Some thoughts on the elections next month from my lounge seat in Cambridge
Local political types from various sides have asked me to write a blogpost about this, so here’s my tuppence-worth. County-wide, the lists of candidates standing across Cambridgeshire is here.
Two-tier authorities – and triple tier authorities?
The county of Cambridgeshire as far as local government administration is concerned is two-tier in urban areas, and triple-tier in rural areas. What this means is that we have a county council that is responsible for things like education and transport, and series of smaller district councils responsible for things like leisure services, planning and waste collection. (The shire does the disposal/recycling so I’ve been reliably informed by Liz Stephenson, my Teacambs collaborator!) Rural areas often have a further tier at a hyper-local level – parish and town councils. For example the small town of St Ives outside of Cambridge (within the boundaries of Huntingdon District Council – Oliver Cromwell territory) has a St Ives Town Council that manages things like parks, cemeteries and local halls in the town. Indeed, St Ives Town Council has a nice break down of which council does what.
For those of you that live in unitary authorities, there is normally a single local council – for example in Brighton and Hove, where I used to live. There, the one council does all of the above. Previously, the two were separate district/borough councils within East Sussex County Council.
“So Pooffles, what are the isshooze?”
It depends who you ask really. The big three local parties have all got manifestos.
UKIP and Cambridge Greens are also standing but I’m yet to get hold of county-wide manifestos from either.
In the grand scheme of things, Cambridgeshire is more than likely to return a Conservative county council. The county is a safe-as-houses Conservative heartland with an island of Labour/Liberals sitting in the middle of it. I recall even during the 1997 Blair landslide, there were no changes of seat from 1992 across Cambridgeshire – Labour’s Anne Campbell won Cambridge from the Conservatives in 1992. Even today, the make up of Cambridgeshire County Council reflects this. Recent electoral history shows that county-wide, things don’t really change much round here.
Given that this is a county council election, and given that most of the real power is held by central government, there’s very little incentive for people to get involved in tackling the policy-specific issues. As Professor Colin Talbot said in a recent lecture in Cambridge, if Westminster was serious about ‘localism’ and devolving power, they would devolve the finances to local councils. As it is, only a small chunk of local government revenue comes from local areas – as Parliament explains. Much of it comes from a central government grant, hence council services being vulnerable to cuts by central government. Combine this with legal requirements to provide certain services such as social services and bin collection, there is very little room for movement.
So…what’s the point in voting?
In part the pendulum is beginning to swing back towards giving greater powers to local areas. Or at least the rhetoric is. The larger cities outside of London have now clubbed together to form their own lobbying group to push for further powers (and Whitehall funding) to be devolved to them.
Given that Cambridge is regularly spoken of in glowing terms by politicians from all over the place, it was interesting to see David Cleevley, one of the founders of Cambridge’s Centre for Science and Policy fire a broadside at Cambridge’s politicians for failing the city. Interesting to note Cllr Nick Clarke – leader of Cambridgeshire County Council’s response. Cllr Clarke has his own blog – from which he wrote of about a gathering of Teacambs (that I organise with Liz Stephenson) where he was guest speaker – see here.
One other interesting aspect of these elections is the number of candidates that are standing down – almost a third of Cambridgeshire’s county councillors are not standing for re-election. This will represent a significant change in personal dynamics more than anything else. To what extent it will lead to both cultural and policy changes remains to be seen. What will the make up of the new council look like – especially on the Conservative benches?
Climate change – a faultline between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats
This was something that reflected the difference in political cultures between the Guildhall (Cambridge City Council) and Shire Hall (Cambridgeshire County Council). Cllr Sarah Whitebread – standing down at this election – tabled a motion that was rejected by the County Council. In the county hinterlands where the local Conservatives such as Cllr Samantha Hoy are fighting off strong challenges from either UKIP or independents, you can see why there might be an incentive to be reasonably sceptical from a politics side as to all things climate change. It’s similar to those politicians that say privately to scientists that they cannot come out publicly against homeopathy because to do so would cost them their seat in the council or in Parliament. Yet to those in a city such as Cambridge, such hostility to tackling climate change from the surrounding areas is quite frankly embarrassing. Furthermore, Cambridge has an active environmentalist scene – one not quite reflected party politically with the local Green Party, whose only recent activity has been on Facebook.
