Puffles’ turn to be cross-examined


What it’s like to be on a Question-Time-style panel in front of an audience of mainly students from Kings College, Cambridge

Me and Puffles went to the event detailed here as part of the panel of candidates standing for election. Our new campaign website, BeTheChangeCambridge.org.uk is also up and running – with two more sections to add. (Explained in this post).

Have a listen to my speech here: 

Unfortunately due to the poor lighting conditions in the hall and the not-fantastic quality of my camera the film footage hasn’t come out well at all. But ***Thank you*** to Tim Sykes for doing the filming. The audio fortunately seems to be of a reasonable enough quality, and there was enough space on the memory card to capture most of the opening speeches of the other candidates. I’ll try to edit and upload them as soon as I can.

There’s always something you forget, and in my case it was the memory card for the digital video camera. Hence the problems with filming at the start. Fortunately I had a spare smaller one so managed to get the opening speeches covered. Have a look at the hashtag #KingsQT to see who said what in the Q&A session.

Preparing for a keynote speech with your dragon fairy

This week has been a hive of activity for me – probably my busiest for over 2 years. Ceri @TheWobblyWomble) has been working her socks off on BeTheChangeCambridge. I’ve produced a printed ‘mini-manifesto’ to hand out, as well as a couple of posters too. On top of that, I had the workshop in London with some superb historians (see here) that required preparation too. So it’s been busy-busy-busy.

Of course if this were a conventional election campaign, I’d have done the ground work months and months ago. But it’s not a conventional election campaign. I’m also learning why most election campaigns fail. Remember that for every candidate that wins, there are a handful accompanying them that do not. With this speech, my challenge was to come up with something inspirational that would encourage both the other candidates and the audience to pick up and run with. I’ll let them be the judges on how successful I was in this endeavour.

Overcoming mental exhaustion

I also had my first counselling session in many years. For those of you not aware, I went through a mental health crisis in 2012. Hence suffering from burnout/exhaustion that currently means I’m not able to work full-time hours. Hence my statement about overcoming mental health problems and “Hashtag: #TimeToChange” (Which was a verbal link to http://www.time-to-change.org.uk/ in my speech).

That’s probably been the biggest challenge for me and Ceri – overcoming our own personal health issues to produce what we have. Ceri’s the creative brains behind much of the materials I’ve produced – she’s far better at digital image editing and web coding than I am. At the same time, there’s been a satisfaction that we’ve overcome those barriers to produce what we have. There’s still lots more to do on our website, but I’m glad that it’s there, and that we have the links to our living manifesto and to the digital democracy challenge.

Now…what to wear?

Yes, this was a serious consideration! Slob up or dress up in something that matches the sheer bizarreness of standing for election under a persona that is a cuddly toy. I went for the latter. Silver suit with silver-and-black shoes. I’m sure there’ll be a picture of it somewhere.

“That was a…’brave’ move”

It’s got to the stage where anyone who wants to take the proverbial out of me over this whole thing has already done so. In one sense it goes with the ‘fun candidate raising serious points’ disposition. At the same time, it takes some of the pressure off. I can be ‘intense’ at the worst of times. Running a campaign like this allows me to be light-hearted as and when the occasion suits.

The speech

In one sense, there were too many electronic distractions. Going last probably didn’t help. Nick Clarke, representing the Conservatives got it spot on when he said the temptation to rewrite his speech was very very tempting. One of the themes I have been campaigning on for quite some time is getting more women involved in politics and local democracy. The panel of candidates was a symptom of this problem. We were all men. That said, Eleni Courea did a superb job keeping us under control as chair because some of the more controversial exchanges could have descended into personalised spats.

Looking back at the video coverage, I probably moved about too much and didn’t have nearly as much eye contact with the audience as I could have done. But this was more looking upwards and outwards rather than down at my script – which I printed out on card.

The Q & A fisticuffs

Exchanges between Nick Clarke and Sam Wolfe – the latter representing Labour – got heated over the issue of climate change. Nick explains his views in his own words here – something that local MP Julian Huppert has taken issue with (See Julian here). Fortunately I wasn’t asked to comment in this particular exchange. It’s one of the issues I refrain from discussing with Nick. Nothing I say will change his mind so why waste oxygen doing so? At the same time, Nick thinks I’m a bit potty over all things Puffles. Yet for some reason, we seem to get on reasonably well. It’s as if we both know where we stand & know that it’s pointless trying to persuade the other side – yet at the same time know there are interesting insights that we both have as a result of being inside large organisations with large budgets.

Nick told the audience about a conversation him and I had following the Conservatives’ launch of their East of England manifesto when he gave me a lift back into town. That caught some of the panel off-guard – Lib Dem Cllr Rod Cantrill turning to me asking if what Nick was saying was true. It was – see my account in this blogpost. Nick went onto explain what the city of York does with rents for small businesses, and complained that Cambridge University and its colleges were squeezing the life out of small firms. Hence paying Nick a back-handed compliment by including that point in my manifesto under civic responsibility. (See the second-last point here).

