Corbyn wins – but did the contest need to happen?


No – and had Labour MPs spent the few days after the EU referendum vote with the line The Tories have crashed the country , they could have won the next general election ages ago – with or without Corbyn.

A huge amount of bad blood has been spilt within the party. For the sake of politics generally I hope Labour doesn’t implode further with scenes of badly-behaved shouty people trying to shout down speakers on the platform.

“So…what should happen now?”

I’m not in the party, so I’m in no position to tell anyone within Labour what they should or shouldn’t do. More a case of posting open questions for which people can ponder over.

“What are the lessons learnt for the centre-right in Labour?”

Compared to the candidates that first put their names forward after the 2015 general election, both Angela Eagle and Owen Smith appeared to be far weaker than the likes of Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall and the like. Whether it was the background for both Eagle and Smith’s leadership launches (Smith’s being a set of window blinds – see here), or other basic errors, despite the limitations of Corbyn’s record the alternative didn’t seem any better to the general public. Remember the general public doesn’t eat-drink-breathe-live politics. Most have about 5 mins per day to devote to politics when perhaps watching the news/flicking through the papers/social-media-surfing online.

As things stand, it’s difficult to see where a new leader capable of replacing Corbyn over the next year or so is going to come from as far as the centre-right of Labour is concerned. What was interesting to note was how a number of high profile MPs managed to stay well away from the day-to-day media-spotlight campaigning with Owen Smith. Andy Burnham focused on his bid to become metro-mayor of Manchester, Yvette Cooper joined one of my local (as in local to my neighbourhood – I live on a parliamentary boundary) MPs Heidi Allen visiting and campaigning for child refugees, and Stella Creasy continued her grassroots activism both in her constituency and with Labour’s sister party, the Co-op party.  (See here for how this works between the two parties – an agreement that has been in place for nearly 90 years).

“What are the lessons learnt for the left?”

John McDonnell mentioned that he’d be looking at the substantive criticisms of how Corbyn’s operation functioned when asked for an immediate post-comment result. The toughest task from my perspective is rebuilding trust with the MPs who are not those who from the start said they’d never serve under Corbyn under any circumstances, but those who stated very clearly and concisely how their role was undermined by basic failures from Corbyn’s office. I’m thinking of the likes of Lilian Greenwood MP and Kerry McCarthy MP here.

So from that perspective, the question is “What is going to change as a result of the leadership contest?” Because 4/10 members not being content with the leadership – along with the hostility of the Parliamentary Labour Party is still a sizeable number. On the flip side, Corbyn got an even bigger mandate than when he was first elected as Labour leader. So in terms of massive policy changes sending the party back to the economic policies of the later Blair years, that just isn’t going to happen.

“What does “accepting the result and moving on” mean in modern day politics?”

This is both in an EU Referendum context as well as the Labour leadership context. Does it mean:

“You are now officially banned from speaking out on the issue concerned because the party/the people have spoken and have officially disagreed with you. Therefore you have been silenced!”?

I hope not.

In terms of pro-EU types it seems it’s still in the open for how best to respond. Some are taking legal action, others are campaigning for a second referendum, others are waiting for a general election, others think we should wait & see what the three brexiteers (Boris, Davies and Fox) come up with – the camp I fall in closest with, and others think we should accept the result, accept we’re leaving the EU on whatever terms & be done with it. Note at the same time on the pro-Brexit side there are some who are saying an ‘Australian points style system’ is a promise set in concrete while the £350million per week for the NHS was some abstract theoretical aspiration. It remains to be seen what Brexit actually means for the general public.

Lib Dems local-focus strategy

Social media has been covering the trickle of local council by-elections since the EU referendum, in which the Liberal Democrats are doing far better than their political opponents. Compared to where they were in the run-up to the 2015 general election, the Liberal Democrats have almost doubled their membership – and things appeared to be buzzing at their party conference. The problem for them was that the mainstream media hardly covered it. Outside of Tim Farron’s keynote addresses, none of their elected MPs or their peers seemed to get much media – or even social media traction at all. How many of you could name the other seven Lib Dem MPs? Off the top of my head outside of Nick Clegg and Norman Lamb (leadership contestant who I interviewed in a visit to Cambridge), only Greg Mulholland (follows Puffles), Alastair Carmichael (was in a legal challenge over election campaigning), and perhaps Tom Brake spring to mind.

Without the big hitters regularly on TV – due to new guidance saying the Lib Dems don’t have enough MPs to justify their previous higher levels of coverage, the party doesn’t really have much choice but to adopt a strategy that bypasses the mainstream media. One thing that is noticeable is that the party is already selecting prospective parliamentary candidates – whether Julian Huppert’s reselection in Cambridge through to long-time rising stars such as Kelly Marie Blundell in Lewes (Norman Baker’s old seat) and Daisy Benson in Yeovil – David Laws’ old seat.

And of the Greens?

At the moment they are caught between a rock and a hard place with Corbyn’s leftward shift and the loss of the environmental safety net that was EU law and directives that helped force up the UK’s environmental standards in a number of areas. Think beaches for a start. Despite her criticisms – in particular her TV media appearances, it was under the leadership of Natalie Bennett that the Green Party’s membership rocketed. That didn’t happen by accident. It was a result of her visiting town after town after town to meet local members and the local media – of which I was one in Cambridge. Note in the run up to the EU Referendum Nigel Farage did similar. Yet with its Westminster focus, the mainstream media completely missed both of these.

Now with two joint leaders John Bartley and Caroline Lucas MP, it remains to be seen how the two will divide responsibilities. Natalie Bennett’s decision to stand candidates in as many constituencies in the 2015 general election meant that with a significantly higher voter share than in past years they got a big rise in ‘short money’ from Parliament to fund their political activities. It was noticeable that the number of jobs the party posted on w4MP (where many Westminster vacancies are posted – interesting viewing if you want to see who is trying to influence what) rose – as did the seniority of the new roles.

And of the Tories – and UKIP?

The former have their party conference in a couple of weeks, the latter have selected Diane James MEP as their new leader. It remains to be seen whether Nigel Farage will still be ‘the person to go to for comment’ by the media or whether he’ll re-direct things to his successor. That said, Diane James when on TV has struck me as a politician I could see traditional Conservative voters being persuaded by. What happens to UKIP as a party depends on what sort of deal Boris, Davies and Fox can negotiate.

As for Prime Minster Theresa May? A stroke of tactical genius with the appointment of Fox, Davies and Boris leading Brexit negotiations given their high profile role in the Leave campaign. If they succeed in negotiating a good deal for the UK, she gets the credit. If they mess up, the three men get the blame given May stood back from both sides of the EU referendum campaign. Note too that at the same time we’ll be hearing from Cameron and others who have left government when they publish their memoirs. Given where the likes of Osborne and Gove currently are, expect one or two of them to be explosive. While Cameron sails off into the sunset of the corporate directorships world, I get the sense that Osborne’s not done with politics. As with Iain Duncan Smith who launched the Centre for Social Justice think tank after he lost a leadership challenge in 2003, Osborne foreseeably could follow in his rival’s example.

And finally…


Don’t underestimate the amount of civil service policy resources that will now be thrown at Brexit-related policies. Given that the Conservatives won’t want to increase spending on what they see as ‘administration’ or rather ‘the cost of politics’, other policy areas are going to be put on the back burner – they have to be. For a start there simply won’t be the staff to do the necessary policy development. Perhaps more importantly, parliamentary time is inevitably going to be taken up with the huge amount of legislative changes that will need to be carried out assuming Article 50 (which starts the 2 year count-down for exiting the EU) is triggered. Finally, there are a whole host of other outside shocks that could hit the UK and global economies. The ongoing wars in the Middle East are not making things any easier for the EU and the refugee situation. The US elections are looming, and every year climate-related news seems to get that little bit more worse.

