Local democracy social media – comparing political parties in Cambridge post-2015 elections


Some thoughts following tweets & posts from Labour’s Cllr Carina O’Reilly & Lib Dem former councillor Daisy Benson

The Twitter post concerned is as below:

Ms Benson’s blogpost on old vs new party members (in the context of Liberal Democrats – but is worth reading by all parties) is at https://englandisthehomeoflostideas.wordpress.com/2015/08/01/how-libdemfightback-found-its-voice-and-is-teaching-us-oldies-a-lesson/

Longtime readers may be familiar with my ongoing persistent poking of local political parties to improve how they use social media to have conversations with local residents and activists in & around Cambridge. It was one of the main drivers of Puffles standing for election in 2014. (89 votes – beat UKIP 🙂 )

Political parties aren’t under any obligation to tell me anything as per Cllr O’Reilly’s post. What Labour or any other party chooses to tell people is entirely up to them. What I’m examining here is the impact, and a comparison of approaches. Let’s have a look at the four parties represented on Cambridge City Council.

Cambridge Conservatives:

Cambridge Green Party

Cambridge Labour Party

Cambridge Liberal Democrats

Now, compared to where we were a few years ago, nominally we now have full coverage on the three main social media platforms: A website, Twitter & Facebook. Progress.

“Here we go again. Crazy dragon dude saying Twitter will win elections. It’s door-to-door campaigning that matters!”

If anything, from where I was watching it was the sustained campaign by the print media that had a massive impact on the election campaign. 2015 wasn’t the social media election. It was the national newspapers’ election. My anecdotal take on the print media is that most people (thinking those that don’t follow day-to-day politics closely) don’t buy their newspaper of choice because of their political coverage – especially the tabloids. With some of my old housemates it was things like crosswords, sport, jubblies, celebrity gossip and the TV guide. Yet if that newspaper is the only insight into politics that you have on a daily basis…exactly. Then picture the doorstep conversation with a political activist:

Resident: “Yeah – wot is your party doing about asylum-seeking terrorists living in five-star hotels that we’re paying for?”

Party activist: “That’s simply not true!”

Resident: “Are you calling me a liar?!?!”

And thus the party activist is automatically on the back foot. This is even though we as a society have issues about how informed we are about things – on refugees in 2000, on just about everything in 2013, and on just about everything again in 2014. Hence various calls in 2015 to improve the teaching of politics & citizenship in schools in the run up to 2015.

“If it’s all mainstream media, why bother with social media?”

In the context of Cambridge, it matters because of the big changes that are happening here and some of the devolution of funding & powers looming with the City Deal (which far too few people know about). With local news outlets having a very limited capacity to cover politics, social media allows local journalists in particular to follow what’s going on without having to attend every single meeting. You only need to look at the number of videos Richard Taylor and I have had embedded in news articles for the Cambridge News. It’s also why I’m experimenting with ‘Introducing…’ videos such as the one below.

That video alone has had a total 4 hours of video footage viewed by over 70 people with almost zero publicity.

“Yeah – but why should our members-only society tell you stuff? You might leak it to opponents!”

From my perspective that would completely undermine everything I’m trying to do to get more people involved in local democracy. The reason why I’m doing this is I want to see decision-making improved in the city because I want my home town to be a better place, not an expanded finishing school for ‘crammers‘ or a safe haven for property speculators. The difference I can make is to get more people involved, and in order to do this I continue to persuade local political parties to make it easier for new people, members or not, to get involved with them. This is because they are the ones with the powers & influence. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read a reader’s letter in the local paper about how someone must do something about bad stuff happening in the city other than ‘clowncillors’. What if you are that ‘somebody’?

“We’re still not going to tell you what we’re doing!”

This is where we get into the comparison of approaches online. Let’s compare the Facebook pages of the parties.

  • Conservatives https://www.facebook.com/CambridgeTories – 605 ‘likes’
  • Greens https://www.facebook.com/Cambridgegreenparty – 997 ‘likes’
  • Labour https://www.facebook.com/CambridgeLabourParty – 404 ‘likes’
  • Liberal Democrats https://www.facebook.com/CambridgeLDs – 191 ‘likes’

Not a patch on the over 5,000 fans of the Disco Kenny Appreciation Society. What we don’t know is the geographical distribution of the fans. But given that all bar four of the councillors on Cambridge City Council are Labour or Liberal Democrat councillors, it’s interesting to see that both the Greens & Conservatives have more fans on Facebook. As far as content & activities are concerned, The Greens upload a greater volume of more diverse content more regularly. Video footage, party events, links to national party news, links to national party announcements. Even if I didn’t do what I do following local democracy, as a local resident I feel more informed about what’s going on in The Greens locally than what’s going on with other parties.