Too much focus on national and EU issues

I was surprised that we were unable to keep a focus on local issues – all too often referring to Westminster politics. On the issue of tuition fees – I mentioned how all the three main parties were responsible – referring to this blogpost in the debate. At the same time, I was mindful of what potential impact me and Puffles alone could have on the current policies of the political establishment on universities’ policy. Raindrops have had bigger impacts on oceans.

The debate brought out what I feel is the big gap in our local democracy. There’s a gap between ‘the potholes in the street’ and ‘When our party is in government…’ politics that is not really being covered by anyone. A number of the other panellists mentioned improved partnership working, but none had the specifics that some of the audience in their questions were calling for. Me on the other hand, themes 1, 3 & 5 in our living manifesto have a number of specifics – including community action summits.


The above-two mentioned tweets – in particular Gabriel Fleming’s one indicates what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to influence (in a transparent manner) local democracy in Cambridge by raising issues and ideas that I’ve found are seldom discussed at the council meetings that I have been to. (Also ***Thank you*** to everyone who posted nice comments about me and Puffles in the debate!)

The above was something a few people in the audience asked me after the event. Having worked in public policy and for ministers of the three main parties, I’ve learnt that I value my independence from ‘top-down’ political institutions. At least with the civil service, you have the separation of duties that doesn’t tar you with the government of the day. One of the toughest gigs you’ll get as a civil servant is making the case publicly (ie in a speech followed by a Q&A session) for a policy or course of action that in your heart you don’t believe in.

What I hope I’m demonstrating to people in the course of this campaign is that you don’t have to join a political party if you want to have a positive impact on local democracy. Yes, there are many advantages of being inside one – not least having a team and a ‘party machine’ behind you.

“Who was the best out of the other four panellists?”

Strangely enough, I don’t think I’m qualified enough to make that judgement call. When you’re on a panel under such scrutiny, your mind is buzzing. Rather than listening to the flow of the debate, you’re listening out for who is saying what about you/in response to your points. It’s similar to when you are briefing a minister taking part in a debate as a civil servant in ‘the box’ in the House of Commons. Your ears are sensitive to anything mentioned about your policy area, but less sensitive to anything else.

Also, you’ve got to look at the audience context. Nick Clarke & Cllr Rod Cantrill got a more hostile reception than Sam Wolfe and Matt Hodgkinson, representing Labour and the Greens respectively, & both of whom I met for the first time. If we were in North Cambridgeshire (where UKIP has a number of councillors), would things have been different?

First impressions of Matt & Sam, Matt’s one of the Greens’ local rising stars in Cambridge. Similar intellectual capacity and disposition to Julian Huppert. Keep an eye on Matt if you’re a local politics watcher. Sam, like a number of Labour activists of his generation is a highly intelligent activist. He’ll give Cllr Cantrill (who are both contesting the Newnham ward) a strong challenge. Will Sam’s targeting of student halls of residence in canvassing provide him with enough votes to unseat Cllr Cantrill? Have a look at what Phil Rodgers says.

And finally…

Have a look at the websites and the Facebook pages of the 4 local parties standing across Cambridge – see here. Make suggestions, ask questions & demand answers. If any of them particularly impress or inspire you, please vote for them. If none of them did, but you like the ideas I’ve put forward, please write #Puffles4Cambridge on your ballot paper as activists and agents from other parties will be watching. But please ensure you’ve given the other candidates a chance to make their case. The reason being that they are the ones who will have the ability to implement things if elected. I on the other hand have a dragon fairy.

Cambridge – It’s your city

Be the change




3 thoughts on “Puffles’ turn to be cross-examined

  1. I love the human safety net phrase. It’s perfect for what you are doing.

    The alienation thing about the uni you mentioned is really important.

    People inside don’t realise lots of ordinary folk outside the institution are intimidated or just feel excluded. But there are probs. When I went up to uni, the folk where I grew up acted like I was heading off to the Tardis every morning. And folk in uni acted like I was going home to the Tardis every night. And I sort of was; my home streets and the campus were different worlds and in so many ways it was a case of never the twain shall meet.

    It’s no just inviting people to come in to events – that’d be nerves-frayed stuff for lots of people. Academics need to go oot to people. What’s the point of having, for example, excellent media studies staff and students, if folk outside the uni don’t get to pick some of it up?

    Reach oot to schools doesn’t cut the ice, for me. That’s not reaching out to the people of the town. It’s reaching out to just school kids, and schools are “officialdom” anyway. I’d prefer to see media studies department putting on an event down at the summer fete, local community radio or the monthly farmers market. It’d be fun and break down barriers, real or imagined.

    Oh, and did I mention I think not only what you are doing is fantastic, but yer *aim* is damn good too.

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