How will Cambridgeshire’s political parties respond to county council cuts?


As Chancellor George Osborne gets the unpopular decisions out of the way early in the Government’s five year term, how will local parties respond?

The short version:

  • Mega cuts to public services across Cambridgeshire
  • Conservatives control all of the district councils in the county bar Cambridge City
  • Very little organised party-political opposition in those districts outside Cambridge City
  • Lots of new political activists joining opposition parties inside Cambridge City
  • Can Cambridge’s political parties run campaigns themed along cuts to local transport funding at bus stops along the Guided Bus route (given the news above) as a means to identifying potential supporters in towns and villages outside the city?
  • If the Tories can’t win in Queen Edith’s ward in 2016, they’ll struggle to get councillors onto Cambridge City Council for the rest of this Parliament

The long version:

It’s grim reading …but it’s what the people outside of Cambridge voted for:

The only constituency to return a non-Conservative MP in Cambridgeshire was Cambridge – with Labour’s Daniel Zeichner.

Things don’t look good at a local council level for opposition parties at district council level outside the city either.

Note how few Labour councillors there are represented on those councils – almost the polar opposite of the situation in Cambridge City, where there is only one Conservative councillor in a sea of Labour & Lib Dem councillors.

Conservatives in Cambridgeshire have been increasingly vocal about a number of central government policies that are not working for the county – Heidi Allen MP now becoming a ‘go-to’ person for the media because (refreshingly) she’s not playing the political media games and is saying things as she sees them – here on housing for instance. Critics will say (with good reason) that she voted for the Finance Bill at 2nd reading which ultimately brings in the cuts.

But then with 51% of voters in her constituency having just voted Conservative in South Cambridgeshire, to oppose a central plank of the Conservative manifesto you could argue would be going against the firm will of the people – even though that firm will (on a 73% turnout) was safe-as-houses Tory. So there’s a ‘This is what you voted for’ theme there. And not just in Ms Allen’s constituency either – all bar Lucy Frazer MP (SE Cambs) received over 50% of the share of the vote in their constituencies.

Lack of solid organised political opposition in Cambridgeshire

I got a feel for what life is like for opponents of the Conservatives in the run up to the 2015 general elections, as well as having visited a number of local government gatherings outside Cambridge. Unlike the teams of buzzing activists flying around the city of Cambridge, the task of organising and running political campaigns outside of the city fell to a small group of older and much less resourced activists spread over a much wider geographical area. With the vote in Cambridge going to the wire (599 votes in it), none of the Greens, Lib Dems nor Labour were willing to divert activists into constituencies that were not going to deliver seats. With Labour in particular being weak on the ground, where do they start?

In recent times it has been the Liberal Democrats that have made up the main opposition at local council level outside the city, though in the north of the county UKIP have made significant inroads into this. With one having been politically eaten by their coalition partners and the other seen off (for now) at the general election, the Conservatives reign supreme across the non-urban districts in Cambridgeshire. Part of Labour’s problem is cultural: Their tradition for ‘top-down’ systems does not sit at ease with constituencies made up of poorly linked disparate towns & parishes with their own traditions & histories. It’s one of the reasons why David Cameron struggled to impose his ‘A-list’ of candidates to diversify the Conservative Parliamentary Party.

Cambridgeshire – a changing county with a growing population

Towns and villages in Cambridgeshire with growing populations don’t automatically equate to more people voting Labour (or any other party for that matter). In 1997, despite the Blair landslide the constituency makeup was exactly the same today as it was back then. (Not including Peterborough which is a unitary authority). That gives you an idea of just how solidly Conservative the surrounding constituencies are. But then, until 1992 Cambridge returned Conservative MPs for years. Since then, Cambridge Conservatives have collapsed – finding themselves in the bottom 10% of constituencies for their party by vote share and total votes.

“Does a growing county make for rich pickings for opposition parties?”

That depends on the people who move here, where from and why. For example a number of people I was at school with have told me they’ve moved out to the villages because their childhood neighbourhoods are too expensive to buy or rent, and they don’t qualify for social housing. Teachers at my old primary school have told me about eye-wateringly long commutes to get to school and back. But then, in the mid-1990s I remember my form tutor that year had to commute from Downham Market and back daily to get to our school near the edge of town. You also have the healthcare sector as a huge employer of people from overseas – in particular Addenbrooke’s which (despite CQC headlines) has an excellent global reputation as a place to work & learn. Cambridge University and the science parks go without saying.

“Will the Westminster opposition political parties stick to bunfights in Cambridge or will they take on the Tories outside the city limits?”

For me that depends on what sort of time horizon they are looking at, as well as what sort of tools they have at their disposal. If they are looking at say a 15 year time horizon, then they might be looking at future boundary reviews, noting a growing possibility that Cambridge City will be split into two parliamentary constituencies that will absorb Conservative-voting wards & parishes bordering the city. Do they start expanding city campaigns into those borderlands now, or wait until the boundary changes have been made? If their time horizon is taking each year as it comes, then there’s less of an incentive to work beyond the next local council election which in Cambridgeshire we have every year.

“Should opposition parties (in particular Labour) ‘bank’ Cambridge’s 2015 result and start putting resources & people-power into surrounding areas?”

This is something I’ve suggested Labour could do given that the next general election is not until 2020. The problem with that approach is voters in the city may blame Labour locally for cuts imposed on local government by a Conservative Chancellor. This is because few people are aware that much of the money local councils get to spend comes from The Treasury, rather than raised locally. It remains to be seen how Mr Osborne’s plans for full business rate retention at the expense of core grants work out. The point being that from Labour’s perspective, they need to keep pushing out the message that cuts to public services are being forced on local councils by Whitehall because town hall has no realistic mechanism for raising revenue to compensate for the loss of central funding.

