Filming the Cambridge 2015 elections


Observations so far

For those of you outside of Cambridge, this 20-minute exchange on BBC-East covers a general exchange between the five party candidates. I am also adding videos from the election campaign to my Cambridge general election 2015 playlist here.

As far as tightly-fought constituencies go, Cambridge has to be one of the most intense. The number of public debates/hustings that are taking place speaks volumes – as does the attendance. I’ve filmed or attended over half a dozen already, and all have had well over 100 people or have been standing room only. Richard Taylor has also filmed several that I’ve not been able to attend. See his videos here. Due to the sheer number of events – over 40 in Cambridge alone, we are informally dividing up who does which events. For example recently he covered a UKIP public meeting in North Cambridge, whereas I covered a hustings just outside Cambridge, in South East Cambridgeshire whose residents otherwise had very limited video footage.

People are genuinely interested. Even outside of Cambridge in South Cambridgeshire and South-East Cambridgeshire, residents and candidates have told me how interested local communities are – reflected by huge turnout in our surrounding towns & villages.

A pano from my mobile at the South-East Cambs hustings at St Vigor's Church, Fulbourn just outside Cambridge.
A pano from my mobile at the South-East Cambs hustings at St Vigor’s Church, Fulbourn just outside Cambridge. Locals were astonished at the standing-room-only attendance in the main church.

“Is it the same group of liberal affluent middle class activists going from hustings to hustings as Patrick O’Flynn claimed?”

Mr O’Flynn made the comments in one of Richard’s videos – see here from 1 minute in. Taking out some of the headline-type comments, Mr O’Flynn has made an understandable tactical judgement call: What’s the point of him going to events organised by groups that are very likely to be hostile to his party’s policies and manifesto? Far better to use limited time, resources & activists targeting those parts of the city that are most likely to increase his vote, and possibly deliver a councillor or two. Hence his non-appearances at events organised by the Cambridge Cycling Campaign, Transition Cambridge/Cambridge Carbon Footprint and Amnesty International/Oxfam Cambridge.

While it might be irritating for some groups and organisers that he’s not engaging with them, as he said in the video it’s up to him how he decides to run his campaign. Ultimately the candidates and their agents are the responsible people – just as I was last year in Coleridge. If people feel strongly enough, they can challenge them at the events they organise – as a number of Labour and Green Party activists did at their event with Douglas Carswell.

Young activists and women take to the city

In contrast to the UKIP meeting which, according to young Labour activist and former Trumpington candidate Tim Sykes was predominantly male-attended, women have been making their presence felt across the city. For example in this video clip featuring Green Party leader Natalie Bennett in Cambridge. That said, they are still in a minority – reflecting only one in five of the candidates (Chamali Fernando of the Conservatives) is a woman.

The visit from Liberal Youth activists to Cambridge was the largest in this election campaign – over fifty activists coming from across the country for a weekend of campaigning with Julian Huppert.

Photo credit: @ReelectJulian Twitter account.
Photo credit: @ReelectJulian Twitter account.

Buzzing, articulate, passionate and understandably wide-eyed & naive in some cases, the young activists have brought much-needed energy and enthusiasm to campaigning across the city.

“You mean they’ve not all been chased out of town?”

Not at all. Activists from all parties have mentioned that members of the public they’ve spoken to on the doorstep on the whole have been very positive about someone wanting to engage & listen to their views about politics. The public generally appreciates that despite cynicism about politics in general, somebody has to do politics because if no one did, public services would shut down.

The Twitter bubble

It’s only when you follow the politicians and activists away from Twitter do you get a feel of how much of a bubble the social media political world is. While those of us active in the political and public policy world live, eat, drink & breathe politics, the vast majority of the population does not. For example while Conservative Ms Fernando (who has since left Twitter) may have been in the receiving end of some self-inflicted social media coverage over comments made at recent hustings, on television some locally told me she came across much more strongly. Even in a city like Cambridge that may be the only time many voters get to see the candidates almost-in-the-flesh and in their own voices. Everything else locally may as well be noise in some far-away forest.

“What do the video stats say?”

My Youtube channel stats from 21 March 2015 to 17 April 2015.
My Youtube channel stats from 21 March 2015 to 17 April 2015.

Note how things have been bumbling along until the very recent upturn on the back of uploading lots of new content. The context of the numbers is that the videos are of Cambridge-related events. Therefore to have had that many views is pleasantly surprising.

“Going where the silence is the loudest”

I had the choice to go to the UKIP event – & was genuinely torn between wanting to see Cambridge’s UKIP activists in the flesh vs wanting to make sure South-East Cambridgeshire had some video footage of their debates. When Richard told me he was covering the former event, I went to the latter – which strangely enough was much easier for me to get to as the bus went almost door-to-door from my house to the venue. I was astonished when the Conservative candidate, Lucy Frazer declined me permission to film on the grounds that I had not given her enough notice. However, as this was not my neighbourhood, let alone event, I politely stepped back. As the exchange took place next to the Labour candidate Huw Jones – who agreed to the event being filmed, I took the view that it was up to the candidates  (& to a wider extent, the local electorate) to debate amongst themselves the rights & wrongs.

Both Mr Jones, and Jonathan Chatfield of the Liberal Democrats said the event should have been filmed.

