What happened to Cambridge’s Liberal Democrats?


They used to have a much higher profile, but these days outside of council meetings I seldom see or hear from them compared to the pre-2015 election days

It can’t be much fun being a Liberal Democrat given the fall from being in Coalition to being completely ignored by the political media. The start of a vicious spiral where less media coverage translates into fewer votes and so on? Or will social media become their saviour as Jim Murphy alluded to in his speech in Cambridge today?

As I mentioned pre-2015, at a local level the Cambridge Green Party are doing the most with digital video. I’ve filmed more than a few for them (See my Green Party playlist) but perhaps more importantly their spokespeople are now producing their own short pieces to camera and uploading them directly onto their Facebook page. Furthermore, they are keeping that page updated and are getting into a positive habit of linking online and offline activities and ‘soft’ political gatherings.

“So…why aren’t the Liberal Democrats doing similar?”

Given the number of people that joined the Cambridge Liberal Democrats straight after the election, I’m surprised that so few have become prominent. Dare I say it, it sort of saddens me that they haven’t had the run of events & gatherings that they had this time last year, when they had a number of senior party members & ministers visiting on a relatively frequent basis. My Liberal Democrats video playlist is here, but since the general election I can’t think of any Lib Dem events where I’ve filmed a prominent speaker for their party making a passionate case for liberalism & social democracy. Party president Sal Brinton did this before the election here, and we also had a visit from Lynne Featherstone in February 2015. Yet since the election, their profile seems to have been diminished.

“What could the Liberal Democrats in & around Cambridge be doing?”

Similar to what The Greens are doing – being their own media where the mainstream media won’t cover them. The difference between the two parties at a local level is that the Greens have got a critical mass of younger, digital-savvy activists who can create new content for fun. The Greens are also benefiting from the raised awareness around the Paris Climate Talks – which has resulted in increased social media publicity for them as the main ‘party political wing’ of the environmentalist movement. This was the term Green Party leader Natalie Bennett used on one of her visits to Cambridge this year.

“Will all those Green Party social media posts convert into votes and seats – at the expense of the Liberal Democrats?”

Liberal democrat roots in their ‘safe’ wards go incredibly deep. Even at the deepest trough in mid-2015 their safe wards were still returning Lib Dem councillors. Yet as well as being numerically inferior compared to where they were a few years ago, as a cohort they are perhaps more softly spoken and collectively older than a number of their high profile opponents in Cambridge Labour Party who, in the grand scheme of things I think have done a pretty good job so far of running the council.

A future council executive in waiting?

What I don’t yet see with the Liberal Democrats locally at the moment is new political talent coming through that could help form a fresh, new council executive in waiting. I don’t yet see the new members rising through and taking their political fight to their Labour opponents. Perhaps the same could be said nationally of Labour given their current problems: They don’t look like anywhere near a future government in waiting.

One of the other reasons why this matters locally from political pluralist perspective is that traditionally it is the Liberal Democrats outside of the city that form the main opposition to the ruling Conservatives on district councils. The number of council seats on South Cambridgeshire and East Cambridgeshire district councils held by Labour is tiny. Hence my recent blogposts saying that Labour’s impressive university campaigning machine (Cambridge Universities Labour Club – CULC) could be put to work along the Cambridgeshire Guided Bus corridor in 2016 to see if they can unexpectedly capture some rural local council seats similar to the manner in which they captured the Queen Edith’s ward in 2012.

The Women’s Equality Party – potential electoral candidates?

The Cambridge Branch had their third meeting this week – I counted about 30 people this time around. (Which for a cold November evening at a pub not on public transport routes is ***massive*** for a party only a few months old). In a nutshell they have the numbers and the potential to make some sort of an impact – even if it’s simply a case of raising awareness of their six core principles. For me, the stage their at now locally is where the branch starts to develop its own distinctive character away from the London HQ – similar to what the Cambridge Green Party did in 2013/14 when it rebuilt. In the grand scheme of things though, if you agree with the principles of the WEP and don’t want to join any of the other political parties, now is probably the best time to join a WEP branch because it’ll be over the next few months they’ll be shaping their local policies.

Although I’m familiar with the group of people who run the local branch, few people outside of the party are. As far as local media is concerned, they will need to decide who their main local contacts are going to be so that the likes of Jon Vale of the Cambridge News, Julian Clover of Cambridge 105 and Dotty McLeod of BBC Cambridgeshire know who to go to (or vice-versa if the branch sends out a press release).

“What have Labour and the Conservatives been doing on social media locally?”

I’ve been following with interest the low profile but growing presence of South East Cambridgeshire MP Lucy Frazer QC. (I interviewed her just before the 2015 election here). The reason being that, like Daniel Zeichner MP in Cambridge, she’s not comfortable using social media as a conversational medium in the way Dr Julian Huppert did when he was Cambridge’s MP, and in the way Heidi Allen MP for South Cambridgeshire is currently doing now.

Since becoming an MP however, Ms Frazer has gone about her constituency work diligently and has given a particular focus on schools and young people. It doesn’t matter whether it’s her or her private office doing the updates. What people see is that on a regular basis there are photographs of her with constituents both in schools & workplaces, and in Parliament too where she has invited her young constituents to take part in debates in some of the big rooms they have there. I remember going to Parliament for my first time in 2007 & being awestruck. Imagine what it’s like for someone from a small rural Cambridgeshire village at secondary school.

Having recently been elected to the Commons Education Select Committee (one of the more higher profile select committees), Ms Frazer is picking up a wealth of information which, combined with her legal training I’m sure will come to bear at a future hearing. Remember at select committees, MPs can ask a series of questions one after another – a gift to anyone like Ms Frazer who is trained on the art of cross-examination.

“Still…I kinda miss being able to tweet suggestions for PQs to Julian when he’s on the floor of the Commons”

Inevitably – though note my thoughts in this blogpost which also explores wider issues. Mr Zeichner too has further responsibilities as shadow local transport minister – which also means being Labour’s national policy lead on cycling policy, something not lost on Cambridge’s residents.

At a local level, two of the most active student political campaigners in Cambridge, Imogen Shaw and Elinor Clapson have taken over the reins of Cambridge Universities Labour Club

In 2015 CULC were particularly successful at bringing women into politics en masse. What’s noticeable as well is CULC have started holding events at Anglia Ruskin University’s East Road campus. (The plural ‘universities’ denotes CULC covering ARU as well as Cambridge University students). During my post-grad days there, there wasn’t that much politics around. So it’s good to see CULC not just bringing politics to ARU, but also bringing Cambridge University students in numbers to meet and debate with their ARU counterparts who are often from a different demographic.

“But back to the Lib Dems?”

Their climate spokesman Lord Purvis is visiting Cambridge in early December – just off Mill Road. In the event listing they’ve stated they will be hosting a formal launch of Cambridgeshire Liberal Youth in early 2016. Cambridge Lib Dems lost some of their hardest-working and highest profile young activists through inevitable academic turnover – including former Hills Road Sixth Form College student Callum Delhoy who went off to university a couple of months ago. Although Cambridge-based, he rescued the Lib Dems in Daventry by standing as their candidate in the general election despite preparing for his A-level exams. (Here’s my interview with him).

In the short to medium term though, the Liberal Democrats will need to ‘sweat their peers’ in the House of Lords as some of the few politicians who have any chance outside their MPs of gaining media time. The higher the profile the likes of Baroness Dr Julie Smith (who’s one of the most impressive all-round politicians I’ve met) can get – in particular with big audiences, the better it could be for the party locally. For me, the Lib Dems need to have a strong showing in the run up to the EU referendum if they are going to be within striking distance of taking back some of their previous ‘safe’ seats in the 2020 general election.

