Labour’s Cllr Carina O’Reilly responds for the defence: Councillors respond: Part 3


My replies to a robust defence from Cllr O’Reilly

For those of you that missed it, her comments are here.

“We in Cambridge Labour go door-to-door almost every weekend in almost every ward in the city, including Coleridge and Queen Edith’s. It doesn’t take any particular courage; it is part of what we do as councillors to stay in touch with the people who elected us. The idea that ‘hardly anyone does it’ is simply untrue.”

On courage, I disagree with Carina. What may come naturally to an outgoing political activist who is passionate about something does not come naturally to someone who is shy. Not everyone is cut out for face-to-face campaigning.

“Short of stalking the voters, it is hard to see how local Labour councillors could do more to actively contact voters, and I know that the Liberal Democrats are very active in this manner as well.”

The issue for me here is around different methods of engagement. Candidate-to-voter engagement is very linear by its nature. I’ve often wondered what it would look like if candidates from several parties went door-knocking and had a multi-way conversation. What would it look like if a Tory and a Labour candidate together knocked on a door and engaged in political debate with a resident? A 3-way conversation I imagine would have a different dynamic to a traditional two-way conversation.

Furthermore, we don’t really have much in the way of hustings or open question-times where the public are in control of the proceedings rather than a councillor chair. Wouldn’t it be nice to have some open question time sessions BBCQT style where the audience rather than the parties/council decide the questions? On top of that, better publicised community problem-solving sessions such as the one I attended here put local government in a much better light.

“Active use of social media does not denote a good councillor. One of our best local councillors, Mike Todd Jones, can barely use a mobile phone. The Cherry Hinton councillors are so locally well-known that Rob Dryden won last time with nearly three quarters of the vote. If I were to list the attributes I’d want in a councillor, active use of social media might be in the top ten, but not in a million years would it be a ‘must have’, as this misses out all the serious casework-related activity that the best councillors spend most of their time doing.”

Interestingly enough, Chris Havergal of the Cambridge News asked me if I thought social media use was essential for councillors today – to which I responded it wasn’t. What is essential is that councillors understand the impact that social media use is having on their communities and on society at large. That goes for any holder of elected public office or those in senior management in large organisations.

On the casework side, one thing that I feel the Westminster and local government establishment need to get together and do is to work out a system of communicating just how much casework (and on which issues) councillors and MPs have to get through. The general public generally have little idea of both the volume and of the complexity of casework that elected members have to deal with. Julian Huppert’s cases numbered over 10,000 in his first 18 months as an MP. Is there a method of collecting, standardising, anonymising and then publishing some headline statistics on the volume and themes of casework that elected members receive? That might go some way to restoring the reputation of elected politicians if the public can see how big the workload is.

As members of other parties have pointed out (ironically on Twitter), social media gives very little in terms of casework or contact with voters who live locally, in the wards we represent, compared to the investment of time it requires.

This has been a consistent theme in terms of feedback from councillors and activists from the three main parties locally. I’m still of the view that a change in offline and online approach could reap dividends in terms of votes, turnout and new campaigners – as well as a more vibrant local political scene and greater scrutiny of politicians and institutions by local people.

One thing I’ve noticed from responses to questions I’ve put to councillors is the lack of planning, co-ordination and sequencing there is to some of their outreach work. A talk at a school here, a leafletting session there, a Q&A session to another group somewhere else, but little in the way of follow-up. Something Cllr Richard Johnson and I are exploring with the Parkside Federation is how to improve the co-ordination and sequencing so that students there improve their awareness and understanding of the public sector institutions as they progress through school. Also, aren’t schools and colleges ideal places to ask otherwise less engaged and under-represented groups how to use social media to engage with them? What outreach work do you do at Cambridge Regional College for example?

As you are also aware, unlike any other party Labour has a policy of All-Women Shortlists. This is aimed at bringing the proportion of women across the city up to at least 50%. To achieve this, AWS are often run in the most winnable wards – but we do not deselect councillors for having the misfortune to be male, as this would be grossly unfair, and I’m sure you wouldn’t suggest that this should be our policy.