There may also have been other reasons (as the next paragraph explains) why candidates do not want debates to be filmed. But that is for the candidates to make clear to their electorate, not for me to speculate why or why not outside of the reasons given. I see my role in this election as that of a community reporter and a community cameraperson. Tweet what has happened, record and upload as many good photographs and as much decent footage as possible, & let the candidates & activists argue it out. I don’t have enough mental health spoons for anything more. I’m saving my comments & opinions until after the election. That’s my plan anyway!

As things stand, requests have been made by Mr Jones & Mr Chatfield to enable filming at the final two hustings for the constituency. After the debate, I did manage to film three short interview clips with three of the candidates – Mr Jones, Mr Chatfield and surprisingly Ms Frazer (following advice from Vicky Ford MEP, whose intervention I am grateful for). See the playlist here. Clive Semmens of the Greens having declined for personal reasons and Deborah Rennie of UKIP having departed earlier to join Richard & company across town. For info, Mr Semmens disclosed at the hustings that, like me he has long term mental health condition. As a result, he said that public speaking didn’t come naturally to him and that speaking on such platforms was incredibly exhausting for him. This is something I can testify to. I was exhausted after this hustings for Puffles last year.

“Oh Puffles! You’re hardly Paxo! Why didn’t you sink your teeth into the candidates & rip them to pieces?!?”

Because to be honest that would have been far too easy. The bigger challenge in this current environment is allowing politicians to come across as being like us – human beings. People who have similar insecurities, vulnerabilities, passions & emotions. The way ***not*** to do it is to go in guns blazing with: “When are you going to resign as a candidate following this outrageous re-tweet that demonstrates you are completely unfit for public office?!?!” etc, etc.

Starting from the point of not having ***any*** video footage of the candidates

This is my starting point. Given the state of democracy and politics at the moment, I take the view that in order to improve things, we’ve got to get to the stage where people feel they can have mature & substantive conversations with their local politicians. There’s no point in going straight for the robust substantive conversations if people don’t see local politicians as people they want to have a conversation with. Hence I see my role as inviting people to ask themselves the following question:

“Are these the sort of people I would like to have a conversation with about issues in my local area?”

Now have a look at this video featuring the two leading candidates for the South Cambridgeshire seat, Heidi Allen for the Conservatives and Seb Kindersley for the Liberal Democrats that I filmed in late 2014.

Compared to normal politics interviews, note the face & body language of Heidi & Seb. It’s far more positive than what you see on TV. Also standing are Simon Saggers for the Greens, Dan Greef for Labour & Marion Mason for UKIP.

“Why do you want that sort of posture & disposition?”

The simple point is most of the local political parties have had a very limited amount of video coverage available online. Last summer I set myself a challenge of changing all that, having given up on pleading with the parties to create the footage themselves in the run up to the 2014 elections. But being on video for the first time is intimidating. It took me ages to get used to it. Why should they all be experts first time around? Therefore it’s in everyone’s interest to get politicians, candidates & activists comfortable with the medium first, before diving into local Paxo-style grillings!

“Why not grill them more? Doesn’t the dragon bite?”

Very rarely & sparingly. It’s more effective that way. As I sometimes say, when Puffles bites government policy very hard, ministers get criticised by Parliament – as happened here in 2013. At the same time, I’d rather more people took an interest in local democracy, came along to public meetings & had conversations using social media directly with their elected representatives. Our city can only benefit.

“Who is the most accessible?”

The Greens & the Liberal Democrats have made things the easiest for me so far. Given Richard’s coverage of UKIP and given much of their campaigning/events seem to be north of the river (I’m south – it takes an hour to cross town by bus), I’m leaving it to Richard to give his already extensive coverage of them. In the meantime, it allows me to expand south-and-eastwards to catch the edges of the constituencies of South Cambridgeshire and South-East Cambridgeshire.

Labour’s has been variable – reflecting the institutional close top-down media management the party became famous for in the mid-1990s. I generally only find out about big-name visitors by friends inside the party who tip me off. On a frontline activist level however, they have been friendly and personable. In the grand scheme of things, it’s the latter that matters to me, not the former. Several of the senior politicians who have been coming to town were people I was familiar with when they were ministers in the last Labour government. I’m more interested in covering the local history that won’t be covered in the local or national press. Hence looking forward to covering the campaigns in particular by their student activists and also some of their local council candidates.

It’s not been straight-forward with the Conservatives vis-a-vis the other parties – in part for reasons I’ve described in my previous post. Comparing the people & networks inside the local parties, I’ve got to know quite a number of Labour & Liberal Democrat campaigners because many of them are or have been councillors in the city. In Cambridge we also have local council elections – Phil Rodgers listing all of the candidates here. With The Greens, I’m familiar with several of them because they are active in some of the community groups & geographical areas I am active in.

“Who’s going to win?”

I still think it’s too close to call. In Cambridge there are too many variables, such as:

  • How many people will vote for Dr Huppert despite his Liberal Democrat party ticket?
  • How many people who did not vote for Mr Zeichner/Labour in 2010 will vote for him in 2015?
  • How many people unconvinced by Labour will switch either to the Greens or UKIP?
  • How many Conservatives (who came second last time) will switch either to the Liberal Democrats (given both the Coalition & Dr Huppert’s record in a party part of it) or to UKIP?
  • How many people who did not vote in 2010 will vote as a result of things like the higher profile five-party race, the Coalition’s record, the qualities of the candidates, the calibre of party leaders and the content of manifestos?
  • Where will the student vote go?

We live in interesting times…

(Style note – for the purposes of the elections, I’m going with formal titles of the candidates after their first mention of their full name to de-personalise the content).


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