Isabel Hardman at the Cambridge Literary Festival 2018

Summary:

National politics far too early for a Saturday morning. But I wasn’t going to miss a masterclass from one of my contemporary political heroes.

Several years ago, my jaw metaphorically hit the floor when I got a notification that Isabel Hardman of The Spectator had started following Puffles on Twitter. I had been keeping an eye and ear out for her journalistic output as one of the top political journalists and commentators on the circuit in Westminster.

Political journalism isn’t easy, but to be honest a number of mainstream journalists and institutions have been getting their reputations called into question of late – and understandably so. My persistent call has been for media organisations to be far more transparent about which stories they select to run with, and how they select them. The BBC, given the accountability via the licence, comes in for particular criticism on this front. Interestingly I have found that support staff and journalists the commercial broadcasters have been far more interactive with their viewers than their BBC counterparts.

Too much testosterone in politics and the media

In recent years I’ve started automatically switching off from the long established programmes and personalities in the field. Messrs Humphries and Marr for example are two that I will switch radio or TV channels over. Never having ever been positively disposed towards alpha male aggression in life generally, those sort of confrontations put me off politics – whether at a local, national or international level. Party-political phallus-waving and faux outrage is particularly tedious. Cease with this oxygen thievery!

At the same time, subconsciously I’ve gravitated towards women politicians and journalists in terms of reading their output and listening to their reports – and watching their contributions in the Commons and council chambers. (I’m one of those sad people who goes to council meetings…someone’s got to keep an eye on things).

Stage presence and the ability to ‘command’ an audience or ‘hold the room’.

Very few develop this ability to command the attention of an audience just by being there, or just by speaking a few words. Stella Creasy (pictured below with Puffles in Trafalgar Square several years ago) is one of them.

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I’ve seen Stella speak at conferences, in the Commons (on TV) and also at a local workshop she ran in Cambridge a few years ago. There’s something about her tone of voice, pace of delivery, body language and content of what she’s saying that when put together can be extremely powerful and moving.

There are others in the field of politics who also have that presence – Amelia Womack, deputy leader of the Green Party is another – I’d love to see her get elected in the not-too-distant future. Her party co-leader, Sian Berry is another – and she’s finally getting some of the national recognition in politics that her hard work over the past couple of decades has merited. Caroline Flint, when as a minister I worked for her in the civil service, was another excellent public speaker who could hold an audience. Jo Swinson for the Lib Dems is another – someone who, for the sake of the Lib Dems in my view needs to step up to the leadership of their party.

Three men and a lady

The lead sponsor of the event was the New Statesman Magazine, which meant half the spaces on stage went to them. For the other two spaces, both David Runciman of the University of Cambridge, and Isabel, are recently-published authors.

Isabel’s book called Why we get the wrong politicians is of particular interest to me because I still haven’t figured out what the best methods are locally of encouraging people to get involved in local democracy, let alone stand for election. I set up the Democracy Cambridge FB page as a means for local people to receive ‘passive updates’ on things that are happening in the hope that people will pick up on things of interest to them, but in the grand scheme of things even a city like Cambridge has huge room for improvement. My take still remains that Cambridge needs to adopt a city-wide approach on a whole host of things. But given how fragmented our public institutions are – all too often for party-political reasons, it’s difficult to see how this will change in the near future.

“What did Isabel have to say?”

Lots – and with good reason. I live-tweeted the event so you can pick up some of the quotations here.

University tuition fees are a classic example of the above. In 1997 the Dearing Review that led to the first tuition fees (that were up front – my A-level cohort being the first generation to pay them) is something that I still haven’t forgiven Tony Blair and New Labour for. (I can carry grudges for a ***very long time*** – and financially at least this was particularly painful). The 2010 Browne Review which brought fees up to the level they are now was a continuation of the theme. Everyone knew what was going to happen: Minister (in this case David Lammy on behalf of Gordon Brown) commissioned Lord Browne of BP-fame to do a ‘review’ – or rather, provide cover for a political decision to raise fees significantly further, and report back just after a general election so that there is maximum time for the electorate to get used to it. Which is what happened. Only the Tories and Lib Dems implemented it.

Having seen one of my younger Twitter followers posting a snapshot of the total amount she owed to her old university being over £50,000…if that were my old undergraduate university sending me such a bill, I’d probably have gone back and burnt the place down &/or had a complete mental breakdown, such was my experience there.

MPs get sent emails from their party whips offices telling them the votes that are happening on a given day, and which way to vote. When the voting bell rings, they trundle through the voting lobbies in Parliament, many without a clue on what they are voting for or against.

…with the inevitable consequences. When in 2010 furious Labour MPs complained about the rise in university tuition fees was being done through a statutory instrument – a much faster procedure, too many of them forgot that they were the ones that had passed the enabling power in an earlier Act of Parliament enabling their political opponents to act in this way in a sleight of hand by Tony Blair’s government in 2004 – one which they used MPs representing Scottish constituencies to get the majority in the Commons to push the vote through, even though Scotland was not affected.

The nature of the system which is so archaic and crafted in language beyond the reach of most people. The rules of Parliamentary procedure – Erskine May is not even available online for free. You need to pay over £300 for your own copy. An attempt to get it published through a Freedom of Information Request failed.

The politicians who have been at the forefront of getting this system changed, from my viewpoint have predominantly been women – in particular Caroline Lucas MP (Brighton Pavillion) and Stella Creasy above.

Isabel has some answers

But you’ll need to read her book to find out what they are.

One thing I’d have liked one of the speakers to have done at the end was to have challenged all of us in the audience to do one small one off action or small behaviour change to help make a difference to the situation that we all find ourselves in. The reason being is that we weren’t the most diverse audience in the world, to put it mildly. It certainly wasn’t a reflection of Cambridge the town, that’s for sure. It was more…

Middle Class is Magical

Because the thing is, if no actions stem from events where we explore a given set of social problems, no difference is made. All that happened is that a group of people from an affluent/connected/academic background had a nice morning session at one of Cambridge’s colleges. And I’d like to think that one of the reasons Isabel wrote her book and took part in the session in Cambridge was to inspire people to take action of some sort to make things better.

Anyway, Puffles is a happy dragon with a signed copy of Isabel’s book – noting that back in 2014 city council elections in Cambridge, 89 people decided that Puffles was not the wrong politician for Coleridge Ward in Cambridge, vanquishing UKIP in the process. (They said they would stand in every city ward, but didn’t. So got zero votes in Coleridge. And got beaten by Puffles).

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My DIY results poster for the Coleridge Ward, Cambridge 2014 local council elections
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