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Diversifying our community of local historians


How to grow, expand and diversify the group of ‘community custodians’ of our local history – and a list of local groups and websites

I wandered up to the annual Cambridgeshire Association for Local History Awards held at St John the Evangelist Church opposite Homerton College at the weekend. The group that attend regularly are predominantly over the age of 50 – most are retired. Someone commented to me that it was nice to see someone young attending. I’m 40 in a few years time. Which frightens the living daylights out of me.

Handing out the awards was Mike Petty MBE – who the county owes a massive debt of gratitude for his work in collating and curating the records in the Cambridgeshire Collection.


Above: A young Mike Petty with the Princess Royal on the opening of the Lion Yard Shopping Centre in 1975

Mr Petty gave a talk to the audience that was both a wake-up call for me as it was for them. It was all about getting online. Only someone like Mike or Allan Brigham could have given a talk like that to the audience there and have it being meaningful and having a positive impact. I simply wouldn’t have had the credibility with the audience. It also made me realise that there is still a lot more to do on basic IT skills training across society. We’re living in a time period where younger generations are more skilled than older generations (generalising big time) but noting that it’s a chunk of the older generations that hold the majority of the assets. A polarisation that bodes ill for society.

It’s more than ‘Oh – where are the young people?’

I filmed Hilary and Shelley of the Museum of Cambridge at the Cherry Hinton Festival prior to the awards. They are running the Capturing Cambridge project.

One thing I mentioned in a previous recording (which I’ve not yet uploaded) was how Cherry Hinton has changed significantly in my lifetime. During my primary school years I’d cycle through the village regularly. Then in the 1990s when I had the misfortune to be at school with some people from the village who I really didn’t get on with, I seldom went through the village for the best part of a decade. (It then got me thinking about which parts of town do today’s teenagers consider unsafe/no go zones, and what the public authorities are going to do about it.) Today, the village has a younger feel to it – and is much more ethnically diverse. I still refer to it as a village rather than just a suburb of Cambridge swallowed up by decades of expansion because it was once a standalone village. The homes that finally linked the village with the rest of the city were only built in the last 50 years.

My point above is that when I observed who was at the festival – as well as the young people out and about in town, Cambridge has become much more diverse. Which made me wonder about the parents of those children and why they were not much more conspicuous by their presence in the civic life of the city. One of the insights I got from the Greek Orthodox community from Cllr George Pippas when I popped into their new premises at the old United Reformed Church on Cherry Hinton Road was that many of their families were academic and science professionals who had moved to Cambridge in part as a result of the ongoing economic crisis in Greece. Many incredibly well-qualified people with incredible intellect…and yet the city is not tapping into their cerebral wealth. I assume theirs is not the only community in our city that is being ‘bypassed’ by our civic institutions.

Working together across the class divides

I’ve mentioned in a couple of videos about the football club I first played for when I was 10. We trained on Coleridge Rec, and the two trainers – both parents of children at local schools, came from very different social classes. One was a university professor – Andrew Webster, and the other, Andrew Ross was a plumber. And they worked together brilliantly. Webster was very much the quieter more softly spoken of the two, with Ross being the ‘traditional alpha male’ whose voice and mindset carried a powerful authority with a group of ten year old boys.

The above experience for me explains why for participation it’s not simply a case of getting people who are more qualified in the room together. For me you only have to look at the publicity the books about Cambridge University and its colleges get in local bookstores vs the books about the borough of Cambridge. Far less has been written about the latter, with far fewer books being shifted despite the borough having a very interesting history in itself. Interestingly, one of the comments in the archives in the book Planners and Preservationists is quite striking…



…note the final paragraph above. Have some members of Cambridge University been guilty of playing down the role of the people of the borough of Cambridge who are not part of Cambridge University? What impact has this had on the history of the town?

Books about the borough of Cambridge – long lost publications gathering dust in our local libraries?

I was at Rock Road Library not so long ago and noticed they had a number of short publications covering various historical aspects of life in the borough of Cambridge. But being thin paperback publications means that they physically deteriorate faster, and are harder to spot by the casual browser because you can’t see the titles on the spines of the books. This is irrespective of whether the content is any good or not. Never judge a book by its cover? Never judge a book by its spine even? But what if you cannot see the spine?

This made me wonder whether there is scope for someone to do a collation exercise to bring together the existing publications, where possible updating their content, and publishing them in a larger book of collated works.

More than just books

Kay Blayney got it spot on for Women of the World: Cambridge in 2015. Have a watch.

One of the things I’ve learnt from the digitised British Newspaper Archives is that they are a treasure trove for sources and inspiration for any play-writer or songwriter. Not least because decades ago the local journalists would report from every public meeting there was and write who said what verbatim – heckles included! I remember talking about this to local musician Melody Causton – who wrote this number about Jack the Ripper.

“He is burning he is wild, caught up in his sin / He sold his soul to the devil and now the devil fears him.”

For me, the big untapped route of diversifying our local history community is through music, art and drama. That’s not to say books are not important – they are. That said, I can’t help but feel we need to have a rethink on how we use our written resources to share the story of our city.


Cambridgeshire Association of Local History Book Award Winners 2016

  • Bognor, F and Tomkins, S.P The Cam: an aerial portrait of the Cambridge river
  • Boulton, R A policeman’s lot in 19th century Chatteris
  • Buchanan, A Robert Wills and the foundation of architectural history
  • CALS Not just a name on the wall
    (Award to go to Caroline Clifford and Alison England)
  • Delanoy, L and Scott, M One. two, three
  • Kingsbury, J and Williams, C Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club, 1941-2014
  • Miller, E The Ely Coucher Book
    (award to go to F Willmoth and S Oosthuizen, Editors)
  • Morrison, M The Links on the hills: a history of the Old Course at the Gogs
  • Phillips, G and Stockman, N Chatteris remembers
  • Rawle, T A Classical adventure: the architectural history of Downing
  • Smith, D.C A Georgian house on The Brink
  • Thompson D Religious life in mid-19th century Cambridgeshire and
  • Huntingdonshire: The Religious Census of 1851


  • Barrett, D and Calvi, N The girls who went to war
  • Evans, M East Anglia at War
  • Fen Drayton History Soc Fen Drayton at war, 1914-18
  • Glazer, A.M and Thomson, P Crystal clear: the autobiographies of Sir Lawrence and
    Lady Bragg
  • Harper, G and Dellar, G Guilden Morden in the 1940s
  • Jarvis, D Wholefood heroes: the story of Arjuna
  • Melbourn History Group 1914-18: The Great War
  • Saltmarsh, J King’s College Chapel
    (letter to go to the Editors)
  • Sullivan, C Trials and tribulation: the story of RAF Gransden Lodge 



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Digitising our county’s archives


Some thoughts after spending time in some Cambridge-based community archives.

I spent much of yesterday afternoon tucked away in the Cambridgeshire County Archives (currently in the process of being moved to Ely – much to my regret) at Shire Hall, Cambridge. It’s part of what I originally described as my ‘Lost Cambridge’ project that started with digitising some photographs from the Museum of Cambridge‘s collection of photographs – the first batch I uploaded to this album with their permission.

I want to scan everything, but I can’t

Not least because of copyright issues. Helpful as archive staff have been – and they have been incredibly so, I can’t help but think that if more people knew about what was hidden in the archives, more people would take an interest. And there is *** a lot *** hidden in the archive catalogue as the screenshot below indicates. Have a search yourself at


Furthermore, more people would use the accumulated knowledge of our collective local history to influence our county’s future & destiny. That matters very much at this time given the crossroads that we’re at with the various government policies affecting both Cambridge and Cambridgeshire.

“Let’s go back to first principles: What’s in the archives and why are they important?”

