complex local public services


Spending an evening listening & learning with homeless & vulnerably housed people in at Wintercomfort in Cambridge

I was commissioned to do a short workshop on democracy and registering to vote for the local charity for homeless people Winter Comfort. It was one of the toughest but at the same time one of the most worthwhile workshops I have run. I stuck around for an extra hour to listen to what people had to say about their experiences of local public services.

“Where do you start with something like this?”

Neither I nor Wintercomfort had run one of these. The aim was to get homeless & vulnerably housed people engaged in democratic processes as part of getting their voices heard. The challenge for me was figuring out how to persuade people to go to the laptop with Emily from Cambridge City Council ready to register them to vote.

“This sounds familiar”

A couple of years ago, I wrote how lots of things needed to be done before organisations and campaign groups went out to encourage people to vote – see The challenge for me was to put some of this into action. What did I need to do in order to persuade people to get to the stage where they might be vaguely interested in registering to vote? The first thing I realised was that I knew absolutely nothing about the experiences of Cambridge’s street communities. So I asked them to ‘map’ their communities – in particular the people, organisations and activities they had day-to-day interactions with.

IMG_1561 IMG_1562

The above-two photographs show just how complex and diverse their day-to-day lives are. This made me realise that if someone like me was unfamiliar with this, what was it like for the rest of the general public? It was also a wake-up call for things I took for granted when one of the participants asked me:

“How do you spell comfort?”

Yep – check my privilege.

Starting like this prevented me from walking straight into the elephant trap of coming across as over-patronising – even though a couple of the men there said that this exercise was a complete waste of time. It was only when I said this was just as much for my benefit and those of my social media followers in local politics as it was theirs. It also nipped in the bud any risk of ‘sugar-coating’ all things democracy.

A sceptical and unpredictable group of participants – with good reason

With some groups I’ve run workshops for, I’ve come across people whose view is very much the less ‘state interference’ they get, the better. The participants in this workshop are in a position where the state has a large impact on their lives – but is not delivering (for whatever reason) in terms of solving their problems of homelessness and the other problems often found linked to it. Everyone I listened to that evening had been failed by public services one way or another. The experience of that – which left them without a roof over their heads – understandably is going to influence how they viewed public services.

The personalities of people who were there were incredibly diverse. You had people who were very confident speakers with very strong opinions, and you had those who quietly huddled in the corner – unbeknown to me but who were taking in absolutely everything. There were also some people who were drinking too – though this did not disrupt the event.

Differing views about the role of central and local government

Interestingly, participants saw it as the role of central government to intervene and deliver services directly when local government failed. This is what happened in the early days of Tony Blair’s government, where new agencies were set up reporting directly to Whitehall and ministers because the view then was that local councils could not deliver the public services needed. It was only about a decade later that decentralisation became a theme, picking up speed under Hazel Blears when she was Communities & Local Government Secretary.

Strong views about governance and transparency

Participants were absolutely red-hot on failures of governance and transparency both in local government and on non-state providers such as charities. They questioned whether the staff at some state-funded providers were qualified to do the jobs they were commissioned to do, and asked why the costs of procuring some goods and services cost so much – asking where the money was really going. Given the information, I could imagine a few of them giving some senior managers at both a local and national level a really good grilling!

Services not joined up at a local level

The strongest message coming back was for Cambridge City Council to have a much more regular presence at Winter Comfort – in particular housing officers. The same goes for organisations that deliver health services. The most popular idea was having a ‘super social worker’ who would be part-employed by the police, health and local council so they could ‘sort things out’ as they said. What struck me was how similar this was to an idea I blogged about several years ago, but how they had come up with the suggestion independently. It’s more compelling coming from them because they are the ones that use the services more regularly than me. From my blogging perspective, it’s a piece of applied public administration. It’s one thing saying ‘Yes nice blogpost but…’. It’s quite another having to respond to a vulnerable member of the public who is dependent on those services and who is being failed by those services.

Their ideas for Cambridge’s politicians to consider

Emily from the council and I wrote down their questions, concerns and complaints on a big sheet of paper.


One of the things that chimed with me was when people said public services should go to where homeless people are, rather than expecting homeless people to have to shuttle from office to office. In public service social media circles we often talk about going to the social media platforms that people are using, rather than creating new ones and expecting people to come to us.

I asked Wintercomfort staff to invite local MP Daniel Zeichner to spend an afternoon/evening listening to the community, and asked them to invite a panel of councillors and political party representatives to allow people to put their party political questions to those at a local council level. Interestingly, the councillor who got the most praise from participants was Cllr Gerri Bird, Mayor of Cambridge for 2014/15. When I asked why, they said it was because she listened, visited regularly and spent time with them rather than rushing off after 15 minutes. This was my experience of Cllr Bird during her mayoralty. (We have ceremonial mayors in Cambridge rather than executive mayors – the Leader of the Council – currently Cllr Lewis Herbert, is primarily responsible for policy & strategy).

Assuming all goes well, I’ll be feeding all of this back in person to Cambridge City Council’s full council meeting on 22 October. (See for details).

IMG_1560 IMG_1559


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Are Conservative ministers playing ‘party politics’ with national security over Jeremy Corbyn?


On how comments made in a party political capacity has led to repeated breaches of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 by Whitehall.

I don’t normally throw accusations around like this lightly. If it were any other political party saying such things, my response would be the same: you cannot use ‘national security’ as a party political weapon. It’s too important an issue.

Hear the Defence Secretary in his own words here.

The Prime Minister’s political Twitter account repeated that claim here, and Conservative politicians followed this through repeating the claims. The really stupid thing is that a few days later, the Prime Minister was shaking hands with said threat to national security.

It’s one thing to say: “Mr Corbyn’s policies would weaken our national security” but it is quite another to say that he is ‘a threat to national security’. Do you see the difference? So naturally, people went onto the Freedom of Information website What Do They Know? and threw one information request after another at Whitehall.

As Mark Thomas said in his talk in Cambridge yesterday, if politicians are going to say stupid & silly things, they are going to get stupid & silly responses that clog up the system. Which is what happened. Whitehall’s response was a standard communications response – the comments were made in a party political context, therefore all enquiries should be sent to Conservative Party Headquarters. The problem with this is that most members of the public neither know nor care about the constitutional difference between David Cameron as Prime Minister and David Cameron as Leader of the Conservative Party. Unfortunately for Whitehall, the Freedom of Information Act 2000 also does not make the distinction between requests for information made following statements made by ministers in a party political capacity vs a ministerial capacity. It is here that Whitehall (in this context, any Government department that has received FoI requests about Corbyn & national security comments by ministers) has potentially broken the law – specifically Section 1(1) of the Freedom of Information Act.

