Who’d be a local government reporter?

Summary

Some thoughts on the accountability vacuum left by a crumbling local media – and what we could do about it

This post stems from Emily Bell’s column in The Guardian following the Grenfell Tower inferno where we still don’t know – and may never know how many people perished in the fire. The executive councillors for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea have rightly come in for criticism – as have ministers over their failures over building regulations. So far, the only person to lose his job is the chief executive of the council concerned. The council leader is said by multiple media outlets to have tendered his resignation but it was refused by councillors.

With so many checks being made on buildings all over the country, what is appalling is how many samples on existing blocks of flats have failed the tests being carried out by Whitehall.

The lobbyists in the construction industry are going to have their work cut out in the next few weeks, explaining to politicians how this happened. I expect senior executives from across the industry will be hauled before Parliament to explain themselves to some very angry MPs….

…which is why MPs need to get their skates on and constitute those committees. Keep an eye on the Communities & local government committee and also the Business, industry & enterprise committee.

The importance of local political and campaigning blogs

It was only because of the Grenfell Action Group blogging at https://grenfellactiongroup.wordpress.com/ that the mainstream media were able to ask lots of very tough questions to ministers and local councillors. The former had been posting time after time their attempts to get the safety issues resolved. And they were ignored. With fatal consequences. When the mainstream media turned up, locals were understandably angry at having been ignored and took them to task.

Here’s Jon Snow speaking about when he was confronted by residents.

Watching the news coverage and the social media feeds, I got the sense that those reporting on the ground had recognised that residents had them bang to rights, and that the media collectively had failed to report the real and substantive issues.

A plethora of issues raised that all need examining in detail…

Such was the fury of the residents that many in the broadcast media simply pointed camcorders towards those that wanted to have their say and let them get on with it. And what we saw/heard were a host of incredibly well argued, passionate and articulate arguments over a host of issues where state, society, economy (and economic systems) and democracy had all failed. The one policy area that has received a much-deserved existential shock is housing policy.

It would have been unheard of for former senior ministers under Blair and Brown to be calling for the requisitioning of property, but this is what Harriet Harman and a number of Labour MPs called for. But perhaps we should not be surprised as the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 enacted under Blair contains enabling provisions that allow ministers to make regulations for the confiscation of property ***with or without compensation***. (S22 (3) (b) of the CCA 2004).

The importance of local journalism

In Cambridge we’re fortunate to have local reporters who will turn up to local council meetings. Or failing that who will watch video footage of important ones that they were not able to get to. But it’s a thankless task going along to meetings that normally go on for at least two hours if not longer. I’ve sat through them, I’ve filmed them, and at times it can be a soul-destroying function. Especially if no one is paying you for it but you know that your presence/reporting is for the wider civic good. Those who film, blog, live-report from local meetings without pay may never know just how important their work is. The reporters 100+ years ago in Cambridge’s local newspapers could never have known how much of a historical treasure trove they left me with. For example what must have seemed like a quaint little feature in 1930, today reveals just how much the women who shaped modern Cambridge have been ignored – even though the women at the time were household names locally.

In Cambridge, local journalism is of increasing importance because of the amount of money being spent on housing and infrastructure. External scrutiny is an incredibly important role. It’s only in recent times that we’ve been able to stem the flow of people losing interest in local democracy with the advances in social media. Though again I’ve got nothing to compare it to. Is it a case of a larger number of people have become even more interested in local democracy while the rest of the city and beyond have been losing interest? More people see the front pages of the local newspaper than see the tweets or blogposts of those that report on local democracy in an online-only presence.

In my case, I’ve tried to take a few steps back from being an opinionated little so-and-so, and focus more on filming, editing and uploading video footage with the proviso that it is up to the viewers to spot the important bits and take action where they deem it necessary. Being the cameraman, reporter and the activist all in one go is now something beyond my health.

“Big society journalism” isn’t enough

Emily Bell hints at this towards the end of her column – at some stage we’ve got to decide what new model for funding local professional journalism we go for. The BBC have set aside some funding for this, but in the grand scheme of things it is a pittance. Would economies at the top end of the corporation help fund greater expenditure across those areas of the country that lack a strong local media presence? What should the relationship between local independent media and the BBC be? Because accountability matters.