Leadership debates – a missed opportunity for both Labour and the Liberal Democrats?

Liberal Democrats’ leadership

The Lib Dems had a hustings in Cambridge in the contest between Tim Farron & Norman Lamb. The hustings was a members only affair – hence why I didn’t go along to it but had a number of friends – a few who are new members, who did. Given Mr Farron’s electrifying speech following his subsequent victory over Mr Lamb, I wonder what the impact would have been if a full hustings and Q&A session had been made open to anyone who wanted to go along. See below for Mr Farron’s speech

Ms Benson (https://twitter.com/_DaisyBenson on Twitter) has been persistent in calling for changes in her party – in particular on diversifying membership of, and candidates for her party.

The Newbies group is a public group, established groups tend to be secret…The main difference I’ve observed between the Newbies Facebook group and others that abound in the Lib Dems is in terms of tone –  posts and comments tend to be generally positive, hopeful, open and discursive.

In Cambridge, this autumn could have a significant impact on what happens to the Liberal Democrats. In the 12 months leading up to the general election, I attended a number of events hosted by Cambridge Student Liberal Democrats. I couldn’t help but notice how few women there were at those events. This was despite the visits of Lynne Featherstone (video https://vimeo.com/120850313 & Jo Swinson (video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jip3E3yI-Jc) and Baroness Sal Brinton (video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wsg8GqkBCJo) amongst others. I’ll be interested to see what the demographics of the new membership is locally, given that over 10,000 people have joined the Liberal Democrats nationally since the general election. (Anyone got the numbers for Cambridge & South Cambridgeshire?)

Labour leadership

Both Andy Burnham and Tom Watson have been in Cambridge recently to talk to Labour Party members and activists. A couple of friends who weren’t members went along to Mr Watson’s talk & found out it was open to everyone. I’ve met Mr Watson on a couple of occasions before – someone more than capable of holding his own in a debate. So why so little publicity whether online or offline of his visit? If you’ve got some of your most high profile politicians visiting the city, doesn’t it make sense to enable them to meet as many people as possible? Yet as Cllr O’Reilly tweeted just now:

This brings me back to the mindset & culture issue that Ms Benson raised in her blogpost.

Let’s stop shutting people and conduct our discussions in open forum – not exclusively or behind closed doors.

Compare it with the blogpost by Guardian Columnist and Labour Party member Alex Andreou – read from the sub-heading: Labour as a private members club at https://sturdyblog.wordpress.com/2015/08/02/on-labour-being-taken-over-by-lefties/

“But your not a member. Why would we want to publicise when and where our members meet and socialise?”

For me, that mindset is completely at odds with the builders of the Romsey Town Labour Club in Cambridge whose members not only raised the money for a party social club, but who also built it in their spare time too. Next door is the Conservative Club, a place now more well-known locally for its salsa classes than for its politics. Where are the informal places that the wider community can go to knowing that they might bump into one of their local politicians? Or am I imagining an age that no longer exists?

Making gatherings energised, interesting & exciting

Over the past year I have been to events hosted by The Greens, The Liberal Democrats & The Labour Party – and all have been able to host events that are as in the sub-heading. Hence (finally) coming to the purpose of this blogpost:

To encourage local political parties to make more of their events explicitly open to non-members, and to publicise them more widely in the run up to the autumn term


Because I’ve found that when people meet and have informal conversations with politicians local & national, it helps dispel some of the negative stereotypes about politicians and politics in general. It’s one of the reasons why in 2013-14 I was creating, printing & displaying posters (at my own expense) in community venues and local colleges where current & former ministers were speaking in Cambridge.

From the perspective of Labour, The Liberal Democrats & The Greens, they should consider that several thousand 16-17 year olds are going to be starting further education in Cambridge having previously attended village colleges & schools outside the city – in constituencies & council areas dominated by their Conservative opponents. (Both Heidi Allen MP & Lucy Frazer MP got over 50% of the vote in South Cambs & South East Cambs in 2015 respectively). Can your city parties help revitalise your rural parties? For the Conservatives, it’s the other way around – where in Cambridge the party was in the lowest 10% of constituency voter share despite it winning the general election.