“In what way have they broken the law? This is a very serious allegation!”

Absolutely – one I do not make lightly.

I won an appeal against the Home Office over the release of social media guidance – and in that appeal persuaded the appeals officer to conclude that the Home Office had broken the law in how it handled my original request. Note my appeal for a review here.

“What should Cabinet Office/Number 10 have done?”

It doesn’t matter what the context of ministerial remarks/comments were, what matters is the request for information. The law requires authorities receiving the request ***must*** state whether they hold the information requested (subject to S24 – which I explain below). The copied & pasted text from Number 10 is as follows:

“Thank you for your email of 13 September about a tweet issued by Mr Cameron
in his capacity as Leader of the Conservative Party following the election of Mr
Jeremy Corbyn MP as Leader of the Labour Party.

This is a matter for the Conservative Party and you should therefore contact it
about this issue.”

By not stating whether they hold the information or not, and by not mentioning any exemptions where the duty to confirm or deny does not apply, I conclude that Number 10 is in breach of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

Therefore, for each request for information about Mr Corbyn and ministerial comments on national security, departments need to respond properly and check their files to confirm that no information as requested by people sending in requests actually exists.

“What if it does exist?”

Then civil servants have to go through the process of assessing the information to see if any of the exemptions apply – in particular Section 24 on national security.

S24 is an interesting exemption because if the release of information held would compromise national security, civil servants can use that exemption and not have to state whether specific pieces of information are held or not. (S24(2)). But as I mentioned above, Number 10 has not done this. They’ve simply pointed people to Conservative Party HQ rather than applying a Section 24 exemption. Note too that a Section 24 exemption also requires a ministerial sign off to confirm that the information concerned would, if released compromise national security. (S24(3)).

“What if no information exists?”

Then we have no evidence that Mr Corbyn is a threat to national security as the Prime Minister and the Defence Secretary state, and accordingly they are playing politics with a very serious issue. Ministers of the Crown of any political party should know better.

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Mark Thomas visits Cambridge, talking about the privatisation of public spaces


A timely issue given what’s happening in Cambridge

Given what happened to Allan Brigham in my neighbourhood recently, it’s ironic that the venue for Mark’s energised performance at The Cambridge Junction on 29 Sept took place on the same privatised bit of land. I’ve blogged about the privatisation of public spaces before – see from 2011.

Mark Thomas, comedian, writer, broadcaster has been campaigning on a whole host of issues for quite some time. Here he is with a brilliant and unique expose on the arms industry – showing how school children were able to set themselves up as arms dealers and procure weapons.

Scroll to the end of this page from the Commons Export Controls Committee to see the transcript of exchanges between Mark and MPs on the committee. In particular from Q67 here.

Minor acts of dissent

Mark’s show was about his new book (See which featured a humorous wander through a number of events and actions in London that featured some familiar faces from the world of Puffles. First off was Vanessa Furey and the campaign to stop the Royal Parks from charging people to play organised games in Hyde Park. They won. The threat of judicial review was too much.

The importance of upholding our legal rights

One of the common themes in Mark’s show was the upholding of our legal rights – and forcing the hand of institutions to either justify the legal grounds they have in which to act, or withdraw. I recall a line from one of Mark’s earlier shows when a police officer said to Mark, paraphrasing as:

“We can do this the easy way, or we can do this the hard way, it’s your choice.”

To which Mark replies:

“Um, no. We have this abstract theoretical concept called the rule of law. You may have heard of it in your training. We’ll do it that way if you don’t mind.”

To which responses from police or security guards all too often is:

“Stay there! I’ll call my boss!”

Institutions behave differently when you start quoting bits of law at them – in particular when you tell them they are not complying with a piece of legislation that particularly applies to them. For example when the Home Office didn’t release the information I had asked for in a Freedom of Information request, rather than forget about it, I threw some bits of law at them and suddenly lots of information came out. See here.

“Minor acts of dissent?!? That sounds like anarchic vandalism if you ask me!”

There are numerous examples on the Twitter account @100acts of mainly mischief-making. Things such as tabloid-free-zones on trains to Nigel stickers on wheelie bins. It’s not the revolution by any means. A theme that runs through is that stupid rules and laws will breed stupid responses. Such as London’s Sky Park which brands itself as a public park but for which you have to bring ID in which to enter.

Dissent also means playing with the minds of institutions – as Puffles did in 2014

What started out as a spat between me and local councillors back in January 2014 (see & subsequent posts) led to some councillors saying ‘If you feel so strongly about it, why don’t you stand for election?’ Which is a very fair response. One of the things that slightly irritates me with some figures in campaigning charities (esp if they are well-paid) is that they don’t stand for election but expect someone else to take the flack for difficult decisions. How often do you see news reporting charity figures praising politicians in the face of genuinely difficult decisions in a media storm?

Councillors called my bluff – so I called theirs back, standing for election not as me, but as Puffles. We ran a campaign publicising all of the other parties, encouraging locals to get in touch with all the candidates and to ask them questions. We said only think about voting for Puffles if you are unimpressed by the other candidates. Because having a dragon fairy as a councillor would be stupid…wouldn’t it?

Coleridge Results 2014

As it turned out, eighty-nine people in the ward of Coleridge, Cambridge voted for the dragon fairy in May 2014. As they had no candidate, despite a massively expensive campaign backed by newspaper headlines, Puffles beat UKIP. At the ballot box. And in 2015 in the by-election next door in Romsey just over a year later, UKIP managed 46 votes and the Conservatives 100.

“Anything missing from Mark’s show?”

A challenge to the audience really – ‘What one off small action or behaviour change are you going to undertake to make your area/the world a better place?” After all, The Junction was packed out that evening. It’s one of those things where I wonder if local councils should send their community development officers along to engage with audiences at these sorts of events. The reason being that the audiences are self-selecting. You have a group of civically-minded and educated people at these things. How about doing something for local democracy, even if it’s as simple as sending an email to a councillor or an MP? Other than that, a splendid show!

Mark, Puffles & me at The Junction in Cambridge.

Mark, Puffles & me at The Junction in Cambridge.