“If opposition parties did decide to transfer people & resources outside of Cambridge to surrounding areas, where & how could they start?”

When I stood with Puffles in 2014, I got a close-up view of just how well-run and organised local parties are when it comes to elections. They have canvassing data on pretty much every single address in the city held on their computer systems. They know who to target and when for which issues – and also who to avoid. In the case of my place, there’s a big dragon-shaped sign saying ‘do not send activists untrained in dragon-taming techniques”.

With parties in Cambridge showing a growth in numbers following the general election, the places I’d like to see them campaigning at are bus stops that lots of people use at specific times of the day. (The simple reason being that you have lots of people waiting around with nothing to do). Counter-intuitively, the best ones to go for are the ones away from main roads where you don’t have lots of traffic noise. Few and far between? Perhaps. But the richer pickings are there, as a handful of activists found out this year. These include:

  • The bus stops at Cambridge railway station – targeting the passengers waiting for buses to take them to work or college in the morning following a train journey into the city
  • Drummer St Bus Station (by Giraffe cafe)
  • Long Road Sixth Form College – it just needs one party to start a campaign on a rainy day to get a bus shelter put in place to get people involved & interested
  • Addenbrooke’s bus station
  • Cambridge Regional College guided bus stops

All of these are just far enough removed from main roads to have conversations where you’re not shouting.

“A campaign along the guided bus route?”

From the Science Park westwards, and at Trumpington Park & Ride party political activists could run it as a theme – especially given the announced cuts to bus services in Cambridgeshire. Draw up a rota, pick your times carefully (ie when your targeted audiences are most likely to be waiting for buses or getting off them) and you could potentially have one campaigning event a week/fortnight at each stop along the route. Parties could even prioritise further looking at the 2015 local election results – Huntingdonshire 2015 by ward here, and South Cambridgeshire by ward here.

“It’s still not gonna shift the Tories in Cambridgeshire”

From an opponent’s perspective, it won’t overnight. But because opposition parties outside Cambridge are so poorly resourced & supported compared to their sister parties inside Cambridge, finding out where potential supporters are without going door-to-door straight away in unfamiliar territory is a start.

Given the nature of rural constituencies, there’s only so much bussing in supporters from urban areas can do. Ultimately I’d expect opposition parties would need to build self-sustaining semi-autonomous units not reliant on outside people-power to have a chance of taking council seats at future elections. By campaigning at bus stops along the guided bus routes in particular, parties can find out pretty quickly which villages and towns are going to be most open to them campaigning, and which ones won’t be.

“What about the Tories? How do they turn things around in Cambridge?”

For them it’s the opposite – strikingly so. While they have the money, they don’t have the footpower inside the city. That said, over 8,000 people still voted for the party despite not one of their most united campaigns locally. I found Chamali Fernando to be friendly and personable – just the wrong candidate for Cambridge given the strengths & weaknesses of the other candidates. The way Cambridge’s political scene has evolved over the past decade or so, no candidate who does not live, breathe and have their heart in the city will survive. Gone are the days when you could parachute in a candidate who once studied at Cambridge University many moons ago. The programme of independently-organised hustings numbered over 30, which were either standing-room-only or had audiences of well over 100 at each – often both. You then have incredibly active and informed community reporters and civic action groups, each with their own specialist areas of knowledge. It takes time to familiarise yourselves with them.

“Who should the Conservatives pick as candidates?”

This is where both Ms Allen and Ms Frazer (MPs for South Cambs & South East Cambs respectively) could make use of some of the staff in their private offices – in particular their younger activists. With both MPs already being far more prominent in Cambridge than their predecessors, there is scope for them to bring in some of their activists from outside the city to the wards on the periphery – in particular Trumpington, Newnham, (where house prices average half a million pounds!) and Queen Edith’s.

With Ms Allen as MP and following the recent general election, the 2016 city council elections could be the best chance longtime Conservative activist Andrew Bower has of getting elected – assuming he stands in Queen Edith’s as per recent elections. I also stand by what I said a year ago in the Queen Edith’s by-election – Mr Bower would make a very good ward councillor and is precisely the sort of local councillor the Conservatives need on Cambridge City Council given where they currently are. If they can’t get Mr Bower elected in 2016, I think the Conservatives will struggle as further cuts to public services start to bite beyond those already bitten. Having pulled in over 1,000 votes in May 2015, Mr Bower should be within striking distance to take the seat – but only if the Conservatives put significant people-power on the ground. Otherwise I’d expect the Liberal Democrats with Cllr Viki Sanders to hold firm.

“What about the other parties? UKIP and the Women’s Equality Party?”

UKIP scored far lower than I expected, but they haven’t gone away. Although the media focus has fallen off since the general election, it may well rise again in the run up to the EU referendum. As for the Women’s Equality Party, they are as yet an unknown as far as political impact goes. They certainly have enough activists willing and able to run a campaign if judging by the turnout to their events in Cambridge. The questions I have are ones that can only really be answered by an election campaign. 2016 will be a baseline for them, which will show:

  • Where their most passionate & confident activists are based (it takes lots of courage for anyone to stand for elected public office)
  • The distribution of their support base
  • The demographics of their support base – is it affluent middle-class professional women or is it much more wider & diverse than that?
  • The extent to which they are mobilising non-voters vs taking votes of other parties
  • Who will be the ‘local public faces’ of the party as far as media representation goes
  • Whether their presence and/or actions influence local public policy as well as party politics

Food for thought.


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