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Tabled question for Cambridgeshire County Council, Dec 2015

I’ve tabled the following oral question for Cambridgeshire County Council, because I’m bored of getting stuck on buses & being late to things in the evening.

“Buses I am on regularly get blocked at the Hills Road/Lensfield Rd junction by the big church in Cambridge. Many years ago there used to be box junction penalties. No longer, and with no enforcement drivers regularly block the junction to traffic going north/south from Hills Road/Regents Street.

1) Who needs to do what to get that box junction re-instated – and if it is the county council, why are councillors & officers not taking action?
2) Who would be responsible for enforcement to get the message to anti-social drivers who choose to jump the stop line and block the entire junction
3) What considerations will councillors give to proposals for smart traffic management at http://www.bettercitydeal.com/smart-traffic-management/ tabled for the city deal?”
If you want to ask a public question to Cambridgeshire County Council, you need to email your question to democraticservices@cambridgeshire.gov.uk by 08 December for answer at the full council meeting on the morning of 15 December http://www2.cambridgeshire.gov.uk/CommitteeMinutes/Committees/Meeting.aspx?meetingID=1076
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Multiple packed community meetings in Cambridge


Is this a sign of good health for local democracy, or the opposite? To what extent has social media and/or digital video driven this


People were still pouring into the West Cambridge community meeting at Cambridge RUFC to see a range of grassroots presentations on the future of Cambridge – and in particular some transport ideas to solve our city’s traffic problems leading out of the city westward. (See https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLwEUs8UyvFATL388bl2Wf-gypJwLmx5S8 for the playlist of video presentations).

There was a bit of controversy with some portrayals as the above being a gathering of new-monied Newnham Nimbies plus cosy Coton Conservatives fighting against lazy-thinking Labourites wanting to concrete over other people’s homes. Personally I don’t buy those portrayals because from the meetings I have been to, everyone there knows that ‘do nothing’ is not an option given the external pressures on the city. Those concerned about over-development know they have to come up with workable solutions rather than try to oppose everything – especially given the changes to planning policy being driven through by the new Government.

Concern over development on one side, concern over the lack of affordable housing on the other


Cambridge housing campaigners led by the Cambridge Unite Community Branch (a trade union branch aimed at the low paid, unemployed & students) marched through Cambridge and had a rally at Emmanuel URC on Trumpington Street (photographed above – spot the lady with the giant paper snailshell on her back).  Cambridge housing chief Cllr Kevin Price was in no mood to pull punches on the failure of Treasury policies to alleviate Cambridge’s housing problems.

As Cambridge Labour Party goes, Cllr Price in the Corbyn wing of the party, having welcomed Mr Corbyn to Cambridge for his packed-out rally earlier in the autumn. Cllr Price’s speech is here. Despite the broad range of views across the group of councillors on both the council & executive, Cllr Lewis Herbert who leads Cambridge City Council seems to have done a good job of holding his team together – in public at least. That said, pressure from both further cuts expected from Chancellor George Osborne along with the inevitable difficult decisions that will need to be taken on housing and planning will test the Labour administration in Cambridge like never before.

Cambridge medics in open revolt – problems for Heidi Allen MP

South Cambridgeshire MP Heidi Allen (Conservative) faced a lions’ den of over 200 people for an event hosted by Cambridge junior doctors – excellently facilitated by Dr Yezen Sheena at Cambridge Medical School on the Addenbrookes site.


As well as Ms Allen was Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner, who seems to be working well with his otherwise political opponent next door. The ‘Labour diehard’ inside Mr Zeichner could have politically laid into Ms Allen over her party’s policies on a whole host of issues. But in all of the events I’ve seen the two of them sharing a platform, both have refrained from tearing strips out of each other. Essentially Mr Zeichner’s worked out quickly that the best tactic he can use for the good of Cambridge is to support Ms Allen in her behind-the-scenes negotiations that she has with ministers. As shadow local transport minister for Labour, he saves his direct attacks for the House of Commons – as his contribution to the Commons Paris Climate Change Debate on 19 November 2015 showed.

“So…what do all these gatherings show?”

That people are interested. Note that many are prepared to come out to meetings on cold evenings or weekends to make their points, even if those gatherings are not at formal council meetings. After all, if you are unfamiliar with the processes and formalities – such as the need to give notice for an oral question, why would you turn up? What they are interested in, and what their opinions are, inevitably varies.

We need to have more women, more people in their 20s & 30s, and more young people taking an active part

You see the picture at the top of this blogpost? I asked the question below to them all.

I asked a similar question at the launch of the call for evidence for the City Deal at Cambridge City Council – see Richard Taylor’s video here. My oral submission for the call for evidence at Cambridge Central Library is here. Note South Cambridgeshire Conservative Cllr Roger Hickford’s comments here about engaging with young people – he’s the deputy chair of the City Deal Assembly, along with Anglia Ruskin University’s Helen Valentine here. Essentially you’ve just got to be persistent and make them realise you’re not going to go away easily in order to influence them. Plus having things on public (in particular video/audio) record helps.

“Is social media helping? Is digital video helping?”

Let’s look at my Youtube stats from October 2015:


The spikes are from public questions to the city deal board, a presentation by Cllr Lewis Herbert, Peter (Lord) Mandelson’s lecture in Cambridge (plus Dr Julian Huppert’s speech), and finally the group of presentations at the West Cambridge event mentioned above. Without the spikes, I’m getting around 100 plays per day. Following the #CamDoctors event this week, that spike flew through the 1,000 plays barrier again.

“But is it helping engage new audiences, or is it simply making those already engaged/disposed to be engaged more engaged than they already are?”

This is something Lord Mandelson in Cambridge here. I agree with him. I also think it’s not something that will be solved by ‘more effort’ from existing councillors and activists – many of whom have a huge unpaid workload when it comes to door-to-door canvassing & leaflet distribution. My challenge to the general public is to make it your responsibility to find out which parties are active in your local area, find out who your candidates are and to ask them questions. (It’s even more the case if you have internet access and the literacy to search and email them). Once you have done that, then the ball genuinely is in the court of the political parties, because you’ve basically said: “OK, I’m listening. Inspire me.”

“You’ve moaned about consultation overload before”

Probably here talking about the city deal again. At the moment though, there are so many consultations at a local and national level that it’s difficult to keep up.

Don’t you all have lives to live? That’s why it’s important to avoid being overwhelmed. Essentially my advice is to pick your cause and geographical area – then use social media networks to stay in touch with people who are fighting campaigns that you are interested in but feel you can’t commit the time and attention to actively monitor. Rely on those people & organisations to tip you off when something needs to be done. Otherwise it’ll crush you.

“Don’t we have local elections soon?”

Certainly parts of England do – for example many areas with two or three tiers of local government. Hence now is the time to start thinking if you want to get involved in a political party (if you’re not sure which one, take the Political Compass test), and if you think you can do better than existing councillors, consider standing yourself.

Which reminds me, the Liberal Democrats seem to have been quiet these days – not nearly as many organised public events compared to this time last year when a number of speakers came to Cambridge.

My sense is that following the shredding of the Lib Dems’ parliamentary party and the election of Mr Corbyn as Labour leader, the left and centre-left is going to through a very painful process of reformation and realignment. It’s interesting to see how those in the non-Corbyn wing of the co-operative movement within the Labour Party (such as Stella Creasy MP) have thrown themselves into rebuilding the co-op movement following the problems with the co-op bank, of which Frances Coppola has written lots. Note too that The Green Party will have taken a hit in terms of members and activists attracted to a Corbyn-led Labour Party.

“Your overall point being…?”

My point is that we cannot wait for political parties to get themselves together in order to provide a competent, organised opposition & scrutiny to the government of the day.


