Cambridge politicians respond: Part 1


The social media response to my angry blogpost

“Some of us lead lives of quiet desperation. Sometimes the desperation can no longer keep quiet”

To paraphrase a line from the film ‘Shall we dance?’

Perhaps this explains my hard-hitting post that precedes this one (see here). It certainly had an impact – over 800 hits in just over 24 hours, plus a Twitter response in praise of or on the defensive as a result of that post.

I storified the Twitter response to help summarise the various contributions – see here.

The councillors response?

Some local Labour councillors and activists were on the defensive – but fair play to them for facing down the angry dragon. Two Richard Johnsons (@CllrRJohnson & @RichardMarcJ) decided to take me and Puffles to task over what I wrote and what Puffles tweeted. There were also contributions from Cambridge’s Twitteratti interspersed – more observations than anything else.

I had a couple of private Facebook exchanges too – a mixture of pulling me up over one or two things but generally saying I was right to raise what were some difficult issues for local political parties – such as finding suitable and willing candidates to stand. Again, this is not just a ‘Cambridge’ problem.

Some councillors with dormant Twitter accounts have started tweeting – which is splendid. Even more so is that one of my local councillors – Labour’s Cllr Sue Birtles for Queen Ediths, has taken up my offer of a free 1-2-1 training session. I’m continuing to offer these to Cambridge councillors free of charge because I want to be part of the solution rather than a ‘keyboard kevin’ who just moans. Yes, that offer even goes to the councillors that I tore to pieces in that blogpost.

“Why? Don’t you want them all to resign?”

Quite the opposite: I want my councillors to succeed in improving Cambridge. One of the reasons why I fired off that blogpost was because after a couple of years of a softly-softly approach getting only so far, me and Puffles had to wield a big stick to shake things up.

…But not to the extent where there was no way out for the politicians. Hence saying that I will be happy to support those that take innovative action to reach out to new audiences. I’m delighted to say that me and Councillor Johnson have been having conversations with the management at the Parkside Federation of schools to explore how to do this beyond what has already been done. That, for me at a local level is the sort of interaction you want to have between local institutions, elected councillors and community activists.

Bloomberg’s big idea

Unfortunately Cambridge City Council found out too late in the day about this – which was featured in the local paper recently. (See here). Me and Puffles went along to a workshop about this having spent much of the earlier afternoon doing a photoshoot for the local paper.


Yeah. Chris Havergal of the Cambridge Evening News has been asking questions about what happened at the South Area Committee meeting – his article being due in the next few days. He needed a high-res picture of Puffles, so arranged for us to meet a photographer outside the Guildhall.

‘Right Puffles’ Bestest Buddy, I want a photo of that dragon of yours flying!”

Said Keith the photographer and journalist. My reaction was something along the lines of:

“Do you realise how difficult it is to catch a flying dragon fairy?”

I thought I was going to rock up and pose by the statue of Snowy Farr (or rather the monument to him – which is more bait for giant dragon fairies (because it looks like a random collection of giant jellybellies) rather than a locally famous fundraiser who was a permanent feature of my childhood every time I went into town. (See here). So…yeah. Picture of flying dragon fairy coming to a paper near you, and disappearing is any sense of self dignity I may have ever had. Oh, and I have a dead thigh because I had to throw and catch Puffles lots and lots of times over outside the Guildhall to get the right shot for the photographer. So if you saw some badly-dressed bloke throwing a big cuddly toy up in the air outside the Guildhall yesterday afternoon, that was me – and it’s all Chris Havergal’s fault!

What did Chris ask?

  1. What do you think the problem with local democracy is in Cambridge (focusing on youth engagement and social media) and what would you like to see happen?
  2. Do you think using social media is now essential if you are a councillor?
  3. Will you consider standing for election if councillors don’t up their game?

With hindsight I made the mistake of not giving what should have been a standard, short, sharp and punchy press-release-style document. But it was morning and I was half asleep so rambled – as follows:

“First we need to acknowledge the wider context: Party political brands are toxic in the minds of the public. There is also an ever-shrinking activist and membership base – see the briefing from Parliament at in particular p10. Since 1965 membership of political parties has fallen from 10% to 2% of the UK population.