 

 

 

Goatgate and the hung parliament

Summary

You know how Puffles never swears?

Puffles swore.

I was expecting a Tory majority of around 60 seats. Anything more and Tory dreamland, anything less than their existing majority and Theresa May would be in trouble. That we’ve ended up with a hung parliament after having such a huge lead in the opinion polls alongside the full on furore of the print media – only the Mirror Group being the only print media group of note supporting Labour as they have done throughout the decades. Today we have seen the Prime Minister calling the whole situation ‘a mess’.

It remains to be seen what sort of deal the Tories can stitch up with the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland (whose social policies have already resulted in planned demonstrations in Great Britain – with progressive activists in Northern Ireland wondering what took us so long to catch up with news there), as Parliament returns on Tuesday and the scheduled Queen’s Speech already delayed.

Labour do better than expected

Rather than losing seats, Labour gained a number of seats from the Conservatives and also the Liberal Democrats. It remains to be seen whether the party will unite behind Corbyn. Some on the Progress wing of the party say that with such a weak Conservative administration Labour should have won. Some on the far left wing and beyond (ie outside of the party) are saying that if the Progress wing had been more loyal, Labour would have won. The party’s communications operation is still a liability, making far too many basic errors. The decentralised grassroots campaigning – especially online, was excellent to the extent that they outfoxed the high-spending Conservatives whose online campaigning failed to hit home. What the Conservative strategists forgot is that the messenger counts big time. If political content is shared by a trusted source – a close friend, it’s more likely to have an impact than if it is from a paid advert. Furthermore, Labour activists were sharing content about policies – while the Tories were noticeably policy-lite.

 

The impact of Corbyn’s success also suppressed both the Liberal Democrats and The Green Party – the latter getting only half as many votes as in 2015 – but still returning Caroline Lucas in Brighton Pavilion with an even bigger majority. UKIP should also be toast with this result – their leader resigning. However, the broadcast media still keep on coming back to them.

The Liberal Democrat rebound fails to materialise

Epitomised by Dr Julian Huppert’s defeat to Daniel Zeichner of Labour by a thumping 13,000 votes, the Liberal Democrats only returned 14 MPs. In my book they needed at least 20 MPs including Dr Huppert alongside several other high profile, up-and-coming, or senior politicians. The loss of Nick Clegg was a massive blow. Fortunately for the party, they have three former ministers – two former Cabinet, returning. Vince Cable, Ed Davey and Jo Swinson will be indispensable to Tim Farron who, in the grand scheme of things couldn’t do much more (other than not get into a tangle about his religion at the start of the campaign). Given the scale of the Labour swing, it’s difficult to see how the party could have stopped this.

Cambridge, South Cambridgeshire and South East Cambridgeshire

CambridgeGenElectionResults2017

I was at the count at The Guildhall.

Me at The Guildhall, Cambridge

Famous last words – a narrow margin. This is what the other parties were up against on polling day:

They were up at 5am.

…with this lot following up.

The thing is, Julian only lost a couple of thousand votes compared to last time. In one sense that’s the equivalent of the leaving students and researchers that voted for him last time, replaced by students unfamiliar with him.

Lib Dems and Greens fall short, while Conservatives fail to take full advantage of no UKIP candidate

Only around 1,000 voters seemed to switch to the Tories from UKIP – the others either switching to other parties or not at all. There was a higher turnout on a more accurate (and thus smaller) electoral roll – high annual population churn due to the presence of the universities and short term research contracts too.

The Greens collapsed back to their core vote despite a very strong showing by Stuart Tuckwood at the hustings. All of the other candidates paid tribute to the high calibre candidate he was, even though it didn’t reflect in the votes. The problem the Greens have at the moment is they no longer have an active student society working side-by-side with the city party in the way that Labour quite clearly does.

It’s difficult to say why Dr Huppert’s campaign did not secure more votes than last time – especially given city anger over Brexit and Mr Corbyn’s national policy being supportive of Brexit. Mr Zeichner being prepared to go public against national policy both in votes and consistently in public speeches throughout his time as MP (i.e. being against Brexit in principle) meant that he had a response to any accusation from Dr Huppert.

