What happened to Cambridge’s Liberal Democrats?

Summary

They used to have a much higher profile, but these days outside of council meetings I seldom see or hear from them compared to the pre-2015 election days

It can’t be much fun being a Liberal Democrat given the fall from being in Coalition to being completely ignored by the political media. The start of a vicious spiral where less media coverage translates into fewer votes and so on? Or will social media become their saviour as Jim Murphy alluded to in his speech in Cambridge today?

As I mentioned pre-2015, at a local level the Cambridge Green Party are doing the most with digital video. I’ve filmed more than a few for them (See my Green Party playlist) but perhaps more importantly their spokespeople are now producing their own short pieces to camera and uploading them directly onto their Facebook page. Furthermore, they are keeping that page updated and are getting into a positive habit of linking online and offline activities and ‘soft’ political gatherings.

“So…why aren’t the Liberal Democrats doing similar?”

Given the number of people that joined the Cambridge Liberal Democrats straight after the election, I’m surprised that so few have become prominent. Dare I say it, it sort of saddens me that they haven’t had the run of events & gatherings that they had this time last year, when they had a number of senior party members & ministers visiting on a relatively frequent basis. My Liberal Democrats video playlist is here, but since the general election I can’t think of any Lib Dem events where I’ve filmed a prominent speaker for their party making a passionate case for liberalism & social democracy. Party president Sal Brinton did this before the election here, and we also had a visit from Lynne Featherstone in February 2015. Yet since the election, their profile seems to have been diminished.

“What could the Liberal Democrats in & around Cambridge be doing?”

Similar to what The Greens are doing – being their own media where the mainstream media won’t cover them. The difference between the two parties at a local level is that the Greens have got a critical mass of younger, digital-savvy activists who can create new content for fun. The Greens are also benefiting from the raised awareness around the Paris Climate Talks – which has resulted in increased social media publicity for them as the main ‘party political wing’ of the environmentalist movement. This was the term Green Party leader Natalie Bennett used on one of her visits to Cambridge this year.

“Will all those Green Party social media posts convert into votes and seats – at the expense of the Liberal Democrats?”

Liberal democrat roots in their ‘safe’ wards go incredibly deep. Even at the deepest trough in mid-2015 their safe wards were still returning Lib Dem councillors. Yet as well as being numerically inferior compared to where they were a few years ago, as a cohort they are perhaps more softly spoken and collectively older than a number of their high profile opponents in Cambridge Labour Party who, in the grand scheme of things I think have done a pretty good job so far of running the council.

A future council executive in waiting?

What I don’t yet see with the Liberal Democrats locally at the moment is new political talent coming through that could help form a fresh, new council executive in waiting. I don’t yet see the new members rising through and taking their political fight to their Labour opponents. Perhaps the same could be said nationally of Labour given their current problems: They don’t look like anywhere near a future government in waiting.

One of the other reasons why this matters locally from political pluralist perspective is that traditionally it is the Liberal Democrats outside of the city that form the main opposition to the ruling Conservatives on district councils. The number of council seats on South Cambridgeshire and East Cambridgeshire district councils held by Labour is tiny. Hence my recent blogposts saying that Labour’s impressive university campaigning machine (Cambridge Universities Labour Club – CULC) could be put to work along the Cambridgeshire Guided Bus corridor in 2016 to see if they can unexpectedly capture some rural local council seats similar to the manner in which they captured the Queen Edith’s ward in 2012.

The Women’s Equality Party – potential electoral candidates?

The Cambridge Branch had their third meeting this week – I counted about 30 people this time around. (Which for a cold November evening at a pub not on public transport routes is ***massive*** for a party only a few months old). In a nutshell they have the numbers and the potential to make some sort of an impact – even if it’s simply a case of raising awareness of their six core principles. For me, the stage their at now locally is where the branch starts to develop its own distinctive character away from the London HQ – similar to what the Cambridge Green Party did in 2013/14 when it rebuilt. In the grand scheme of things though, if you agree with the principles of the WEP and don’t want to join any of the other political parties, now is probably the best time to join a WEP branch because it’ll be over the next few months they’ll be shaping their local policies.