I can only give it from my perspective. If you asked the users of the archives they would all give their own unique reasons for spending their spare time in them. For me, they are as follows:

  • A positive disposition towards the study of history
  • A personal struggle to try and work out what my own identity is in this very fluid world and in one where the three generations in my family preceding me were born on three different continents
  • Curiosity at what my home town used to be like before I came into existence
  • Trying to work out what lessons can be learnt from our history and applied to our county’s current challenges
  • A sense of ‘discovery’ and finding things that people either never knew about or were only known about in small circles.

Let’s also take the case of one of my favourite historians Dr Janina Ramirez. Her lecture on her recent book ‘The Private Lives of Saints’ is here. What her research reveals is that this idea that saints stood above the rough and tumble of life in some sort of holy isolation – the impression I got from having to go to church every Sunday – was in fact a myth. The more I read about the historical record of the church I had been brought up in, the more angry I became about having been misled – lied to even – about how spiritual leaders were again spiritually ‘above’ politics…when the archives and the historical record shows the opposite. One of the books I stumbled across in the archives from I think the Cambridgeshire Antiquarian Society had a written article about two women recalling how they had to learn from each other the story of Queen Mary I (Mary Tudor) as one – Church of England-schooled was taught all about ‘Bloody Mary’ and the other – Catholic-schooled was taught about how she was saintly. The reality as history tells us was much more complicated. Yet the case here was that both women were misled by their educational establishments.

“So…there’s a ‘searching for the truth’ theme in this?”

Very much so – and as is often the case the truth can end up being far more fascinating and interesting than the myths otherwise perpetuated by whoever happens to be in power or control at the time.

One of the most striking things about the archives – in particular the British Newspaper Archives is just how dominant Christianity was in the county’s cultural life. And the nature of what that was, was by no means agreed upon. The number of ‘non-conformist’ congregations and communities around is really striking. And I thought the far left were splintered! Reminds me of this:

Quoting speeches and debates word for word

The digitised British Newspaper Archives are fascinating for anyone who wants to find out about the local history of their area. The trick as with most archives is knowing how to search for things…a bit like Government policy documents. While you need to pay for a monthly subscription, what you get back is more than worth it (in my view) once you’ve got the hang of it. With me, I started off searching by street names and by building names. Then I started with political parties and politicians. Then I started with particular events or area names. Finally I thought of the sort of text that an angry and outraged writer/reporter might put in an article to catch a reader’s eye. Like ‘Protest’ or ‘Disgraceful’ – while geographically restricting the search area. Hence discovering the tales of badly-behaved undergraduates in Cambridge during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Public meetings were quoted word-for-word – including the heckles! If you’re an aspiring play-writer, search the newspaper archives – you’ve got your scripts all there! I’m in the process of turning one such event into one already with the help of a number of people with experience in this field.

“What’s the ‘digitisation’ bit got to do with all of this?”

It takes a ***huge*** amount of effort to digitise archives – and even more to then transcribe manuscripts. At least with print you can use an optical recognition device or software to help – which is what the British Newspaper Archive has done – though not without its problems due to the age of the print it is scanning. Everything I learnt about all of the issues to do with this I learnt from Professor Melissa Terras of UCL when she visited me and Puffles in Cambridge a few years ago. (Actually she visited CRASSH to deliver a lecture on digital humanities – but her findings were fascinating). The big finding I came away with from her talk was that over 90% of the transcribing of the Bentham archives at UCL was done by less than 10% of the volunteers who volunteered to help out with the transcription. It takes dedication.

Yet once something is digitised, anyone with internet access can assist with the transcribing. The challenge is finding and supporting the 10% who end up doing most of the leg work.

“You’ve not said why it matters”

In a nutshell it makes things much easier for people to access and get hold of the information tucked away. It also makes it much easier for people to use that information as well. I remember talking to local musician Melody Causton about this after hearing her perform ‘The Devil Fears Him’ about Jack the Ripper.

I recalled how Charles Dickens got ideas for his novels having spent his earlier years as a court reporter. Who knows how many musicians could get inspiration from finding out about local historical figures or events otherwise hidden away in the archives? Although not linked to any archives, this reminds me of a number of songs about historical events. The battle of the beanfield (see this documentary) was something I only heard about because The Levellers wrote a song about it. Or the Bells of Rhymney by Oysterband. All three of those songs I find incredibly haunting.

From that perspective, digitising the archives makes it much more easier for the casual browser to stumble across something really interesting – and do something even more interesting with it. Because lets face it, until very recently, the most that people could do with archive finds was to publish a paper or a book about it – and perhaps do a speaking tour at best. With digital and social media we can do so much more.

“Such as…?”

Well I’m making my own video documentary for a start with not much more than a mobile phone and a selfie stick for filming. 150+ ‘likes’ on my #LostCambridge Facebook Page means lots of people are getting to see the photographs that I’ve been able to unearth from the archives, as well as tales of lessons learnt from the past.


Why didn’t we get this as our Guildhall 100 years ago?

Images like the above have, in my experience chime with people’s curiosity and imagination far better than a wall of text in a dusty book that might be sitting in an archive that might not be straight forward to get to – especially if you have limited mobility.

Unlocking knowledge and making local historical groups and services more financially viable.

What I’d like to see (And support if at all possible) is for the main community archives to get together in the run up to Christmas and have a pop-up stall in Cambridge with reproductions of photographs and maps of our county’s history on sale. As well as ‘postcard size’ images, I’m also thinking about big reproductions that have a real sense of presence – something that for example local businesses might want to display on their premises. Something like this would both generate an income and publicity to bring in new users. For somewhere like the Museum of Cambridge that could be a wonderful mini-windfall. Because in my experience of people’s reactions to the online photos they’ve seen, there is untapped interest in the history of the borough/town of Cambridge. It’s just few have written comprehensively about it and even fewer have gone that step further and promoted it.

“Why have so few written about our local history if it’s as interesting as you say it is?”

In one sense it’s a niche area. Why would anyone who had no connection to Cambridge or Cambridgeshire be interested in the history of the townsfolk? In the world of glamorous media, the University of Cambridge and the ducal couple (William & Kate) get the headlines – and the social media mentions. The other thing is that few have been able to present it as interesting. One person who has is Mike Petty MBE. Here’s him talking about my childhood neighbourhood’s experience of the First World War.

There’s also Allan Brigham’s ‘Town Not Gown’ tours which come highly recommended too. In both cases, Mike and Allan are bringing local history to the people – as is the Mill Road History /Capturing Cambridge Project. At a rural level there’s the Cambridgeshire Community Archive Network – again testament to digitally-aware historians getting their communities online.

But individuals and community groups can only go so far. And not all is well – there are some noticeable gaps despite the best efforts of a number of people. For example:

Cambridge Antiquarian Society – a society with a long and illustrious history and an almost intimidating ‘back catalogue’ of publications going back well over 100 years. Bookshelves of publications going back to 1840, but none that I can find are systematically digitised for open access. Also, I can’t find a Facebook or a Twitter presence. The reason why digitisation would help the society greatly is that by making their immensely detailed archives available, the casual browser doing an online search is more likely to stumble across them – some of whom may choose to get involved in their society.

Cambridgeshire Association for Local History – Honor Rideout works her socks off for this group, and I’ve attended a number of incredibly interesting talks hosted by them in my neighbourhood. The challenge is how to encourage the next generations of community historians to get involved, because quite often I’m one of the youngest people there. And I’m not far off being 40 years old. (*****Eeeek!*****) Note also the Cambridge branch of the Historical Association.

“Are we selling local history all wrong?”

In part, yes – but this comes from a more detailed response to the question of ‘how is our local history relevant to us?’ Take the newcomers to Cambridge – people who have moved into the area to make it their home. How is Cambridge’s local history relevant to them and why? How is Cambridgeshire’s local history relevant to younger generations and why? In one sense I’m using city and county interchangeably, and in another sense I’m not. Take Cherry Hinton for example. Up until just under a century ago, the village was outside of the borough boundaries. Now it’s very much inside. Ditto Trumpington and Chesterton. Will we see in 100 years time the villages of Fulbourn, Milton and Histon swallowed up by an expanding city?

