How a Norwegian postgraduate turned around the fortunes of one of our local political parties, influencing political life in Cambridge and helping make local political history
This is Ellisif Wasmuth – soon to be Dr Ellisif Wasmuth.
Ellisif outside Senate House in 2015 during one of several visits by the then Green Party leader Natalie Bennett in the run up to that year’s general election. The local elections at the same time also saw Oscar Gillespie elected to Cambridge City Council in Market Ward, restoring the Greens’ presence on the council and giving a political outlet to the towns prominent environmentalist communities.
Now, most of you won’t have heard of her, but I’m writing this not just to thank her for helping make politics more interesting, but also for the local historical record.
“Why were the Greens’ fortunes so bad? Didn’t they poll nearly 4,000 votes in Cambridge in 2010?”
They did – and at one time had two councillors on the city council and one on the county council. But by 2012 they had lost all of their councillors – two having sadly since passed away and one having moved away following a switch to Labour. The state of the local party in late 2012 was not good at all – as I wrote in this blogpost at the time.
It was around that time Ellisif moved to Cambridge for her Ph.D, & she sent a couple of social media messages asking where the Greens’ student society was. The sad truth* at the time was that there wasn’t one. So rather than wait around, she set up Cambridge Young Greens herself. *(I’m speaking from a ‘plural party politics’ perspective here given the large number of environmentalist activists there are in the city. Note the Tories polled 8,000 votes in the city in the general election but still didn’t gain any council seats in 2015 – which makes me then start looking at the voting system).
Two of the things that the local party benefited from (aside from the profile new MP Caroline Lucas in Brighton – where I used to live some 15 years ago at university, was gaining for the Greens), were the ease of access two of their most prominent party officials had to Cambridge. Natalie Bennett having just been elected leader, and Dr Rupert Read who at the time was their transport spokesman were in North London and Norwich respectively. Both were less than an hour by train from Cambridge, which meant ease of access to a city that still turned out over 2,000 votes for a party that in 2013 were only able to stand a slate of paper candidates at the Cambridgeshire County Council elections. ie The local party was in no organised state to campaign.
With the 2014 European Parliament elections coming up the following year, I mentioned on a couple of occasions to both Natalie and Rupert that if the city was giving the Greens 2,000 votes with zero campaigning and just names attached to a party label, what would it be like if they pulled out all of the stops?
Note at the same time I was having similar conversations and public exchanges on Twitter with people in other local political parties – with Conservative candidate for Queen Edith’s Andy Bower being the first candidate in Cambridge to quote one of my blogposts in one of his election leaflets. (He and his opponents will hate me for saying this but I still think Andy would make an excellent ward councillor in South Cambridge despite our political disagreements!)🙂
“What happened in 2014 that changed things?”
Essentially Ellisif managed to recruit and organise a small but talented core of student activists who were able to do the essential organisational work of booking college rooms and publicising events – which with elections coming up more often than not involved Natalie or Rupert coming up to speak. With the opportunity to meet a national party leader, along with the prominence of transport as an issue, the audiences that both Natalie and Rupert spoke to and took questions from, started growing.
The Green Surge of late 2014 was not an accident
Rupert missed out on a seat for the East of England in the European Parliament by less than 3,000 votes. He was pipped at the post by UKIP. Given the policy differences between the two, there was incredible disappointment not just within the Greens but across left-of-centre parties and groups locally that overall, the East of England had lost their only Liberal Democrat MEP to a UKIP MEP.
Yet while the mainstream media was focusing any reporting on Caroline Lucas MP, they completely missed the activities Natalie Bennett was undertaking. She was visiting university town after university town speaking to every growing audiences. For student and community reporters, it was a great chance for us to film and interview a national party leader too. Here’s Natalie in the middle of the green surge on her visit to Cambridge in January 2015.
For local newspapers, this made excellent copy because here was a party leader of a party represented in Westminster and Brussels that was visiting their patch. But it was sufficiently below the radar of established local broadcast media for them not to report it. Note too that at the time their office was run on a shoe string – they hadn’t yet got into the discipline of ‘modern media management’ that they now have with the additional funds Parliament granted post 2015.
The mainstream media start asking difficult questions
Both Natalie and Rupert got stung and stung badly in the run up to the 2015 general election by the mainstream media. The former in a crushing interview with the BBC’s Andrew Neil, and the latter over social media comments that led to a backlash. This was the first time I had seen Ellisif and the local party under real pressure from the media scrutiny. What was happening was that the Green Party’s membership had rise from around 10,000 in 2010, to 18,000 in 2014 to over 50,000 in 2015. See Adam Ramsay here.
It’s interesting to go back over the articles written at the time – whether in hope or delusion prior to the mainstream media turning its guns on them. This was something I wrote about before the event, because in early 2015 none of the political parties had really turned their attention to The Greens.
As an institution, the problems the Greens had stemmed from moving from an organisation set up to manage 5,000-10,000 people, to one that has to manage 50,000 people – many in areas where there has been little history of an active local branch. How do you ‘induct’ all of those new members and get them up and running in the middle of a general election campaign while at the same time taking incoming hits from your opponents and the media who are now going through your website with a fine tooth comb in a way that you’ve never experienced before?
Yet at the same time, I couldn’t help but feel that for a number of campaigners – not just for the Greens but across the political spectrum, the 2015 campaign was the making of them. We started seeing a number of new faces getting involved in local democracy.
“And yet…? How did they do?”
Cambridge Green Party having just won Market Ward in the Cambridge City Council elections of May 2015.
Here’s my interview with Cllr Oscar Gillespie shortly after his election.
It was from this point that Ellisif, with research deadlines approaching, was able to take a step back. If I recall correctly, across the city of Cambridge the party polled over 10,000 votes at the local elections in 2015. Despite initial setbacks mentioned earlier, Rupert Read succeeded in increasing the Greens’ share of the vote to over 4,000 – despite the very strong environmental credentials of Dr Julian Huppert of the Lib Dems and Daniel Zeichner, the latter edging out the former with only 600 votes difference.
“Did the surge last?”
I expected that it would, but despite an active campaign across a number of wards in the 2016 Cambridge City Council elections, the Greens fell back to their core base. This was something I asked Natalie Bennett about when she visited Cambridge again in the summer of 2016 – where we filmed this extended interview.
One of the big differences between the 2015 and 2016 local elections in Cambridge for the Greens was they had a much younger and more ethnically diverse slate of candidates – many of whom were first time candidates. With UKIP getting far more mainstream media attention, the Greens in Cambridge – and Labour in South Cambridgeshire too, took advantage of the free service I was offering to all candidates standing in & around Cambridge – which was to film a short video clip for each candidate. (Here is the Greens’ 2016 playlist). My take was that I wanted as many council wards as possible to have candidates on video where the electorate could see and hear them for themselves. (The Liberal Democrats are here, and the Conservatives here).
In terms of the Cambridge Green Party, Ellisif was instrumental in getting their local party in a condition where it was ready to fight for the elections in 2014 and 2015. Without her, there wouldn’t have been the regular visits from senior party figures, and it would have taken longer for the party to have built up the core of activists that it now has.
You may not have seen her in the newspapers, online or on Youtube, but Ellisif’s work not just for the Cambridge Green Party, but for local democracy in our city has been incredibly important over these past few years. So ***Thank you*** for all you’ve done for Cambridge Ellisif, and thank you for setting such a wonderful example in particular to young women, showing what difference they can make. Best wishes for your new life in…of all places, Oxford!