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Was I watching the same John McDonnell speech as the mainstream media?


Watching the watchers watching the Shadow Chancellor’s speech to the Labour Party Conference 2015

The transcript of the speech is at, with a video on The Mirror’s site here.

Given that Mr McDonnell had less than 15 days in which to put the speech together, it was a clear, confident, well-delivered speech. He didn’t show any signs of nerves or awkwardness that often plagued Mr Miliband, and sometimes Mr Balls – the latter having to overcome a stammer to speak in public. Evan Davis of the BBC described the speech as the most radical departure from mainstream politics at a conference in recent years.

What struck me was the tone of Mr McDonnell’s speech compared to other front bench speeches. With other Labour MPs, many had to backtrack following previous opposition to Mr Corbyn. With Mr McDonnell, this was not the case. The same I felt was true of Diane Abbott, who I thought gave a well delivered and reasoned speech as the new shadow international development secretary. For Ms Abbott she is on familiar policy ground having spent four years on the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee. One particular high point for her was when she roasted alive Tim Spicer, a former army colonel over arms exports. (The transcript of that hearing starts at the end of this page, and subsequent).

Mainstream politics underestimating John McDonnell and Diane Abbott?

Perhaps it was because Mr McDonnell and Ms Abbott did not feel the need to look over their shoulders politics-wise in their speeches that aided their spoken delivery. In the case of Mr McDonnell, he is one of the few MPs who has regularly spoken up for rank-and-file civil servants on the floor of the House of Commons. When you are in a politically-restricted role and cannot speak out, having politicians speaking out on your behalf counts for lots.

The same goes for Ms Abbott. I only found out about her popularity within London’s Black communities through the civil servants I worked with day-in-day-out. They were the ones that helped educated me about the day-to-day struggles they and their children faced growing up in London during the times of clashes such as Brixton in 1981. All too easy to forget/overlook having grown up in Cambridge – which during my childhood I was one of the few non-white children in my year group as I went through school.

Basically my point is that there’s more to both Mr McDonnell and Ms Abbott than what we see in the media. The test for the two of them now is a huge one: They are no longer isolated figures on the fringes of the Labour Party. Instead they are now policy leads for the economy/finance, and for international development respectively. It won’t just be a test of their politics, but of their personalities too – in particular how they work with others to formulate policy in the direct sunlight of the mainstream media.

Compelling the broadcast media to publicise radical political ideas

The laws on party political neutrality means that the UK broadcast media cannot explicitly back any specific party. With the larger parties, they have to broadcast who said what ‘as delivered’ in the news. Mr McDonnell mentioned a tax on foreign currency transactions – known as the Financial Transactions Tax (FTT) or the Robin Hood Tax. That meant TV news presenters having to explain to viewers less familiar with politics about these new ideas. What is too early to say is what the general public think of those ideas. What does matter is that by simply talking about them on public platforms, Mr McDonnell is giving little-heard policies some daylight.

“Will those policies stand up to scrutiny?”

Interestingly Mr McDonnell has welcomed the scrutiny of those ideas – announcing a number of policy reviews and the creation of a new economics advisory board with a number of well-known economists who have been critical of neo-liberal economics. Again, the reason why this matters is that those economists now become target guests to be interviewed on a regular basis because their profile has been raised further as policy advisers to nominally a potential government in waiting – irrespective of what you think those odds are.

The media doing itself no favours with clear bias

There are more than a few criticisms that can be thrown at Mr McDonnell’s policies – whether from a point of principle or whether from the practicalities. The problem with the media’s response is their approach has kept up the same level of aggression against Mr Miliband that they are forgetting some of the very basics of detailed scrutiny – leaving themselves exposed.

With The BBC’s Daily Politics Show, Jo Coburn spent much of the show talking to Labour Party member and strong Corbyn critic John McTernan without any other guests. As a result, the only panellist the BBC had was completely dismissive of Mr McDonnell’s speech. Far better to have a panel of three with a range of opinions rather than a single figure who inevitably will be against.

Pro-business vs pro-market

Take John Cridland of the Confederation of British Industry. His reported quotation in The Guardian criticises Mr McDonnell for not providing enough policy detail. (See here). Mr McDonnell has only been in post for 15 days. There is no way he would expect that sort of detail from the chief executives of the firms his organisation represents after such a short time. I also disagree with Mr Cridland on the concept of ‘pro-business’. My take is that the state’s responsibility is to ensure competitive markets – which is ‘pro-market’. Being pro-market and pro-business are not necessarily the same things.

For example look at the outsourcing industry. The policy of outsourcing may well be ‘pro-business’ for the businesses involved, but without breaking up the oligopoly that has built up, it certainly isn’t ‘pro-market’. A ‘pro-business’ government could be in favour of mergers of large companies. A pro-market government in my opinion would be far less likely to be in favour, because such mergers inevitably reduce competition. When faced with huge pre-existing companies, the barriers to entering such dominated markets are huge. If they were not, we’d have far more phone companies, high street banking firms, food shop companies and beyond. But we don’t. Mr McDonnell very much made a pitch towards small and micro-businesses, and away from large multinationals of the like that Mr Cridland represents.

Are we seeing a new John McDonnell?

Richard Murphy on Newsnight made the point that becoming shadow chancellor brings with it responsibilities – which means that tone and content of past speeches of Mr McDonnell have to change. The reason for this is that as an MP, Mr McDonnell could say what he likes. It’s his constituents who back him or sack him. As the holder of a shadow ministerial post, Mr McDonnell is bound by the convention of collective responsibility. That means he has to make compromises. Anyone in ministerial office has to do the same. You have your disagreements behind closed doors, then present a united front once you’ve had the debate. Mr Murphy commented that this was a positive change, and that Mr McDonnell is growing into the post.

“How are the print media reacting?”

As you’d expect. Again, the problem is that the more hysterical their coverage, the more they forget to do actual policy scrutiny – leaving it up to specialist bloggers to fill that vacuum. (Keep tabs on Frances Coppola – in particular on all things quantitative easing). The inevitable challenge for Mr Corbyn’s Labour is how to operate in the face of this – something Mr Miliband struggled with.

“What about the old Blairite faction in Labour? The ‘Progress’ wing? And Brown’s allies?”

