Puffles’ first book launch – where I learnt lots of things about the history of my childhood neighbourhood too!
First of all a big ****Thank you**** to Richard Johnson – one of the co-authors (the other being Ashley Walsh), for the invitation. It was a superb event and credit to the organisers too. If you are interested in Cambridge local history and are interested in the book, contact Cambridge Labour Party or send a tweet to Richard for details.
It goes beyond local Labour types
Although I haven’t read the book, the talks, discussions and the displays at the event show that this was far more than a history of a constituency Labour party. It covers the history of a local area – going beyond party politics. The history of the local Labour party – in particular the first 50 years – is focused around the wards of Romsey and Coleridge. Why is it interesting to me? Because these are the wards that I was born in and spent much of my childhood in. (The others being Queen Ediths and Cherry Hinton). Thus this was very much a history of my local area – reflected in the contributions by a number of former party activists, councillors and former MP Anne Campbell.
Accordingly, I urge both Richard and Ashley to put on further events – including one in collaborations with their Conservative and Liberal Democrat adversaries – to discuss this book. There are several reasons for this. The first is that this event really brought to life the human side of local politics in a way that I had never seen before. It was politics told through stories and anecdotes of some of the great barriers local activists faced. For example I knew nothing about Leah Manning until today – astonished to find huge levels of sexism she faced from within the Labour Party leadership at the time. Yet she overcame that to become an MP and receive a knighthood. She was educated and taught in my neighbourhood. I now know a little more about Dr Alex Wood – who the local party HQ is named after.
A packed hall
When I turned up there were over 100 people in the hall. Even more joined soon after. That a local constituency party can almost fill the large hall at the Guildhall in Cambridge shows there is a significant activist base in and around the city that can also pull in some fairly big names too. (Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander MP was the keynote speaker – of him later).
This was the first time I got a sense that there is a significant chance for Labour to take the seat of Cambridge in 2015. Julian Huppert will have his work cut out in the campaign. At the same time, it’s not a given that Labour will take it – something I’ll blog about closer to the time. For now, I’ll comment that Cambridge has strong local Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat political parties – each able to count on 10,000 or so votes at general elections. The seat has been held by each of these parties in my lifetime, and within the last 21 years. It’s all to play for with the swing voters.
Frank and Tony turn up
Some of you may recall Puffles bumped into Frank Dobson MP and Dr Tony Wright in London last weekend. So you can imagine how delighted Puffles was when the two of them came up to Cambridge today. Local Labour Councillor Gail Marchant-Daisley, taking hold of Puffles asked Frank if he remembered Puffles – to which he burst out laughing saying he did!
“What’s the significance of the cuddle toy?”
A couple of people asked, though luckily a number of local Labour councillors and activists turned up at the same time saying “Oh! Good to see Puffles here!” as I was trying to explain Puffles as a social media persona. In doing so, they were also demonstrating the influence of social and digital media to their own members and activists – but perhaps without knowing it. With one person who I was in conversation with, the third person who greeted Puffles won her round to the impact social media use can have. That said, not everyone got or even liked Puffles. That’s fine – the same happened on Thursday and last weekend – not everyone will get social media. (Only given the importance I attach to digital and social media, such people (irrespective of political party) will have their work cut out persuading me to vote for them or their party! I am the informed floating voter!)
…and delivered what I thought was the most poignant speech I’ve heard him deliver. On TV and even in The Commons I can’t help but feel he lacks a presence that I’d expect from a senior front-bench politician. But Douglas Alexander (currently Shadow Foreign Secretary) had more of a presence on that stage than I had expected – granted it was a friendly audience.
Yet I’ve seen a number of politicians speaking to friendly and/or receptive audiences on complex issues – which is what he did here. In that regard, he came across as being far more ‘human’ than he appears on TV. The anecdote about his parents being spat at in 1960 by a group of Americans, stood out. All they were doing was going to see a preacher speak. That preacher happened to be Dr Martin Luther King. Being on history’s side before history has been made? That speaks volumes and to be influenced by parents who went through that – its anecdotes like this that animate politics. That anecdote alone was far more powerful than any ‘line to take’ written by party HQ. So why do HQs insist on being so risk averse and not allow politicians to…well…be themselves? This is exactly how I felt listening to the interviews around the PCC elections and the Corby by-election.
Douglas picked up on four ‘long term themes’ that he believes will impact UK politics over the next decade or so. The rise of India and China vis-a-vis USA & Europe, Climate Change, all things local in a globalised world and finally the impact of technological changes.
I was particularly interested in his comments on social media in relation to the Arab Spring. In a nutshell he said that the effective use of social media allowed people strengthen what might otherwise be weak relationships as far as social issues are concerned. Had I turned up without the benefit of digital and social media, I’d have been in a room full of strangers. Social media use meant that this was not the case – there were a number of people I was familiar with, and as a result felt more comfortable than I otherwise might have done as a local resident.
Social media complementing offline activism
This for me is one of the challenges and opportunities for political parties. Can activists use digital and social media to make local residents feel comfortable attending events such as this? It takes a lot of courage to turn up to any event where you don’t know anyone. If you know there will be people there that you know or at least interactive, chances are you’ll be more likely to go.
I was reading an article at stupid o’clock last night where this term was used to describe the 15% of people that chose to vote in the PCC elections this week. 1% of the voting population are members of political party, which makes anywhere between 1-14% of people the type that care enough about politics to learn about who the candidates are and vote accordingly.
For me, I’d like to think the PCC elections were a particular low point as far as UK democracy is concerned. In my view Cambridgeshire’s new Police and Crime Commissioner Sir Graham Bright has very little legitimacy. The same for me holds for all of the other commissioners – irrespective of party. Not nearly enough people were able to make an informed decision, let alone consenting to the policy of having PCCs in the first place.
“Yeah, so Pooffles, how are we going to turn things around?”
I can’t speak for other areas, but there was something strangely compelling about the local political and social history that stood out this afternoon. The way the speakers were able to weave tales and stories of people from years gone by into a continuous narrative of the story of my home town was something that resonated in a way that I’ve never felt before was quite compelling.
In terms of getting people interested in politics at a local level, I think there’s something to be said for local history types from each of the main parties to come together and host a crowd-sourced local history project that reaches out to schools and community groups to tell that story to the city. That way, people can gain a much deeper understanding and connection towards the place I call home. As Douglas Alexander said today, we live in a world where paradoxically the forces of globalisation grow stronger just as our desires for greater local connections grow stronger too.
How can we use the global force that is social and digital media to strengthen our connections to our local areas?