Start local and find out what is already going on in your local area, and take it from there. For many of you that involves not leaving your sofa/bed/desk. It involves a simple search of various sites such as:

  • Facebook (eg type in the name of your village/town/city & see what groups & pages are out there)
  • Twitter (search the name of your place & type in the name of any political party and see who is out there) – also very useful for following local journalists that report from local council meetings
  • Meetup groups – search in your area
  • Eventbrite events – ditto
  • Your local council – ask about community groups
  • Your local council for voluntary services – which should maintain contacts of community and voluntary groups

Even if you are not going out and about to meetings and gatherings, for those of you online, the next best thing you can do is to try and remain informed about what’s going on. By becoming ‘passively informed’ first, the more likely you can become ‘actively informed’ about things that interest you – ie where you choose to follow one cause (and perhaps unfollow another) so that you get to a stage where you want to be more than just informed, but active in that area/issue you are passionate about. That way you can focus your efforts on what you are informed and passionate about, and avoid burnout.

“With you?”

With me? As the above has shown, I’ve spent this autumn focussing on both getting better (after a persistent cold), and filming gatherings/events/speeches in order that others can become more informed and hopefully active. It’s too early to tell whether it’ll have any impact, but at least the video stats are encouraging.

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Giving evidence to the Greater Cambridge City Deal


What to ask? What to say to in the evidence session

If you don’t know what the Greater Cambridge City Deal is, or what it hopes to solve, watch Cllr Lewis Herbert’s speech below

I got confirmation of a speaking slot at the Cambridge Central Library’s hearing on 16 November 2015.


The details are as above.

The formal launch of the call for evidence (see http://www.cambridgeshire.gov.uk/citydeal/news/article/22/city_deal_launches_call_for_evidence_to_tackle_congestion_in_cambridge) was earlier this evening. I only found out about the opportunity to appear in person at the last minute – while on a bus out of town. I made it with about 3 minutes before the deadline expired. As Richard Taylor stated today, the city deal authorities seem to have ‘communications issues’ when it comes to advertising their events. He filmed this evening’s talks & Qs so expect them to be on his video website soon.

“What will you be asking?”

The two main priorities I have are:

  • Haverhill Rail – see them on FB here and the leaflet here
  • Getting the views of young people in a systematic manner that will cover the period of the city deal.

There are some very straight-forward pieces of data collection schools and colleges could do to assist the city deal processes as far as data collection is concerned. A simple transport survey asking students to identify the modes of transport they use to get to school/college, the postcode they travel to/from, and the number of times they are late each week as a result of traffic problems. This data doesn’t need to identify individuals. This data would – in particular for our major further education/sixth form colleges, identify the number of journeys that have to cross the city. Would data from these support business cases for bus or segregated cycle paths away from existing roads clogged by motor traffic?

How quickly could schools & colleges get such a survey up and running in order for the data to be collected and submitted as evidence to the County Council? By 30 November 2015?

Just as Robin Pellew of Cambridge Past Present & Future said he felt the scope of the city deal was too narrow, my take is that if handled properly, the city deal could be harnessed to kick start grassroots democracy activism in & around the city. The reason why that’s not happened so far is the city deal structures are not getting the basics right. Cambridge isn’t getting the basics right.

Consultation overload

I’m absolutely exhausted by the number of separate events I seem to be going to that involve one way or another the future of Cambridge. Have a look at the number of meetings hosted by Cambridge City Council alone in their calendar here. Then there are all of these ones with Cambridgeshire County Council – but you’ll need to search through them to find the one you want. Ever so frustrating that these things are not made easy for the ordinary citizen. At the same time, the community groups are desperately trying to get their heads around the systems & processes, organising their own meetings due to their concerns about Cambridge’s future. Here’s one I’m at on 12 Nov having been to two gatherings this evening. Exhaustion got the better of me for two recent events – one on the future of Mill Road and another on the local NHS – which run separate consultations. At the same time, one of the city deal projects, the much needed Chisholm Trail (a north-south cycle route through the city next to the railway line – so away from cars), is also out to consultation with a number of exhibitions.

“Isn’t consultation a good thing?”

It depends how the consultor frames the questions. The problem I have is that as a city, Cambridge is exhausting the ability of our citizens and civic society to give informed, considered responses. As a result, the only people able to respond are those who can afford to employ those to respond for them (ie big interests with big money), or the merry band of activists that scrutinise these things perhaps at the expense of having a life. (Other than members of staff, I think I was the youngest person at the Guildhall event this evening).

What would I like to see?

I would like to see Cambridge’s public institutions getting together (in particular their communications managers) and deciding how they are going to co-ordinate their future consultations so that it reduces the amount of work for ordinary citizens to find out about and respond to consultations. For me, this point nails it.

People don’t care about which institution does what, they care about whether a service is functioning or not. (Which is why if you want to design malfunctioning public services, you underfund, fragment and outsource as much as you can – sort of like what successive central governments have done for decades).

“If you find all those consultations exhausting & confusing, what hope for the rest of us? And for young people too if this is their first experience of it?”


But again, the way Cambridge functions is that you need to be inside an institution in order to really influence others. Not being inside one means I have no power or influence to bring together the relevant institutions to deal with some of the problems I’ve mentioned above. So I have to leave that for someone who does have influence/power locally to solve that one.

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Is it full speed ahead to a US-style higher education system?


Quick thoughts on the Green Paper on higher education

At this stage, the consultation at https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/higher-education-teaching-excellence-social-mobility-and-student-choice is at the ‘What do you think of our ideas?’ stage of the policy-making process. But the direction of travel seems pretty clear: More markets and more private sector involvement. It’s also worth cross-referencing it to the Conservative Party Manifesto for 2015 by doing a word-search for universities/university. A summary of what’s in it is at https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/higher-education-green-paper-glance by Chris Havergal & team (Ex-Cambridge News, now at the Times HE Supplement).

It’s also worth noting the Dearing Review of 1997 which is one of the worst policy documents ever written in my opinion, and was one of the worst decisions taken by a Labour government to implement it.

Early responses include the below from Shelly Asquith of the NUS

Her counterpart Sorana Vieru at the NUS posted Quality doesn’t grow on fees at http://www.nusconnect.org.uk/articles/quality-doesn-t-grow-on-fees.

The fundamental flaw in the big picture with higher education & big fees

With the manufacturing of products & environmental sustainability, measuring sustainability involves looking at a product’s whole life cycle – and the environmental impact of extracting raw materials, the manufacturing process and costs of disposal. Plonking a wind turbine on your house may look great for the headlines (until you realise you don’t have planning permission for it) but if the environmental cost of making the turbine exceeds the total amount of energy that would be saved in the course of its life cycle….exactly. When you look at higher education in the context of a life cycle, issues that you’d otherwise say are outside your policy model’s scope come into play. The big one? Cost of housing.

Debt, debt, debt – I still haven’t finished paying off my student loan and I graduated nearly 15 years ago. The cost of housing – mortgages and rents, and their utterly unsustainable ratio to average earnings, means that there are a whole host of extra costs to add to university living, along with what happens in adult life later on. At the same time, we are now in a world where not only do we not have jobs for life, but the jobs that we have are becoming extremely unstable – self-employment, zero hours contracts and the like. Combine that with continued pushes for ‘high skilled jobs’ which by their very nature require a significant investment in time & resources to become skilled in, means that people will continue to have to retrain again and again. And all that’s on offer are more loans…on top of the mortgages and student era debts so many people are stacking up. I’ve not even come onto the unsecured private debts many of us have – credit cards, small loans and pay-day lenders.