As Sam Smith said in his comment, my complaints about a number of councillors south of Mill Road has been about how effective they are at engaging with young people and how very few of them are on social media. It also just so happens that for Coleridge and Cherry Hinton, that all six of the councillors happen to be Labour and men. I’m not pressuring councillors to be deselected on grounds of their gender, I’m going after them because too many of them are not being nearly as effective as they could be. When I asked what councillors were going to do in 2014 that was new, inspiring. imaginative to get young people engaged in local democracy, the refusal of so many councillors to answer that question – and we went around the room – sent an extraordinary powerful signal to all in the room. When you have one councillor refusing to answer a question is one thing. When you have all but two refusing to answer the question…even I was speechless. Also, I think it’s perfectly reasonable for me to put pressure on my ward councillors that refuse to answer straight-forward questions that I put in electronic correspondence, or refuse to take part in area committee debates that cover a large proportion of my neighbourhood. As one of their constituents, they have a constitutional duty to me as holders of elected public office. They may not agree with my politics, they may not even like me as a person. But they still have a responsibility towards me as a constituent when I raise straight-forward uncontroversial non-partisan questions.

You also know that I think that social media is a very useful tool, and I think that we, and all parties could do it better. But, again, this will require a significant investment of time. We are a district council and are all part-time councillors, often working full time with our council duties on top of that – meetings, committees, briefings, Group meetings, knocking on doors, dealing with casework and producing literature.

I take all of the above on board. Part of the problem is perception. Cambridge councillors and activists north of Mill Road are very active compared to their counterparts south of it. I happen to live south of Mill Road. I am also incredibly active in this part of town – not least as a school governor. I’m also active in a number of community groups in the city too. One of the side-effects of blogging about the things I go to is that I’ve ended up creating a nice archive (See here). Something that can be used as an evidence base by…well…anyone I guess. But with the exception of Cllr Taylor and hopefully Cllr Birtles, there’s this big swathe of social media nothingness cutting across South Cambridge. Given that there are three sizeable secondary schools (Coleridge, St Bedes and Netherhall) along with two of the biggest sixth form colleges in the country on this side of town, such a lack of engagement both off and online for me is a massive missed opportunity – for all parties.

To stop doing any of the above in order to spend more time on social media will not make us better councillors. Social media is an add-on, an extra tool; it is not and cannot be the core of what we do, not least as the people who need our help most quite often don’t even have access to the internet.

The first bit of the above I disagree with. While you spending more time on social media won’t make you a better councillor (you use it extremely well), I believe it is perfectly reasonable to ask for one ward councillor in four to be at least an on-off user of social media, or for a local political party to improve how it engages with otherwise disengaged communities? With some councillors, I believe that taking to social media might make them better councillors. Do you need to stop doing any of the above activities? Not necessarily. It depends on the lifestyle patterns of individual councillors. If you are a councillor that, for example uses public transport a lot, or who has downtime in meetings, these can be ideal times for a quick scan or a quick post. Look how Julian Huppert uses it.

Is social media an add-on tool or is it now core of what councillors do? Well…neither. Again, my challenge is for councillors to find how they can use social and digital media in a manner that complements what they already do.

The bit about helping people who do not have access to the internet is something I have been regularly reminding Whitehall audiences about. Back in 2011 when I did my first analysis of the impact of social media on Whitehall while still in the civil service, I highlighted the risk of the digital divide. The push to deliver government services online may exclude people who cannot use computers, who cannot afford the hardware or the software, who cannot get to a place where there is free internet access or who cannot afford the phone connection fees. This is one very important area that the county council’s Connecting Cambridgeshire team is well aware of. (Actually, it’s worth inviting them to do a presentation to city councillors because there are lots of interesting and challenging issues you might be interested in).

So while I appreciate your passion and enthusiasm, and agree with many of your points – especially about the Area Committee process – I can state categorically that we won’t be deselecting anyone soon because they’re not on Twitter or Facebook and don’t have a blog. I would be very happy to talk to you, and anyone else, about how the Labour Group as a whole can use social media better in the ways that you describe; but I will not castigate any individual councillors for feeling that their time can be better spent on the doorstep.

I’ve never stated I’m asking anyone to stand down or be deselected purely because of the lack of social media use. Nor would I expect any party to deselect a councillor purely on that basis either. I also don’t expect you or anyone else to publicly castigate fellow councillors.

What I’m challenging you all on is on imagination, innovation and new actions

I mentioned a number of things in this blogpost. Again, in South Cambridge in particular we know there is a big problem. Turnout in Coleridge and Cherry Hinton was under a third at the last election. While big margins and low turnouts may suit incumbents, it is not good for the community because it is an indication that few people are scrutinising what is going on.

