On recent public meetings in Cambridge


It takes courage to take the plunge and organise an event. Irrespective of success or failure, the learning and insights gained from organising such gatherings is incredibly useful.

Note: The embedded videos are the shorter ones, the hyperlinked ones are the more extended ones – ensuring it doesn’t take all day for the page to load!

I’ve been to a number of public events and talks over the past few weeks, filming some and being an undistracted (by filming stuff) listener in others. Interestingly, some had far more people attending and taking part, while others had far fewer. I take the view from the rules of the unConference on people turning up:

“The people who come are the best people who could have come”

If you beat yourself up over not getting enough people first time around, you risk missing out on the really interesting things that happened and the positive learning points. For example we had a couple of former ministers who came up to Cambridge to visit – Norman Lamb MP and Lynne Featherstone – now in the House of Lords. (I found out from former Cambridge councillor Sal Brinton (speaking in Cambridge recently here on the EU Referendum) that Lib Dem Peers tend not to like the formal titles of the Lords). Certainly for Lynne Featherstone’s talk I’d have liked to have seen far more students there – in particular women given the insights she had on working in the Home Office with now the Prime Minister. But for those that did turn up, they were able to have their questions answered in far more detail than perhaps a very full room would have allowed. For the students in the audience it would have been a fascinating insight into Whitehall & Westminster.

With Norman Lamb MP, and with any former Lib Dem MP of the coalition years, my two ‘general’ questions are what is life like now that the party is in a very different place post the general election of 2015 and the EU referendum, and what did they as individuals, and collectively as a party learn from the 5 years inside government. Norman Lamb responds below.

Former Health Minister Norman Lamb MP in Cambridge with Cambridge Student Liberal Democrats.

I also got to interview the outgoing president of Cambridge Student Lib Dems, Sophie Bell. Given how few women there are in local democracy, I tend to focus my interview requests on those who are under-represented in politics generally so that people can see and hear them in their own voices, and let the interviewee speak at length on whatever they want to talk about rather than going for a Paxman style interrogation. With online video you’re not restricted on length (other than my camera batteries – and the viewers’ attention span!)

Have people given up on politics?

In my previous blogpost following the #VibrantCambridge event, I got the sense that many in Cambridge’s business communities find politics to be so toxic that they will try to avoid engaging with it unless they really have to. I take the view of Cambridge Hero Eglantyne Jebb, who said in a public speech in Cambridge long before founding Save the Children, that anyone who is concerned about the welfare of humankind cannot remain disinterested in politics. What our business communities – along with those in local charities and campaign groups can’t do is to make our demands to local politicians then let them take all the abuse for difficult decisions that all too often (mainly because of laws passed by Parliament tabled by ministers) are out of their direct control. At some stage more of us are going to have to take a more active role in local democracy – and even giving some support to those that have to take the very tough decisions that will inevitably make one group or another very unhappy.

How do we get more young people involved? Cambridge Commons tried recently.

Although huge numbers didn’t turn out, the 15-20 people who turned out to their ‘your generation’ event got a lot more out of it – as A-level student Sam Polehill explains below.

What it meant was that the three facilitators in the room were able to engage in much more detailed conversation with the participants, and we get the sense from Sam (as well as from the other conversations I had with participants at the end) that the event was very worthwhile, not least because they now had a much more clear picture of which organisations in Cambridge could help them with their own campaigns.

The insights Frances Foley shows how her approach was tailored to her audience – which indicates (from my view anyway) that the format works. Given the other groups in Cambridge already active working with young people (but perhaps not on local politics), the huge potential I see is the Cambridge Commons pairing up with those groups to host shared events.

The Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations AGM

(Declaration of interest – I was commissioned by FeCRA to film this event)

Terry Macalister, the former Energy Editor at The Guardian, was one of the keynote speakers. He has also been critical of local authorities’ records on community engagement on very big local issues, as he made clear in his speech.

Terry Macalister speaking to members of Cambridge’s residents associations

This event had far more people attending than I had expected – you could feel the buzz in the room. What was interesting in an ‘observer’ mode was watching how people were introducing friends to each other. I’m not using the term ‘networking’ because for everyone in the room, Cambridge is where we all live and call ‘home’. We just happen to live in many different parts of it. This was one way of bursting our little bubbles that we sometimes find ourselves in. FeCRA chair Wendy Blythe’s speech gives a picture of how the same pressures affect different parts of our city in different ways. High house prices, speculative developers putting profit before anything else, and problems with the progress of the Greater Cambridge City Deal gave a very interesting, if somewhat depressing picture.

Is shared problem solving the way to bring people together?

The difference between council meetings I normally attend, and the events above, is that contributions from the audience are extremely limited in the former. I much prefer events where you have multiple conversations happening at the same time rather than lots of people passively snoozing to the sound of an ‘expert panel’. That’s one of the reasons why I’d like to see Cambridge City Council’s area committee system overhauled. But that’s for another day. What I think could get more young people involved – and more older people listening to, and working with them, is a form of annual event similar to the Cambridge University Model United Nations conferences. (October 2017 if you’re interested).

Model Town Hall Conference for students in years 10-13. (14-18 year olds).

On paper it’s relatively straight forward (though organising events never is!)

  • Held at The Guildhall in Cambridge
  • Funded by a combination of the local council, local businesses and charities/donations)
  • Run by university students under the Cambridge Hub‘s auspices
  • Participants/delegates from schools in and around Cambridge
  • Participants are invited to represent either:
    • Their local neighbourhood ward or village
    • A local political party
  • Organising students with local councillors (or any willing volunteers for that matter) draft themes for the participants to debate, and allocate an issue/theme for each committee
  • The participants have to debate with each other and work together to come up with a policy statement on how they would deal with the issue allocated to their committee.
  • At the end, each committee has to present their policy statement to a ‘general assembly’ / ‘full council’ where all of the participants have to decide whether to reject or accept the statement.
  • Throughout the two days, you have representatives from campaigning organisations who, as part of the role play can either be consulted upon, and/or who at given points in the proceedings enter to make a statement and/or take questions from the committees.


  • Students become familiar with one of the main buildings that local democracy takes place in
  • They become familiar with who is responsible for what issues
  • It breaks down barriers between schools (and helps create a sense of a united city collectively solving shared problems)
  • Students become familiar with local campaign groups – but the power remains with them rather than the campaign groups
  • There are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers. Rather the focus is on being able to formulate a coherent case, and ability to work as a team
  • Students can continue the debate long after the conference has ended through the councillors and campaign groups they have met in the process.

If such an event becomes annual – like the Volunteer for Cambridge event, it could transform the way Cambridge does local democracy, and bring in people and communities who otherwise miss out.


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