Twas the night before polling day…


A wander through fears and learning in this campaign

I’m kicking off this blog with a piece of music regarded by many as one of the best pop songs about football ever made.

Few will regard 1990 as the greatest of World Cups, but at primary school there was something special about the summer and at the time I was sad to see it go when that academic year ended. 24 years later, we find ourselves with another world cup looming, but before that, there are a couple of elections to deal with.

‘They’ll always hit you and hurt you, defend and attack…there’s only one way to beat them – get round the back’

Footballing words of wisdom from John Barnes. I remember watching a documentary recently, where a couple of his former international footballing adversaries explained that the reason he seldom performed well in internationals was because other nations feared his talents – and marked him off the pitch. The effect was to allow others to shine. Barnes also took more than his fair share of abuse – enough to make most of the rest of us walk away from the beautiful game.

Is it this fear that keeps people away from ‘doing politics’?

“You will be ignored, lampooned, made fun of, get abused and be hurt.” This what I told myself before finally stepping forward to be counted. Throughout the campaign, I hardly focused on the positives. Emotionally I was too busy fighting personal demons and fears to run the sort of actions and activities that I wanted to. That said, once Ceri started helping out, things really got moving. We have a website – that’ll continue long after the polls close, a living manifesto (a handful of paper copies we’ve handed out to locals too), as well as putting up lots of posters at places local residents will see them. (See here).

In the end, you have to fight a series of internal personal battles between your desires to make a positive difference versus your fears over the hits that you’ll take. That’s what happened with me. It’s not just the hits in the campaign, it’s also what happens after. In this digital era, everything’s there for all time – for people to come back to as and when they desire.

Making myself vulnerable

When you stand for election – even on a platform as uncontroversial as mine, you open yourself to challenge. Local residents, other candidates, social media users and people who I have met at events have all challenged me – a handful of complete strangers in a manner I’ve considered unnecessarily aggressive. I chose not to respond aggressively back. It’s not my style – though there were times later on that I wished I’d responded with a big verbal slap. But that would be a gratuitous breach of Puffles’ house rules so obviously I’d never do such a thing. Also, if I did respond like that, chances are one or two would reply back with violence. Hence why I prefer to nip such escalation in the bud because I can’t handle violence. Looking back, I can’t recall a time where I’ve gotten into an abusive shouting match with anyone in my adult life. I bottle it up – which is probably one of the causes of anxiety; there’s no release for that angst.

Standing alone vs being part of a much wider movement

In terms of ‘taking the hits’, one of the things that continues to put me off is the concept of taking the hits for things that are outside of your control. With party politics as it is, as soon as you identify with a political party, the decades of baggage that comes with that party is suddenly hung around your shoulders. MPs & ministers do it all the time – I cringe every time I hear a minister criticising a Labour MP from the 2010 intake trying to blame him/her for the errors of the 1997-2010 Labour administration. That administration made big mistakes – I saw some of them from an insider perspective, just as I saw those that the current administration has made. Is one of the reasons they do this because Parliament has no mechanism to haul back Brown and Blair – the two main decision makers of those years – and get them to explain what they did and what they got wrong with the benefit of the long look back?

Where were the digital democracy activists?

This was something I asked myself repeatedly. This is something I’m really going to sink my analytical teeth into in the weeks ahead. I’m not going to be calling individuals out. The mistake I made early on was not making clear what my needs and expectations were, and then not following this up with individual approaches of support over the period of time the campaign was up and running.

When I look at the social media activity of other parties in terms of direct campaigning, there’s been very little. As of today – polling day, Puffles’ Facebook page has more ‘likes’ (124) than both Cambridge Liberal Democrats (84) AND Cambridge Labour Party (110). Only Cambridge Greens has more (135). Neither Cambridge Conservatives (which has a closed ‘friend’ account) nor UKIP has a Cambridge-based FB page. This metric should NOT be taken as an equivalent of votes at the ballot box. All of our pages are conspicuous by the lack of conversation that takes place on them. Only The Greens seem to have used their page to publicise events on theirs on a regular basis. Why haven’t all of us been using these pages to share more content – in particular more diverse content?