In terms of avoiding the echo chamber, it’s worth having a look at their website to see who is saying what. Personally I don’t buy the ‘Red Tory’ insults. The abuse thrown at Liz Kendall disturbed me. As far as policy, strategy and tactics go, everything is fair game as far as scrutiny goes. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown failed to nurture the next generation of Labour politicians during their time in office, which in part explains why Mr Miliband floundered during his time as Labour leader. The political elimination of Mr Balls at the general election as well as Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary by the impressive Mhairi Black, created a huge hole for the Labour ‘moderate’ establishment.

Although still politically shellshocked by the scale of Mr Corbyn’s win, it was standing room only at the Progress rally at the Labour Party Conference. See Emily Ashton’s write up at See also Progess’ Storify here. Despite the scale of Mr Corbyn’s win, they remain an influential force. What remains to be seen is which members of the Progress faction choose to work with Mr Corbyn and his team, which remain quiet on the back benches and which plot for Mr Corbyn’s downfall. As Tristram Hunt said, Mr Corbyn had earned the right to implement his ideas. Note too Dr Hunt’s article in The Guardian here.

Over the next few days we’ll here from Chancellor George Osborne. It’ll be interesting to see how he and his party react to this ‘new look and new way of working’ Labour. Mr Osborne is growing into a sharp and ruthless political operator with a growing band of loyal politicians with him. The first clashes begin in mid October.

We live in interesting times.

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Watching the party conferences from afar


Some thoughts on the party conferences from my electronic window into the world

This post focuses mainly on the Lib Dems, Greens & Labour as the Conservatives are yet to have their conference at the time of posting. Still unable to shake of this head cold, combined with quite an intense bout of depression & exhaustion has meant the the most convenient way to deal with it is to watch for who is saying what at the conferences.

Lack of publicised live-streams

Given the growing importance of social media – in particular from the new leaderships of Labour & the Liberal Democrats, I was disappointed that Labour and The Greens did not have a very public live-stream for people to watch online. Although numbers won’t necessarily be huge, I can imagine that live streams would be more than useful for those that could not make it to conferences. Ditto for some of the fringe events – some of which were standing room only. This reflects two tensions within political parties. The first is control, the second is ‘technophobia’ – which in part is linked to control.

Realigning of ‘the left’

Basically the 2015 general election picked up all of the pieces of the left of whatever the political centre is, threw them up in the air and watched them all drop all over the place. Who would have thought in the middle of last summer the memberships of Labour, the Liberal Democrats and The Greens would have shown such huge rises? (See fig 2 here). I’ve not seen any post-election membership figures for UKIP or the Conservatives.

Unfamiliar territory

All three parties find themselves in unfamiliar situations. The Greens had to pass a number of motions to ensure their party’s systems and processes could cope with the massive increase in membership – which is about five times what it was this time last year. For the Liberal Democrats, they too have taken on lots of new members since the general election – growing by a quarter. Conference old hands noted how different their party conference felt with new first time members.

With Labour, as well as the impact of a new and unexpected leadership, their growth both since the general election, and since Mr Corbyn’s election has been spectacular. The number of people joining Labour since Mr Corbyn’s election is over 60,000 – more than the total membership of the Liberal Democrats and more than the total membership of The Greens. Furthermore with Labour, there’s an expectation from Mr Corbyn’s loyalists that they will be rewarded with influential posts inside the party at the expense of those for example in the Progress wing of the party. Whether this turns out to be true remains to be seen.

Dissatisfaction with old ways of doing political conferences

Watching the footage on BBC Parliament, you could have been forgiven for thinking this was any other party conference from the post-1997 years. Debate chairs and a panel of party big-names at the front, along with various speakers to large but not entirely-packed main halls. There were a number of mentions about poor chairing of various debates, along with the inevitable rambling speakers. That said, there were a number of more impressive women speakers that caught my ear with content and delivery.

The problem with the ‘one to many’ setup of speakers is that everyone else is stuck in relative silence. You don’t get the energy that you get with more fluid open space systems where people can self-select and discuss issues that they share a passion about. That’s not to say these didn’t happen – they did, but not as centre pieces. Whether they could have worked as centre pieces is up for debate. Many open-space practitioners I’ve met over the years often say 200 people max. What better ways are there for organising large political conferences that encourage people to be active participants rather than passive listeners?

What will the impact be of all the connections made in this social media age?

It could either make the divisions within parties much more public, and/or make the storming/forming stages as they rebuild from the general election a much faster process. Probably a bit of both. One of the other overlooked things is the rise of party ‘social media stars’ (for want of another term). In one sense, Mr Corbyn was one of the biggest beneficiaries of this in terms of how his supporters and the wider media (myself included) shared photographs and video footage of his speeches and events. His social media community became a sort of decentralised ‘instant rebuttal unit’ mirroring what Mandelson & Campbell had 20 years previously, but with no central control.

One recent phenomenon is meeting people face-to-face for the first time who you’ve been corresponding with on social media for what feels like ages. I’ve seen a number of mutual Twitterfriends meeting up for the first time at party conferences. My experience of such things is that the conversations that happen are as if you’ve known each other for years, rather than awkward first dates. As far as communities of mutual interest go, this strengthens them.

Various feelers have been put out from the various parties on co-ordinating anti-Conservative actions. Can this work?

Far, far easier said than done. Much depends on the personalities rather than the institutions. For example in Cambridge, there is an incredible amount of bad blood between sections of Cambridge Labour and parts of Cambridge Liberal Democrats. Where the Conservatives have little presence, for example such as Cambridge, there’s little to be gained from working together at a local level. The picture in Cambridge is made more complex by the recent growth of Cambridge Greens – pulling in around 10,000 votes in the local elections in Cambridge that happened at the same time as the general elections. Note the Conservative-dominated seats of South Cambridgeshire and South East Cambridgeshire that surround the city. Will we see any of the Cambridge-based activists help their fellow campaigners in wards outside the city limits?

It’s slightly more straight-forward on issue-by-issue campaigning. In particular if an established organisation is recognised as being the lead on such a campaign – for example a charity that is a household name. That way, campaigners can pressure the Government to make specific concessions. At the same time though, there’s only so much campaigning charities can do – not least because of the recent Transparency of Lobbying Act (which seems to have reined in the charities but not the loopholes on party funding). At the same time, I feel uncomfortable with some at the top of the larger charities being overly political in their activities. The reason being it’s all very well being a well-paid outspoken charity executive, but they don’t have to stand for election and account to the general public. That said, you’ll find a number of MPs who used to work for charities before making the transition into party politics.

