Multiple packed community meetings in Cambridge


Is this a sign of good health for local democracy, or the opposite? To what extent has social media and/or digital video driven this


People were still pouring into the West Cambridge community meeting at Cambridge RUFC to see a range of grassroots presentations on the future of Cambridge – and in particular some transport ideas to solve our city’s traffic problems leading out of the city westward. (See for the playlist of video presentations).

There was a bit of controversy with some portrayals as the above being a gathering of new-monied Newnham Nimbies plus cosy Coton Conservatives fighting against lazy-thinking Labourites wanting to concrete over other people’s homes. Personally I don’t buy those portrayals because from the meetings I have been to, everyone there knows that ‘do nothing’ is not an option given the external pressures on the city. Those concerned about over-development know they have to come up with workable solutions rather than try to oppose everything – especially given the changes to planning policy being driven through by the new Government.

Concern over development on one side, concern over the lack of affordable housing on the other


Cambridge housing campaigners led by the Cambridge Unite Community Branch (a trade union branch aimed at the low paid, unemployed & students) marched through Cambridge and had a rally at Emmanuel URC on Trumpington Street (photographed above – spot the lady with the giant paper snailshell on her back).  Cambridge housing chief Cllr Kevin Price was in no mood to pull punches on the failure of Treasury policies to alleviate Cambridge’s housing problems.

As Cambridge Labour Party goes, Cllr Price in the Corbyn wing of the party, having welcomed Mr Corbyn to Cambridge for his packed-out rally earlier in the autumn. Cllr Price’s speech is here. Despite the broad range of views across the group of councillors on both the council & executive, Cllr Lewis Herbert who leads Cambridge City Council seems to have done a good job of holding his team together – in public at least. That said, pressure from both further cuts expected from Chancellor George Osborne along with the inevitable difficult decisions that will need to be taken on housing and planning will test the Labour administration in Cambridge like never before.

Cambridge medics in open revolt – problems for Heidi Allen MP

South Cambridgeshire MP Heidi Allen (Conservative) faced a lions’ den of over 200 people for an event hosted by Cambridge junior doctors – excellently facilitated by Dr Yezen Sheena at Cambridge Medical School on the Addenbrookes site.


As well as Ms Allen was Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner, who seems to be working well with his otherwise political opponent next door. The ‘Labour diehard’ inside Mr Zeichner could have politically laid into Ms Allen over her party’s policies on a whole host of issues. But in all of the events I’ve seen the two of them sharing a platform, both have refrained from tearing strips out of each other. Essentially Mr Zeichner’s worked out quickly that the best tactic he can use for the good of Cambridge is to support Ms Allen in her behind-the-scenes negotiations that she has with ministers. As shadow local transport minister for Labour, he saves his direct attacks for the House of Commons – as his contribution to the Commons Paris Climate Change Debate on 19 November 2015 showed.

“So…what do all these gatherings show?”

That people are interested. Note that many are prepared to come out to meetings on cold evenings or weekends to make their points, even if those gatherings are not at formal council meetings. After all, if you are unfamiliar with the processes and formalities – such as the need to give notice for an oral question, why would you turn up? What they are interested in, and what their opinions are, inevitably varies.

We need to have more women, more people in their 20s & 30s, and more young people taking an active part

You see the picture at the top of this blogpost? I asked the question below to them all.

I asked a similar question at the launch of the call for evidence for the City Deal at Cambridge City Council – see Richard Taylor’s video here. My oral submission for the call for evidence at Cambridge Central Library is here. Note South Cambridgeshire Conservative Cllr Roger Hickford’s comments here about engaging with young people – he’s the deputy chair of the City Deal Assembly, along with Anglia Ruskin University’s Helen Valentine here. Essentially you’ve just got to be persistent and make them realise you’re not going to go away easily in order to influence them. Plus having things on public (in particular video/audio) record helps.

“Is social media helping? Is digital video helping?”