What I’ve found that makes local history relevant to local people are the following:

  1. People can relate to images, film footage and descriptions of their local area from times gone by – it gives them/us a sense of place
  2. It can influence what decisions and actions we choose to take in the future – whether it’s looking at the historical record of a school through to which part of town we might want to move to. (This can create problems for institutions & places that want to ‘break away’ from a negative image in the mindset of local communities)
  3. Pictures of what we once had but lost can generate a range of emotions – shock, anger, disappointment, frustration – enough to make them want to find out more about why something did/didn’t happen and to make sure we the people/city/county learn from it in our future collective decisions
  4. People like the sense of having ‘discovered’ something within which they can form their own conclusions.

“How do we make history ‘social’?”

In one sense there’s more of this happening all over the place – in part because more of our local history is becoming accessible on the back of the social media conventions of sharing. I’ve seen this in a number of Facebook groups with people posting very old photographs from family albums that tell a different story about our county to perhaps what we might otherwise have assumed. For example we might take a nostalgic view about pub signs or road signs, but some of the photographic evidence I’ve seen shows them looking very tatty and plain.

The other thing for me is creating some sort of a ‘buzz’ around the events that the city & county host – hence the University of Cambridge’s commendable work with the festivals of science, literature, history and of ideas. A significant change in mindset from when I was growing up in the city – in particular as a younger teenager where me and my friends were about as welcome as the bubonic plague.

For a city like Cambridge and a county like Cambridgeshire, it’s up to those larger, grander institutions – in particular those that have and are shaping our collective history to take more of a lead. Whether it’s organising big events or festivals, through to promoting collective learning from our history (including and especially where we got things wrong) through to taking care of and looking after our archives, I’d like to think we can do better than we currently are.

…and finally…

Digital opens up new challenges as well as new opportunities. Talking to county archive staff, I was the first person to their knowledge who asked for permission to use still images for a YouTube not-for-profit/unpaid series where my camera was a mobile phone and the mount was a selfie-stick.

Digitising archives also means taking on collections that are not paper-based. Who’s going to conserve my hard drives of video footage of council meetings through to local arts performances? Because let’s say Melody Causton featured above goes onto become a huge musical star, those early gigs in Cambridge pubs might be of interest to far more people than just the people that live here.






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Cambridge – the shaping of our city


My mini documentary series on how the borough, and then city of Cambridge became what it is today.

The video playlist is here – enjoy.

I’m currently recording a short documentary series about the history of my home town, focusing on the townsfolk side of things rather than Cambridge University – of which much has been written about the latter. I’m loosely basing it on the book of the same/similar title currently only available from G David Booksellers – ‘Cambridge: The shaping of the city’ by Peter Bryan. The bookseller is also the publisher.

I’ve also touched on a number of other books, such as the wartime diaries of Jack Overhill, edited by Peter Searby (see this one being available from the Cambridgeshire Collection on the third floor of the Central Library in Cambridge’s Grand Arcade. Here’s the intro piece:

It’s not the smoothest of pieces by anymeans – I’m filming it using only a smartphone and a selfie stick – attaching what useful gadgets I can to said phone – for example a small lapel microphone on windy days.

In a sense I want to get a feel for whether this can be done, and if so what it looks like. I don’t know if anyone locally has filmed such a local documentary featuring lots of walkabouts around the city. It takes a bit of getting used to – walking around town staring into a tiny little camera lens. But once you get into a flow and start speaking like a TV journalist, the monotone becomes a thing of the past.

“Why are you doing this?”

My main aim is to use our town’s history as a means for influencing our future – in particular as and when buildings and new infrastructure goes up. We still seem to be getting things very badly wrong with our systems and processes leading to some hideous buildings being approved – in the most part Whitehall’s planning laws having councils over a barrel. But the latter are by no means free from blame. See also Hideous Cambridge in this Cambridge TV clip.

“What have you discovered?”

The big thing for me is how much is hidden away in the British Newspaper Archives online. The problem for me is that no one has gone through the archives systematically (with zero digitisation of local newspapers post-1940) thus the reports contemporary at the time remain undiscovered.  I guess the same could be said for many other towns and cities – which is why digitising the newspaper archives and photographic libraries is for me ever so important.

Some of the most interesting tales have been the micropockets of local history – such as Jack Overhill’s diaries and exploring his neighbourhood. The most interesting bits for me are his takes on national/international news and the impact on not just him but Cambridge too. The biggest discovery I made was on how Cambridge was affected by the Second World War. I went into the Cambridgeshire County Archives and discovered the log book listing every single air raid on the city. Staff very kindly gave me permission to screenshot and publish the entries – you can see them here. I also counted up the casualties and munitions dropped. The figures are much higher than I ever thought:

  • 31 people killed
  • 71 people injured
  • Over 1,500 bombs and other munitions dropped on the borough

Note Cambridge was much smaller then than it is now – so the area the bombs were dropped on is smaller – hence a much more intense experience as a result. The really interesting part for me was corroborating what Jack Overhill wrote in his diaries with what the archives said.

Cambridge Defences WWII

The above map – again from the County Archives and published with their kind permission, is the map of planned defences of the 5th Battalion Cambridgeshire Regt (Home Guard).

The saddest discovery was the deaths of Petica Robertson and Lucy Gent – Air Raid Precaution wardens who were hit by bombs as they tried to get people into the shelters. Only the plaques on St Paul’s Church and The Guildhall note their passing.


Personally I think there should be a statue of the two of them locally.

Anyway, ***lots*** more to follow on this as I unearth more local historical gems in the library.


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Kit for community reporting and community action


A sort of ‘wish list’ of things and actions

“Get me one of these!!!” Someone heard me once say after another public gathering with Q&As where either the microphones failed unspectacularly or the room had no audio-visual capacity at all. You can see the appeal from my perspective (and from a facilitator’s one too) – I get the full audio as an editor and it’s crystal clear who gets to speak and who doesn’t – that’s assuming participants behave themselves.

Both Richard Taylor and I have ***huge problems*** getting decent audio at council meetings – note the various responses to his post here. To see and hear an example of the problems Cambridge City Council has, see their video here. They don’t actually have anyone operating their camera at present. (I did apply for a job involving making council videos there, but didn’t even get shortlisted, so don’t blame me if the quality doesn’t improve!)

Not being able to move around council chambers means one solution is getting something like this jib crane (or the handheld version here). Essentially I can stay in one place and make a reasonable effort to move the camera around to get a better view of the person speaking. For the three local councils I film at in and around Cambridge, the layout of the chamber of Cambridge City Council & Cambridgeshire County Council chambers means three cameras operating at once and switching between them is probably the only realistic solution: One facing the chair, and two in opposite corners of the room facing the councillors in the chamber. But you’d need something like the multicamera setup here to run that all-singing-all-dancing operation. Personally I think a forward-thinking/doing council should be able to do this already. In a few years time we may wonder what all the fuss was about with filming – especially if once set up, the whole filming operation can be carried out by one person on the day.

At the moment, the only firm I’m familiar with that does the sort of streaming at a professional level for local councils is Public-i based in Brighton. An impressive list of options available – but at a price. That said, I wonder whether the price would have a self-disciplining effect on councillors to keep their contributions to a minimum! (For example officers self-loading videos of presentations to councillors to watch in their own time, so that at the meeting only the substantive issues are discussed!??)

Archiving doesn’t come cheap!

And…I’ve used up a 4TB hard drive over the past couple of years. I need a new one – and they don’t come cheap. (So at some stage I’m going to have to get out my begging bowl). This is something councils will need to take seriously – and quickly, because they are the custodians of county archives. Just as I am fascinated by all of the photos hidden in their archives, long after I’m gone there will be someone who may feel the same about what I’ve filmed. Who’s going to look after all of it? Remember that digital mediums used for storage also degrade.