Aren’t party conferences safe bubbles for political activists?

There’s nothing wrong with having a safe bubble so long as you don’t stay inside it all the time. Having seen what the Whitehall policy bubble is like, I got to see all too often the results of this and the impact it had on public policy – in particular during the latter years of the last Labour government. I couldn’t help but wonder what the link between ministers and their party members was when it came to public policy. There were all of these organisations lobbying left, right and centre, but no solid link between grassroots party members and the ministers who were part of the same party. That though, was before the civil service started experimenting with open policy. Food for thought for Labour in particular: Who makes and influences your policies when you are in government?

Outward-looking parties going beyond leaflets and becoming ‘social’

This from The Fabians’ event at the Labour Party Conference:

This is something I discuss every so often with local Labour activists & councillors – note the blogpost here and the comments. There’s no right or wrong answer to this. It really depends on your worldview of politics. On one side you can say that invitations to events and debates are only available to party members who sign up to the terms & conditions of membership. Why share the benefits & perks with non-members who won’t commit time or money to the cause? On the other hand, you can take the view that political loyalties are not what they were, and things are much more fluid. Therefore given what we are facing, why wouldn’t you want to tap into a group of people who don’t want to be members of your party, but are likely to be sympathetic to your cause? For example trade unions for Labour or environmental charities for Greens, or civil liberties groups for the Liberal Democrats? Or traditionalist religious groups for the Conservatives – noting in times gone by the Church of England was sometimes called the Conservative Party at prayer.

Shared local events?

This for me is where there is big potential – in particular for somewhere like Cambridge but also anywhere where you have a critical mass of civically-minded people. The challenge is finding politically-independent local institutions to do the hosting and to help with publicity. In Cambridge we are lucky to have so many that can do this – we had over 30 hustings in the run up to the general election with over 3,000 people attending.

But what about places where the community networks are not as established? Is this where individuals activists or councillors within parties could issue a call to community groups to organise debates and workshops on specific issues that local politicians can be cross-examined on?

“Isn’t that what local councils are for?”

Councils are constrained by a mixture of the law, funding and institutionalised inertia – that last point meaning a mindset of ‘We do this because this is the way we’ve always done things.’ For example, it took a change in the law for Thanet Council to accept that filming of council meetings was fine for the general public. (See this video here – and the article here on a councillor being ejected by police for filming.) So I’m not expecting local councils to become buzzing energised hubs of mass-participatory community action anytime soon. Not least with the further cuts Mr Osborne has got lined up for them.

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Fighting fatigue


On the challenge of prioritising in the face of illness and a limited ‘window of activity’

It’s worth having a look at Black Dog Tribe at if you’re not familiar with this area. It’s been over 3 years that I had a mental health crisis that resulted in me not being able to work full-time hours. The past few months have been particularly tough healthwise too – not least my inability to shake off a head-cold that keeps me in a state of permanent sinus-congestion. As a result, I’ve not been able to be nearly as active as I would have liked, and am having to rethink and reprioritise what I do locally – especially now that my focus is job-hunting.

Your annual flu-jab reminder

I’ve been getting mine done at Boots for as long as I can remember ( because my community activity means meeting lots of people in enclosed spaces, and/or commuting back in the day meant being stuck in long metal tubes with wheels underneath. I remember the first time I had the flu – the full-blown version. It was back in 2001 and it completely knocked me out for a fortnight. It put every other cold virus I had before or since into perspective.

On reprioritising my community action

In days gone by, I’d normally fight through colds, being ‘lemsipped up’ as I’d often say at work when I replaced coffees with ick-tasting concoctions. But the combination of my state of health and recent depression has hit me for six over the past few months. To the extent that simply getting out of the house is an achievement. Hence why it’s all the more frustrating when I go along to a public meeting where my contribution seems to have been a complete waste of time – as this recent clip from the Greater Cambridge City Deal Assembly shows:

It was a 2 hour round trip by bus to be given the answer to those questions above. Was it worth it?

Concern from others about Cambridge’s fragmented community action scene

I went along to a gathering of various activists from a variety of Cambridge’s left-wing campaign groups.

A number of people mentioned how it was difficult to find out what was going on because there were so many small groups not co-ordinating or communicating. I’ve seen similar mentioned not just in the realm of politics and community action, but elsewhere – such as business & leisure. Where is the ‘one stop’ place where we all know we’ll get a comprehensive snapshot of what’s going on that’s easy to read/filter & isn’t a wall of text?

Another interesting point was made at the gathering – the number of people turning up to recent public political gatherings in Cambridge was far higher than could have been expected even a few months ago, and that most of the ‘established’ groups were not familiar with who these people were. ie these are members of the public with an interest in politics/community action, but for whatever reason have been off the radar of existing groups (and vice versa?)

Online, my main focus is going to be connecting people, campaigns, organisations & sources of information. In terms of face-to-face meetings & gatherings, for now you’ll probably be seeing less of me. I simply cannot manage all that is being asked of me at present.

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Labour MPs lock horns with Conservatives in the Trade Union Bill


Jeremy Corbyn’s front bench and newly liberated Labour MPs head to the trenches in the fight over new trade union legislation

As far as the Commons is concerned, this is a classic Punch & Judy style debate, but in a strange way allows Mr Corbyn’s new front bench to hit the ground running – even though the Conservative majority in the Commons means this bill will ultimately succeed. The bill allows Labour moderates to criticise it on some of the technical points – such as no provision on electronic voting on ballots (which would increase turnout – important given the strike ballot minimum thresholds are being raised in the bill). The bill allows the Labour left to go after it in principle, stoking the fires for some red-hot speeches.

“What’s Labour’s new front bench like?”

31 new faces, 15 men, 16 women, six dragon fairy followers on Twitter.

The six following Puffles. (This is tongue-in-cheek as most follow lots & lots of others!)

The six following Puffles. (This is tongue-in-cheek as most follow lots & lots of others!)

Twitter exploded as news that the traditional ‘top four’ shadow posts were filled by men. The tradition is that the top four offices of state are:

  • Prime Minister
  • Chancellor of the Exchequer
  • Home Secretary
  • Foreign Secretary

These four posts are shadowed by Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, Andy Burnham and Hilary Benn (son of Tony Benn) respectively. For me, I can understand why this tradition continues – but given how policy responsibilities are now split, I can also understand Mr Corbyn’s response that the tradition of ‘great offices of state’ is now out of date. See here.

