Councillors respond: Part 4 – Cllr George Owers


One of my ward councillors, Cllr George Owers, has responded. Cllr Owers is generally well-regarded here because his door-to-door work is about finding out what the local issues are and asking what he can do to help resolve them.

I blogged about Cllr Owers a couple of years ago – see here. So when he posts a detailed response, it’s worth looking at it in detail – irrespective of whether I come out with bruises or bunches of flowers.

Firstly, I used to be on Twitter. The reason I left was partly because I was tired of being inundated with comments by – and wasting time in protracted arguments with – a tiny, unrepresentative minority of people, most of whom – Richard Taylor for example – were not my constituents, though they thought their views were the most important in the world. Such voices drown out the majority who really need to be engaged, who are not middle-class, articulate Twitter users. The number of people on Twitter who were my constituents was infinitesimal – if I remember, about 2 or 3. Those who are on Twitter tend not to be very representative of most constituents anyway.

I have consistently made the point that social media is far more than just Twitter. I have also consistently made the point that the best way to use social media in a local government context is in a manner that complements, not replaces what you do offline. It’s not either/or

Everyone on the electoral register has a front door, hardly anyone has a Twitter account. So we knock on people’s doors. I have personally knocked on your door in the last 3 elections Anthony, and on one occasion dealt with a piece of casework I picked up from your mum. Would I have engaged with your mother on Twitter? Does she have a Twitter account? I very much doubt it.

Same point applies as above:

The reality is that Twitter is a very minor tool for political engagement that is exclusive, populated largely by self-appointed experts and political hacks, and unconducive to in-depth engagement with issues. It’s just an echo chamber that has little relation to the real world. Those in poorer areas are even less likely to be on Twitter – they’re too busy struggling to make a living to be tweeting everything – and they are the people whom Labour sees as the priority.

I agree on the first point about Twitter: As a social media tool it does not have breadth of coverage in the way that say Facebook or even email has. As the Yes2AV campaign found out the hard way, social media for them became that very echo-chamber. They won in the echo chamber of social media, but lost in the vote that mattered – see here. That’s why for me, social media isn’t just a numbers game.

Tweeting at the level I do is definitely ***not normal*** – it’s something I don’t hide. Using social media at this level takes over your life and I wouldn’t wish this on anyone. Had I not lost my job and career as a result of the cuts to the civil service, I would not be tweeting nearly as much as I have done. I take your point about focussing your efforts on people struggling with the current economic situation. But given the low levels of voter turnout and low levels of youth engagement, I believe there is merit in challenging councillors on this.

I do not need ‘social media’ training – I know perfectly well how to use it, I just choose not to because I think it’s largely a waste of time. More to the point, if you have an issue with me, why not say so? I have physically been in the same room as you at least twice in recent weeks and you’ve not said a word. You’ve not phoned me either. You actually came to the last East Area Committee and then didn’t ask me a question or talk to me. It’s likely that in the coming months either I or one of your other councillors will knock on your door. If you have an issue, it’s not as if there aren’t ample opportunities to contact me or another ward councillors.

I’ve never said I’ve had a problem with you. Quite the opposite – I’ve sung your praises to people. My issue in particular has been with Cllr Benstead who didn’t respond to my email to him, didn’t respond to the questions I put to him and councillors at the last but one East Area Committee and wasn’t at the most recent one.

In terms of ‘engaging youth’ and visiting schools, I would point out that a) I was the youngest councillor ever elected to Cambridge City Council (21 when elected) and b) schools and young people are a County not a City issue. It’s not a blurred line, it’s the most unblurred demarcation in our two-tier local government system. Why not contact county councillors about these issues?

On A) A splendid achievement that was – genuinely. Great things are also ahead for Georgina Howarth too – I remember watching her speech on TV. As for the second point, I take your point as far as institutionalised boundaries on public administration is concerned. But as councillors I disagree with you saying that ‘young people are a county, not a city issue’. Not least because of this set of services from the city council. The barriers between the institutions – city & county – mean that as an institution, the city council doesn’t look at service delivery for young people holistically: public services have been fragmented. Schools and colleges are not part of the solutions that some in the city council are looking for, when the reality is that they need to be at the heart of solutions because schools and colleges are where most young people spend much of their working day.

It may not be fashionable to say so (because Grant Shapps said it here), but the way I’m looking at my councillors is in their role as ‘community champions’. Rather than saying ‘this is a city/county issue’ I’m challenging councillors to become conveners & facilitators. For example I asked South Area Committee to proactively invite representatives from Addenbrookes, Long Road and local schools to come to their meetings. But for whatever reason, the chair of the committee was not interested, saying it was up to those institutions to make the first move.

