Can former Cambs County Council leader Nick Clarke turn around Cambridge Tories’ fortunes?


What impact will former Cllr Clarke have now that he’s in control of the City’s Conservatives?

The article in the Cambridge News is here.

I’ll start by stating that I don’t know the inner workings of the local political parties in general, so I’ll try and avoid detailed speculation. Having been inside the civil service and watched speculation of what happens inside by mainstream TV journalists on the outside, I’ve seen too much comedy.

“The Conservatives secured over 12,000 votes in Cambridge for the 2010 General Election, so why have they not converted that into council seats?”

The spread of those voting for Conservatives meant that their support was not concentrated in a handful of key wards – see here for the data (scroll down) and a visual illustration of 2011 here by Phil Rodgers, who has been watching these things more closely than I have, and for far longer.

At the moment, the Conservatives only have one councillor on Cambridge City Council – a far cry from the 1970s when they controlled Cambridge City Council (see here) and the late 1980s when historian Sir Robert Rhodes James was Cambridge’s MP. In my neighbourhood the old Conservative Club (in a locally unique & old building of note) is still there, having rebranded itself from ‘The Constitutional Club’ to ‘Cherry Cons’. But as the sign always said ‘Members Only’ I’ve never actually been inside. The same is true for me for Romsey Labour Club. Labour activist Dan Ratcliffe did show me around Alex Wood Hall, Cambridge Labour’s HQ recently though, and I’ve also seen inside the Lib Dem’s HQ in Cambridge too. What would the political social clubs be like if they had big signs on the outside that said “Non-members and people curious to see what’s inside, come inside and have a free drink on the house!” ?

“Yeah, but when’s Nick going to get stuck into the Tories and get them ship-shape?”

Nick Clarke tweets at @NickClarkeCambs but mainly in broadcast mode. He came to speak to several of us local ‘social media for the public sector’ types at teacambs when he was leader of Cambridgeshire County Council. He talked primarily about Connecting Cambridgeshire, the main flagship project he got going during his time as leader. He would later lose his seat in the 2013 county council elections (see here) to the Liberal Democrats. That election that also saw several Conservative councillors lose seats to UKIP (whose count rose from two to twelve seats at the time), and ultimately control of the council to no overall control.

I get the feeling that since then, Nick’s taken some much-needed time out from politics. It looks like he wants to get stuck in again – only this time covering a more geographical area. In February, Nick indicated on his blog that he had been talking to a number of local Conservatives (see here) who wanted to become more active again. Not being familiar with who Nick’s predecessor was, I’ve not nothing to compare him to. But given the way he led Cambridgeshire County Council I imagine he’ll bring some focus and discipline. At the same time, given by the remarks in his blogpost above, he’s looking to take local Conservatives on the offensive against the incumbent Liberal Democrats that currently control Cambridge City Council on a majority of one. But where will that focus and discipline be targeted? Phil Rodgers has a few thoughts:

There are two reasons why Trumpington is particularly interesting – and not just because of Her Ladyship (who was a former mayor here before I was born). The first is that it’s the ward where the Conservatives have their solitary councillor, Cllr Shapour Meftah. The second is that lots of new housing is being built there, a sizeable chunk of which is now complete and has people living in it. While you can make assumptions about which way people will vote depending on what sort of house they live in, no one really can tell (unless they have been door-to-door canvassing) because most of the people living there are likely to be new to the city. On what is traditionally a Liberal Democrat vs Conservatives battleground, it will be interesting to see who can plant their flags in the newbuild ground first.

What about UKIP?

They haven’t historically had much of a presence in the city, though when I went to an information evening at the council to find out if Puffles could stand, there were a handful of UKIP activists there. We also got our first ever UKIP leaflet through the door recently too, albeit a nationally-produced one rather than one from any local group. In Cambridgeshire County, their strength is along the northern fringes where they have council seats. But again, given the disproportionate media coverage to their seats in Westminster, what impact will that have locally – especially in the context of European elections where MEPs such as Vicky Ford (who sparred with me and Puffles in 2013 here) will be fighting off the UKIP challenge.

“What about Labour and The Greens – three of their most high profile politicians were also in Cambridge recently?”

The latter were featured in the Cambridge News here. Caroline Lucas MP, Green Party Leader Natalie Bennett (who was in Cambridge earlier on – see here) and Dr Rupert Read, the lead European Parliament candidate for the Greens in East Anglia, launched the transport side of their manifesto in Cambridge. It’s unlikely that a rejuvenated Cambridge Conservative Party would be gaining/losing votes off the Greens given that the latter have positioned themselves on the ‘green left’ rather than the ‘green right’. That said, the recently-launched Conservative Environment Network may not make for pleasant reading for Nick Clarke given his views on climate change – something that Cambridge MP Julian Huppert took him to task over. Should Dr Read get elected as an MEP in May 2014, this could have a significant impact on Cambridge in the 2015 local elections because of the resources the European Parliament give to MEPs. (For example he could choose to employ a near-full-time activist to be based in Cambridge).

“And Labour?”

Local labour activists and councillors have told me that, compared to their Liberal Democrat opponents, the Conservatives provide an easier target – and vice-versa.

You could say that what is an insult for one is a badge of honour for the other. At the same time, there’s a sort of grudging appreciation of political activists of each other in all the local parties for being active at a time when party-political brands are toxic. Although on my side of town (south of the river) the seats tend not to be battleground seats, a Conservative focus here might mean other political parties will have to consider sending activists over here. Which from my perspective is a good thing because it makes things more interesting politically. Accordingly, whenever tipped off on social media about politicians (so far from the Greens, Labour and Lib Dems – the Tories haven’t told me about any speakers thus far) with a national profile coming to speak in Cambridge, I’ve created posters and put them up locally to encourage people to go along with critical minds and challenging questions. My aim is to increase engagement and turnout. In order to do that, I’m trying to create a bit of a background presence of local politics in my local area – just letting my local community know that politicians and political gatherings are there. (What they choose to do after that is up to them).