Boris’ brother as Universities Minister

Actually, Jo Johnson MP as a public persona comes across as the opposite of his more well-known brother Boris. More quietly spoken and more reserved in public, he’s the minister for universities and science. Some of you may also have spotted that he’s a former Bullingdon boy – in the widely-circulated photo that George Osborne is in. One of the criticisms that is regularly thrown at Cameron’s government is the lack of diversity within his inner circle. Mr Johnson-J so some might say, is another example of appointing someone inside that Eton-Oxford elite circle. But then the same criticisms have been thrown at Mr Corbyn with recent appointments that have left some in Labour aghast. For me, in the dog-eat-dog world of Westminster, both party leaders have simply appointed people they feel they can trust, irrespective of what others say about them.

“What about the policies? Does Jo Johnson assume that these new universities are going to be like a combination of Eton and Oxford? Or will the reality be classes in a grotty run down inner city office block taught by unqualified lecturers with a poor grasp of English and communications?”

I was TV-surfing and stumbled across Eamonn Holmes and Ruth Langsford presenting a programme on How the other half lives. They featured Stowe School which is based in this place.  At the same time, Sky seem to have continued their features on expensive private schools with a series on Prince Charles’ old school. Imagine what Grange Hill would be like if it were a fly-on-the-wall documentary, then go to the opposite end of the social spectrum. That feels like where they get the concept from. Note at the same time Channel 4 has gone with Educating Cardiff – at a state school. Comparing the programmes is like comparing two very different worlds. It’s strange to think that this is the same country we’re talking about, let alone planet.

The reason why the above matters as far as public policy is concerned is to do with risk: If implemented, how could Mr Johnson’s proposals go wrong? What does success look like? A suite of new successful private universities setting themselves up in former country house estates and becoming as prestigious as Oxford? Note the New College of Humanities is one of the first to launch following the liberalisation in the Coalition years.

Similarities between Lords’ reform with education reform – both stuck in long-term halfway houses.

The situation we’re currently in is a half-way house that is the worst of all worlds – a bit like with the House of Lords just after they kicked out most of the hereditary peers. (It’s 2015 and in our upper house in Parliament we still have 99 people – nearly all wealthy White Men – able to vote on our legislation by virtue of the family they were born into). At least prior to that, said peers were nominally outside the control of the government because they did not owe their seats to the patronage of any Prime Minister. Thus a check on the executive – albeit a very flawed one. Today, we have people from poorer backgrounds more likely to go to less affluent universities with fewer resources paying the same tuition fees as those going to more affluent universities with more resources, and perhaps more importantly, stronger alumni connections to benefit current students. I see this reflected in the talks I see advertised hosted by Cambridge University’s colleges.

Why Shelly Asquith’s criticism matters

“Raising fees according to ‘quality of teaching’ says you only deserve a ‘quality’ education if you can afford one”

This for me reveals what the real big policy challenge is: How can we get the students that have the most potential in their chosen subjects to be taught by the best teachers in those subjects? Does raising fees increase or decrease the likelihood of this succeeding? Or does it simply result in the better teachers going to higher paying institutions (driven by costs of living and their own debts) teaching students from wealthier backgrounds who, when compared with state school students achieving the same grades don’t perform as well or have less potential? With this point I’m looking at ***big cohorts*** rather than saying one lot make for the perfect students while the other lot don’t & you’re tarred by the group you’re in. Humanity is far more complex than that.

I take it as a given that the question itself is ***loaded*** with subjectivity. Students have a wide range of dispositions and learning styles. What’s good for one won’t be good for another.

“Wouldn’t it be better for politicians to say they backed a US-style higher education system and simply privatise the wealthier universities – both of them?” 

Or they could do what Germany did and abolish fees completely. Funnily enough, if we were in a world where we had stable jobs/careers for life (or the long term at least), a system of fees and loans would make more sense as the individual’s investment in their education would be for the long term. In the system we have now, given the instability of employment along with high costs of housing, it makes more sense to cover the fees and make it easier for people to retrain.

The elephants in the room – the parental/family subsidy and part time working

I don’t remember any public policy discussion about how much parents should contribute to their offspring at university. I didn’t have a clue about the £1050 tuition fee I had to pay up front for my first year at university. It was the anger of my parents at Blair’s policy which led to them offering to pay my tuition fees – even though during my year out I had saved up enough money to cover them myself. Despite having saved up several thousand pounds during that year out, it all went on basic food costs – little left of my student loan once accommodation was paid for. I was fortunate to be supported further by my parents, but I knew of many others that worked long hours on top of their studies during term time. With so many graduates coming out with such huge debts (that need servicing at least), is it any wonder that so many end up boomeranging back to their parents homes? All 2million of us?

The reasons why these matter get to the heart of our social mobility problems – and is also why its useful to compare Oxford and Cambridge’s arrangements with those of less-affluent universities. At Oxford & Cambridge, you are not allowed to work part-time in the way you can at other universities. Given the workload at both places, I can’t see how you would have the time. Yes, there are hardship funds you can apply for – but this involves having to do something extra that your fellow students would not have to do. Being in a place of hardship – esp when it’s not really your own fault, is not a nice place to be in. Compare being in receipt of a hardship fund versus being in a receipt of a student grant that is yours by right because you are at an institution on merit. The system Blair brought in – continued by all his successors, fundamentally changed the relationship between students and universities. I’m not convinced that many of today’s politicians have reconciled themselves to this, or the impact that its had.

“So…what’s the end game?”

The endgame with this is a market system for education, with the state giving token support to take the sting out of the worst criticism that could be thrown at it. The situation many are in feels more like as in this cartoon. It’s not a good place to be in.

…and as an afterthought:

What would universities be like if:

  • Universities had a public duty to ensure all of their students were housed in decent housing?
  • The Universities Minister had a public duty to ensure universities were complying with this duty?
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Cambridge’s city deal systems (including meetings) need to allow multiple conversations


The failure to facilitate multiple conversations could be storing up problems for the future – and it is completely avoidable

I won’t embed the public questions from November’s City Deal board meeting because it took over an hour, click here if you want to see who said what. I had one of nine questions, which I not only gave more than a week’s notice of, but published on my blog in advance as well. Click here for the text. See also the report by Jon Vale of the Cambridge News here.

Only one member of the board had read my question in advance of the meeting.

Sentiment such as the above is becoming more and more noticeable in local democracy on both officials and elected representatives. The record of our current Police and Crime Commissioner (who is standing down at this election) is one that has not come in for widespread praise. Dare I say it, many people in Cambridge either had no idea we had a PCC or didn’t notice any difference at all from the creation of that Office by the Coalition.

The reason why I published my question on my blog in advance was that I wanted the text of my question to be taken as read by the board so that we could go straight into discussion. This is how they do departmental questions in Parliament. Tabled questions are listed, printed and distributed so that the MP asking the question simply has to say “Question Number X please Mr Speaker”. The problem is that the systems & processes of the City Deal Board don’t allow for this – Cllr Herbert pulled me up saying I could only ask the question that was submitted. Ie I was restricted to reading out a pre-prepared question and he was restricted to reading out his pre-prepared answer. I shrugged my shoulders & got on with it, but one of the subsequent public questioners got into a heated exchange with Cllr Herbert over this principle.

Raised tensions with members of the public and local campaign groups

A number of community action groups were at the meeting asking questions, including

My point to Cllr Herbert at #HackCambridge at The Junction in Cambridge at the weekend was that we did not have the events or spaces where individuals and groups can get together to solve the problems that the City Deal is charged with dealing with. As a result, only a fraction of the talent in the city is able to bring their powers to bear on the problems our city faces. So instead of putting the time, money and effort into solving the traffic problems of West Cambridge, thousands of petition signatories and dozens of residents are putting their time into opposing schemes as published. Instead, they could be invited to take part in a process that sets out the challenge of our traffic problems, and in the context of the resources available and the existing map of the city, be challenged to come up with solutions to the problems.

