Confrontation in an age of anxiety


Because standing for election can be a frightening undertaking

This post follows on from one I wrote almost two-and-a-half years ago – Cowardice vs courage. Re-reading it now, it seems to be standing the test of time. In particular this line:

“Courage for me involves ‘feeling the fear and doing it anyway’ – or even doing it because you feel the fear.”

I think it was @Rattlecans who told me that courage is not something you feel, but something you see in other people. Over the past month or so I can’t ever recall having ‘felt courageous’ in what I had done. I certainly felt frightened, afraid, vulnerable and exposed – but also felt at the same time I had started something that I could no longer stop. It just would not have been right to have stopped with the whole Puffles election thing half-way through.

There is a lot of fear out there

Yet I don’t get the sense that senior politicians really understand the things that are driving it. If they did, the election results last week would have been very different. In the cases of both Cameron and Miliband, their recent statements read as if the electorate backed up both their positions at the same time, even though it was a third party not represented in the House of Commons that topped the poll!

In the case of Miliband, I stated in my last blogpost that he got his strategy wrong. (See here). He’s now in the difficult position of being forced to change his approach as a result of not coming top in the Euro elections. It reminds me of the position some tabloids took about the Liberal Democrats pre-2010. They simply did not report about the party, so as far as their readers were concerned the party didn’t exist – until the formation of the Coalition changed that.

Political policy uncertainty making things worse?

As far as the Euro elections were concerned, all three of the main Westminster parties had too many basic policy questions unanswered. At least with The Greens and UKIP you pretty much knew what they stood for.

David Cameron:

Renegotiate Britain’s relationship with Europe. Sounds great, but as Ska Keller of the European Green Party on Channel 4 News on 27 May asked, ‘What specific regulations do you want to get rid of?’ (Watch it again here). Her opponent despite repeated pressure from Jon Snow could not name a single one. Cameron has been unable to list the specifics, let alone indicate what the net benefits financially would be. He’s not even given a firm starting position on negotiations. Vs UKIP who simply want out, it looks like dithering.

Ed Miliband:

A policy vacuum. There was nothing there to compare what Labour would do (other than not have a referendum unless more powers were transferred to the EU) compared with UKIP. (See my blogpost here on what he could have done instead).

Nick Clegg:

Stay in the EU. Which is fine in principle but it leaves the problems – both perceived and real – unsolved in the mind of the electorate. Combine that with the lack of credibility Nick Clegg has with the electorate; people simply won’t listen to him or believe him.

UKIP vs The Greens:

At least with these two the electorate are much more sure of what they are getting. With UKIP it’s out of the EU, and with the Greens it’s a changed EU that’s much more environmentally friendly. So with one it’s ‘Non-green change by getting out’, and with the other it’s ‘Green change while staying in’. You may not like one or either of them but at least you know where you stand.

Confronting your opponents and adversaries 

Surveying the scene at 6am outside Cambridge Guildhall following the elections – me and Ceri stayed all night – Labour were naturally delighted while the Liberal Democrats looked a sad, sorry sight. Utterly exhausted not just by the all-nighter but also by the campaign and over a decade running the council. There was a very rare moment where raw political passion exploded in the hall after the announcement of a very close result – when Cambridge Labour broke out into ‘The Red Flag’ (have a listen here courtesy of Richard Taylor and BBC Cambridgeshire). It was all the more powerful from where I was sitting opposite because it was so spontaneous too. The political equivalent of scoring a goal in the FA Cup Final.

Having seen the two tribes go to war, I’m glad me and Puffles were not caught in that cross-fire. At the same time, I never got the sense that Cambridge Green Party were ever seen as or taken as a threat by the two main parties in Cambridge. The Tories were always going to get a kicking from both of them – and the former polled poorly given the high point of 2010 when they beat Labour into 2nd place at the general election. How would both Cambridge Greens and Cambridge Conservatives react to the local Labour and Liberal Democrat machines turning on them as they seek to expand their presences in Cambridge? The reason I ask is because both parties have a number of younger new activists on the scene who may not have experienced what it’s like to have the guns of opposing local party machines turned on them. At some stage though, both The Greens and the Tories in Cambridge are going to have to go beyond standing paper candidates if they want to expand their presence and increase their vote count. This means finding candidates willing to do more than just stand up and be counted – but to campaign and take some hits in the process.