Finally, Dr John Hayward for the Conservatives – who campaigned to leave the EU – was something of a lightning conductor on this issue at the hustings. The public seemed to relish throwing their anger at him and he seemed to enjoy the verbal rough and tumble of the exchanges with his preferred policy being implemented. That said, it meant that the public did not get to see Dr Huppert or Mr Zeichner really going head-to-head on Brexit or other issues.

South Cambridgeshire

SouthCambsGenElectionResults2017

Heidi Allen increased both her share of the vote and total number of votes – despite Brexit, which some of us (myself included) thought might cost her. That said, there was an even higher turnout than in 2015 (by 3 percentage points higher). Labour’s Dan Greef added an extra 7,000 votes to his 2015 total, while Susan van de Ven for the Liberal Democrats managed to add 3,000 votes to the Liberal Democrats’ total in 2015 – a low point following the coalition, but still a long way off the 20,000 they polled in 2010.

Again as in Cambridge, Simon Saggers for The Greens saw his vote more than halved as left-of-centre/left-wing voters switched back to the main parties, while UKIP didn’t stand. Yet given demographic change and rapid housing growth, in 15 years time this constituency could well become a marginal (assuming the boundaries are not redrawn).

South East Cambridgeshire

SECambsGenElectionResults2017

With UKIP not standing and The Greens forming a local progressive alliance with Labour, Huw Jones’ votes rose considerably to over 17,000. Lucy Nethsingha held up the Lib Dems vote from 2015, but it could not stop Lucy Frazer from taking over 50% of the vote with an increased total as well.

Yet the nature of the campaigns and hustings in both South Cambridgeshire and South East Cambridgeshire show that there is a demand from residents to be more involved in politics. The challenge for both Labour and the Liberal Democrats is whether they can identify where the mini-hotbeds of support are in the south of the county and do some targeted campaigning in future elections.

Goatgate

Which is where we are now, and the crazy afternoon online about whether there was going to be a delay to the Queen’s Speech because of the time it takes to write something on vellum.

Yes – really.

My understanding is that of Caroline’s above. Certainly until very recently it was Acts of Parliament (not Queen’s speeches or other papers) that were printed on vellum.

You can arrange a visit to the archives as I did back in 2004 and see all of these rolls.  The latest word on the matter prior to today was this discussion between the Commons and the Lords. In the grand scheme of things, vellum preserves extremely well – far better than standard paper. Also, you can read it straight off unlike electronic media where you need hardware and software. Digital data stores also degrade over time – floppy disks, hard drives and so on need continuous copying over time.

Going to the polls – Election 2017

 

Summary

On one of the worst election campaigns I’ve ever experienced – and I went through 2001!

At a national level, the campaigns of the top two parties have been absolutely woeful. The greater fault obviously lies with the Conservative top brass because they were the ones that called the election – to the surprise of their own party. So soon after the county council and mayoral elections showed a contempt for their own frontline activists, and to call it slap bang in the middle of exam season disenfranchised every student and young person with exams to prepare for. It automatically meant that young people would not be able to campaign. And it was young people that swung the vote for Daniel Zeichner here in Cambridge and away from Julian Huppert in 2015.

The less said about Corbyn’s communications team lead by Seumas Milne, the better. For all of the sins of the print media, they’ve made far too many basic errors – such as not ensuring they had shadow ministers available for set piece prime time media slots (eg early morning, early and late evening) where they could criticise government policy in front of thousands – sometimes millions of viewers.

The past few days, the print media has been in full-on frenzy mode, seeking to repay Theresa May’s manifesto writers for the clause scrapping Leveson II. The thing that stands out with this manifesto is how so few people contributed to it. Hence the first real ‘wobble’ was the so-called ‘Dementia tax’ which went down like an iron brick, and allowed Labour to recover.

At the same time, so many of the senior Conservatives have been absolutely non-existent in the media.

Others include Justine Greening (Education), Elizabeth Truss (Justice), Greg Clark (Cities/Business), Sajid Javid (Communities/Localgov),  to name but a few of them.