‘It’s not for us to set these up – though we take part whenever invited’

This was a summary of Cllr Herbert’s position as far as the City Deal Board is concerned. My problem with this is that community groups simply do not have the legitimacy that local authorities have. Also, access to people, resources, money and venues is not equal. A well-resourced and well-connected community group can get a decent venue, have their event live-reported on social media and even live-streamed or videoed. A less-well resourced/connected group (that may have the same level of local support) may not be able to afford the venues or have the connections that enable the live-reporting/videoing of their events.

“Does filming meetings make any difference to what happens?”

It’s difficult to say at this stage. At the moment, Richard Taylor (at https://www.youtube.com/user/RTaylorUK/videos on Youtube) is the most prolific community reporter using video to film meetings, followed by myself. Looking at the data, number of views of videos of local council meetings is generally in the dozens unless embedded in a Cambridge News article, in which case it reaches the low hundreds. Not huge, but anecdotally it means that a handful of people who are interested but who otherwise cannot attend are becoming more informed. In particular, some people are comparing the minutes with the video footage and are noticing the two don’t always match up.

“Why don’t you film the whole of meetings?”

  1. Spoons. #MentalHealth.
  2. No one pays me to film or covers any expenses, so I have no obligation to stick around for meetings that can run into the small hours
  3. By the time something has reached a meeting calling on councillors to vote on something, it’s rare that councillors will vote against it – therefore I take it as a given that councillors will vote for it.
  4. Editing that length of footage takes ***ages*** – again no one pays me for it (much as I’d like someone to!)

Therefore I stick to the bits that I think will be the most interesting & engaging for local people: questions from the public.

‘We can’t change the system because of the contract we signed with Central Government’

This was what Cllr Herbert said to me about systems and processes. He’s right in terms of the restrictions of the agreement. However, I think it’s worth exploring which bits of the systems & processes are not working as well as they could do, and making the case to Whitehall for relaxing some of the ones around meetings. The constraints around public questions – where you have ‘one shot’ and only one or two members of the board respond, is one that needs reviewing. Otherwise, what is the point of other board members being there? It’s even more frustrating when they may have something to say on specific public questions. It seems it’s only when you direct a question to a board member that you get a response. Such as below with Cambridge University

Yes – on this forum ***you can hold Cambridge University accountable*** for its decisions where they relate to city deal issues.

As things stand, I believe the City Deal structures & processes could improve significantly – in particular when looking at who seems conspicuous by their absence in all of this.

  • Staff unions representing big employers such as Cambridge Assessment (who might have something to say no transport to/from work
  • Six-form and further education students – especially those who have to travel either across the city or from outside
  • School children – we say from Cyclestreets how technology could be used to get anonymised data to map the cycle routes they take to/from school to help inform the city’s planning processes. i.e. the data could show which streets could have car access restricted in order to become main cycle routes, reducing accidents with motorised road traffic.
  • Applied academia – where the city’s researchers are encouraged to use the city deal as case studies for their work – from school projects to A-level geography coursework, to undergraduate extended projects to postgraduate research proposals.

How can we respond to all of these? Something I might put to the next City Deal Board. The question for them is: Who will be reading this?

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Richard Heaton’s evidence to Public Accounts Committee shows MPs/Ministers need to rethink relationships with charities


Why the actions of the then Permanent Secretary at Cabinet Office, Richard Heaton were at textbook response to concerns of a government-funded charity, and why MPs & Ministers need to completely rethink government’s relationship with charities in general.

Before I start, declarations of interest:

  • Chair of Public Accounts Committee, Meg Hillier MP, follows Puffles
  • Richard Heaton, now Permanent Secretary of Ministry of Justice, follows Puffles
  • Caroline Flint MP – now on the Public Accounts Committee was one of the ministers I worked closest with during my time in Whitehall (but by no means was perched over her shoulder)
  • Chris Wormald, now Permanent Secretary of Department for Education, was once my director-general when he was at DCLG.

Not huge declarations of interest – I’m not claiming to be on first name terms with any of them or close advisers/associates. The point is for the reader is that being aware of the above may put into context what follows below.


My previous blogpost on this issue is at https://adragonsbestfriend.wordpress.com/2015/10/15/was-a-new-piece-of-parliamentary-history-made-today/

The National Audit Office’s report is at https://www.nao.org.uk/report/investigation-the-governments-funding-of-kids-company/

The full video footage of the hearing is at http://parliamentlive.tv/event/index/da56e29f-2dc5-46cf-be0a-13f90698f69e?in=16:04:00

It’s worth watching the video footage in full if you’re interested in some of the principles around the relationship between ministers, civil servants and charities.

My storify of my tweets


The report from the Public Accounts Committee is due in a few weeks. We’re yet to hear from the ministers who overruled Mr Heaton – Matt Hancock & Oliver Letwin. Their evidence will be interesting.

The relationship between ministers and charities

This is the big issue that emerges from the evidence session. Well-connected charities seemed able to secure government funding ahead of others, without the sound oversight of what they were delivering. This is aside from issues around roles & responsibilities of charity trustees.

If you look at it from a ministerial political incentive, the choice seems to be to deliver these things through local government, or to deliver them through charities. Charities that are in direct receipt of government grants have a financial incentive to be less critical publicly of ministers. They also are useful for ministers to call upon when launching new policies or reports when in need of supportive quotations. After all, people like charities more than they like politicians – though in recent times the former assumption is being tested more and more.

Why was so much senior civil service time taken up by a relatively small organisation operating over a limited geographical field?

This is another question – one that reflects just how over-centralised the UK system of public administration is. A London-based charity in the grand scheme of things shouldn’t have any incentive to have strong political relationships linked to funding. Their primary relationship should be with City Hall and the Mayor of London – properly scrutinised by the London Assembly.

Given that Mr Wormald has amongst other things all schools in England on his plate (due to the centralising nature of the academies program – for another post). Mr Heaton when he was in Cabinet Office was looking at so many other things such as the drafts of all legislation tabled in Parliament as First Parliamentary Counsel, all things digital…

An archived Tweet on how Cabinet Office shd use Twitter - Mr Heaton consults Puffles.

An archived Tweet on how Cabinet Office shd use Twitter – Mr Heaton consults Puffles.

…how did it get to the stage where so much of Mr Heaton’s time was taken up by this case?

For me, this wasn’t the fault of the senior civil servants – this was a ministerial call. Had they been more robust earlier on around controls, systems and processes, things could have been nipped in the bud much earlier. As it is, Mr Hancock and Mr Letwin need to come before one of Parliament’s committees to account for their actions. It may also be worth such committees calling former ministers Baroness Hughes and Tim Loughton to give evidence too.

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Women in democracy – increasing impact & raising profiles


Some thoughts from an open space session with Cambridge Green Party, & what I learnt from participants

This evening I was at a big gathering of Cambridge Green Party members for a speech by Dr Rupert Read – who stood for the party in Cambridge at the 2015 general election, breaking the 4,000 votes barrier for the party in the process. There followed an interesting open space session where I pitched the session with the title of this blogpost. With over 50 people in the room and a roughly equal gender split, I wanted to tease out some ideas on how to increase the presence and participation of women in local democracy in Cambridge.

“Why, as a man are you focusing on increasing the presence of women in democracy?”

For a start it feels like the right thing to do.