Liberal Democrats and Labour fight for the city
In the county council, the outcome on the seats within Cambridge may not make a huge difference – the Tories are still more than likely to come out on top. But it may well be a weather vane for the elections for Cambridge City Council the following year. Given that the current ruling Liberal Democrats rely on the casting vote of the Mayor of Cambridge, Labour are hoping to gain control of the city council at the 2014 elections. All eyes on the battle between Cllr Ian Manning for the Lib Dems vs ex Lib Dem cllr and now Labour candidate Clare Blair in Chesterton. Fortunately for me that’s north of the river so I can watch at a safe distance with Puffles from the other side.
So, what’s happening in the bubble of South Cambridge?
Not a lot in my ward – Coleridge – which is a safe as houses Labour ward. That said, district councillor George Owers called round recently as he does every so often. He told me that just because none of the other parties round here campaign actively doesn’t mean Labour should take such votes for granted. For people that are not active on social or digital media, door-knocking can often be the only way local people can raise their concerns. Given that in this ward there are a number of elderly people that live here on lower incomes, the impact on such door-to-door canvassing should not be underestimated – especially when the first question to them is “What are your concerns & issues?” My personal big complaint to Labour is that none of the councillors in my ward are active Twitter users – which is why Puffles ambushes everyone else.
What about elsewhere?
The People’s Democratic Socialist Republic of Romsey
Red Romsey – which neighbours my neck of the woods (& where Puffles & I can sometimes be found in Limoncellos or the Black Cat cafe) has got an interesting line up. Six parties are represented. The big three include leader of the Lib Dems on the County Council, cllr Kilian Bourke defending the seat. On the far left is long time SWP activist Tom Woodcock standing for Cambridge Socialists facing a challenge from the closest thing we’ve got to a local political family clan in the Green Party with Hywel Sedgewick-Jell (I’m assuming that’s his Twitter account) competing for votes in what has traditionally been called “Red Romsey”. To what extent this takes votes from Labour (as both the Greens and Cambridge Socialist have done in the past) remains to be seen. On the other side is the webmaster of my website, Andy Bower who is standing for the Conservatives. He’s going to face competition on his right flank with UKIP also standing in Romsey. Thus we have a full slate across the political spectrum there.
The Royal Division of Her Majesty The Queen Edith
Following the shock defeat of Amanda Taylor last year in the city council elections to Labour, the latter have stepped up their activities to see if they can take the county council seat with Dr John Beresford. Long-time councillor Geoff Heathcock (who was a councillor when I was still at school) is standing down, and Amanda has secured the Liberal Democrat nomination to stand this time as a candidate for the county council.
The two main issues for me are the ongoing problems about traffic and parking in and around Addenbrookes Hospital and also around the sixth form colleges – Hills Road and Long Road. One of the things I want to push for is attendance from the representatives (And possibly the students too) of those organisations at Southern Area Meetings. There are also various schools in this ward – of which I am a community governor of one of them. Hence why I’m particularly interested in this election because whoever wins is going to have a dragon fairy chasing after them.
Cherry Hinton and Trumpington – where the Baroness is from
You saw her sticking two fingers up at former Defence Secretary Tom King. You saw her on the telly on Have I Got News For You – owning Jack Whitehall. Well, it’s Trumpington in Cambridge that she gets her title from. In the days when she was Cllr Jean Barker on Cambridge City Council, it was the ward of Trumpington that she represented. It’s also where I have to go for my governor training days too. One of the big issues here is inevitably around the building works – the existing houses on the left of this map is the present Trumpington. This, along with the inevitable traffic problems too. One of the main roads leading into Cambridge goes straight through what was once a village separate from the city until about 100 years ago – similar to Cherry Hinton in fact. What it will both look like and feel like when all of these new houses on the blocks on the right are completed remains to be seen. Ditto with the political disposition of the ward. One of the fears some villagers in Fulbourn have is that their village will become just another suburb of Cambridge, swallowed up by an ever-growing city.