“What is Nick Clarke going to do differently compared to his predecessors of the past 3 years?”

For me, the question of what to do differently goes for The Greens in Cambridge too. The first key working relationship in the media is with Chris Havergal, the local government reporter of the Cambridge News – which Nick already has. What’s changed is that Nick is now the ‘go-to’ person for a quotation from the Conservatives on Cambridge politics. Having a Twitter account and a blog means that Chris’s job is made much easier because all he has to do is to follow Nick’s social media posts for any quotations, rather than having to phone/wait for calls. As far as I am aware, Cambridge Greens do not have anyone locally who has a similar high-profile role who uses social media in a manner that makes it effortless for the likes of Chris and other local journalists to life quotations from.

“Who apart from Nick?”

I get the feeling that local politics would quite welcome some new faces. The likes of my webmasters Andy and Tim keep the Tory flag flying in the Guildhall political bubble, but will we see Nick bringing through some new locally-based (as opposed to university/term time-based) activists? (Particularly women).

“Nick says the Conservatives can win Cambridge in 2015. Can they?”

From where I’m sitting, highly unlikely – but not completely impossible. I think ultimately it depends on who they select as a prospective parliamentary candidate. Nick Hillman pushed Labour’s Daniel Zeichner into third place in 2010, both Nick and Daniel getting just over 12,000 votes. This was still nearly 7,000 votes off Julian Huppert’s score, but what impact will Coalition have on Julian’s majority?

Although Nick Clarke has stated he won’t be putting himself forward as Cambridge’s PPC, whoever the party selects is going to have their work cut out trying to position themselves between two very distinctive entrenched positions, campaigning styles and people. Will Julian’s strong presence in the academic heart of the city and within Lib Dem heartland wards along with an excellent social media presence be enough to withstand the Labour steamroller that Daniel Zeichner will be able to call upon – whether they be the big guns on the shadow front bench to the detailed scrutiny of Julian’s voting record of his term of office?

The constituency of people that are missing from Julian and Daniel’s scope? Small businesses. An interesting challenge for the two of them would be if Cambridge Conservatives were able to find a talented and personable woman with a strong background in business from the moderate side of their party who also has excellent local roots too. In the current climate, and especially in a city like Cambridge, I don’t think a parachuted candidate from head office (and that goes for all parties) cuts the mustard.

To conclude?

Each of the three main parties in Cambridge can probably rely on a core vote of about 9,000 each at a general election. It remains to be seen whether Cambridge Greens can make up the ground lost since 2010 – but it appears that the city is clearly on the radar of the leadership. UKIP remain an unknown quantity in the city in the current political context. It will be interesting to see how Nick Clarke – who on his blog has been on the attack against them – responds to the May 2014 local and European election results.


6 thoughts on “Can former Cambs County Council leader Nick Clarke turn around Cambridge Tories’ fortunes?

  1. Thanks for the mentions. Ultimately Conservative fortunes in Cambridge local elections are going to depend on how many doors they can go and knock on – a small number of determined activists can make a big difference to a ward. Finding and motivating those activists is key to winning elections.

  2. Clarke’s return in Cambridge rather than Cambridgeshire raises some key issues that he’ll need to tackle if he’s to have the slightest sniff of making the city a 3 way marginal.

    First of all he has to come clean about his true belief as regards climate change. If he can’t find a credible position in a city that is home to the British Antarctic Survey and thousands and thousands of scientists, they have no chance. The shift within his own party nationally in the wake of the floods only serves to make his previous position all the more uncomfortable.

    He also campaigned as county leader for the parts of the county outside Cambridge, often complaining about the attention and investment that the city got. Hell need to draw a veil over those complaints.

    Finally and relating to the first point, Cambridge is growing and as Puffles mentions, any party wanting to win the city will need to make inroads in the new communities. Perhaps unfortunately for the conservatives however, the city’s labour market remains dominated by large public sector employers as well as of course a huge scientific community. These comminities are unlikely to provide rich pickings for Tories known for pushing a small gvt, anti science agenda.

    It’s hard not to conclude that in this city they are seriously up against it and Mr Clarke will need to undergo a dramatic change of spots to give them a chance.

  3. Interesting comments about the ‘incomers’ to Trumpington Ward having an impact on the city outcome. When is the long-standing anomaly of Queen Edith’s ward being part of South Cambs going to be rectified? It is ridiculous that we have no influence over the election of the MP representing the city we are so clearly part of.

  4. I’m sure Nick is enjoying you talking about him. Of course, he’s not a candidate himself so all this about “he’ll came to come clean about this and that” is nonsense. Most people have not the faintest idea who the Chairman of political associations are and care less what they think. What he brings to the table is good organisation, motivation and leadership. With a few tweets and a blog post he’s already got everybody talking about Conservatives in Cambridge. He’s barely started yet and already he’s moving the agenda. You’re in for an interesting time!

    1. Disagree Mr Tierney/Nick’s puppy – because people do know who he is and what he stands for and that he is now chair of the local party, so they will associate the local party and the candidate with his views to at least some degree. Having him at the helm will cement voters views about what the Tories stand for. I.e. blue NOT green, business before all else, cuts and small gvt. For the reasons pointed out, I dont believe any of that will win enough votes in Cambridge to secure the seat.

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