Puffles goes to watch Cambridgeshire Tories at first hand

(…or first paw)


Some thoughts on the Conservatives’ response to the UKIP threat in East Anglia

Tim Haire and Nick Clarke setting up their stall outside the Cambridge Guildhall following the launch of their manifesto
Tim Haire (R) and Nick Clarke (L) setting up their stall outside the Cambridge Guildhall following the launch of their manifesto

First of all, ***Thank you*** to Vicky Ford MEP for the invitation to attend. Interestingly when I got there, I found the first group of people I met were Ann Sinnott and Cllr Ashley Walsh of Labour, there to challenge Eric Pickles to a bicycle race.

As with the Greens and Dr Rupert Read the day previously (see here), my invitations arrived through social media. In Vicky’s case it was through Twitter, and in Rupert’s case it was through Facebook. I also note that the invitations came from the lead candidates of two parties at the opposite ends of the Westminster politics spectrum – and two of their most active social media users.

“Why does this matter?”

It matters because of the way society is using social and digital media in increasing numbers and with increasing complexity. It also matters because it shows that there are politicians in all political parties that are showing much greater understanding and maturity on how to adapt to these changes. It sounds strange to be talking about ‘maturity’ in the context of a seemingly random bloke dressed in a loud suit carrying a cuddly toy into the manifesto launch of a major party by a Cabinet minister (Eric Pickles in this case). But bear with me.

The handlers from Tory party HQ were nervous about me simply being in the room. What they didn’t – and perhaps could not have known – was that Puffles was on first-name-terms with at least a quarter of the people in the room. (I’d say there were about fifty people in the room – including the mainstream TV & print media). Hence as soon as I got accosted by a big burley handler on stepping into the room, former Cambridgeshire County Council leader Nick Clarke stepped in and said something along the lines of ‘Don’t worry – the dragon is safe!’

Following the main speeches and media Q&A (unlike the Greens, they didn’t take any Qs from the ranks of local activists), there was a sort of ‘friendly break out session’ where the 1-2-1 media interviews took place and photos were taken. It was in this session where the likes of Vicky Ford and Nick Clarke were able to explain what Puffles is & why Puffles was there. Again, this is important because in the minds of the party members there, having someone senior within the local party there talking about social and digital media will have a far greater impact in that setting than if it were me and Puffles rocking up randomly. It was also a nice ice-breaker too – something I’ll refer to later.

“What about the manifesto?”

I haven’t read it yet – a slight hiccough in the media sequencing from Tory HQ in not releasing it across social media platforms at the time Eric Pickles was delivering his speech. But as soon as I get it, I’ll link to it & pass comment

“Hmm…that’s a bit of a basic error…What about Eric Pickles’ speech?”

The recent historical context is important here. The Conservatives lost political control of Cambridgeshire County Council (which I blogged about here) and Norfolk County Council (see the results here) in the 2013 local council elections. Geographically, that’s about half of East Anglia. That was – and still is a shock to the system for a party that sees East Anglia as a heartland in the way that Labour sees places like urban Liverpool and Manchester as theirs.

I actually didn’t hear that much of what Eric Pickles said – I was too busy talking to Nick Clarke at the back of the room. But the common theme as with the Greens yesterday was how to deal with their common problem known as UKIP. The Greens went after UKIP over inflammatory posters, while the Conservatives went after UKIP over their ability or otherwise to deliver what they say they are campaigning for. The Conservatives say they can deliver the referendum on Europe and that UKIP cannot.

Chris Havergal strikes again, while another journalist fails to understand the basics of public administration

Having seen Chris on several occasions asking questions of politicians as part of a wider press pack, it’s clear he has a far greater grasp of the essential concepts of politics than many of his companions. I’m not saying this as a ‘plea’ for positive media coverage at any future gathering or event, but rather saying that the mainstream media has got to do far far better than it currently is in cross-examining politicians, & follow Chris’s example.

There was one cringe-worthy moment when one journalist really tried to go after Eric Pickles over the Kings Lynn incinerator (see here). Now, as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles is constitutionally barred from commenting on any planning application. End. Of. The reason for this is that the planning system has a safeguard where large and/or controversial planning applications can be referred to central government for ministers to take the final decision. (See here for the official guidance). Yes, it is an important local political issue. It’s just that Eric Pickles in this case is not the person to be putting the questions to.

Despite Eric Pickles being ‘on message’ in civil service terms, and trying to explain to the journalist as clearly as he could that as Secretary of State he has a quasi-judicial role, the journalist kept on persisting until BBC Look East’s Andrew Sinclair stepped in to save the day with a question on a different subject.

“What did Chris ask about?”

He hit the Conservatives’ achilles heel.

“Which is?”