Let’s look at my Youtube stats from October 2015:


The spikes are from public questions to the city deal board, a presentation by Cllr Lewis Herbert, Peter (Lord) Mandelson’s lecture in Cambridge (plus Dr Julian Huppert’s speech), and finally the group of presentations at the West Cambridge event mentioned above. Without the spikes, I’m getting around 100 plays per day. Following the #CamDoctors event this week, that spike flew through the 1,000 plays barrier again.

“But is it helping engage new audiences, or is it simply making those already engaged/disposed to be engaged more engaged than they already are?”

This is something Lord Mandelson in Cambridge here. I agree with him. I also think it’s not something that will be solved by ‘more effort’ from existing councillors and activists – many of whom have a huge unpaid workload when it comes to door-to-door canvassing & leaflet distribution. My challenge to the general public is to make it your responsibility to find out which parties are active in your local area, find out who your candidates are and to ask them questions. (It’s even more the case if you have internet access and the literacy to search and email them). Once you have done that, then the ball genuinely is in the court of the political parties, because you’ve basically said: “OK, I’m listening. Inspire me.”

“You’ve moaned about consultation overload before”

Probably here talking about the city deal again. At the moment though, there are so many consultations at a local and national level that it’s difficult to keep up.

Don’t you all have lives to live? That’s why it’s important to avoid being overwhelmed. Essentially my advice is to pick your cause and geographical area – then use social media networks to stay in touch with people who are fighting campaigns that you are interested in but feel you can’t commit the time and attention to actively monitor. Rely on those people & organisations to tip you off when something needs to be done. Otherwise it’ll crush you.

“Don’t we have local elections soon?”

Certainly parts of England do – for example many areas with two or three tiers of local government. Hence now is the time to start thinking if you want to get involved in a political party (if you’re not sure which one, take the Political Compass test), and if you think you can do better than existing councillors, consider standing yourself.

Which reminds me, the Liberal Democrats seem to have been quiet these days – not nearly as many organised public events compared to this time last year when a number of speakers came to Cambridge.

My sense is that following the shredding of the Lib Dems’ parliamentary party and the election of Mr Corbyn as Labour leader, the left and centre-left is going to through a very painful process of reformation and realignment. It’s interesting to see how those in the non-Corbyn wing of the co-operative movement within the Labour Party (such as Stella Creasy MP) have thrown themselves into rebuilding the co-op movement following the problems with the co-op bank, of which Frances Coppola has written lots. Note too that The Green Party will have taken a hit in terms of members and activists attracted to a Corbyn-led Labour Party.

“Your overall point being…?”

My point is that we cannot wait for political parties to get themselves together in order to provide a competent, organised opposition & scrutiny to the government of the day.


Start local and find out what is already going on in your local area, and take it from there. For many of you that involves not leaving your sofa/bed/desk. It involves a simple search of various sites such as:

  • Facebook (eg type in the name of your village/town/city & see what groups & pages are out there)
  • Twitter (search the name of your place & type in the name of any political party and see who is out there) – also very useful for following local journalists that report from local council meetings
  • Meetup groups – search in your area
  • Eventbrite events – ditto
  • Your local council – ask about community groups
  • Your local council for voluntary services – which should maintain contacts of community and voluntary groups

Even if you are not going out and about to meetings and gatherings, for those of you online, the next best thing you can do is to try and remain informed about what’s going on. By becoming ‘passively informed’ first, the more likely you can become ‘actively informed’ about things that interest you – ie where you choose to follow one cause (and perhaps unfollow another) so that you get to a stage where you want to be more than just informed, but active in that area/issue you are passionate about. That way you can focus your efforts on what you are informed and passionate about, and avoid burnout.

“With you?”

With me? As the above has shown, I’ve spent this autumn focussing on both getting better (after a persistent cold), and filming gatherings/events/speeches in order that others can become more informed and hopefully active. It’s too early to tell whether it’ll have any impact, but at least the video stats are encouraging.


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