Shadow cabinet in the context of running a large organisation

Three years ago I wrote a blogpost stating that the Cabinet was too big – it still is. Have you ever been to a meeting with lots of people? A shadow cabinet meeting with 31 people – how long will it take for everyone to have their say? Even if it’s one person-one minute, you are there for over half an hour. Hence you inevitably get an ‘inner cabinet’ – one acknowledged by the Coalition when they had ‘The Quad’ of the top 2 Conservatives and the top 2 Liberal Democrats. The challenge any opposition party has is trying to ensure every policy area has a policy lead, and that every cabinet minister has a shadow minister. It remains to be seen if My Corbyn develops an inner circle of close advisers from his shadow cabinet team.

John McDonnell as Shadow Chancellor

The appointment of Mr McDonnell as Shadow Chancellor has generated miles and miles of media comment. To describe it as a ‘brave’ appointment is an understatement. Opponents of Mr Corbyn & Mr McDonnell are already going through the archives trying to find speeches and statements to use against them. As appointments of shadow ministers proceeded last night, people were already going through Twitter feeds to try and find embarrassing tweets – such as the new shadow education secretary Lucy Powell MP tweeting during the Labour leadership campaign that she had never spoken to Mr Corbyn before.

Consigned to the fringes of the Labour parliamentary party, both Mr Corbyn & Mr McDonnell now find themselves at the centre of the Labour Party machine. Politicians, staff and activists who might have previously ignored them now find they have to work with them – and vice-versa. Between Mr Corbyn & Mr McDonnell there is not only a sharing of political views but a strong bond of trust too. It’s almost a reflection of the working relationship between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor. Given the 24/7 media lens that will be on the former pairing, I can understand why Mr Corbyn would want to put a staunch political ally in such a post.

Jez and John versus the media

The approach to the mainstream media by Mr Corbyn & Mr McDonnell has already come in for some comment – see for an interesting summary. A bold, brave approach – and one that could only be taken by politicians who are not only rock solid on their political principles but who are also fearless in the face of print media firestorms.

At the same time – and as the Huffington Post link above states, the majority of young people get their news from social media, not the print media. Hence Mr Corbyn reducing the access he gives to a print media that’s only going to attack him, and giving more access to those media channels that are followed by his target audience. At some stage though, Mr Corbyn will need to come up with a media strategy (as mentions) if only to manage people’s expectations and nip the output of the Westminster rumour-mill in the bud. We saw the results of the rumour-mill in the appointment of shadow ministers last night, and it wasn’t the greatest sight.

Whatever the strategy is, the most important thing for Mr Corbyn is consistency. It’s his call on whether he boycotts one publication/media group or another on exclusive interviews. (Banning them from press conferences on the other hand raises freedom of the press / scrutinising politics issues). What matters is that he is consistent. If anything that might lead to an improvement in some of the questions journalists put to Mr Corbyn – more on policy and less on personalities and squabbles between politicians. eg. if a standard response is:

“I don’t care about squabbles between politicians – ask me a question about policy”

…then journalists will learn not to bother with those sorts of questions.

The great retreat of the Blairites

Given Mr Corbyn’s hostility to the mainstream media and his statements about involving far more people in policy-making, there is a much greater role for his shadow ministerial team. There are a whole host of new faces to become familiar with – helped in part by the mass retreat of the Progess wing of Labour. Progress is the movement within Labour that supports the ‘Blairite’ wing of the party. Their recent blogposts make for interesting reading.

When you look at Ed Miliband’s final shadow cabinet (See here) you’ll notice that between the dissolution of Parliament prior to the 2015 general election, and today, there has been a massive change at the top of the Labour Party. Let’s list some of the big names who have all but vanished from view:

  • Ed Miliband
  • Harriet Harman
  • Ed Balls
  • Douglas Alexander
  • Chuka Umunna
  • Tristram Hunt
  • Rachel Reeves
  • Chris Leslie

Yvette Cooper has moved to a role dealing with the refugee crisis, but from the back benches. That left nine very big policy gaps within Labour. For me, the brave and the bold were those Labour MPs who didn’t support Mr Corbyn in the leadership campaign, that stepped forward to take up shadow cabinet positions in the face of such political uncertainty.

I’ve often said before that the best time to make an impact in a political organisation is when it’s taken a massive blow and seems to be in disarray. This is because you get to shape the reconstruction process and have a say in the early important decisions. Whether rejected by the electorate, their constituents or through choice are stepping back from frontline politics, the above-mentioned former Labour front-benchers will find their influence much more limited from where they are now compared to where they were.

A chance for Labour’s women MPs to shine?

My first reaction to Lilian Greenwood and Kerry McCarthy being appointed to the front bench was *****Yeeeesssss!!!!!***** (They are shadowing Transport and Defra respectively). Both are two of the nicest, brightest and most passionate of people in politics that I have either met or communicated with. My general approach with politicians of all parties when I meet them is if they are nice to me and Puffles, we’ll be nice to them. Hence being fortunate to have interviewed politicians from across the political spectrum over the past year or so. (See my Youtube playlist from the 2015 election with interviews and speeches covering the five main parties standing in and around Cambridge).

Here’s my interview with Ms Greenwood when she was shadow rail minister in Jan 2015.

Ms Greenwood has been shadowing various different aspects of transport policy for the past few years – she has covered local transport, rail, and now takes over the full transport brief. She’s also a good friend of Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner, who also has a strong transport policy interest too.

There are others that could command attention in their new roles to be aware of too. New shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has a hospital in her constituency on whose behalf she’s been campaigning. (Although the presence of Addenbrooke’s in Andrew Lansley’s constituency didn’t seem to do his health policies any favours!). The media-friendly Gloria De Piero’s role continues work she’s been doing for quite some time on trying to get more people involved in democracy.

Influential policy pairs of Labour women?

There are some very interesting policy-pairings that could become influential both inside Labour and beyond:

It’s now up to them to make an impact – and also at the same time demonstrate they (along with the rest of the shadow cabinet) are capable of independent thought. Because as a friend of mine recently said to me recently: ‘Scripted politics has had its day – whether you like Corbyn or not’.

This was in response to one of the most painfully ‘on message’ ministerial interviews I have ever heard – straight out of the Peter Mandelson textbook.

“What about the remaining MPs? Have some of the former shadow ministers set back their political careers?”

That depends on whether you see politics as a career or a vocation/calling.

