Democracy in action – Cambridge style


A by-election in the People’s Republic of Romsey (it says so on the t-shirts) along with a citizens’ revolt over library business plans

Told you.

I was the only independent face (ie outside of any political party and not council staff) at the by-election count – one of the most hotly-contested by-elections in recent times.

The results were:

The turn-out was 32.5 per cent.

Romsey was blessed with three strong women candidates. I had threatened to stand myself to help raise the profile of the contest, but in the end I didn’t need to. Labour, the Liberal Democrats & The Greens campaigned the living daylights out of the ward to the extent some of the residents put notices on their doors telling campaigners not to knock!

Too close to call?

The Liberal Democrats party-wise were the incumbent party. They were, however always going to be under huge pressure following their general election losses and a Cambridge Labour Party still buzzing from their success in Cambridge. Had Julian Huppert held his seat in Cambridge, the result may well have been different. The simple reason being that as local MP, Julian was in the media regularly. The profile alone may have been enough to strengthen the resolve of Liberal Democrat-leaning voters and/or demoralise Labour-leaning voters.

Three talented women – I hope all three of them will be holding local public office soon as paper candidates these were not.

I met all of them either during this campaign or during the general election campaign. Zoe I have known for longer as she’s a former Cambridge City Council councillor who stood down in the recent local elections – her replacement being Anna Smith -> @Anna4Labour.

To throw yourself into the frontline as a candidate is a very brave thing to do. Even more so to go door-to-door campaigning. All three parties had well-organised teams campaigning throughout the ward. All three candidates came across as bright, passionate and in their different ways, experienced. Identical they were most definitely not.

The historical context is in Phil Rodgers’ graph below

In a nutshell:

  • The Liberal Democrat vote did not fall further following the general election – could they hold Cllr Catherine Smart’s seat in the 2016 elections?
  • Labour have an additional councillor at Shire Hall
  • The Greens’ share of the vote held up in the face of strong competition from two strong opponents
  • The Tories got only 11 more votes than Puffles got in the neighbouring ward of Coleridge in 2014
  • UKIP hardly registered

“Was this a social media election?”

Not really. As far as local politics in Cambridge goes, only The Greens seem to be going beyond the Cambridge Twitter bubble and making greater use of both Facebook and digital video. The Liberal Democrats and Labour are still very much in broadcast mode. Perhaps it’s all the more stark with the Lib Dems with the loss of Julian Huppert as MP – he was a pioneer for using social media conversationally. While the party has councillors and activists who use social media regularly, inevitably they do not have the influence that Julian had as an MP. Furthermore, being in opposition means there is even less news coverage for them – something compounded by a miniscule Westminster presence – down from the mid-50s to just eight.

The Greens leaving their opponents behind with digital video

Green Party activist Michael Abberton has done a great job for the local party and is now making short local politics videos for fun. This is something that will stand them in good stead throughout the year – in particular throughout the colder winter months. For whatever reason, the other candidates declined offers to feature in videos in the run up to polling day – as is their right. Personally I leave it up to the voters to contact the candidates directly and ask any questions about this should they have any issues with it. I see my role as a community reporter and democracy activist as giving candidates the chance to introduce themselves in their own words & in their own voices. It’s up to the voters to then decide if they want to have a further conversation with the candidates, and on what issues.

“What’s the point of digital video if it didn’t affect the election?”

Two points:

  1. No one has done any research locally on what impact these sorts of videos are making
  2. The data I have from the general election shows there is demand for such videos
  3. It’s too early to tell what the long term impact will be.

Most of us are just making it up as we go along, learning as we go. I’m now at the stage where I’m recording audio separately to video because of the problems I’ve been having with on-camera microphones & the poor acoustics of buildings.

What we’ve not seen locally is the effective integration of social media and video with offline and paper-based campaigning. The Romsey by-election would have been ideal for the commuter traffic to London. People stationed at the Eastern end of the cycle bridge with cards taking potential voters to local party social media pages could have swayed it one way or another.

I managed to get one video from Cllr Zoe Moghadas just after the result was announced – see below

The acoustics in the small hall are not great – hence using a separate microphone for this.

Citizens force council library U-turn

In other news, discontent over Cambridgeshire County Council plans to turn the top floor of Cambridge’s popular central library turned into open revolt as campaigners assailed Shire Hall from all sides. Paul Lythgoe threw Freedom of Information requests over council meetings with the Kora group (which then encouraged more from Phil Rodgers & Richard Taylor – see the list here). An active group on Facebook with over 200 members kept lots of people in touch (see here) and email campaigns targeting county councillors got underway.

The ongoing campaign involving political activists from Labour, Liberal Democrats and The Greens, along with non-aligned activists and the Cambridge People’s Assembly were all involved. The culmination of all of this was Phil Rodger’s speech at Shire Hall on 26 June 2015 after councillors were persuaded to reconsider their decision – the original plans being approved by a narrow vote in the face of protests.

The deeper story for me beyond the library itself is that the campaign uncovered a host of unsatisfactory systems and processes inside Shire Hall – one that left Conservative councillors in particular feeling very angry over the conduct of this issue. What will happen in the very near future is a full council debate on how the county council is run – and in particular the relationship between council officers and elected council committees. In the extended exchanges (which I’ll put more up), county council officials came under close, detailed, forensic and hostile scrutiny the likes of which I had not seen before. In particular, the general public did not accept the assurances that officials were giving them.

Given the number of people (over 50 from the general public alone sticking around for over 2 hours) there, councillors expressed concern that the public did not have confidence – in particular that the issues arising were not around just around the principle of private sector involvement, but over issues of competency, transparency and propriety. In particular, councillors were disturbed over not being provided with all the information they felt they needed in order to make an informed decision, and that there was unnecessary secrecy in preventing the public from scrutinising plans too.

Officers not reading the mood of councillors in the room?

The intensity of questioning from the public (Dr Alison Power here, Phil Rodgers & Hilary Goy here, and on behalf of local town centre residents, Cllr Ed Cearns here) was strong. I hadn’t seen council officials struggling in the face of such forensic and multi-pronged scrutiny before. The bit that made me think: “Hang on, they’ve conceded!” was when Conservative group spokesman Cllr Steve Criswell announced the largest political group on the county council could no longer back the proposals. See the video below from 3 mins 45 seconds in.

What surprised me even more was how officers seemed to plough on defending the scheme as if nothing had happened. From that point onwards it was clear that the proposal to turn the top floor of the Cambridge Central Library into an enterprise centre run by Kora was dead in the water. It was at that point council directors could have conceded that without the backing of elected councillors, all that was needed was a vote to rescind and a decision on what alternative path to take. The longer the debate went on, the more confidence officials seemed to lose from the watching public who were there in numbers.

Lessons learned?

In the near future there will be a full council meeting which I anticipate will become very heated – not least when the working relationship between senior council officials and elected councillors comes under scrutiny. Watch this space…


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