I still expect the Tories to win outright

Part of this is due to the interaction between the broadcast media and the print media. The proprietors and editors of the print media all too often set the political agenda, the broadcast media then respond based on the headlines on the front of the newspapers and thus the debates are framed with that in mind, rather than reporting on the news that is actually happening.

Robert Harris on Newsnight this evening did a brief report on control-freakery in politics and elections. He didn’t pull his punches.

“But what about Labour’s big rallies?”

Older people remember 1983. Will history repeat itself? (i.e. where, despite the big rallies, the electoral arithmetic did not add up for Labour – not least because of the SDP split in 1981). If anything, it took too long for Labour to get into its stride. Labour too has had too many of its big guns staying away from the limelight and focusing either on their own constituencies, those of close party allies (Emily Thornberry has been in Cambridge at least three times in the past few weeks), or sticking to social media.

Labour’s campaigning star of the show by a country mile has been former Mayor of Cambridge, Barry Gardiner. The shadow international trade minister has been holding Liam Fox to account in one of the Prime Minister’s more controversial Cabinet appointments. Indeed, some in Labour circles insist on referring to him as ‘the disgraced former defence secretary’. Former Mayor Gardiner (I can call him that – local reporters always look for the local connection!) has – to the delight of Labour supporters been pulling up broadcast journalists over their shortcomings. Nick Robinson takes a hit here.

…and here’s Adam Boulton taking a verbal hit too.

One of the things the TV News has been saying in recent days is how there seems to be a swing back to the old polarised Left-Right politics as both Labour and Conservatives have headed towards their core votes.

“What about the Lib Dems?”

Cambridge has hosted party activists from across the country as they campaign for Julian Huppert – more than a few camping over tonight and tomorrow to get the vote out later today. It has been the same with Labour locally as well. The numbers that both parties have pulled in here has been quite something to observe close up.

I get the sense that Tim Farron’s campaign with it’s strong pro-EU message has not delivered nearly as strongly as he and his party would have hoped. Accordingly, looking at social media activity as a guide, I get the sense the party is concentrating its resources much more precisely than in the previous two general elections. I asked their party president Sal Brinton – a former Cambridge councillor now in the House of Lords about the pressure that the Lib Dems are under to make up some of the ground they lost in 2015 when she visited their campaign HQ set up in a local church hall in my neighbourhood.

Much as I’d like to see them getting over 20 MPs for the sake of plurality in politics and in Parliament, I fear that it is going to be a struggle for them. But they need to get into double figures for the broadcast media to treat them as a major party again – if only for the Question Time appearances.

“What about the Greens, the SNP and Plaid in Wales? And UKIP?”

Given the charging of Conservative candidate in Thanet – contested by Nigel Farage last time around, it remains to be seen what the reaction of the voters there is. Ditto in Douglas Carswell’s former constituency of Clacton where he’s not re-standing.

For financial reasons – ie the ‘short money’ they get from Parliament, The Greens need to get a similar number of votes in total that they got in 2015 – 1million. They’ve made some high-profile withdrawals in a number of constituencies to give other parties stronger chances of defeating the Conservatives on the principles of progressive alliances.

“At least 22 Greens stood aside to increase the chance of a progressive candidate beating the Conservatives. The Women’s Equality Party stood down for the Greens in five seats, while the Lib Dems stood down in one.”

I’m sure there will be a handful of seats where standing down will be the difference between a Conservative being returned or not returned. Beyond that, the Greens have been throwing everything plus the kitchen sink at Bristol West, banking the support that Caroline Lucas has got from the Liberal Democrats and the Women’s Equality Party in Brighton Pavilion, and a weaker Labour campaign this time around. Problem is that in Bristol West they are contesting an incumbent Labour candidate. They are also putting resources into the Isle of Wight. Three MPs would be beyond their wildest dreams – but is possible.

The SNP remain rock solid as the other parties have struggled to recover. Both the Liberal Democrats and The Greens are standing in substantially fewer constituencies this time around – both Jo Swinson (LD), and Patrick Harvie (G) being their headline candidates. Again, for plurality of politics I’d love to see them both returned by their electors. It’s very difficult to read Scotland from down south here – in particular the state of the once-mighty Scottish Labour Party. Compared to the titans of the mid-late 1990s – Gordon Brown, John Smith, Alistair Darling, Robin Cook, George Robertson (noticeably all men – again reflecting badly on the party hierarchy of the time) it’s difficult to see the current generation being more than a shadow – as reflected by having only one MP in Scotland in the last Parliament after dominating for decades.