For me, the big problem is the unwillingness of too many politicians from all parties to change their approach – not just as a result of the above-trends, but also as a result of the massive changes in society and of communications technologies that many young people now take for granted. The first generation of people to experience life with the internet being ever-present in the next few years will soon have the vote. For many of them that I’ve spoken to, they don’t separate online vs offline. They are interconnected.

Secondly, the title of my blogpost also applies to the political parties regarding youth engagement and social media as a means to helping improve Cambridge. I have tabled a series of public questions to councillors asking about what outreach they do with schools. While several councillors are active – which is splendid – there’s little planning or co-ordination. Schools and college management are also a barrier – something that the Cambridge Area Partnership ( recognised in a skills & employment context.”

On the changes I wanted to see, I was much more specific:

  • – From politicians: A change of attitude. They may not like social media and also may be uncomfortable engaging with young people. But for those elected to public office, they have responsibilities to the general public. Can they show some courage and overcome the fears and reservations they have to try something new?
  • – From schools and colleges: A change of mindset within their organisations – particularly their administrative and management functions. Employers and councillors alike have told me that they have struggled to get some schools and colleges to respond to their efforts to engage. Hills Road Sixth Form College being the highest profile that has proved one of the most difficult to get to engage, to the extent that I have referred the matter to Julian Huppert who has agreed to help.
  • – From the wider community: Don’t just moan, suggest some positive ideas on how to improve things. Don’t leave politics to the politicians. Share your ideas on the website – after all, it’s your council taxes that have paid for it.

On whether social media is essential for councillors or not, I stated the following:

Surprisingly, no. The reason being that not all residents are using or are comfortable using social media and not all councillors will be either. What IS essential is that councillors understand the impact that social media is having on society and the communities that they serve.

What is also essential across the wards is a diversity of backgrounds, skills and talents. The lack of diversity in the Coleridge and Cherry Hinton wards I referred to in my blogposts and on Twitter recently in part explains why neither of those wards has an active social media presence. It’s fine to have one or two councillors not using social media, but when entire wards are social media blackspots – especially wards that have schools and colleges in or around them such as Coleridge, Queen Ediths and Cherry Hinton, then there is a problem.

Finally, on whether I would consider standing for election:

Yes – and have stated so on my blog. But I would rather see the culture across all of Cambridge’s local political parties become more responsive to the communities they serve. Community activists like me are more useful to councils, councillors and the wider community doing what we do. Just as we need councillors to oversee the work councils do and take important decisions on things like planning, councillors also need community activists.

It’s easy to forget that most councillors are not full-time, even though they are required to devote about 20 hours a week on top of existing employment to meet their duties. They cannot be everywhere at the same time. I would rather they worked with us. But that means they have to improve how they communicate. Having little internet or social media presence, or not responding to emails from constituents (as has happened to me on a couple of occasions) doesn’t help.

When will we see the article and pictures of flying dragon fairies?

Chris will let you know.

What about this Bloomberg thing? What happened?

Andrew Limb of Cambridge City Council, who I once worked with and who is leading on this, had his work cut out because we found out too late about it. Not surprisingly out of the 15 ideas submitted, none were suitable for the criteria. There were a number of individual interesting ideas and concepts, but for me there was nothing that was mind-blowingly radical that could have significantly impacted on the lives of tens of thousands of people locally. (Other than my idea that I didn’t get round to submitting, starting with a hotel-room-booking system/tool for community halls and venues, combined with upgrading the IT facilities of all of the halls and facilities and training up the local staff to use the system – as part of a much wider community upskilling programme on digital skills. But then we were in a room full of people with their own ideas, so we would think our own was the bestest).

“Didn’t you publish your ideas earlier?”

I did – see here.

But the whole thing got me thinking about tapping into the ideas of the city – in particular from students. We tried something similar at my school – see here. Couldn’t we do something similar to scoping ideas but from all the schools in the city?

But then Liz Stevenson pulled me up with a very serious point: Raising then dashing expectations – something the City Council may have done with the Bloomberg exercise. I still want to run with the idea of tapping into the ideas of young people, but not before we are absolutely crystal clear that the best ideas will be acted upon. The example Liz gave was this one from Gothenburg in Sweden. Give the children a framework, a budget, a series of options and a process – and see what they say. Then run with their decision. The older they are, the more flexible you can be with the options, or the more deliberative you can be in discussions. Hence the importance of planning and sequencing.

In the meantime…

I’m going to hide from the newspaper article that’s looming.


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