Stella Creasy seems to have already carved out a very nice campaigning niche. Although on the back benches, the best thing Ms De Piero can do with her portfolio is to co-ordinate with Ms Creasy but without having the millstone of collective responsibility (that comes with being in the shadow cabinet) placed on Dr Creasy. Dr Creasy is a free thinker and an activist – we saw this in spadefuls during her deputy leadership campaign, and I saw this first hand on her visit to Cambridge last week.

What happens to Chukka Umunna and Tristram Hunt remains to be seen. Between 2010-15 I felt both were promoted far too quickly – and got found out both in the media and at the despatch box. Mr Umunna gained praise for his performances on the Treasury Select Committee in his cross-examination of the Chancellor. Unfortunately Mr Miliband removed him from that committee and put him as shadow business secretary, giving him only 2 questions per month to put directly to ministers. All too often I found his contributions in the media too scripted and wooden.

I felt similar with Dr Hunt. He wrote a brilliant history of local government which made me wonder why he wasn’t on the local government select committee and allowed to bring his considerable academic knowledge to bear on an otherwise (in comparison) intellectually/academically limited ministerial team (Greg Clark excluded) that was in the department at the time. Since then, his media appearances seem to have demonstrated the opposite of the intellectual talents & gifts that he clearly has.

“Are the Jez and John top two pairing a gift to the Conservatives & Liberal Democrats?”

Certainly the emergence of Mr Corbyn & Mr McDonnell has gone down well with Conservatives. This in part reflects the polarisation of politics and also a sense that both Conservatives and Labour activists now know where each other stands. At the same time there will inevitably be media appearances from anti-Corbyn former Labour ministers inside and outside of Parliament who will pass negative comment over the actions & policies of Mr Corbyn. It remains to be seen if anyone resigns and/or switches party. I’ve not seen any just yet.

There’s also a gap opening up that Liberal Democrats are trying to move into – portraying the Conservatives as extreme on one side by listing the policies they blocked in Coalition but that are now being brought in, and by portraying Labour as moving to the hard left of the early 1980s. However, with so few MPs in the Commons, their ability to take advantage of this inevitably remains limited – and will remain so unless they start showing signs of recovery at the ballot box at the local government elections in 2016. This is why for the Liberal Democrats their looming annual party conference later this month will be absolutely crucial.

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Politics just got interesting


A Jeremy Corbyn – Tom Watson win for the Labour leadership – and the ‘fun’ has already started.

This article on the Conservative Home blog gives some insight into how Mr Corbyn’s adversaries will respond over the period of his leadership. I expect the print media campaign to be relentless and exhausting. Yet despite the dire media and political warnings from across the Westminster political establishment, the results of the leadership contest were astonishing.

Ed Miliband’s legitimacy was always undermined by the fact that his brother won the vote in the Labour Party full membership, and that it was the trade union vote that saw the younger brother take the leadership. With Corbyn a whisker away from winning the vote from the full members alone in the first round, and winning by thumping margins the other eligible voters, Corbyn has the legitimacy of the grass roots that his predecessor perhaps didn’t have.

A thumping rejection of ‘Blairism’?

I can’t help but feel that parts of Labour’s grass roots never felt it had the opportunity to ‘cleanse’ itself of what it saw as the shortcomings of Tony Blair’s time in office – and what Blair’s done since. Because Liz Kendall MP was the candidate that had the backing of Mr Blair and his allies, Ms Kendall found herself in the eye of the storm of some utterly appalling hatred thrown at her online.

Yet Ms Kendall maintained her dignity and courage throughout. I can’t help feel that many of her higher profile supporters could have done much more to call out those that were throwing abuse at Ms Kendall – and that the Labour Party as an institution should have taken much more firm steps to rein in those party members behaving in such a manner.

There are many criticisms I can make of Ms Kendall’s campaign – not least the lack of serious policy detail on causes that she feels the most passionately about. Yet she had the courage to be the first to step forward at a time when Labour was flat on its face following the general election in 2015 with a series of interviews that actually put journalists on the back foot. Honest about some of the shortcomings of Labour’s campaign, what the party needed to examine and her initial thoughts. The problem was that she was unable to move on from what seemed like an energised start.

“What of Labour loyalists Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper?”

Ms Cooper only started landing political blows on the Corbyn campaign when she started analysing the policy detail of ‘Corbynomics’, and then being seen at the parliamentary forefront of efforts to change the Government’s policy on refugees from Syria. But by that time, many votes had already been cast.

Mr Burnham seemed to start off strong, perhaps staking out territory as the most ‘left-wing’ of the three ‘moderates’. A reasonable strategy in the absence of a candidate further to the left of him. But with Mr Corbyn scraping the number of parliamentary nominees required, this left Mr Burnham caught between two high profile women candidates on his right, and a solid left-winger on his left.

Exit Labour front-benchers – but how long before they move against Mr Corbyn? A look at the Conservatives in 2003.

Half a dozen front benchers resigned following the announcement of Mr Corbyn’s win. The mainstream media’s Twittersphere was full of rumour about a coup against Mr Corbyn until the scale of the latter’s victory became clear. It’s difficult to see a move against Mr Corbyn in the short-medium term of the rebellion Iain Duncan Smith faced in 2003. The latter won against former Chancellor Ken Clarke in 2001 with 60% of the vote of Conservative Party members.

So it’s not inconceivable that in 18months time that discontented Labour MPs might try and move against Mr Corbyn if he’s seen as a weak party leader. Obviously the problem Mr Corbyn has is that so few members of Labour’s parliamentary party backed him. On the other hand, the impact of new members joining the party on the back of Mr Corbyn’s campaign could persuade enough of those otherwise sceptical MPs to at least give Mr Corbyn a chance and work with him in a shadow cabinet.

Exit Labour front-benchers – what now for them?

They could sit there and sulk for a few years. They could do what a number of former senior Labour ministers did after 2010 and stay away from Westminster, finding solace in a company directorship, charity trusteeship or on the speaking-and-writing circuit. That for me would be a waste. A waste of their talents, a waste of Labour’s time, and a waste of taxpayers money spent paying them to represent constituents. Funnily enough, there are interesting examples set by both Mr Duncan Smith and Robert F Kennedy. In a nutshell, their example is to pick a cause they are most passionate about, learn about it, quietly but consistently campaign about it so that should a ministerial portfolio be offered in the distant future, you’ll be the best prepared to make an impact in that policy area.