You need either a thick skin or a lot of support. Preferably both

One of the reasons I have felt the way I have throughout the campaign is because I lacked both of the above. When a push came to shove, Ceri was the only person who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with me locally. At public events bar the count, it was just me and Puffles. One event after another, reaching out, listening, asking questions, facing scepticism and reservations from new audiences and new faces…it was exhausting.

At times, the lack of responses and actions from the various online communities and activists in Cambridge was sobering and frustrating. It wasn’t that I wanted them to engage with me, but rather to engage with the candidates standing for parties that covered Cambridge – for they were the ones seeking power. I confess that at times I also got a little angry too. For a city with a reputation for being all digital and dynamic, much of the online discussion about the elections remained in the little guildhall bubble. At the same time I was taking fire from both sides – one side saying they didn’t trust politicians and the other side saying social media has little impact. How do you bring these two sides that don’t see eye-to-eye together for the better of our city?

Why would anyone want to put themselves up to such scrutiny?

It is not the nicest of places to be when you are up there being questioned. I’ve done it in the civil service defending the policies of the government of the day, and now I’ve done it standing up for my own beliefs. (Have a listen here – me in my own words). For many, that’s a frightening place to be. Standing on a platform doing public speaking is one thing. Being scrutinised about your beliefs in public – risking ridicule and humiliation in front of a hostile audience with media reporters there is quite another. I completely understand why most people wouldn’t go near anything like this. Not everyone is cut out for public speaking. Not everyone is cut out for handling this sort of scrutiny in this manner.

If you want to make an impact, at some stage you will come across people who will oppose you – and people who will not like you too

Interestingly, these people won’t necessarily be the same. You may even find people who despise you but agree with what you are saying and doing. Personality clashes and all that. Over the past few months in particular, I’ve stumbled across people who have been hostile to me.

“You have enemies? Good! That means you stood for something, sometime in your life!”

A quotation attributed to Churchill. I’m also reminded of this exchange between former Conservative MP Charles Wardle on the Public Accounts Committee, where he roasts alive the then Home Office Permanent Secretary over the passports fiasco of about 14 years ago – have a read of the transcript here. There is a small part of me that is taking the mindset of Mr Wardle on this. Having been patiently trying to help things along since 2011, I’ve felt a more assertive (and sometimes aggressive – even I’ve stepped over the line once or twice verbally) tone has occasionally been required. That has unsettled some people in some institutions and understandably they’ve resisted – and even shot back. I have to keep telling myself that “this is par for the course – deal with it!”

‘I’m glad someone else is doing it’

This sort of brings me on to a tiny little challenge to all of you reading this – because me and Puffles made history – literally. It’s gone down on record that Puffles was on the ballot paper for the Coleridge Ward in the 2014 local council elections in Cambridge, polling 89 votes. (See here). In the days before I announced Puffles’ candidacy, I blogged about how I felt.

“It’s as if some ‘unseen voice’ is now holding a mirror up to me, telling me:

“It’s your turn now”

I can’t say it wasn’t coming.”

Well…that was my turn. It’s been and gone, and the election results have been published. For those of you that are unhappy about the local and/or European election results, my challenge to you is this:

“What one-off action or behaviour change are you going to make as a result of your dissatisfaction with the election results?”

Now, I’m not asking people to do what I did by standing for election and campaigning. Actually, the smaller and more achievable the better. It could be something as small as:

  • Doing some online research about community and campaigning groups in your area
  • Share an inspiring book with someone
  • Designing, printing and displaying a poster with the election results of your area in a local community centre. (See my effort at the end of this post – I’ve made several ward-specific versions of this & have displayed them in local supermarkets)
  • Going along to a local council meeting that you’ve never been to before – just to see who your local councillors are and find out what they do
  • Dropping an email/social media post with some questions for your local political parties to respond to
  • Publicising a local community event to your friends and family
  • Overthrow the global capitalist class ruining our planet and replacing it with a utopian federation of co-operative autonomous collectives that live in peace and harmony with each other

OK – I was joking with the last one. (I think!) What matters is that you do something different to what you normally do – something that makes you feel just a little bit uncomfortable. Perhaps together we can be greater than the sum of our parts. Because remember, for bad stuff to happen it requires good people like yourselves to do nothing to stop it. Please don’t be one of those inactive good people.

What say you?

My DIY results poster for the Coleridge Ward, Cambridge 2014 local council elections
My DIY results poster for the Coleridge Ward, Cambridge 2014 local council elections

One thought on “Confrontation in an age of anxiety

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s