Preparing the public for the 2015 elections


Some thoughts on the number of ‘apolitical’ groups campaigning on democratic renewal – and the importance of local hustings

Puffles gatecrashing Cambridge Labour Party's stall in our neighbourhood
Puffles gatecrashing Cambridge Labour Party’s stall in our neighbourhood



Hot on the heels of yesterday’s speech (have a listen here) and the hustings at Kings College, Cambridge (see last blogpost), me and Puffles gatecrashed Cambridge Labour’s stall in our neighbourhood. Actually, Cllr Sue Birtles told me they were doing this so we thought we’d join them to add some more colour, as well as kind of showing up some of the other candidates in terms of visibility locally.

The importance of being seen

One of the tactics I was not aware of until recently is the contracting of local takeaway leaflet deliverers delivering party political leaflets where they don’t have the activists to do it. A couple of activists have said to watch out for which other leaflets party literature comes delivered with. If it comes with takeaway fliers, be suspicious they said! Perhaps it’s more noticeable on my side of town because in recent years, no other party has actively contested the Coleridge ward that Puffles is standing in.

While a little more at ease in my local neighbourhood, I’m still not good at approaching random members of the public – even though today we were outside a supermarket that I used to work at many years ago. In that sense, it is so much easier to ‘hide’ behind a keyboard and be in broadcast mode. Being alone with your own stall is not a nice place to be – you’re very exposed. In the current ‘anti-politics’ climate, that inevitably leaves you open to abuse – something I touched on in a previous blogpost. This also explains why the only two stalls I’ve done with Puffles have been ‘attached’ to those of other political parties.

Two different stalls – a greater impact for all?

This was one of the things that got me thinking having rocked up with 2 different parties. Having two tables rather than one, and having Puffles’ one with noticeably different & bolder colours (though no leaflets) means that there is twice as much visually to catch the attention of the passer-by. That plus the big #Puffles4Cambridge slogan on mine inevitably invites the question: “What’s all that about?” I’m not comfortable doing the stalls, but I might try one or two more before polling day – especially if the weather is as nice as it was today.

But what happens after the polls close, the votes are counted and the winners elected?

This is what I’ve been pondering over with all things BeTheChangeCambridge. Having Puffles on the ballot paper is one tiny part of the things I’ve got in my living manifesto – something which I’ve also created a mini printed version too. Click on Puffles Mini-Manifesto to have a look. I’ve created it mainly for local residents and family friends that don’t use the internet regularly or at all, but who’ve asked to see a copy.

The big challenge post-election is keeping some sort of momentum going. This goes for any party. Being in the middle of exam season doesn’t help for young people either. I wonder what a proper overhaul of the exam system would do so that students took fewer exams less frequently in combination with other things to help improve youth action in local democracy and voter turnout. Furthermore, activists generally will be absolutely exhausted. Richard Howitt – Labour’s lead MEP candidate, popped over to visit. I’ve been keeping track of him, Dr Rupert Read of The Green Party, and Vicky Ford for the Conservatives, all of whom I know personally. They have been darting across East Anglia for the past few months on a very regular basis. Knowing how exhausting lots of regular travel is, and learning how intense campaigning can be, the three of them must be absolutely shattered by now, so will need a bit of time to recharge batteries.

Working together to solve a common problem

This was something the Kings’ students rightly grilled us on at their hustings. It was something that I think all of us on the panel – myself included – fell short on in our responses. They wanted very specific proposals local to Cambridge on tackling things like the town-gown divide, homelessness on our doorstep and community action. References to national policy didn’t cut the mustard.

The differences between the problems/policies in the other party manifestos vs what I’ve got in my one, is that mine is much more focussed on systems and processes of institutions rather than the themes seen in traditional political debate. Having a policy of mandating new local public sector management job vacancies having social media and data analysis competencies isn’t a vote winner on the doorstep (see theme 3 here). As I mentioned in my last blogpost (see here), there’s a gap between the essential (but often taken for granted) ‘potholes, bins and streetlights’ issues that the likes of Fixmystreet and ShapeYourPlace were designed to help solve. It’s one thing being a councillor lobbying the council to get a pothole repaired or a fence mended, but it’s quite another thing to scrutinise the systems and processes of the council to work out why it took so long for the repairs to take place – to the extent that it required a councillor to step in.

Encouraging civic society to bring politicians to where they are, and hosting gatherings that have more energy than the highly structured council meetings

This is something that the Cambridge Cycling Campaign does really well – ie organising events where politicians come along to be cross-examined by a passionate & knowledgeable audience. I was at their hustings here, and I also responded to their survey on the local elections here. I just wish there was more of this sort of action from other community groups and organisations. I imagine the #GaggingLaw (which I ripped to pieces here) has made a number of organisations much more wary about engaging in formal politics because of what it contains.

When I lived in Brighton I remember going to a number of ‘local question time’ events, each of which had a theme (ensuring residents and panellists could prepare), were properly MC’d and gave a sense of engagement. That said, looking back on them now, the quality of the panellists and politicians put before the people wasn’t exactly brilliant – even for a vibrant city like Brighton. Some of the parties at the time were ***really*** scrapping the bottom of the political gene puddle with the candidates and panellists they were putting forward. Also, the amount of aggression and shouting from some of the panellists didn’t win many friends. Some of the questions coming from the more extreme elements of the old skool hard left didn’t either. I remember walking out of one event when one local paper seller from a sect hardly anyone knew anything about, tried to go in aggressively on an obscure philosophical point that no one had any clue about. Several other people followed me.

Preparing the ground for the 2015 elections – helping the public become more politically literate

By that I mean really learning the lessons of the flawed police and crime commissioner elections where turnout was miserable. The problem at the moment is there seem to be many campaigns doing the similar things:

…to name but a few. And that’s to say nothing of institution-specific (school/college/university/local council) campaigns. As is a theme of my campaigning in Cambridge, how can all of these have an impact that is far greater than the sum of their parts?

The reason why I’m blogging about this now, is that if we put the ground work in over the next six months (possibility of Coalition implosion aside), chances are that people will be more aware of how to make themselves heard in the looming campaign. At the same time, constituted democracy engagement campaigns need to think how best to engage with political parties and independent candidates. All too often I get the feeling that existing campaigns in their attempts to remain ‘neutral’ encourage people to get in touch with politicians and political parties, but then take a big step back just when things can otherwise get interesting.

I agree with Chris Rand when he says that for each ward, local councils should put up pages like this. The basic essential information, with contact details for all of the candidates, properly hyperlinked. Personally I don’t think it’s good enough for local councils to put up the bare minimum that the law requires – which is basically an electronic version of a piece of paper. I should know – my dragon fairy is named on two of them! (See the two links in the sub-heading city council candidates).  I also think that local councils can do much better in publicising the elections too. Why aren’t council notice boards (the big ones we have in Cambridge in particular) given over to massive posters to remind people to vote? (Or inviting the public to get in touch with them to get more information about how to vote and who is standing).

Food for thought?


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