A lot of learning in a very short space of time

I did my first street leafletting session locally – with Ceri. It was something I later had a Twitter conversation with local councillor Carina O’Reilly. In a strange way, she’s both encouraged and ‘baited’ (not in the negative sense) to get me to do some of the more traditional campaigning methods. With good reason. The reason being you get a very different insight into what a community is really like. You end up talking to almost everyone who walks past – and you don’t have much choice as to who that is. That is because they have something that you want – their vote. (Or in my case, simply encouraging them to turn out and vote per se).

You can’t afford to be picky and just approach the people you think will be ‘nice’. In that sense, I noticed similarities between the people I was meeting and some of the same people who, nearly two decades ago I served on the checkout at the local supermarket. When you’re on the checkout – especially if you’re on the cigarette counter, you don’t have a choice of who you serve. It’s whoever walks into the shop. And everyone needs food.

I guess it’s one of those strange things where for all the social media stuff, I probably had a better insight of my community when I worked at the supermarket than I do today – simply because you could observe with your own eyes and through conversations with customers what the people in our community are like. Remember that at the time, I was also attending the most local college & drank regularly in one of the two pubs along the road  as well as working. I’m surprised local parties don’t have stalls at local supermarkets – or why some supermarkets ban political parties from having such stalls near by. Want someone who knows their community inside out? Find someone who works on a checkout at a local supermarket. Far better than any digitally-enabled policy-type – especially one that stays visibly hidden behind a screen.

Sharing the learning

Local parties collect a huge amount of information when campaigning locally. Yet few people outside politics know how political parties do this, let alone how they use this information. There’s a tension here. The information that they have is very useful from a community action perspective but it is also very useful for their political opponents. Thus they won’t share it. (Why should they? They did the foot-pounding to collect it in the first place). Hence why a number of comments from local party activists, candidates and councillors has been along the lines of:

“Well if you did door-to-door knocking you’d know…”

While regular door-to-door knocking gives an individual a huge amount of knowledge of a community, the presence isn’t something universally acknowledged or reciprocated by residents. For example while local Labour types have mentioned my parents knowing our local councillors, my brother who lives in the same ward commented that he had no clue who our local councillors were, and that he’d never met them. The reason? He works long hours and commutes to London – just like I used to. Not everyone is there when you’re knocking on doors. What might work for one demographic may not work for another.

Understanding and appreciating the gaps in Cambridge

This comes from living in both London and Brighton – it’s as if you have to move out of your hometown to appreciate its faults and what it’s missing. In the run up to the election, I’ve found that it’s been difficult to have the open and honest conversation about the issues Cambridge faces. The reason from my perspective is that what I’m campaigning on does not match national political story lines. When was the last time you heard the TV media saying: “And on the election campaign trail today, it is expected that digital democracy is going to dominate the headlines…”? This is where the media has become incredibly lazy, reading the pre-prepared press releases about what a senior politician is going to say at a set-piece event, and then ‘reporting’ it as what the public were talking about. One of the reasons why so many journalists turned up to Farage’s aborted carnival was that it was so utterly unpredictable and bizarre – and more ‘interesting’ as a spectacle than ‘politician makes speech trailed in media, reading out key lines to take’. (Have any journalists and editors/producers asked themselves: “Why is this newsworthy?” repeatedly and come up with a decent explanation? Just because someone is a senior politician does not make what that person does newsworthy).

Four world-views in Cambridge that seldom meet

From what I’ve learnt out and about, they seem to be as follows:

  • My neighbourhood and the town centre
  • Cambridge and the surrounding towns and villages
  • London
  • International

These world-views are not static – they are dynamic and change depending on an individual’s circumstances. Settling down to have a family can change someone’s world-view from London or International to neighbourhood and town centre. I’ve seen it happen. These world-views also are potentially in conflict with each other because of the lack of understanding each one has of the others. Throughout childhood my world view was my neighbourhood and the town centre. North of the river was somewhere I hardly ever went. The culture at the time was never about getting out and about and exploring. I wish it were different. When I was at university and in my early years of the civil service my mindset was international. In my later civil service years it was London-based. Today? It’s a strange mix of all four – taking the best bits from all & blending them together.

This is one of the things I believe Cambridge needs to do if it is to become greater than the sum of its parts.



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