In a nutshell though:

  • Make it easy for the general public to find out about what events & activities you are organising (& be far less secretive about it)
  • Host events in venues that are accessible for people – think public transport/car parking (I have made the mistake of organising events in places not accessible by wheelchair – a big issue for venues in Cambridge)
  • Go out of your way to make new faces feel welcome at such gatherings

After all, make us feel welcome at a buzzing event and we’re more likely to tell people about it. 🙂


3 thoughts on “Local democracy social media – comparing political parties in Cambridge post-2015 elections

  1. This post can safely be filed under “get everybody involved and we can all make great decisions together” The reality is a bit more complex as the Labour party is currently discovering to its own detriment (see Corbyn).

    The problem with the “open it up” and “listen to the people’s view” is that the people who think they are worth listening to are usually the ones best ignored. (Essentially a kind of “Dunning Kruger” effect – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning%E2%80%93Kruger_effect ). This is made worse in both the Tories and Labour where the people who join tend to already have strong biases that made them want to join the “left wing” or the “right wing” parties in the first place. Given this it doesn’t seem entirely unreasonable to have closed meetings and restrict access to those who have engaged a bit more and (hopefully) have more awareness of the issues at stake!

    Indeed the absurdity of this “everybody’s opinions are valid model” is all the more obvious when you compare it with the world of science. Can you imagine a serious physics symposium where: –
    – the general public can question the validity of “Einstein’s theory”
    – at the end of the meeting the validity of the theory can be challenged by a popular vote
    … I think its fair to say not much science would get done and progress would probably go backwards. Sure science needs to be open. Equally good socially responsible scientists try to engage with the public and help educate them. Nobody seriously think that anybody watched a bit of Star Trek can engage equally with Stephen Hawkings.

    So perhaps Carina is right and Alex Andreou is wrong (like he tends to be on almost everything!!)

  2. Antony, some of your points are valid – I would like all parties to have more events open to everyone, and we had quite a lot of them over the last few years where anyone could turn up and talk to shadow cabinet ministers as part of our policy development process. That’s great, and we should do more of it – but it’s not the same as social and internal events for members. The point of new members’ events is to meet existing members and feel welcomed into the party that you have paid to join. The point of social events for members is so that members can talk to each other. If we want to talk to non-members, we can go to the pub. And since you bring it up, the old-fashioned Labour Clubs up and down the country closed because they were financially unsustainable (they were also, incidentally, members-only).

    Transparency is laudable but not when it (a) means that non-members expect to get access to private, internal meetings or (b) when it leaves our paid-up members wondering why they bothered. As I’ve said to you on similar issues before – if you want a say in how the Labour Party works you can join the party. If you don’t, you don’t get a say – and you don’t get to come to our party events. However, I’m happy to meet you (and anyone else) for a drink or a coffee whenever you like 🙂

    1. Re your second paragraph, that’s the big problem with my argument: “What do you get in return for membership if you can get all of the benefits without being a member?” Andy Bower made this point in his argument against open primaries – saying that membership gives you the right to select candidates & influence policy. (As an aside, I’m listening to a live-stream of PCS Union rep Mark Serwotka hosting a Jeremy Corbyn rally. PCS are not a Labour-affiliated union).

      Re me & events, I mainly turn up to film interviews with speakers so that people who either don’t know about the event or cannot get to the event are able to hear what the speaker said. My convention is to turn **off** the camera at the Q&A bit because in my experience filming at such events can put people off asking questions. Looking at the data, the short interviews are the videos that get the most views. It’s effectively a ‘free service’ that creates video footage for all of you. A number of friends of mine have joined Labour on the back of seeing interviews I’ve filmed & produced. (I won’t name them here). Others have joined other parties. In that regard, see me as a community reporter/community cameraman.

      As I’ve mentioned, my aim is to get more people involved in local democracy. In the grand scheme of things, once people have started having new conversations with local councillors & activists, that’s my job done. What happens after that…well…that’s between the parties & local people. I see my role as helping explain to people how our local institutions function, & to introduce councillors & candidates on video in their own voices without worrying about ‘being caught out’. Think my interview with Cllr Zoe Moghadas at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x9_XzZ2CUiI If, after watching interviews like that people think: “Yes, I could have a reasonable conversation with her about local issues”, then I’m happy 🙂

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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