Also, you don’t seem to have any idea of how busy councillors are. Most have full-time jobs, a family and are councillors. I am trying to finish my PhD, do various other academic projects, be the Labour spokes for Finance (which is taking up hours of my time at the moment as I am leading on Labour’s budget amendment) and be a ward councillor (and occasionally see my girlfriend and other friends). I don’t have infinite time to visit schools and do everything you want me to. I don’t understand how you have the time to post thousands of twitter comments and go to social media events, etc, every day. Not everyone has the time to do all this on top of their other political, personal and work commitments. Bear in mind also that Cambridge City Councillors get the tenth lowest allowances in the country, out of 435 councils. I don’t mind this – I am against paying councillors as if it’s a job – but you can’t pay councillors under £3k basic allowance and expect them to do a full-time job.

I disagree. Just because I tweet lots does not mean I have no idea about what is a huge workload councillors have. One of the reasons I’ve been turning up to meetings is to get an understanding of what that burden is, so to explore how we in the wider community can support what you do. That’s where I see social media as being a potential aid to you. Cllr Amanda Taylor does this really well both on her website, for example flagging up potential planning applications & inviting others to examine these in detail on her behalf.

The calendar of meetings on the City Council’s website again speaks for itself. That’s a ***huge*** burden. But again, is there a better way of publicising these meetings (both when they happen and what decisions are taken at them) than as at present? As for my time, again you are aware, I’m still in recovery from a mental health crisis a couple of years ago – something that will still take a few more years if I recover at all. Hence my work as a freelance public policy and social media trainer being on a freelance basis: I am not healthy/well enough to work full time in the way I did during my civil service days when I was living and working in London and had my own place. The impact of austerity has put me back significantly in terms of independent living – hence being back with my family these days.

Also, you don’t appear to 100% understand how political parties and representative democracy works. If you want to influence a local manifesto of a political party, it helps to be a member or a councillor. That’s how it works.

That’s the problem: It’s not working. That’s why The Speaker has launched a commission on digital democracy. That’s why there are countless groups of people exploring how to improve the very broken system of democracy that we have. Whether the Electoral Reform Society, or Local Democracy Bytes, to Dem Soc. Turnout in Coleridge and Cherry Hinton wards in the last local government election was under a third – despite the genuinely best efforts of you and your activists that went canvassing and leafletting. Turnout for young people is lower than their older counterparts. This is an issue on this side of town given the number of secondary schools and sixth form colleges that are on our side of town.

Cambridge political parties might be missing a trick if they insist on people joining their party before really getting involved. Labour’s political and legislative adviser for Labour’s House of Lords front-bench team, Bethany Gardiner-Smith said one of the key learning points from her time with the Obama campaign was how they were able to mobilise lots of sympathisers who were not party members. It’s on the Labour Lords website here. I’ve also repeatedly referred to this piece by Labour’s 2015 general election chief Douglas Alexander on the importance of social media. Basically there are some inconsistencies between some of the messages coming from the top of the Labour Party and what’s happening locally.

We are in the game to win elections and implement our policies and principles. If you like our agenda, vote for us. If you don’t, don’t. If you want extensive influence on the policies of a political party, join a political party. We are quite happy to consider submissions and ideas from outside individuals and groups if people offer them. Indeed, I will be co-ordinating Labour’s next city council manifesto, so by all means email me any ideas. But don’t expect to be able to attend our CLP and Labour Group meetings when we decide our manifesto, because you are not a Labour Party member.

The two main issues I jump up-and-down about (young people’s engagement in politics, and the use of social media by for social action) are not party political issues that divide the parties. My challenge is to all politicians, not just Labour. I am more useful to both of your parties by staying outside of the party-political framework. As I’ve said before, ****I want you all to succeed**** in making Cambridge a better place to live. I want you to succeed in increasing voter turnout, where more voters are making informed choices on who they vote for. I want more residents here to understand the work that you all do for us in the council.

More pertinently, I feel that your tone is very unconducive to getting what you want. You appear to think that councillors are uniquely accountable to you, your views and your agenda. I am as accountable to you as I am to the other 6000 of my constituents. I am not obliged to be on social media, or do precisely what you want on every issue – and you’re not obliged to take up 90% of the time of the councillors who are on Twitter.

Again, I take that on the chin. Councillors are not uniquely accountable to me, my views or my agenda – nor should they be. I have also not stated that every single councillor needs to be on social media – as I responded very clearly to Chris Havergal of the Cambridge News when he put that question to me. I also don’t think councillors should be spending all their time on social media. The challenge for councillors is how to use social media effectively in a manner that complements their offline activities. That means they have to make judgement calls about what they respond to and what they ignore. Easier said than done I know.

In terms of my more robust approach of late, it’s not like I’ve suddenly rocked up and started demanding stuff. I’ve been watching and listening for the past three years, combining what I’ve learnt with what I’ve been doing locally as well as with my interactions with people from other parts of the country. I’ve also combined it with what I learned as a policy adviser in central government covering local government reform and community engagement – both of which were under Labour ministers.

I appreciate the time you’ve taken to respond. Note that others have responded already to your comments disagreeing with some of the things you have posted – one or two being Labour members themselves.

I’ll leave you with a picture of you and Puffles from a couple of years ago.

Puffles with Cllr George Owers of Coleridge Ward, Cambridge
Puffles with Cllr George Owers of Coleridge Ward, Cambridge

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