Again, Plaid Cymru are difficult to read from the Lib-Lab bubble of Cambridge. While I think party leader Leanne Wood is wonderful, it’s hard to judge whether her TV appearance here in Cambridge for the leaders’ debate actually made any impact in Wales.

“And Northern Ireland?”

All too often thrown in the ‘too complicated’ pile in Westminster, promises of extra spending by weak Conservative governments in the 1990s to gain extra unionist votes became something of a stereotype – something that others have mentioned may re-occur should a Conservative government need shoring up.

The big complexity is the status of the border with the Republic of Ireland post Brexit. The other thing that I have found incredibly irresponsible by Conservative strategists is the inflaming of Northern Ireland’s past during the troubles of 1969-1998. Re-opening old wounds in such a gratuitous manner was something I found despicable. The sensationalised captions of ‘Ooh – look who Mr Corbyn met!’ looked all the more ridiculous when photos of their own senior politicians – and senior royals (including The Queen) had also been filmed and photographed meeting the same people.

“The impact of the terrorist attacks?”

Very difficult to judge. Once the election is over, party leaders will need to get together and agree a protocol of what to do on campaigning & suspensions when such things happened. This election campaign understandably caught everyone unprepared.

My tweet via Puffles to Alicia Kearns, standing for the Conservatives in Mitcham and Morden.

Normally in such crises, electorates are expected to turn towards the politicians and parties that are seen as strong on defence and security – traditionally the Conservatives. But with the Prime Minister as Home Secretary for six years from 2010 oversaw cuts to police and security spending, her opponents have gone after this in a very big way – certainly far more stronger than I had originally expected. That said, many of her opponents online were publishing video footage of speeches & event Q&A sessions warning of the impact of cuts to police and security budgets. Here’s Barry Gardiner again.

“How has the campaign been locally?”

I’ve kept Cambridge at an arms length as far as hustings have been concerned, though went along to the ones organised by the Cambridge Junction, and the joint Cambridge News and BBC Radio Cambridgeshire one. Given the huge number of hustings in Cambridge in 2015 – over 30 nearly all of which were standing room only, many people here would have had some familiarity with both Julian Huppert and Daniel Zeichner, both having to defend their own records in Parliament. This is where Stuart Tuckwood for the Greens came in as a younger, newer breath of fresh air politically. And he seemed to be winning over more than a few floating voters at the hustings. Here he is responding to my questions on public transport and air pollution.

Whether it will be enough to hold of the squeeze on the Greens’ votes at the past two local elections remains to be seen.

Being familiar with three of the four candidates and the arguments, I thought I’d cover the hustings in South Cambridgeshire and South East Cambridgeshire on the grounds that hardly anyone else covers them from a reporting perspective. They didn’t disappoint.

Although both the surrounding constituencies are safe-as-houses Conservative, I can see South Cambridgeshire turning marginal as the population increases on the back of rapid growth in housebuilding and transport infrastructure. The question is which political parties can sink their roots into the new communities first and fastest.

“Impact of social media and video?”

Always hard to tell, but my Youtube stats (not including the FB ones) are impressive in the 30 days leading up to the election.

PreGE2017VideoStats30Days

Over 6,000 views and over 25,000 minutes of video footage watched – as headline figures I can more than live with that. Obviously what I don’t have is the regional breakdowns and demographic breakdowns of who is watching how much and where.

Most candidates still not making full use of mobile video

Both Stuart Tuckwood for Cambridge Greens and Dan Greef for Cambridge Labour have been the two candidates to have made the most of mobile video. I declare an interest that both have commissioned me to make videos for their campaigns, but had they only used my videos and nothing else, then they’d still be at the same point as most of their opponents. The difference between those two and the rest is that they have been making short videos for their Facebook pages for fun using their mobile phones. Mr Greef’s videos are here, and also Mr Tuckwood’s videos are here.