Running out of storage while on the move

I’ve lost count the number of times this has happened – in part due to the nature of the things I do. Batteries or storage are normally the problems. With the former, I’ve found that even the apparently high capacity batteries for my camcorder have a very limited half life. But I have to use batteries as council staff on the whole don’t like wires being trapsed around their buildings. Plus the positioning of electricity sockets remains stubbornly stuck in the last Millennium. Note that the design of council chambers and meetings remains stuck in another age. This is despite the likes of some councils such as South Cambridgeshire District Council effectively having huge open spaces that allow tables to be placed anywhere they like. The set up of tables for Greater Cambridge City Deal meetings means that everyone is far away from each other. The system of pressing buttons for microphones is also archaic.

140125 PufflesSoundDeskCityHallUKGC14

In London, Puffles discovered the London Assembly has an official in control of the sound desk rather than speakers/councillors clumsily pressing the button asking if they can be heard…before not speaking into the microphone. But yeah…storage on the move. I need one of these for my phone as I seem to be using it much more for filming these days.

Talking of microphones…

I’ve not had splendid luck with them really. Whether it’s the shotgun mic atop my camcorder to handheld mics or even lapel mics attached to clothing, there’s something that always seems to go wrong😦 Which makes me think I need to go to audio sound school. This is particularly the case when recording live music.

I’ve become much more sensitive to audio quality since beginning filming and also since I joined the Dowsing Sound Collective in 2014. In particular I pick up when recordings don’t sound anything near like how they felt. There’s something about ‘live’ music that has the sort of soul that a studio can never reproduce. It’s as if the production and editing takes something out of them.

I was watching some Imelda May live videos online recently, and it struck me how different the open air recordings sounded compared to what we experienced at the Cambridge Folk Festival this year inside the main tented stage. I remain convinced that it was one of the best festival sets I’ve ever experienced – the sound engineers getting it spot on, especially with the bassist Al Gare and drummer Steve Rushton were excellent.

Credit where it’s due. Instant festival feedback on social media.

Al’s double bass had a warmth I never associated with a pizzicato bass, and the variety of Steve’s drumming and choice of drums was several steps up on what I’d seen with many other bands. Only Alan White of Oasis (Who I saw at Earl’s Court in 1997) is a percussionist that also stands out from those I’ve seen.

Vlogging at the Folk Festival

There’s something surreal about having a conversation with your mobile on a selfie-stick, and then watching the footage back. What’s nice about this piece is I’m fairly relaxed and am not in ranting politics mode. But what you can’t see in all of this…

…is the depression…

It’s been an incredibly difficult time of late, with my emotional senses being crushed on so many fronts it seems. Whether it’s petty officialdom on local issues to the constant stream of disaster porn that masquerades as ‘news’ to my general health outlook not feeling any better, it’s just…yeah…fighting everything alone in my mind while feeling emotionally disconnected from everyone and everything.

Hence why I’m kinda pleased I’ve made it to the various meetings & gatherings that have taken place recently – mainly on local campaigns and issues resulting in people from different groups being connected up. It would have been much easier to have stayed in bed, really!


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***The Conservatives Crashed The Country***

…and ran away from the scene of the crime.

If Labour were not imploding as they currently are, their senior politicians would be all over the media repeating the above, and ensuring the Tories are out of government for the next quarter of a century. But that’s not happening. My first reaction is in this video.

We are in dangerous times.

  • The EU is rudderless – and that was before #Brexit.
  • The Middle East is a proper war zone and the refugee crisis hasn’t gone away
  • Climate Change isn’t going away – it’s getting worse as we see more extreme weather events
  • and closer to home, Andrew Lansley wants to be a new executive mayor of Cambridgeshire – having already screwed up the NHS & charities’ relationship with Whitehall & Westminster


Puffles the dragon fairy watches over Market Square, Cambridge from the balcony of Cambridge Guildhall.

So…what happens next?

Well first of all Boris has run away. Coward. You broke it, you own it. But then he’s a busy boy outside of Parliament as his register of interests shows. – and interestingly South Cambridgeshire MP Heidi Allen spoke out against him.


Party conference season will be interesting – that’s normally the time when parties nominally re-approve whoever is the leader, subject to their party constitutions. Party conferences are also the primary major decision-making bodies for political parties, so the leadership crises should be resolved either by the time they take place, if not at them.

Whoever the next prime minister is, she or he will need to decide when/whether to activate Article 50 following the EU referendum result. In the meantime, institutions are responding as if #Brexit is a done deal. Understandable.

When negotiations begin, at some stage the Conservatives will need to explain why they won’t be able to implement the lies and false promises of the Vote Leave campaign. UKIP can simply sit back and watch the Tories stew – they don’t need to get involved, and can simply sit back and watch – potentially gaining from the Tories making a complete hash of the job that the likes of Gove and Boris created.

If/when the Government reports back saying they cannot get a deal that would result in anything other than crashing what’s left of the UK economy and stability in its institutions, the Government has to fall – unable to implement the will of the people according to the EU Referendum. We then have a general election.

It’s then in the park of the political parties – in particular the opposition ones as to whether they are in a fit state to fight such a campaign. The Lib Dems could stand to make up some of the ground they lost in 2015. The SNP could entrench their position in Scotland even further – and possibly kill of Labour in Scotland completely in their current form. Will, as the Greens are calling, the progressive opposition parties form a progressive alliance to keep the UK in the EU?

Should such a progressive alliance form and win (both very big ‘ifs’) then the only politically legitimate way they can overturn the EU referendum of 2016 is to hold another referendum on the EU in 2017 – perhaps with tighter rules on political advertising? The only way in the minds of (most of) the people that the EU referendum result is by holding a second referendum where the circumstances had changed significantly. A change of government is one of those circumstances. They then have to win that second referendum – something that is by no means guaranteed.

Spike in racist attacks.

I didn’t go out of the house on Sunday because of the reports. It’s been astonishing, appalling and frightening to see the result legitimising such disgusting behaviour. Facing it down and draining the poison from society won’t happen overnight. The tabloid media need to look at themselves closely – not that they will. The proprietors and editors don’t live in the same societies as we do. They are immune to the poison they have injected into society. Power without responsibility?

People are wearing paperclips in solidarity with those being attacked – see–ZJzeRPz6kHW – up to you if you choose to wear one. Look out for each other. There are a lot of frightened people out there. I’m one of ’em.

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Why did the BBC hold back on reporting election expenses story?


Michael Crick’s scoop for Channel 4 News – followed up daily by the news programme, seemed to pass national BBC journalists by…until the elections had passed. Had the BBC covered the story? What profile did it have compared to say the Corbyn leadership chatter?

I try not to see conspiracies behind mainstream politics stories, but this one seems odd for a number of reasons. It was at the start of the year that Channel 4 picked up on this ( , extracting a concession from the Conservative Party on 20 April 2016

As it turns out, it was in mid-February that the BBC picked up on it – when none-other than Michael Crick of Channel 4 went onto the BBC’s Daily Politics programme to explain what it was all about – see here. It was Channel 4 that followed this story through, the BBC according to Labour sympathisers and supporters frustratingly going after questions about Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and whether there would or would not be a leadership challenge. With the self-created noise/media scrum around both Corbyn and Ken Livingstone’s inexplicable remarks, I can almost see how the expenses bit got buried in the much safer political personality spats that all too often form the basis of ‘political news’ these days. It’s not as if there weren’t enough more interesting stories on this morning. Like…I dunno:


***Dragon Fairy on the radio!!!***

Yeah – me and Puffles were invited in by BBC Cambridgeshire’s Dotty McLeod to be a sort of ‘independent summariser’ of the election results in Cambridge. If you were wondering, only 3 out of the 14 seats changed hands – but as our friend Sophie was one of the people who won her seat in Romsey at the first time of asking (after working her socks off in the ward), it was one of the bright lights where other friends of ours in various parties fell short.