Perhaps more importantly though, in order to get change (or rather ‘improvement’) in how our institutions function, it needs people who are currently conspicuous by their low numbers to have an increased presence and profile. This is part of my continued evolution of how to take part in, and improve things in Cambridge. Obviously the challenge for me is to avoid becoming like this dude -> http://www.theonion.com/article/man-finally-put-in-charge-of-struggling-feminist-m-2338. I don’t want to lead anyone or anything – I’m not cut out for it.

I’m taking my cue from the parliamentarians in the debates on Mon 26 October on both tax credits and the #tampontax. Having spent much of the afternoon watching both debates, it struck me that the best speeches were delivered by women. Most of the speeches I heard from the men were dull and lifeless in comparison. In the case of the latter, the most important thing (one that was missed out by a lot of people) was that the MPs taking part in the debate secured a change in Government policy as a result of their laser-like scrutiny. In particular Dr Stella Creasy MP here. Not only did Dr Creasy confirm the concession which pretty much matched the amendment tabled by her parliamentary colleague Paula Sherriff MP, but secured a commitment that ministers would come back to Parliament to explain publicly the results of their actions (and thus subject themselves to further public cross-examination!)
I’m experimenting above with embedding the video of a speech – Dr Creasy’s in this case directly from Parliament’s website.

“What did the participants have to say on women in democracy?”

Lots – and it was great to hear of so much interest. My premise to everyone in the room was that as a community reporter who films and live-tweets from council meetings is that I can only report what happens. If they are not there asking public questions, I can’t really report about them. However, if three or four of them turn up having tabled public questions in advance, then the journalists there are compelled to write about them, raising their profiles.

Two big barriers I was unaware of: Self-confidence in knowledge of areas, and understanding of local council procedures

I’ve been aware for quite some time both anecdotally and also articles mentioning how women are less likely to apply for jobs unless they feel they’ve met pretty much all of the competencies in job descriptions. A couple of people mentioned that this is similar to wanting to ask public questions: they said they felt they wanted to have detailed knowledge of an issue before asking a question in public about it. They acknowledged it was a bit counter-intuitive, because if you’re asking a question it’s implying you want to find out the answer to something you don’t yet know.

This also linked to the ‘public performance’ of a public question – which given the setting of a grand council chamber can often have the sense of theatre about it. People inside Cambridge’s political bubble often talk of how ‘full council’ meetings in the council chamber are full of grand-standing speeches by alpha-male councillors, while the real decision-making happens in scrutiny committees. Interestingly, those who took part in the open space discussions for the first time spoke positively at how it worked for them, both in terms of deciding what to talk about and the flexibility of being able to move from discussion to discussion without feeling guilty about it.

This then brings me onto the third learning point – knowledge and familiarity of council systems, processes and procedures. Things like:

  • The general public having the right to attend most meetings
  • The general public having the right to ask questions in public of councillors/the council
  • The general public having the right to film and report from meetings

See https://www.cambridge.gov.uk/have-your-say-at-committee-meetings to have your say at Cambridge City Council meetings. Also, see my video guide of the council chamber in The Guildhall below:

Some thoughts about mutual support

One of the most interesting discussion points was about overcoming isolation in a room full of people – some of whom might be hostile to the points you are raising. Several of the participants were at The Guildhall for Dr James Smith’s public question on divesting from fossil fuels. I mentioned that during the evening there were four people asking public questions and all of them were men. How could we change that? We discussed the idea of having a group of people asking separate questions on a similar theme. The impact for example of having a group of women questions on a specific theme means you have the mutual support and reinforcement. So, for example after Dr Smith’s question, it could have been followed with questions on conversations the council has had with Cambridge University, or Cambridgeshire County Council – or even Central Government on responding to climate change.

‘If you are there asking public questions, I can film you and report/publicise what you are saying’

My point to participants here was about making the local news rather than being passive recipients of it. The campaigners who secured Cambridge City Council’s commitment to divest from fossil fuel investments was a textbook example of how to make the local news. With so many activists – in particular women – involved in that campaign, familiarity with the systems and processes mean that for future campaigns going through the actions are a lot less daunting.

The journey from sympathiser->supporter->party member->party activist->local party spokesperson->candidate for election

This is something I’ve been pondering about the Cambridge branch of the Women’s Equality Party as well as Cambridge Green Party. For the ‘big three’ political parties locally, if I want to point people to high profile women I know who to go to. For example:



Liberal Democrats

For the past few years, I’ve been snapping at the heels of local parties encouraging them to bring forward more women to stand as councillors. It was great to see in the Romsey by-election in Cambridge (just after the general election) three talented women standing for The Greens, Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Here’s my interview with the winner of that by-election, Cllr Zoe Moghadas.

“Yeah Puffles, you’re not exactly Paxo when it comes to interviews, are you?”

My aim for interviews is never to catch the interviewee out – especially in this social media world where so much of what we say or write is posted online. I see my role as a community reporter to cover events, meetings and gatherings that involve local democracy and put them in a context where people watching will want to get involved.

In the case of interviewees in a political sense, I see my role as to help the interviewee come across as the sort of person the viewer would want to have a conversation with and perhaps follow up with their own questions. The reason being that in today’s mainstream media, so many responses are so scripted as to be robotic (taken to new levels by Ed Miliband in his early leadership days). They’re not so much interviews, more shorter ‘in conversation with…’ video pieces. I’m still an untrained amateur in this field, but what I try to do is to give people who might otherwise not appear in the media that little bit of extra video footage. For example recently the deputy leader of the Green Party, Amelia Womack visited Cambridge. No one from the mainstream local media was on hand to interview her, so I took it upon myself to do so.

It was the same when Labour’s then shadow rail minister, now shadow transport minister Lilian Greenwood MP visited Cambridge just before the general election. Ms Greenwood is the boss of Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner in Labour’s transport policy team, Mr Zeichner having the remit of local transport, including cycling. Thus making the Cambridge Cycling Campaign potentially very influential in Labour’s transport policy given the huge level of policy expertise they have in this field.

“We’ve seen the impact of a critical mass of women parliamentarians in recent debates in the Commons & Lords, will we see it in local democracy soon?”

I’d love to see what a guided open space event on the title of this blogpost would result in with the participation of the political parties and non-aligned people – essentially setting it up as a challenge for people to solve together.  I say ‘guided open space’ because for some of the challenges, it would be useful for example to have staff from the local council to deliver short presentations on things like their procedures on meetings & public speaking. Could such an event draw in more women to take an interest in local democracy, leading to a greater influence on our local councils?

Food for thought.

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Nick Clarke – former Conservative leader of Cambs County Council stands for UKIP at PCC elections


A return to the campaign trail for a high profile figure – who as well as inspiring his supporters may mobilise his opponents to campaign more vigorously than in the previous Police & Crime Commissioner (PCC) elections in Cambridgeshire

Nick Clarke is the former leader of Cambridgeshire County Council where he headed the Conservative majority until 2013. Shortly before the 2015 general election, Mr Clarke left the Conservatives to join UKIP.

Mr Clarke’s announcement of his PCC candidature is here. Make of it what you will – I’ll hold fire until we know who is standing on what platforms so I can compare them all.

As far as local UKIP figures go, I can’t think who else immediately would spring to mind as an alternative high profile candidate other than perhaps Cllr Peter Reeve, who sits on Cambridgeshire County Council as one of twelve UKIP councillors. While UKIP saw their 2015 general election vote in Cambridge City cut in half from what it was in the European elections in 2014, the northern half of the county has provided more richer electoral pickings for the party compared to the south of the county.