That’s not to say such an approach always pays off. Mr Duncan Smith has, in my opinion been anything but a competent minister. The same goes for Andrew Lansley during his time at The Department of Health and as Leader of the House – in particular when you look at Mr Lansley’s record of taking two major pieces of legislation through Parliament. But that reflects the limited pool of people available to take ministerial posts in the House of Commons. The final years of Gordon Brown’s leadership were similar – MPs who were nowhere near cut out for ministerial office were appointed. Hence in party why I strongly favour the separation of executive and legislature. Let prime ministers select whoever they want as ministers, and subject them to confirmation hearings in Parliament, along with the monthly departmental questions to the Commons.

Who will Mr Corbyn and Mr Watson appoint to their front bench?

That’s what we’re waiting for. There’s also no rush either. Some of the younger MPs that backed Mr Corbyn from the start – such as Norwich’s Clive Lewis (who MC’d the Corbyn rally in Cambridge last week), and long-time Twitterfriend of Puffles, Cat Smith, have been mentioned in some publications as MPs likely to get portfolios. For any of the 2015 intake of MPs, taking on a shadow ministerial portfolio is a baptism of fire. The media will be expecting them to have a response to every single government announcement – and a coherent alternative that they can defend in the face of scrutiny from journalists.

They will also be expected to land political blows when the ministers appear for their monthly scrutiny sessions in the Commons – something that is very difficult to do when each shadow minister has a very limited number of questions they can put directly to ministers. Maybe Mr Corbyn’s idea of crowd-sourcing for Prime Minister’s Questions could also be extended to departmental questions? That would mean every day of parliamentary business that had a departmental questions session would involve public participation. How would ministers respond if shadow ministers prefaced each question with:

“I’m asking this question on behalf of X from Y, and the question is…”

Unless the question is along the lines of ‘When is the minister going to resign over…’ or ‘Doesn’t the minister agree that our policy is better than his?’, any party-political style answer or one that doesn’t properly answer the question is likely to reflect badly on the minister concerned.

“Doesn’t the lack of women in the top two reflect badly on Labour?”

A number of people have commented on this. Part of the problem was with the election rules and sequencing. If they said they would announce the winner of the party leadership first, with the deputy leader being the candidate of a different gender with the most votes winning, we would have had Stella Creasy as deputy leader instead of Tom Watson. So in principle the current outcome of two men winning could have been avoided.

But Labour is where it is. The challenge for Mr Corbyn is how to compensate for this – in particular with the number of higher profile women MPs who have already said they won’t serve in Mr Corbyn’s shadow ministerial team. My hunch is that Mr Corbyn & Mr Watson will want to appoint women to the ‘policy heavy’ shadow portfolios to get that balance. I wouldn’t be surprised to see women MPs shadowing The Chancellor, Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary. The traditional ‘big’ departments of state are Chancellor of the Exchequer (money), Home Secretary (internal) and Foreign Secretary (external). At the same time, the political passions of Labour activists generally are more towards policy areas such as health, education and infrastructure.

“What have the Liberal Democrats and The Greens made of Mr Corbyn’s victory?”

It seems like they have welcomed it but for different reasons. For the Liberal Democrats, they seem to be happy in that Mr Corbyn’s victory allows them to brand themselves as ‘moderates’ between the Conservatives and Labour. The risk with this strategy is that it allows them to sit comfortably in a ‘safe’ zone and not address some of the big challenges they face following the hammering they got at the general election. Their up-and-coming party conference will be one of the most interesting for years.

The Greens have welcomed Mr Corbyn’s victory because many of the Greens’ policies that Mr Corbyn personally spoke in favour of will suddenly get a huge amount of publicity. Issues that Mr Blair, Mr Brown and Mr Miliband either seldom mentioned or never spoke about at all may well find themselves getting broadcast time because of the way the TV news is obliged to report on parliament. Because of the compromises they see Mr Corbyn will inevitably have to make with a sceptical parliamentary party, they will be able to market themselves as a party that can offer those policies in full. It’s a bit like UKIP vs anti-EU Tories. Why vote for the Conservatives if you want to exit the EU when they only offer a referendum, not leadership on an exit?

“What of UKIP? Nigel’s been quiet of late, hasn’t he?”

The past month has been all Labour. How much of the Labour membership increase has been due to the wall-to-wall coverage during a traditionally quiet time for the media? The campaign certainly gave journalists something to sink their teeth into. That’s another unknown. Mr Corbyn has been seen to connect with people because as journalists have commented, he gives straight answers to questions. One of the challenges Mr Corbyn faces is whether he will be able to communicate his ideas and policies through to the wider electorate in the face of print press hostility.

Digital overhaul promised by Tom Watson

In one of my old policy areas, the team I worked in supported Mr Watson with one of his ideas when he was appointed minister for digital engagement in 2008. It was this scheme. I don’t know what happened to it because in those days there was a huge churn of ministers and policy officials. But basically Mr Watson is more than familiar with this field. Mr Watson’s challenge is persuading digital-lite constituency parties to step up to the plate. I’m going to keep on mentioning Cambridge in this regard until they start getting some of the basics right – such as posting links of website news items to their currently under-used Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Poor show: An under-used local party corporate account. Note the few posts in the run up to the general election.

Poor show: An under-used local party corporate account. Note the few posts in the run up to the general election.

“Hang on – didn’t local MP Daniel Zeichner back Yvette Cooper for leader?”

He did – but note Mr Zeichner’s comments in the Cambridge News. A pragmatist and a party loyalist by nature, I wouldn’t be surprised if Mr Zeichner accepted an offer of a shadow ministerial post in an area he is passionate about. As someone with a vast experience inside Labour and politics in general, Mr Corbyn & Mr Watson may need Mr Zeichner to step forward.

“Wasn’t Cambridge Labour split on who they backed?”

Certainly as a local party they did not collectively endorse a specific candidate. Personally I think that’s a strength because it shows a diversity of views that reflect a diverse city. Also, given that Labour control Cambridge City Council and given the things that are happening with the Greater Cambridge City Deal, I’d be surprised if any of Labour’s councillors in Cambridge resigned in principle over Mr Corbyn’s victory.

What I’ll be on the lookout for locally is what impact Mr Corbyn and Mr Watson will have on the party locally – in particular on how it functions as a local political institution. I’ll also be on the lookout for new activists, candidates and the impact they have too.

We live in interesting times.

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