One of the other things to bear in mind is that I’m not being a ‘Keyboard Kevin’ in all of this – just typing and complaining. I have been, and continue to do lots of community work on this side of town. As I mentioned in previous blogposts, I ***want**** my local councillors to do well. When councillors do good stuff, I benefit. It’s therefore in my interest to help ensure a vibrant local political scene to ensure councillors are able to make best use of what is still new technology, as well as being properly scrutinised & challenged in what they do.

Can councillors use social media to support the work of, and be supported by community activists like Puffles?

This is what I feel local councillors could be using social media for. Councillors and MPs cannot go to everything that they are invited to. They have private lives too. One of the things Julian Huppert, my local MP uses my blog for is to keep updated on what happened at local events, meetings and workshops that he otherwise could not make. I don’t get the sense that enough local councillors on my side of town are as connected up to some of our important local institutions as they could be. Part of that also requires local institutions to play their part too. Some of them have been found wanting, and I have taken those issues up in other forums, such as the Cambridge Area Partnership. (This is a partnership which one of you from each political party in Cambridge needs to be closely engaged with – for a whole host of reasons).

The sad thing from Cambridge Labour Party’s perspective though is this: You’re not getting nearly as much out of me and Puffles as community activists as you could be. Ditto the other parties, but perhaps it’s more pronounced for Labour given that the vast majority of local councillors in and around my neighbourhood are Labour councillors. Two of the main reasons I can think of are that many of your existing councillors in South Cambridge are unfamiliar and/or fearful of the technology. Another reason might be because they’ve never come across a persona like Puffles, or an activist like me before.

How do you deal with someone who grew up in this part of town, spent time inside Whitehall and who is not someone that can easily be labelled according to traditional tribal politics? What do you do with a persona that is playfully anarchic, provides you with interesting insights into what goes on round here beyond your councillors, who can provide you with something that could be ammunition to use against your political opponents with a pair of paws while whipping you with a stinging tail from behind?

Makes it all the more fun being a dragon fairy on Twitter!


8 thoughts on “Labour’s Cllr Carina O’Reilly responds for the defence: Councillors respond: Part 3

  1. A good response, Puffles. I’ll have a think and try to come back to you on some of this. As you know, I really would like us to be more engaged in a lot of the ways you mention, especially with local community activists, and to have a much more flexible and responsive presence online. Watch this space!

  2. I wonder if ‘barely being able to use a mobile phone’ while being seen as one of the best local councillors, is a kind of perverse badge of honour? To me, in this day and age, not developing your technology and social media skills, when you’re in a prominent public post, is almost disrespectful – it says to me that you can’t really be properly listening.

    1. So you know Mike Todd-Jones do you, from wherever in London it is you live? Of course not. He knows most of his 6000 constituents personally and is the best councillor in Cambridge. Stay out of things you are ignorant about.

      1. Perhaps you are enervated by the broader conversations going on here but please don’t take that out on me with such rudeness. I am getting involved (even though I live in London – I’m sorry if that bothers you) because the use of tech by elected representatives interests me. You’ve educated me as to Mr Todd-Jones strengths (which I wasn’t doubting).

        I posited a question about how not being able to use modern technologies (which is what was being suggested) is odd for a public (social?) figure, even if they knock on every door and know everyone personally.

        Okay, put it this way – I wish our local councillor would knock on my door. And I’d like them to tune in to relevant conversations that I and neighbours are involved with on, Twitter and Facebook. Unfortunately we get neither.

  3. Really interesting article. This issue is something I regularly debate with one of my technophobe councillor colleagues. He maintains he doesn’t have time for social media and is always out meeting voters one-to-one. I don’t decry that at all. But we also have a large constituency that is used to doing things online and not available for face-to-face meetings that often. When there was a recent issue in our ward, my colleague spoke to perhaps a dozen residents, mostly elderly homeowners that are used to dealing with councillors, while I communicated with hundreds via twitter, many of them people who had no prior knowledge of, or interest in, who or what their councillors were. In many ways Twitter and Facebook have replaced the traditional surgery, though of course we are not giving that up.

    1. Yes exactly. Note you say homeowners. Attempting to engage people face to face who are renters, living in poor accommodation, maybe one of the estimated millions hidden homeless at their door doesn’t work. They don’t have a door of their own but they do have twitter and facebook.

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