Although I’m familiar with the group of people who run the local branch, few people outside of the party are. As far as local media is concerned, they will need to decide who their main local contacts are going to be so that the likes of Jon Vale of the Cambridge News, Julian Clover of Cambridge 105 and Dotty McLeod of BBC Cambridgeshire know who to go to (or vice-versa if the branch sends out a press release).

“What have Labour and the Conservatives been doing on social media locally?”

I’ve been following with interest the low profile but growing presence of South East Cambridgeshire MP Lucy Frazer QC. (I interviewed her just before the 2015 election here). The reason being that, like Daniel Zeichner MP in Cambridge, she’s not comfortable using social media as a conversational medium in the way Dr Julian Huppert did when he was Cambridge’s MP, and in the way Heidi Allen MP for South Cambridgeshire is currently doing now.

Since becoming an MP however, Ms Frazer has gone about her constituency work diligently and has given a particular focus on schools and young people. It doesn’t matter whether it’s her or her private office doing the updates. What people see is that on a regular basis there are photographs of her with constituents both in schools & workplaces, and in Parliament too where she has invited her young constituents to take part in debates in some of the big rooms they have there. I remember going to Parliament for my first time in 2007 & being awestruck. Imagine what it’s like for someone from a small rural Cambridgeshire village at secondary school.

Having recently been elected to the Commons Education Select Committee (one of the more higher profile select committees), Ms Frazer is picking up a wealth of information which, combined with her legal training I’m sure will come to bear at a future hearing. Remember at select committees, MPs can ask a series of questions one after another – a gift to anyone like Ms Frazer who is trained on the art of cross-examination.

“Still…I kinda miss being able to tweet suggestions for PQs to Julian when he’s on the floor of the Commons”

Inevitably – though note my thoughts in this blogpost which also explores wider issues. Mr Zeichner too has further responsibilities as shadow local transport minister – which also means being Labour’s national policy lead on cycling policy, something not lost on Cambridge’s residents.

At a local level, two of the most active student political campaigners in Cambridge, Imogen Shaw and Elinor Clapson have taken over the reins of Cambridge Universities Labour Club

In 2015 CULC were particularly successful at bringing women into politics en masse. What’s noticeable as well is CULC have started holding events at Anglia Ruskin University’s East Road campus. (The plural ‘universities’ denotes CULC covering ARU as well as Cambridge University students). During my post-grad days there, there wasn’t that much politics around. So it’s good to see CULC not just bringing politics to ARU, but also bringing Cambridge University students in numbers to meet and debate with their ARU counterparts who are often from a different demographic.

“But back to the Lib Dems?”

Their climate spokesman Lord Purvis is visiting Cambridge in early December – just off Mill Road. In the event listing they’ve stated they will be hosting a formal launch of Cambridgeshire Liberal Youth in early 2016. Cambridge Lib Dems lost some of their hardest-working and highest profile young activists through inevitable academic turnover – including former Hills Road Sixth Form College student Callum Delhoy who went off to university a couple of months ago. Although Cambridge-based, he rescued the Lib Dems in Daventry by standing as their candidate in the general election despite preparing for his A-level exams. (Here’s my interview with him).

In the short to medium term though, the Liberal Democrats will need to ‘sweat their peers’ in the House of Lords as some of the few politicians who have any chance outside their MPs of gaining media time. The higher the profile the likes of Baroness Dr Julie Smith (who’s one of the most impressive all-round politicians I’ve met) can get – in particular with big audiences, the better it could be for the party locally. For me, the Lib Dems need to have a strong showing in the run up to the EU referendum if they are going to be within striking distance of taking back some of their previous ‘safe’ seats in the 2020 general election.

One thought on “What happened to Cambridge’s Liberal Democrats?

  1. Interesting article and I very much agree. Given his natural flair for social, it’s a shame that Julian’s influence hasn’t washed off on more of the local party.

    Whilst I hate to say “I told you so”, this is something I saw coming a long way off. 4 or 5 years ago I interviewed for a constituency organiser role for SE Cambs (I think) and I was asked to give a presentation. My presentation was all about how the party could be using social to conenct with constituents and although I believe all 5 of the panellists found it interesting, I’m not sure if any of them really got it. The response was ultimately… “but why should we bother when leaflets work so well?”

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