Puffles & Mr Clarke sparring in the 2014 local government elections

Mr Clarke, then a Conservative, had to share a public platform with Puffles back in 2014 when I stood as Puffles in the Coleridge ward in the Cambridge City Council elections. (Do you want to hear my opening speech? Really? Go on then – it’s here:

This was at the Kings Politics Society hustings (see http://www.tcs.cam.ac.uk/news/0032486-calls-for-city-council-to-stand-up-more-to-cambridge-university-in-king-s-question-time-debate.html). Given the choice going after the other party political candidates, or a dragon, Mr Clarke left the dragon alone (leaving me & Puffles to pick on Cllr Cantrill of the Lib Dems who chose perhaps unwisely to lead off on his party’s record in Coalition) but still found himself in hot water with the audience given his widely-publicised views on climate change. At least for the PCC elections climate change is less likely to be an issue given the context of those elections. I can almost imagine Mr Clarke responding to such questions with:

“Climate change has got nothing to do with being a police & crime commissioner – ask me a question about crime in Cambridgeshire, that’s where we are!” In the style of Nigel Farage.

I’ve known Mr Clarke for a few years now, and he and I disagree on a whole range of policies. In the grand scheme of things he knows I see him as a climate sceptic and that he sees me as a bit of a tree-hugging eco-warrior who quite likes the idea of making social media use compulsory for councillors in Cambridge who refuse to use it…while making it voluntary for councillors who are happy to use it. :-D But we both know where we stand and have over the years and I can’t recall ever having had an argument or a falling out with him. Our conversations have always been friendly despite our political differences. That’s not been the case with everyone by any means though – animosity towards him from his party political opponents (in particular the Conservatives & Liberal Democrats) runs far higher than with other UKIP councillors.

Falling out with former political colleagues

Former Conservative county councillor Shona Johnstone (who I also have known for a few years & get on with) tweeted this to Puffles earlier:

This stems from events in 2012 here, and 2013 here, which in part relate to the previous contest for the county’s PCC. Without commenting on the merits of either side of the dispute (I don’t wanna get sued), with hindsight I think it’s a shame Ms Johnstone didn’t stand as the Conservative candidate as I think she would have been more accessible and more people friendly than the successful candidate and eventual election winner, former Luton MP Sir Graham Bright.

Looking through archived tweets, it’s difficult to ignore the negative comments on Twitter coming from current and former councillors from the three main parties who happen to be women. Will those archived tweets become the subject of arguments between candidates in the looming elections or will they be seen as ancient history? Will Mr Clarke reflect on those past clashes and consider whether he needs to change his approach towards his political opponents? I’ll leave that to the politicians.

“Who will stand against Mr Clarke in Cambridgeshire?”

The political context is very different to 2012 across the county – not least the increase in UKIP councillors on the county council rising from 2 to 12. The general election has been and gone – not delivering the expected rise in UKIP MPs. At the same time, we’ve seen a reduction in the number of Liberal Democrat councillors. (Although their membership has bounced back to 2010 levels at around 60,000 nationwide). Labour have the huge Corbyn wave, and we may even see The Greens standing too, following their surge in members of late 2014/early 2015.

As a political contest, former Cambridge MP Dr Julian Huppert – who was on the Home Affairs Select Committee during his time in Parliament – would make a very strong adversary and put clear policy daylight between the two candidates (as well as both having very different but equally confident public speaking styles).

No clear candidates stand out for The Greens, Labour or Conservatives as yet. We also don’t know if new or more extreme fringe parties will stand. The resurgence of Labour and the presence of UKIP might dissuade such candidacies further to the left or right. It remains to be seen if the Women’s Equality Party stands candidates. (In 2012, all of the candidates were male).

With the incumbent Conservative PCC standing down, the Conservatives will need to find a new candidate. Will party incumbency help or hinder the Conservatives? It’ll be interesting to see if any of the remaining parties can find a candidate who is a former police officer. Given that other counties have returned women as their PCCs, which of the other Cambridgeshire political parties select women as candidates? Given the significant rise in party political membership since 2012, we could well see more women contesting their party’s candidature, as well as a slate of new candidates for the PCC elections in 2016.

The PCC elections will coincide with the local council elections across districts in Cambridgeshire. It could well be that the PCC elections provide an incentive for the left-liberal parties that dominate Cambridge City to unleash some of their activists into the surrounding rural districts. This matters particularly for Labour if they want to turn the membership growth they are claiming in Cambridgeshire into rural district council seats – and a shot at the office of PCC.

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How will Cambridgeshire’s political parties respond to county council cuts?


As Chancellor George Osborne gets the unpopular decisions out of the way early in the Government’s five year term, how will local parties respond?

The short version:

  • Mega cuts to public services across Cambridgeshire
  • Conservatives control all of the district councils in the county bar Cambridge City
  • Very little organised party-political opposition in those districts outside Cambridge City
  • Lots of new political activists joining opposition parties inside Cambridge City
  • Can Cambridge’s political parties run campaigns themed along cuts to local transport funding at bus stops along the Guided Bus route (given the news above) as a means to identifying potential supporters in towns and villages outside the city?
  • If the Tories can’t win in Queen Edith’s ward in 2016, they’ll struggle to get councillors onto Cambridge City Council for the rest of this Parliament

The long version:

It’s grim reading http://www.cambridge-news.co.uk/Colossal-cruel-county-council-cuts-libraries/story-28055520-detail/story.html …but it’s what the people outside of Cambridge voted for:

The only constituency to return a non-Conservative MP in Cambridgeshire was Cambridge – with Labour’s Daniel Zeichner.

Things don’t look good at a local council level for opposition parties at district council level outside the city either.

Note how few Labour councillors there are represented on those councils – almost the polar opposite of the situation in Cambridge City, where there is only one Conservative councillor in a sea of Labour & Lib Dem councillors.

Conservatives in Cambridgeshire have been increasingly vocal about a number of central government policies that are not working for the county – Heidi Allen MP now becoming a ‘go-to’ person for the media because (refreshingly) she’s not playing the political media games and is saying things as she sees them – here on housing for instance. Critics will say (with good reason) that she voted for the Finance Bill at 2nd reading which ultimately brings in the cuts.

But then with 51% of voters in her constituency having just voted Conservative in South Cambridgeshire, to oppose a central plank of the Conservative manifesto you could argue would be going against the firm will of the people – even though that firm will (on a 73% turnout) was safe-as-houses Tory. So there’s a ‘This is what you voted for’ theme there. And not just in Ms Allen’s constituency either – all bar Lucy Frazer MP (SE Cambs) received over 50% of the share of the vote in their constituencies.

Lack of solid organised political opposition in Cambridgeshire

I got a feel for what life is like for opponents of the Conservatives in the run up to the 2015 general elections, as well as having visited a number of local government gatherings outside Cambridge. Unlike the teams of buzzing activists flying around the city of Cambridge, the task of organising and running political campaigns outside of the city fell to a small group of older and much less resourced activists spread over a much wider geographical area. With the vote in Cambridge going to the wire (599 votes in it), none of the Greens, Lib Dems nor Labour were willing to divert activists into constituencies that were not going to deliver seats. With Labour in particular being weak on the ground, where do they start?

In recent times it has been the Liberal Democrats that have made up the main opposition at local council level outside the city, though in the north of the county UKIP have made significant inroads into this. With one having been politically eaten by their coalition partners and the other seen off (for now) at the general election, the Conservatives reign supreme across the non-urban districts in Cambridgeshire. Part of Labour’s problem is cultural: Their tradition for ‘top-down’ systems does not sit at ease with constituencies made up of poorly linked disparate towns & parishes with their own traditions & histories. It’s one of the reasons why David Cameron struggled to impose his ‘A-list’ of candidates to diversify the Conservative Parliamentary Party.