I don’t think any candidate locally has succeeded in integrating their digital activities with their social media activities. In the grand scheme of things it’s still a numbers, door-knocking and canvassing data game. Today is the acid test where the data collected from six weeks of intense canvassing, leafletting and door-to-door knocking is used as campaigners seek to ‘get their vote out’ – ie encourage residents who said they supported specific parties to actually go out and vote. Otherwise, in the grand scheme of things such support is worthless. That’s the risk with Corbyn’s big rallies – can he convert such huge turnouts into votes, and votes into seats in the way his predecessor Michael Foot was unable to do in 1983?

We’ll find out in 24 hours time…

So I fought off a breakdown last night

Summary

On trebling my medication to ensure my mind didn’t implode – and also to get some sleep last night too, following a mental health crisis.

It’s the most I’ve ever thrown at it in one evening, but touchwood it seemed to do the trick. If only I had known this back in 2012 I might still be able to function full time. As it is, it’s been over five years since my mind imploded and I feel no better than that time.

“What kicked it off?”

A combination of things I think – demands on filming as many of the election hustings as possible in the snap general election. (Even more important now that so many have been cancelled on the back of the horror of the Manchester bombing). The 24/7 morbid disaster p 0 r n sensationalist reporting from print and broadcast media alike – only the Manchester Evening News seems to have gotten the tone right. The current reality of my financial situation of living on the edge for far too long now. And the loneliness of being a lone ranger when I’d rather be part of a team – even though there is no market out there for what I do.

“But what you do is really important!”

Someone from one of the local parties who I had not met before came up to me and said the same in the coffee shop near my house this lunchtime. The fact is that there are hundreds of thousands of people across the country doing very important things for their community, but are unable to make a living for it. In the current economic and political climate, I can’t see this changing in the near future.

Parallel lives in different centuries

The one strange crumb of comfort I have is that one of the historical figures I’m researching – Eglantyne Jebb who founded Save The Children, seemed to suffer from similar symptoms that I’ve been struggling with for quite some time. We can both switch from periods of immense and seemingly productive activity, to burnout and needing days at a time to recover. As individuals, we’re both quite highly strung too. And like each other, we’re both very dependent on continued family support – after my civil service career I had to move back in with my family – a boomerang kid if you like. And not really through choice.

What does the future hold if you can no longer work full time?

I’d always assumed that at some stage I’d get better – because that’s what all of these articles about people who had been through similar had been saying. Well…after five years I’m at the stage where I just cannot see that happening. It’s hard not to feel despondent about that.

Part of the problem is the woeful provision of mental health treatment in Cambridge and also across the country. Having done my first TV interview on all things mental health at Centre33 for BBC Radio Cambridgeshire back in 2003, I’ve gotten bored of all of the ‘awareness raising’ by the various mental health organisations and politicians. It’s been nearly 15 years – I want to see some fucking action, a difference on the ground. I don’t want to see a system that crams everyone through a one-size-fits-all treatment because that’s all that the Health Secretary and the Chancellor can be bothered to fund lest their corporate paymasters squeal about taxes.

Breaking the loneliness-intensity vicious circle

I’m only a few years off my big 4-zero. I asked myself what I had to show for four decades on this planet. Then I remembered fighting tooth and nail to secure several million pounds from my civil service days to fund the construction of this building. Oh, and Puffles.

The thing is with poor mental health – especially when it’s not being properly diagnosed or treated, is that the fallout inevitably hits those around you. All too often great people have drifted into and out of my life, even – or rather especially when I’ve wanted them to stick around. The more desperate you want them to stick around, the more they pull away until the bonds break.

School, college, university, post-graduate years, Cambridge civil service years, London civil service years…I can’t think of anyone off the top of my head who I’d consider to be in my ‘day-to-day life’. (Which then gets me thinking about structures of society too).

No longer having the health – or the wealth, to socialise as in the past

In very recent times that’s probably been the hardest thing to come to terms with. Take last night – beautiful sunset where I really wanted to go out for a drive into the countryside with someone. Just away from the traffic noise (even though by being in a car I would be the traffic). I’ve become extremely sensitive to the noise of the internal combustion engine since my 2012 breakdown, so having a road-facing bedroom doesn’t help.