From a ‘news and current affairs’ perspective, what seemed to have happened in the immediate aftermath of Livingstone’s original remarks didn’t feel like news reporting, but rather news creation. “Red Ken’s said something controversial! Let’s get him on the telly to see if he’ll repeat it all again! Oh! Scandal! He has! Hold the front page!!!” That’s not so much news reporting as news creation for rolling 24 hour news – while the *real* story was with Channel 4 – trying to find out just how wide the allegations around incorrectly-declared election expenses were.

As Channel 4 started finding out and corroborating more details, I noticed a trend on Twitter where a number of left-wing Twitter users started targeting journalists such as – and in particular, Laura Kuenssberg. None of them could understand why Laura didn’t respond even to the more polite statements, let alone put out a single tweet with a hyperlink saying ‘Covered this back in February – we’ve not got anything new over here but are keeping a watching brief on what Crick comes up with’. This is where radio silence did more damage – damage that could have been avoided.

It wasn’t until the day before the election that Kuenssberg mentioned the Channel 4 investigation – see below.

By that time, the Labour-leaning newspapers were leading on it and it was all over Twitter – very difficult even for the BBC to hide away from. Remember that this was just after The Times got absolutely slaughtered for not even mentioning the Hillsborough Cororner’s jury findings that the 96 people who lost their lives were victims of unlawful killing. What the mainstream media chooses not to report can be just as powerful as what it decides to cover…though now social media makes this much harder to do without being called out.

So…what was the issue here? What were people complaining over? Why was Kuenssberg in particular targeted? Note that in the past other BBC journalists have been targeted over the content of their reports – such as Nick Robinson during the Scottish Independence referendum. I recall at the time a number of journalists across mainstream media responding with a chilled numbness at seeing one of their own being very specifically and very visually targeted on a custom-made mega-banner in a street protest. (See here).

Treading that fine line

The saying in the BBC goes that if you are getting an equal amount of grief from each side in politics, you’re probably pitching things about right. Which makes sense in the world of two party politics. But we’re not in the world of two party politics, nor are we in a world where the only important decisions taken in the UK are taken in London. Hence it was embarrassing to hear London-based journalists asking politicians repeated questions about the impact the votes in Wales and Scotland would have on Jeremy Corbyn. Devolution in Wales and Scotland has created some very different political centres of gravity – ones which most people in England are completely oblivious to.

“Yeah – was it Red-Jez’s fault that Labour got annihilated north of the border and when is a moderate going to ride to the rescue and bring back Tony?”

While we may have forgotten about the Independence referendum in Scotland, in Scotland my Twitter friends tell me it’s anything but over there. Not least because the referendum debate there got people talking not just about whether to break away from the UK or not, but on much more basic yet substantial issues of what sort of society did they want to create after the referendum and how they could go about doing so. Compare that to the limp excuse of a debate we’re supposedly having on whether to stay in the EU or not – something that currently appears to be a spat between one set of ex public schoolboys against another, and you can almost see what the rest of England is missing out on.

While the SNP has ruled the political roost for some time in Scotland, in Wales it has been Welsh Labour that has been in office for the Welsh Executive – and thus the First Minister for Wales Carwyn Jones is the much more pre-eminent Labour figure there than Jeremy Corbyn. But how many people in England had even heard of him. It took Charlotte Church to resort to shouting on Twitter to get the message across

“Yeah-but what about Jezza – when’s Jezza going to resign or will he stand if there is a leadership contest?”

I can’t remember which BBC journalist it was that kept on pestering Jeremy Corbyn on whether he would stand for election if a leadership challenger came forward. But I remember being pretty exasperated. ****This is NOT news! This is speculation on something that so far has not happened!**** If political journalists want to get into the business of predicting the future with large chunks of their content, become an economic forecaster or an astrologer – they are about as accurate as each other. Actually no, that’s an insult to the people that do the stars.

“Shouldn’t politicians be much more robust when journalists ask stupid questions?”

The politician who is one of the best examples of dealing with this is…Nigel Farage. His off-the-cuff put-downs (especially to the likes of Michael Crick!) are legendary – especially if, when out and about Nigel Farage is asked a question about Westminster chatter. “Why are you asking me a question about Westminster? We’re in Romford, ask me a question about Romford!”

“What’s this got to do with BBC election expenses and questionable content by journalists on the telly?”

For me there are a number of issues raised. For the first time in the minds of the Twitterratti at least, the BBC has been seen to be ‘caught out’ for not following through a very serious story about the political party in power, at a time when leading with such a story could cause them big problems in the run up to elections. 2 weeks of BBC headlines of ‘Tory election sleaze’ could have done just as much, if not more damage than Livingstone’s self-inflicted political wounds.

The second one is about interaction between journalists and the public. Numerous BBC journalists could have shut the whole thing down about covering the election expenses. The only person who actually did it seems was Andrew Neil – whose Twitter put-downs are legendary. I may not rate his politics ,but as an interrogator he’s one of the best in the business: Equally hard on everyone he interviews. (Also because he does his homework on whoever he is interviewing).

Unlike journalists from other media channels and publications I have seen, national BBC journalists don’t seem to engage much with members of the public. Hence when something like this could be nipped in the bud (either by the journalists themselves or one of their researchers/corporate accounts), it seldom is because for whatever reason, BBC national journalists seem to stay one-step removed from the rough and tumble of social media political discussion. (Which, to be fair to them is becoming more and more toxic with each passing day – a bit like mainstream national politics in general!)

“Why should the likes of Laura Kuenssberg be concerned?”

Because it’s their reputations being dragged through the mud, even though they may not be the ultimate decision-makers on what to cover and what not to cover. The people that perhaps need to be held more publicly accountable are these executives Hardly household names, but more influential than the people you see on TV? Perhaps?

Why transparency can help

With this I am talking about transparency of process, not about the unmasking of confidential sources. What are the decision-making processes that executives, producers, editors and directors go through regarding what content to cover? Would greater familiarity with these nip rumours in the bud?


***That’s what you learn on media studies courses!***

And you wonder why the mainstream (especially the print) media likes to deride the subject as a not serious course? You look at almost any introduction to media studies book for teenagers and you’ll find a section on how to critically analyse the media, who it targets, and how.

Actually, I’d quite like to do a basic media studies course sometime in the future – just because I’m curious, not for any exam. For example, many of you ask how it is that the tax dude alliance always gets on BBC programmes but academics who are experts in specific fields do not? (The former develop and work those media contacts thoroughly before the latter have even worked out what media programmes are even interested in their work).

Just to finish with, in some circles there are mentions of ‘D’ notices. I don’t think something like this would fall into that category of all things national security, but for those of you who are interested, have a look at Not sure how it works in the world of freelance/independent media, but for the corporate press that system is there.





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Predictions for the 2016 Cambridge City Council elections


Because it’s too easy to sit on the fence

Phil Rodgers made these predictions late last year, but because the final list of candidates is slightly different, I thought I’d have another look.

Have a listen to Chris and Phil on Cambridge 105 with Julian Clover too

“Of the 14 wards I’d say there are 5-6 who will win easily…and only two or three that are genuinely competitive” – Chris said on the radio.

My home ward – who wants the dragon fairy vote?

Coleridge ward in Cambridge seldom goes against form – a safe as houses Labour ward bar the dark days of Gordon Brown’s premiership in 2008 when Chris Howell stole in to grab the seat from Tariq Sadiq who was standing for Labour. With Labour being the only party making an effort this time with new candidate Rosy Moore, this should be a safe win for Rosy. The only candidate who has gone beyond paper candidacy is Virgil Ierubino of The Greens, who has at least filled in the election surveys from the Cambridge Cycling Campaign and Smarter Cambridge Transport, and took part in an introduction video. Non-campaigning candidates Bill Kaminski for UKIP and Sam Barker for the Conservatives are on the ballot paper. Surprisingly Simon Cooper for the Liberal Democrats is not – replaced by Raymundo Carlos of whom I can’t find anything about online!