The negotiating position, and the outcome of any negotiations on the relationship of the UK with the EU. As I’ve stated in past blogposts (eg here), I have no idea of what the Conservatives’ negotiating platform is. What are their ‘non-negotiables’ and what are the areas where they are prepared to give ground on? What are their key objectives? From the perspective of the EU, what are they prepared to put on the table? What sort of negotiation process does Cameron in particular have in mind?

The bit that the Conservatives get stuck on as a party is which way they’ll vote in the referendum they’ve promised. Hardline Euro-sceptics have stated they want a UK exit come-what-may. Others have said they’ll wait until the outcome of the negotiations. The problem is that few journalists have been able to cross-examine in detail any politicians on the specifics they would like to see emerge from negotiations. That’s why their platform beyond promising the referendum on the EU feels a bit fuzzy.

“Haven’t the Greens backed an EU referendum?”

They have. But the difference here is that the Greens feel they are part of a much wider pan-European movement and are much stronger on the specifics. It’s unfortunate for them that they don’t get nearly as much media coverage. Funnily enough, if they were to get greater media coverage, it would be Labour and the Liberal Democrats that would be the most vulnerable on more populist issues on the political left – such as reining in the banking system to renationalising the railways.

As the main party of Government, do the Conservatives have an uphill battle against UKIP?

Definitely – but they also know that too. I think there’s also a slow but growing acknowledgement of the changing world that is impacting on the thinking of some of them too. Nick Clarke kindly gave me and Puffles a lift back to town in his car. Although I passed my driving test in the mid-late 1990s, I’ve not driven since. I’ve never been able to afford or run a car. Also, all the places where I’ve lived and worked meant that I never really needed one. It’s a luxury for me – one I cannot afford.

Me and Nick had a long and interesting chat – our first since he lost his seat on Cambridgeshire County Council, and also since he took over leading Cambridge Conservatives. (See my blogpost here on this). It’s clear that he’s done a huge amount of thinking over the past year. He still has the same political drive of years gone by, but he’s adapted some of his ideas as a result of the changing local world and political landscape – not least the new structures of Cambridgeshire County Council.

“You mean Nick’s no longer a climate change sceptic?”

He’s still a sceptic, so in that sense he’s not changed those views – to my knowledge. (See here for the disagreement between Nick & Julian Huppert on this in 2012). I think it’s more that he’s had time to reflect on what he learnt when he was leader of Cambridgeshire County Council. Our discussions were more around public administration rather than party politics, and the role in particular of influential local institutions in Cambridge and the impact they have.

Nick on civic responsibility from institutions in Cambridge

The most interesting thing I learnt from my conversation with Nick was how he came to a similar conclusion on civic responsibility from institutions, but from a completely different angle. This is one of my themes in my manifesto – see here. My point is that Cambridge University and its colleges have got to show they care about the communities on their doorsteps – using the example of the unused bingo hall whose redevelopment has been opposed time and again. Nick’s issue is that the rents Cambridge colleges charge small businesses is far higher (up to x4) than other ‘historical’ cities such as York. Hence it makes it almost impossible for small and micro businesses to set up shop in Cambridge – hence ‘clone town Cambridge’. Also, the fragmented nature of who owns what property-wise, along with the fragmented system of public administration means it’s very difficult to get a single ‘strategic plan for the city’ agreed to by all of the influential &/or interested institutions.

Tories hit the city with their Guildhall stall

I stuck around for about half an hour to see how the Conservatives fared with people in the Guildhall. I understand why they chose it – many other parties choose Market Square for their stalls. The problem is that this is the part of the city where all the tourists head to. Hence raising my eyebrows when one elderly campaigner said:

“There are an awful lot of foreigners around”

My jaw hit the floor until it became clear what the context was: There were lots of tourists around and she was struggling to work out which were the tourists and which were the local residents eligible to vote. Cambridge is always full of tourists – 4.1million in 2008 alone. The week after Easter is always going to be one of those weeks where there is a peak in the number of visitors – a favourite time of year for schools in continental Europe to bring their teenagers to visit. So, clumsy language rather than malice.

They had lots of activists around too – I counted about ten dotted around the market. A fair number of people took leaflets though didn’t appear to show too much interest. A few people stopped for long chats. As with Cambridge, you get the individuals who are experts in a very specific piece of policy that completely baffled the campaigners trying to quickly grasp what the issue was. (In this case it was all things ‘digital money’). There was the inevitable haranguing – interestingly from a woman sat next to me and Puffles on the bench. Funnily enough it was the presence of Puffles that helped calm her down.

A dragon? Calming people down?

Yep – it happened on the bus on the way into town too. What struck me was that while Puffles has a habit of calming down screaming little children on the bus just by being there, (hypnotic eyes?) Puffles seemed to have a similar effect on adults who, when I got talking to them had their own mental health challenges and/or difficult life situations.