In Cherry Hinton, Andy Bowers’ sidekick Tim Haire is standing for the Conservatives against
long-term Labour Cllr Rob Dryden – who also was a councillor while I was still at secondary school Labour’s Sandra Crawford, picking up the reins from councillor Christine Carter Rob Dryden. Cherry Hinton has also had a fairly active Conservative activist base – this being the ground that Graham Stuart MP spent several years as a councillor before becoming an MP and now Chair of the Education Select Committee.
“So Pooffles, who are you going to vote for and who’s going to win?”
You could say part of the problem is the existence of safe seats and safe councils. I live in a seat that is ‘safe’ for one party in a council that is ‘safe’ for another. If I was in either of the neighbouring wards of Romsey or Queen Ediths, it might be a little bit more interesting because of the competition locally. But as no one is really putting up a fight against Labour in Coleridge, does it matter? So actually what matters given these constraints is how individual councillors behave – in particular in terms of how they make themselves accessible and available to their constituents. It’s also why it is important that in safe seats, the political party in the majority recognises its ‘civic responsibilities’ to all of the constituents there because citizens don’t have any other choice. Fair play to those that actually do this.
Accessibility of councillors
Personally I would like this to be a growing theme across the city, if not the county: Making our politicians more accessible to more people. For me, social media plays a significant part of that, but it is not the magic wand to solve all of the problems. The key for local politicians and activists is to ensure social media complements what they do offline, rather than seeing it as a replacement for it. There are a number of different aspects here:
1) Social media use by politicians and activists
There is no law requiring all politicians and activists be on social media – nor should there be. But given greater uptake of society, in particular with younger people growing up with the internet being ‘the norm’, isn’t there a greater responsibility for local political parties to use it to reach out to people? Especially as locally, they are the first port of call.
2) Role of local media
Chris Havergal, Puffles is lookin’ at you! Actually, Chris is one of the finest journalists in the region – and no you can’t head hunt him either! Given that the local newspaper is winning awards for its website, one thing it could do in its coverage is to provide online links to the Facebook and Twitter accounts of those standing for election – generating both interest and conversation too. In particular, it would help break what feels like a little local political Twitter bubble too.
3) Role of large organisations and groups to organise ‘hustings’
You know like there used to be ages ago, where you’d have representatives from each political party and the audience would get to ask them lots of questions. Well, these seem to be few and far between. Ditto with visits by high profile political figures – which I only seem to find out about after they have visited. Well that’s of no use to anyone! All of the three main parties have done this. I can understand ‘tactically’ why they would want to do this – ie preventing a big name figure with regional and national press being ‘ambushed’ by political opponents, but if you believe in the strength of your political principles, shouldn’t you be asking them to bring it on?
Actually, what I’d like to see is the larger employers and organisations hosting their own hustings for their staff? For example could the big supermarkets have one? They have lots of people that work for them – couldn’t they get a handful of people in the room? What about the schools and further education colleges? Personally I’d like to see the latter hosting bi-annual events at each one. Within Cambridge in the state sector, Hills Road and Long Road (Mike, Puffles is looking at you) sixth form colleges, Cambridge Regional College along with the sixth form centres at Netherhall, Parkside and Impington between them could host these. Given the ease of connectivity social media provides for us, that’s a whole new audience to be engaging with.
Would all of this raise participation?
It’s not just about the votes. Before you even get to the voting stage there are a whole host of things that need to be considered before an individual is able to have an informed vote. ie one where they have examined what is available, asked all of the questions that they want to ask (& having received answers), before making an informed choice. Hardly any of this happened last autumn in the debacle of the Police and Crime Commissioners Elections. And yet the most high profile individual related to the PCCs is the recently-departed Youth PCC Paris Brown.
Essentially I’m calling on large organisations and community groups to put on hustings, for politicians to turn up to them and to make themselves available using digital and social media so that conversations and contacts can continue. There’s also a wider role too for the councils to support organisations such as Cambridge Online to help those that want to learn how to use social media to engage in local politics and what happens in their area.