Changing the basic conventions

Although Virgil has spent most of his time in Market Ward campaigning for Stuart Tuckwood in the Greens’ target seat, The Greens have been conspicuous in running a high profile social media campaign for a number of their candidates. With good reason – they don’t have the activist numbers, finances or resources to leaflet the city in the way that Labour do. That said, despite reasonably high membership numbers, the conversion rate of members to activists remains (for me at least), far too low.

What I’ve worked for in this campaign is to change the basic conventions in the way I unsuccessfully tried with Puffles in the 2014 elections. As it turned out, I was just a little ahead of our time with Puffles. Whereas Puffles was a 2-3 person show, what’s happened at this election in Cambridge is that a number of other people have also worked to change the basic conventions too – think of those that organised the hustings for example. Furthermore, the large number of first-time candidates willing to try new campaigning methods outside of tried and tested methods meant that we got a critical mass of candidates using for example video.

Setting new online standards:

In Cambridge we have seen:


Facebook pages

Twitter accounts

(Though note for Facebook & Twitter there is a growing practice for ward-based social media accounts as well as personal accounts)

and… videos too.

We’ve not seen as much blogging as I’d have expected – this has been more prevalent in the PCC elections with both Dave Baigent and Nick Clarke blogging away.

The properly contested wards traditionally are the central wards:

  • Castle
  • The Chestertons (East, and West)
  • Market
  • Petersfield
  • Romsey

Traditionally ‘safe’ wards tend to be in the north west or south & east of the city.

  • Abbey
  • Arbury
  • Cherry Hinton
  • Coleridge
  • King’s Hedges
  • Newnham
  • Queen Edith’s
  • Trumpington

The one thing it’s worth reminding ourselves at this time is the echo chamber that is our local political social media bubble – something that every so often goes ‘pop!’ when I find myself in a room full of people who are perhaps taking part in a community event for the first time.

So: My predictions

  • Castle – John Hipkin (Ind)
  • Chesterton, East – Shahida Rahman (Lib Dems)
  • Chesterton, West – Nichola Harrison (Lib Dems)
  • Market – Stuart Tuckwood (Greens)
  • Petersfield – Richard Robertson (Labour)
  • Romsey – Sophie Barnett (Labour)

As a distant observer for the top three, my take is that John will be hard to shift in Castle, while the City Deal has put Labour on the defensive in Chesterton, something that the Liberal Democrats have capitalised on with aggressive leaflet campaigns in the wards. That combined with the sheer barrage of negative media publicity at a national level could be enough to tip both the Chestertons towards the Liberal Democrats.

The Greens have campaigned the living daylights out of Market, and this one could be just as close as last year, with a couple of dozen votes between the top three. Don’t think that Labour and the Liberal Democrats have sat back in the face of the Greens – the ward has a huge number of Labour and Liberal Democrat boards up, so it could easily go for Dani Green for Labour, or Tim Bick could hold on for the Liberal Democrats. As the current leader of the opposition on Cambridge City Council, the Liberal Democrats need Tim to hold onto this seat to help stabilise the party in the council chamber.

Six-seven years ago, Petersfield was a Liberal/Labour battleground. Then post-2010 both the Greens & the Liberal Democrats collapsed, giving Labour a free rein. Things have turned around in recent years, but the gap between Labour and the rest is still large. That said, new candidate Sharon Kaur has brought to bear a small but active group of friends to campaign in the ward to build on the work that Atus and Matt in previous years had achieved to re-establish the Green presence.

The safe wards?

The return of active Conservative candidates in both Newnham and Queen Edith’s marks the start of the ‘Heidi’ factor – South Cambridgeshire’s personable and media-friendly MP for the Conservatives who is spending more time close to & in Cambridge than her predecessor. (Declaration – Heidi bought me dinner post-Queen Edith’s hustings last month). While it may be too much to ask Julius Carrington and Manas Deb to win their respective wards, the fact they have appeared at public hustings as well as doing leafletting and having an active online presence shows that the Conservatives are back. But again, the problem they have is a lack of activists on the ground compared to their opponents.

For Arbury, Abbey and King’s Hedges wards it’s difficult to see these going any other way than Labour, though in recent years both The Greens and the Liberal Democrats have managed to win elections in the first two wards. From my vantage point it’s difficult to get a feel for what the issues are in Arbury and King’s Hedges. Interestingly, the Labour candidates don’t have a huge social media presence, while some of their opponents do. That said, I don’t think we’re at the stage where social media is that huge game-changer. It can however be useful in helping establish a new candidate inside the world of local democracy in Cambridge, as a number have done.

Cherry Hinton – the somewhat forgotten village at the eastern end of the city has had zero interest from the other parties and the media. With the Mayor Rob Dryden restanding, there is only so much he can do publicly campaigning. The village is somewhat of a Labour fiefdom these days – the last Conservative councillor being Eric Barrett Payton in 2006 who has returned to stand for election this time around.

Trumpington remains an interesting one simply because of the housing and population growth. The candidates haven’t had the highest media profile as with Cherry Hinton (bar the Mayor), so it remains to be seen if this ward sticks to party form and votes for Donald Adey for the Liberal Democrats. Donald stood in Romsey last year and against Puffles in Coleridge ward, losing 89 votes to Cambridge’s favourite dragon fairy.

“Should I take these predictions too seriously?”

No. Please don’t. It’s a bit of fun. Think of it as the political wonk’s version of predicting the football results on a Saturday. The real analysis happens when the results are in – analysing the news, rather than trying to seriously analyse what in the grand scheme of things is speculation. That’s why I get sick of the mainstream news reporting about speculation (eg leadership challenges that seldom happen) than on stuff that has happened.

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Cambridge elections video chart update


Who has risen? Who has fallen? Who are the new entries?

The video playlist that matters for voters in Cambridge is here. At the time of posting, there were 38 videos (up from 20 last week) covering four political parties that are standing full slates of candidates:

Note that three of the new videos cover candidates standing in South Cambridgeshire District Council elections in the wards of ‘Stapleford & the Shelfords‘, and Sawston respectively.

So, still at the top is Labour’s Sophie Barnett, standing in Romsey ward, Cambridge.

  1. Sophie Barnett of Romsey Labour Party, with 124 views
  2. Manas Deb of Cambridge Conservatives with 78 views
  3. Sharon Kaur of Cambridge Greens, with 69 views
  4. Rosie Moore of Coleridge Labour Party, with 64 views
  5. Rob Grayson of South Cambs Labour with 61 views

For interviews, the tables look like this:

  1. Sharon Kaur of Cambridge Greens, with 96 views
  2. Dave Baigent of Cambridge Labour, with 80 views in total
  3. Shahida Rahman of Cambridge Lib Dems with 64 views

Total number of local council candidates featured are as follows:

  1. Cambridge Green Party: 8/14
  2. Cambridge Liberal Democrats: 4/14
  3. Cambridge Labour: 3/14
  4. Cambridge Conservatives: 2/14
  5. South Cambridgeshire Labour: 2/14

(The above goes not include Police and Crime Commissioner elections)

New entrants

Rob Grayston and Mike Nettleton of South Cambridgeshire Labour got in touch over the weekend to arrange a recording of a handful of videos – see the playlist here. Rob has stormed into the top 5 with over 60 views in about six hours! Also storming in as a new entry is Conservative candidate for Queen Edith’s, Manas Deb, who like is colleague in Newnham, Julius Carrington, is fighting to win rather than being a ‘paper candidate’. We’ve also seen two additional videos from Cambridge Liberal Democrats – Nicky Shepherd in Abbey and Lucy Nethsingha in Newnham.