If I’m honest, at some events I even find having Puffles around as a calming presence – especially when there are a handful of people at the event familiar with Puffles. There are also times where I think: “Why did I bring Puffles?!?” Today however, was an event where more people would have asked me ‘Why didn’t you bring Puffles?’ had I left Puffles behind, compared with ‘Why have you got a big cuddly toy with you?’? as happened today.

“How do you think the Tories will do in the elections?”

My views on the outcome haven’t changed from what I wrote in my previous blogpost (see the end of here). Locally I wouldn’t be surprised if their vote in a handful of wards rose. The reason being is they are being more active and more visible. Also, Nick Clarke is getting them more organised and planning for the long term. Their earlier outreach last year – in preparation for the 2015 general election also seems to have brought in some new faces. I spoke to one of them – Daniel John who over the next few years could give Ian Manning of the Liberal Democrats some interesting competition in the world of community action in Chesterton, north of the River Cam. But as with Cambridge Labour’s 2014 slate of candidates for the city council elections, Cambridge Conservatives need more women – and more younger women becoming active and being selected as candidates.

As I mentioned earlier, the best chance the Conservatives have of causing an upset in Cambridge in the 2015 general election is if they select a personable, competent, intelligent and active younger woman with political nous and excellent local credentials from a small business background. (Easier said than done). The reason being is that Dr Julian Huppert (academic science background) for the Lib Dems and Daniel Zeichner (strong trade union credentials) are from two very different career backgrounds and are both men. The Conservatives selecting such a candidate would give Cambridge the feel of having a very real and noticeable choice between the three main parties, rather than three identikit candidates.

And the Euro-candidates?

Vicky Ford still strikes me as the ace in their pack – not surprisingly she’s the lead candidate. (Their other candidates for East Anglia are here). For the others likely to get elected, I didn’t get the sense from Van Orden or Campbell-Bannerman what’s going to be ‘different’ if they get elected ahead of their political opponents. This is the opposite to what I felt with Dr Rupert Read the day before – where I got the sense that if he does get elected, it will be a mini-political earthquake for East Anglia – one that could have significant long term implications for the local politics scene in Cambridge. Should the UK still be in the European Union for the 2019 elections, it will be interesting to see if and how East Anglia Conservatives refresh their line up. The same goes for the other parties too.

[Updated to add]

Top local BBC journalist Andrew Sinclair posted the following

Was the other journalist right to go after Eric Pickles on the incinerator? Was it cringeworthy? Nick Clarke commented to me during the Q&A session that the line of questioning showed the journalist concerned didn’t understand public administration or the legal duties holders of executive public office have. The issue for me at this point wasn’t the incinerator.

It was perfectly right that the journalist put the issue of the incinerator to the Secretary of State – because it is an incredibly controversial local issue. Perhaps what Eric Pickles should have done straight off (as he often does in Parliament) is to say he has a quasi-judicial duty in his job that prevents him from speaking ‘as a politician’ on the issue. Therefore is referring the question to, say Vicky Ford MEP as the next most senior party representative on the panel to respond on behalf of the party. That, for me would have been a perfectly suitable way to raise a very serious issue with senior politicians and get a comprehensive ‘party line’ from a politician in a position to speak on behalf of the party and also someone who is feeling the pressure directly standing for election.

Finally, this also got me thinking about training and development for journalists on public policy-making and public administration. Basically there’s a gap. A big one. And it’s not just with journalists but politicians and the wider public too. We’re too politically illiterate. As a society we don’t know enough about the essentials of how large institutions function. Why is this a problem? It’s because it means a smaller number of people know a greater amount of knowledge about how the institutions function, and more importantly how to influence them. These people are sometimes known as ‘lobbyists’.

It’s important for me that political journalists have a deeper understanding of how policy-making happens and the essentials of public administration. My (open) question is whether we have the systems and processes to educate journalists and citizens on the functioning of these institutions. Any thoughts?




3 thoughts on “Puffles goes to watch Cambridgeshire Tories at first hand

  1. “The negotiating position, and the outcome of any negotiations on the relationship of the UK with the EU. ”

    The leadership of the Tory party know that with 50% of our trade going to the EU that we need to stay inside and influence the EU rules. (The only serious alternative – having our major trading partner dictate the rules to our would be acceptable for the UK). However EU phobia is a cancer in British politics that which has deeply invested the conservative movement.

    Long term UKIP could be an opportunity for the Tory leadership. A extremist lunatic party like UKIP gives the Tory leadership the opportunity to strike at this cancer without too much collateral damage. I really hope for the sake of British politics this cancer can be removed once and for all!

    1. The leadership of the Tory party know that with 50% of our trade going to the EU that we need to stay inside and influence the EU rules. (The only serious alternative – having our major trading partner dictate the rules to us would be acceptable for the UK). However EU phobia is a cancer in British politics that which has deeply infested the conservative movement.

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