Cambridgeshire – a changing county with a growing population

Towns and villages in Cambridgeshire with growing populations don’t automatically equate to more people voting Labour (or any other party for that matter). In 1997, despite the Blair landslide the constituency makeup was exactly the same today as it was back then. (Not including Peterborough which is a unitary authority). That gives you an idea of just how solidly Conservative the surrounding constituencies are. But then, until 1992 Cambridge returned Conservative MPs for years. Since then, Cambridge Conservatives have collapsed – finding themselves in the bottom 10% of constituencies for their party by vote share and total votes.

“Does a growing county make for rich pickings for opposition parties?”

That depends on the people who move here, where from and why. For example a number of people I was at school with have told me they’ve moved out to the villages because their childhood neighbourhoods are too expensive to buy or rent, and they don’t qualify for social housing. Teachers at my old primary school have told me about eye-wateringly long commutes to get to school and back. But then, in the mid-1990s I remember my form tutor that year had to commute from Downham Market and back daily to get to our school near the edge of town. You also have the healthcare sector as a huge employer of people from overseas – in particular Addenbrooke’s which (despite CQC headlines) has an excellent global reputation as a place to work & learn. Cambridge University and the science parks go without saying.

“Will the Westminster opposition political parties stick to bunfights in Cambridge or will they take on the Tories outside the city limits?”

For me that depends on what sort of time horizon they are looking at, as well as what sort of tools they have at their disposal. If they are looking at say a 15 year time horizon, then they might be looking at future boundary reviews, noting a growing possibility that Cambridge City will be split into two parliamentary constituencies that will absorb Conservative-voting wards & parishes bordering the city. Do they start expanding city campaigns into those borderlands now, or wait until the boundary changes have been made? If their time horizon is taking each year as it comes, then there’s less of an incentive to work beyond the next local council election which in Cambridgeshire we have every year.

“Should opposition parties (in particular Labour) ‘bank’ Cambridge’s 2015 result and start putting resources & people-power into surrounding areas?”

This is something I’ve suggested Labour could do given that the next general election is not until 2020. The problem with that approach is voters in the city may blame Labour locally for cuts imposed on local government by a Conservative Chancellor. This is because few people are aware that much of the money local councils get to spend comes from The Treasury, rather than raised locally. It remains to be seen how Mr Osborne’s plans for full business rate retention at the expense of core grants work out. The point being that from Labour’s perspective, they need to keep pushing out the message that cuts to public services are being forced on local councils by Whitehall because town hall has no realistic mechanism for raising revenue to compensate for the loss of central funding.

“If opposition parties did decide to transfer people & resources outside of Cambridge to surrounding areas, where & how could they start?”

When I stood with Puffles in 2014, I got a close-up view of just how well-run and organised local parties are when it comes to elections. They have canvassing data on pretty much every single address in the city held on their computer systems. They know who to target and when for which issues – and also who to avoid. In the case of my place, there’s a big dragon-shaped sign saying ‘do not send activists untrained in dragon-taming techniques”.

With parties in Cambridge showing a growth in numbers following the general election, the places I’d like to see them campaigning at are bus stops that lots of people use at specific times of the day. (The simple reason being that you have lots of people waiting around with nothing to do). Counter-intuitively, the best ones to go for are the ones away from main roads where you don’t have lots of traffic noise. Few and far between? Perhaps. But the richer pickings are there, as a handful of activists found out this year. These include:

  • The bus stops at Cambridge railway station – targeting the passengers waiting for buses to take them to work or college in the morning following a train journey into the city
  • Drummer St Bus Station (by Giraffe cafe)
  • Long Road Sixth Form College – it just needs one party to start a campaign on a rainy day to get a bus shelter put in place to get people involved & interested
  • Addenbrooke’s bus station
  • Cambridge Regional College guided bus stops

All of these are just far enough removed from main roads to have conversations where you’re not shouting.

“A campaign along the guided bus route?”

From the Science Park westwards, and at Trumpington Park & Ride party political activists could run it as a theme – especially given the announced cuts to bus services in Cambridgeshire. Draw up a rota, pick your times carefully (ie when your targeted audiences are most likely to be waiting for buses or getting off them) and you could potentially have one campaigning event a week/fortnight at each stop along the route. Parties could even prioritise further looking at the 2015 local election results – Huntingdonshire 2015 by ward here, and South Cambridgeshire by ward here.

“It’s still not gonna shift the Tories in Cambridgeshire”

From an opponent’s perspective, it won’t overnight. But because opposition parties outside Cambridge are so poorly resourced & supported compared to their sister parties inside Cambridge, finding out where potential supporters are without going door-to-door straight away in unfamiliar territory is a start.

Given the nature of rural constituencies, there’s only so much bussing in supporters from urban areas can do. Ultimately I’d expect opposition parties would need to build self-sustaining semi-autonomous units not reliant on outside people-power to have a chance of taking council seats at future elections. By campaigning at bus stops along the guided bus routes in particular, parties can find out pretty quickly which villages and towns are going to be most open to them campaigning, and which ones won’t be.

“What about the Tories? How do they turn things around in Cambridge?”

For them it’s the opposite – strikingly so. While they have the money, they don’t have the footpower inside the city. That said, over 8,000 people still voted for the party despite not one of their most united campaigns locally. I found Chamali Fernando to be friendly and personable – just the wrong candidate for Cambridge given the strengths & weaknesses of the other candidates. The way Cambridge’s political scene has evolved over the past decade or so, no candidate who does not live, breathe and have their heart in the city will survive. Gone are the days when you could parachute in a candidate who once studied at Cambridge University many moons ago. The programme of independently-organised hustings numbered over 30, which were either standing-room-only or had audiences of well over 100 at each – often both. You then have incredibly active and informed community reporters and civic action groups, each with their own specialist areas of knowledge. It takes time to familiarise yourselves with them.

“Who should the Conservatives pick as candidates?”

This is where both Ms Allen and Ms Frazer (MPs for South Cambs & South East Cambs respectively) could make use of some of the staff in their private offices – in particular their younger activists. With both MPs already being far more prominent in Cambridge than their predecessors, there is scope for them to bring in some of their activists from outside the city to the wards on the periphery – in particular Trumpington, Newnham, (where house prices average half a million pounds!) and Queen Edith’s.

With Ms Allen as MP and following the recent general election, the 2016 city council elections could be the best chance longtime Conservative activist Andrew Bower has of getting elected – assuming he stands in Queen Edith’s as per recent elections. I also stand by what I said a year ago in the Queen Edith’s by-election – Mr Bower would make a very good ward councillor and is precisely the sort of local councillor the Conservatives need on Cambridge City Council given where they currently are. If they can’t get Mr Bower elected in 2016, I think the Conservatives will struggle as further cuts to public services start to bite beyond those already bitten. Having pulled in over 1,000 votes in May 2015, Mr Bower should be within striking distance to take the seat – but only if the Conservatives put significant people-power on the ground. Otherwise I’d expect the Liberal Democrats with Cllr Viki Sanders to hold firm.

“What about the other parties? UKIP and the Women’s Equality Party?”

UKIP scored far lower than I expected, but they haven’t gone away. Although the media focus has fallen off since the general election, it may well rise again in the run up to the EU referendum. As for the Women’s Equality Party, they are as yet an unknown as far as political impact goes. They certainly have enough activists willing and able to run a campaign if judging by the turnout to their events in Cambridge. The questions I have are ones that can only really be answered by an election campaign. 2016 will be a baseline for them, which will show:

  • Where their most passionate & confident activists are based (it takes lots of courage for anyone to stand for elected public office)
  • The distribution of their support base
  • The demographics of their support base – is it affluent middle-class professional women or is it much more wider & diverse than that?
  • The extent to which they are mobilising non-voters vs taking votes of other parties
  • Who will be the ‘local public faces’ of the party as far as media representation goes
  • Whether their presence and/or actions influence local public policy as well as party politics

Food for thought.

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