My target ideally is to have at least four videos per political party standing full slates of candidates – ie more than 20% of candidates. That’s enough people from within each local party to make the case for, or at least talk about their experiences of being in front of camera.

The Queen Edith’s hustings on 21 April 2016

Chris Rand wrote up about the hustings in his blogpost here.

160424 QECambridge LeagueTables

On Sunday afternoon the table of views were as above. I also storified a few of my tweets here – noting the proportion of people who had either changed their minds on who they intended to vote for after hearing from all of the candidates (20%), and those who did not know who they were going to vote for but made up their minds after hearing from everyone (25%).

Again, there seems to be a pattern with who chooses to have a video message or a video interview recorded. Variables that seem to increase the likelihood a candidate will record a video include:

  • Age – the younger the more likely to want a video made
  • Gender – women are more likely to want a video made
  • New candidate or repeat candidate – new candidates are more likely to want a video made
  • Incumbency – challengers to an incumbent are more likely to want a video made, while incumbents are less likely to want a video made.
  • Ethnic background – people from  non-White British backgrounds or mixed backgrounds are more likely to want a video made.

“Have we reached critical mass stage with videos?”

Not yet. That said, nearly all of the candidates who have had videos made now seem to be advocates in favour of using video as part of their campaign. Indeed, a number of candidates are featured more than once as a result of proactively getting in touch and making it easy for me to do the filming – e.g. picking me up by car to take me to the place they want to film. (My convention is that candidates should be filmed in or close to the ward or area that they are standing in).

***Lots of free publicity***

One of the other things that happens when you make videos and upload them to Youtube or Vimeo is that other people and organisations can embed them into their websites. The Cambridge News did this with the Queen Edith Forum hustings – resulting in a higher than expected hit count.

Furthermore, if I look at the length of viewing time statistics for the past week up to 22 April (so not including the weekend just gone), Cllr Dave Baigent’s speech in Warboys has had ***nearly three hours*** of footage viewed in seven days. This was for an eight minute speech. Manas Deb’s interview has had over two hours, and Shahida Rahman’s interview, over an hour. Even if it’s only their supporters watching, having a video ‘out there’ is surely a morale booster in itself. Because it takes courage to stand for election – especially in the face of the brickbats we see all too often thrown over social media. (That’s why I turn the comments off with YouTube – life’s too short for me to moderate the comments!)

“Don’t some of the videos look/feel a bit rough around the edges? Scripted even?”

For the election messages themselves, to give everyone a fair shot I’ve kept the format dead simple:

  • Name
  • Party you’re standing for
  • Ward you are standing in
  • Local authority elections you are taking part in
  • The date of the election

This is then followed by up to 3 reasons why you are standing for election &/or local issues you want to take on, and a final message saying ‘Please vote for me on [date]”.

For most time-pressed citizens, in the grand scheme of things that is all they need to see and hear in order to make a judgement on who they are going to vote for. That can all be done – as Sophie Barnett proved, in under 30 seconds. If people want to hear more detail about something local, that’s what the interviews that I’ve recorded are for.

I think it’s also important to demonstrate to voters that it’s OK to make rough-and-ready short videos. Slick, professionally made videos take a huge amount of time and effort to produce. A five minute medley video with music in the background will take me a day to film and at least a further day of editing. At a local democracy level most people simply do not have the time, the money or the skills to make something like that. Also, if it’s too slick then you risk creating a distance between you and the voter – the ‘professional politician.’ At this level of local democracy, my hunch is that most people want to feel that candidates are people like them, who feel the same sorts of day-to-day pressures that people in the community feel, rather than a parachuted in A-lister superstar type from a party list taken from an exclusive wing of a national party.

A hustings in South Cambridgeshire?

One’s being lined up at the last minute in the area Rob and Mike are in – which is on the southern border of Cambridge City where lots of housing building is happening. Hence it should be a very interesting one given the issues as well as some of the relatively new faces on the local politics scene there. I’ll keep you posted. Details of further hustings/public debates in Cambridge are at the end of the Cambridge News article here – mainly on the north/west side of the river. (Which, given the poor transport links to that side of town is like ‘abroad’ for me!)

Can you really get a feel for who is going to win from a hustings or social media alone?

No – and I don’t think that’ll ever be the case. The biggest common factors for me are the frequency at which activists do door-to-door campaigning, and the performance of the party they are members of at a national level. Furthermore, young people were again conspicuous by their absence at the hustings in the Queen Edith’s ward – despite the local schools and colleges being informed. Is the next step to organise events inside such organisations and give them the expectation that they will publicise the events and invite their pupils/students along?

The other thing is that the conversion rate from new members to attending meetings to activist to candidate is an extremely low one. I have heard various numbers measured in hundreds in terms of new members joining local political parties in the last year. Yet if (in Cambridge at least) we compare it to the number of new faces standing as candidates, it doesn’t initially seem to reflect this surge.

“Post the elections, is there something that Cambridge as a city can do to encourage more people to get to the place where they feel they might want to stand for election?”

This is certainly something I would like to explore in the future – perhaps seeking a commissioned academic study or inviting for example students and young people to talk about their experiences of engaging with political parties. Or even finding out from people who used to be part of political parties or campaign groups what their reasons for leaving were, and what they moved onto afterwards.





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“Council implements dragon’s policy pledge”


On Cambridge City Council adopting a theme of Puffles’ 2014 election manifesto


Doesn’t it look beautiful?!?

Have a look at from Puffles’ 2014 manifesto. Essentially what this exercise currently being undertaken by Cambridge City Council is pretty much a carbon copy of what I wrote in Theme 7 above. ie. Have a big map that people can write on to locate where Cambridge’s community venues are – irrespective of who owns them.

The follow-up plan from Be the change – Cambridge which we weren’t able to follow through was around annual ‘hack days’ – something that The Junction in Cambridge and staff from Cambridgeshire County Council have experimented at one-off events. (And in my opinion demonstrated that the concept worked).

We’ve already got Volunteer for Cambridge – something that started life as a twinkle in Puffles’ eye

…until Cllr Richard Johnson took up office as executive councillor for communities, and along with Anna Malan of the Cambridge Hub turned it into Volunteer for Cambridge – a now annual event at the heart of our city’s volunteering calendar.

The consultation on provision of community events being run by the city council is at There is a risk – and/or a fear from some residents that this consultation will automatically lead to some council facilities being withdrawn. Given the funding constraints imposed by Central Government that is unavoidable. However, given the approach I outlined in Theme 7, and given what officers are currently doing, my hope is that the research and data collection will result in an easy-to-use tool that ultimately will result in more bookings for community centres across the city from groups that we did not know about, and who did not know where all the centres are. That way, I’d like to think more community centres can become self-sustaining and not need permanent public subsidy.

Interestingly, one of the other organisations now using social media more frequently is Cambridge City Police – note their Facebook page at I declare an interest in that I delivered a social media workshop for PCSOs of Cambridgeshire Police a few years ago, so it’s nice to see these coming to fruition.

Finally – and at long last, various councillors and candidates are now getting in touch and asking about making short video clips in the run up to the Cambridge City Council elections on 05 May 2016. Oh it has been a bloody hard slog to get to here, but finally it seems that Cambridge’s local political establishment are coming round to the concept of using online video as one of their campaigning tools. Today I filmed Conservative candidate for Queen Edith’s, Manas Deb. Later this week I’m due to film three Lib Dem women candidates – Nicky Shepherd, Jenny Page-Croft, and Lucy Nethsinger.

That means in terms of total number of candidates’ videos the numbers will be:

  • Green Party = 7
  • Liberal Democrats = 4
  • Conservatives = 2
  • Labour = 2

One Conservative and one further Green candidate have also been in touch but no date confirmed yet. It’ll be interesting to see how the local parties and individual candidates respond to these new totals.


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