But my point is that I wanted to be ‘out there’. Yet when you’re going through a mental health crisis you can’t really do that. You have to get tanked up on pills and go to bed. Which is what I did until zombied out enough to go to sleep. A further problem being that what little sleep I get is never restful sleep. If you see dark shopping bags under my eyes, that is why.

It also has an impact on the activities I do as well. For example my alcohol consumption has gone down to almost zero – not a bad thing. But in part it’s due to not being able to stay out late as in years gone by. During my ballroom & latin dancing days over a decade ago, we’d go drinking after dancing regularly. What I didn’t fully acknowledge at the time looking back was that dancing was all that I had in common with most of my social group at the time – I was the historian/social scientist surrounded by ‘proper’ scientists – chemists, physicists and biologists: people who spent their days in science labs rather than offices.

An even harder thing now is not having the stamina to keep up with the demands of live performances and after-parties that follow. All too often I have to head off early rather than staying out till 3am with everyone else. Sign of ageing? Signs of the times?

“It can’t be all bad news, can it?”

It seldom is.

They say your life’s calling has a strange way of finding you. Lost Cambridge found me by accident. Eglantyne found me by accident – as this talk I gave at the Museum of Cambridge for the HUNCH project for the revamped University Arms Hotel, Cambridge, explains.

My take is that there is enough content waiting to be explored, unearthed, (re)published and publicised to last me the rest of my life. The two problems I have are:

  • I don’t think I am competent enough to deliver such a huge undertaking
  • The amount of information there, and the skills required, are too great for one person to take on

I’m also of the view that the person who leads on it has to be a woman. This is because the core theme of this is about how a group of women shaped modern Cambridge. It can’t be me that leads this.

The other thing obviously is my health. One of the things I’m trying to do in terms of designing the longer term programme for this is ‘designing in good mental health’ on my part, and ensuring that I don’t become too dependent on one or two people work-wise to the extent that it drives them away. Because in the grand scheme of things I’ve learnt that most people can only take working with a highly-strung person like me in small doses. Hence it’s got to be much more than a one-or-two-person undertaking.

Within that team we’d be researching through old newspapers and long-forgotten books, producing a host of digital content. We’d also be looking to secure grants and other sources of funding – not least for the outputs which for me include books (children’s, local history and academic), academic papers, and at least one multi-part film drama. The reason for the latter in particular is because the people who I am researching have got such a compelling story to tell – one that has been lost to the sands of time.

If you’re interested in my historical work, would like to get involved or would like to help support my research, please email me at antonycarpen [at] gmail [dot] com. See this video here.

 

The national manifestos are out…

…but are they worth the paper they are printed on?

“Find out more about the parties’ policies by reading their manifestos in full. Download the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat manifestos from the party websites.”

…says The Guardian helpfully in its comparison of the three manifestos in this article. We’re still waiting for The Green Party’s manifesto, though they launched their youth manifesto here with the eye-catching pledge to scrap university tuition fees and write off all student-era debt still outstanding. While my heart & wallet is like ***Oooh!*** my head simply cannot see it happening.

The figures are eye-watering. Opponents will inevitably accuse the Greens of promising the world knowing they won’t ever be put into a position of ever having to deliver on such a promise. Such promises were the ruin of Nick Clegg, and dare I say it, Cameron and Osborne with the EU Referendum that they never stood a chance of winning against 30 years of tabloid drip-drip-hate headlines.

Conservative manifesto – a power grab?

It’s easy enough to tear into a manifesto of any political party that has been in power for seven years – normally it’s around this time that the party concerned begins to run out of steam. It’s also a time when big name critics who were once big figures in past administrations regularly turn up to criticise ministers. In this case, the Conservatives have to deal with George Osborne at the Evening Standard. Just how destabilising he proves to be remains to be seen.

