Reporting from the first gathering in Cambridge of the Women’s Equality Party (WEP), and also from The Green Party’s summer gathering
Earlier this year, former Radio 4 presenter Sandi Toksvig quit the BBC to help set up the new Women’s Equality Party. They’ve had a number of gatherings in London. Recently I became aware of their presence in Cambridge on Twitter – shortly afterwards they started following Puffles. The early responses from Cambridge’s local democracy Twitteratti was from Phil Rodgers – now back in the Liberal Democrat fold.
I rocked up half-way through (mental health/messed up body clock) around 3pm to a room with over 50 people inside, all of them women. While I was expecting the vast majority of the people participating to be women, I didn’t expect there to be a) so many of them and b) no familiar faces from the local democracy scene in Cambridge. Funnily enough, being the only bloke in a crowded room hardly registered with me in the way it did with some of the regulars that accidentally stumbled into the meeting. In large part that’s down to training with the Rollerbillies where often there will only be one or two of us men in a hall of dozens of women skaters preparing for competitive roller-derby. (They don’t have a men’s team). In my case I’m learning in order to get some moving video footage, filming while skating alongside some of the skaters to make some videos for them.
(Here’s one I made earlier)
The comical moment of the afternoon was this:
Pete strolled in, looked like he’d just seen a ghost…and ran out. Fortunately I spotted him in deep but friendly conversation with two of the participants after the event.
“What did people taking part discuss?”
The organisers asked two very good questions for such a first meeting:
In the case of Q1, there was a lot of crossover with Be the change – Cambridge‘s (BTCC) conversation cafe event last September: people in groups identifying local issues and then identifying how they might go about responding to them. In my past experience of such events both inside & outside the civil service, the issues people raise are inevitably a reflection of the backgrounds & life experiences of those taking part. Just as with BTCC, we were never going to be able to bring on board representation from every part of our city – much as we would have wanted to. This was also something the WEP participants discussed for their organisation: how do they make it diverse in terms of people and experiences? I am all ears on this because trying to achieve this is ***and*** sustain it is incredibly difficult.
On Q2, it was finding out who could offer what. In my case it was introducing myself as a community reporter & blogger who could do video interviews similar to what I did in around the general election, thus giving them video content for their website. Here’s one example with newly-elected MP for South Cambridgeshire, Heidi Allen.
“What does the WEP stand for?”
Their objectives are here – but as a newly-formed party, don’t expect to see an in-depth platform of detailed & thoroughly-researched policies (ie what, if in power they would do to achieve the objectives set out above) overnight. They’ve only just opened for membership for a start. This is not to say there are no policies being discussed or that no research has been done. Quite the opposite. The point is about the ***legal requirements*** that registered political parties (which the WEP is in the process of becoming) have to meet. See the Electoral Commission here. Until the party nationally has agreed what its policy-making processes are, and then put them into action, no one will be in a position to say what their specific policies are. As a comparison, here’s a summary of policy-making for Tories, Lib Dems & Labour.
“Why can’t someone just stand up and say: “This is our policy!”?”
Because someone else in the party might disagree. How many times in the general election did candidates forget their policies or had to be corrected? Hence needing a suitable process to agree & get consensus on policy.
In May 2014, I stood as Puffles in Coleridge Ward for the 2014 Cambridge City Council elections – mainly because I didn’t think councillors were listening to young people & because the lack of social media use by local public sector institutions compared to pioneers across the country. My manifesto is here. And the first question I was asked at the King’s College hustings was about fracking. I didn’t have a policy on it in my manifesto, so I made one up. On the spot. Fortunately I made it consistent with one of the manifesto themes on Green Cambridge, & said I was against it due to climate change. As a party with a fast-growing membership, you can’t get away with that.
“Will they be a force in the future?”
Too early to tell, but in terms of political plurality (ie having more challenges to the existing political parties) their presence is certainly a welcome one. Not least because the people taking part were people I had not seen at other meetings before. As Pete from the pub said to the participants outside, it’s all very well having meetings inside the pub, but they also need to be ‘out there’ talking to the people. Something far easier said than done. I’m rubbish at it.
“Will we see their activists at local area committee meetings?”
I hope so. The contribution I made to the meeting was to invite people to get involved with their local area committees, and for those outside Cambridge City, in their parish councils – ie at neighbourhood level. I also mentioned the Cambridge Central Library campaign win as an example of how they can succeed on issues they are passionate about.
“What did The Greens make of this new political movement?”
Interestingly, at the same time as the WEP gathering, around the corner the Greens had a summer open space event for their activists – followed by a well-attended summer ceilidh that I popped into prior to a photographing the sunset from the edge of town. Given where the two groups are, it’ll be interesting to see what the relationship between the two will be like.
What’s really hitting home about Cambridge Greens vs their local political opponents is their advertising of social gatherings online – in particular to Cambridge’s very active environmental communities. It’s something I touched upon in this article ages ago, yet for whatever reason Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats seem to be much more cautious about who they advertise events to. I think it’s a shame because whenever Labour and Lib Dem activists have organised talks and events, I have found them to be incredibly interesting and of the type that many other members of the public would find interesting too.
Labour trialled a ‘Socialism on tap’ series of events a few years back, featuring current & former Labour MPs, which was excellent. The speakers talked openly about what got them into politics, their values & life experiences, and responded openly , substantively & positively to the difficult questions of the day. Gavin Shuker MP springs to mind as one speaker. It would be great to see the parties actively publicising a series of events this coming autumn term that goes far beyond their normal circles, to members of the public. (And if there’s someone who repeatedly interrupts & is generally anti-social, kick them out. Life’s too short!)
“What will the established local parties make of the WEP?”
It’s slightly more complicated for Cambridge Labour and Cambridge Liberal Democrats because in the grand scheme of things, they are the ones holding all bar four of the seats on Cambridge City Council. If anything, it’ll come down to whether they stand candidates for local elections and if so, how they campaign. (Labour praised The Greens in the recent Romsey by-election for fighting a ‘clean’ campaign). That said, the issues the WEP discussed in Cambridge were ones that went far beyond party politics. I can’t think of any of the issues raised that Labour, the Lib Dems & The Greens would have disagreed with.
The first question they all might want to ask is how was it that over 50 women interested in politics met up in Cambridge right under their noses (across the road from Cambridge Labour’s HQ!), and no one thought to ensure someone popped along to see what it was all about. A lovely hot sunny day and they still chose to spend the afternoon in the pub talking politics – while on the other side of the bridge a similar number of Green Party activists were doing similar, followed by food, music & dancing.
A cross-party ‘Women in Democracy – Cambridge’ event?
Given the inevitable rise in political party membership as a result of the general election, I wonder what such an event would look like. Perhaps one of the branches of the Cambridge WI to consider? (Bluebelles, Cam City WI, Cambridge Ladybirds). Why women in democracy? Look at the chart of councillors for Cambridgeshire County Council.
Food for thought?
Oh – and the photo from the top of Lime Kiln Hill.