From a ‘looking through the Cambridge lens’ there are a number of alarming things:

  • Setting in stone the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough mayoralty for a semi-permanent Conservative county mayor covering a city- Cambridge – where they have zero councillors and haven’t had more than a couple of councillors this side of the Millennium. (Policies imposing first-past-the-post (FPTP) despite the second preference system being used in the elections this year, and then stating they will now no longer back mayoralties for rural counties – cashing in their winnings for Cambridge).
  • Proposing switching to FPTP for the Police and Crime Commissioner elections – both this and the above policies being slammed by the Electoral Reform Society (Which amongst other things calls for proportional representation as a voting system).
  • The Internet – unfortunately due to the decision on the EU Referendum and the subsequent vote, the institution that would have had a half-decent chance for regulating the internet (for want of another term) is one that the UK is leaving. Having been to OpenTech 2017 not so long ago, I remain of the view that most people in politics and public policy are not nearly as technologically literate to be making policy on all things digital, and that all institutions in/around politics need to train up existing staff and bring in tech-literate staff into policy-making roles. This includes editors and journalists too. My ‘go-to’ expert in the field is @CharlotteJee – editor of @TechWorldNews.
  • Leveson II – scrapped. The paragraph reads as if it was written by the tabloid proprietors and editors themselves. The Hacked Off campaign for a free & accountable press isn’t happy either.

There are more than a few other things I have issues with, but it’s not all bad.

  • Rights and protections in ‘the gig economy’ where big firms are replacing what were permanent jobs & regular hours with faux ‘self employment’ or zero hours contracts. The proof will be both in Matthew Taylor’s report (Head of the RSA) and on what recommendations the Conservatives would implement. Note more and more people are sceptical of manifesto commitments that say “we will look at X report carefully before coming to conclusions” – especially ones published just after general elections!
  • The enforcement by the law of promises made during corporate takeovers – a big issues with Cadbury’s. It was this that led to this clause.
  • Investment in transport schemes – in particular to ease over-crowding on railways. Today, the new Cambridge North railway station was opened – also reigniting the political row as to who should take what credit over it.
  • Strengthening laws to combat modern slavery
  • The review of the honours system

…but inevitably given my own political values, there are things in there that I cannot reconcile eg

“Yeah – but what about Labour? And the LibDems? The alternative is communism!”

The reason why I think Labour will struggle in this general election is because Corbyn’s top team under former Guardian columnist Seumas Milne has committed far too many unforced errors over the past few years. It has been woeful and excruciating at times. If Labour does better than expected, much of it will be down to the huge amount of work their frontline activists have been putting into the campaign.

A manifesto to motivate the core vote?

On a number of policies, Labour is using words that people under the age of 35 will not be familiar with – eg “nationalisation”. This has shifted the political Overton Window because it has forced the broadcast journalists to explain what nationalisation actually is and means in practice – something that has found a receptive ear to some people. The risk is that should Labour face a heavy defeat, they could learn the wrong lessons of the election and assume it was policies rather than comms and competencies that lost it for them.

Repealing university tuition fees, but not the student-era debt

An important signal from Mr Corbyn given that it was Labour that brought in tuition fees in 1997/98 and then raised them in a piece of legislation that enabled the Coalition to raise them far further through secondary legislation requiring only 2 debates in Parliament rather than going through the extended process of primary legislation.

Free lifelong education at further education colleges

Potentially a very important policy due to the changing nature of the economy and jobs market. At school in the mid-1990s we were told our generation would be the first that did not have a job for life, and would have to retrain and re-skill. The burden of that retraining all too often falls on the individuals rather than the firms or the state. Note how corporation taxes and other levies on big private businesses have been cut over the years while the costs of education and training have risen. There will always be a financial incentive for firms to poach trained staff from their competitors rather than train up their own staff. In the end it’s a race to the bottom. Something must be done to reverse this.

Private rented homes

I take with a pinch of salt political promises on house building. In the grand scheme of things, spats over numbers are meaningless. One thing that Labour has mentioned that’s of interest is requiring all homes out for rent to be fit for human habitation. What’s not clear is how such a policy will be enforced, how that enforcement will be funded, what happens to tenants forced to move out, and what happens to properties that landlords leave empty and refuse to do anything with. In some parts of the country, property price rises alone means that the value of such a property will continue to rise anyway.

National Care Service, National Education Service

What intrigues me about these two are how these services will interact with local government. One of the things Labour found out in the mid-2000s was the limitations of over-centralised delivery. You can’t micromanage from the centre. I found this out the hard way during my Whitehall days. Can they make public services such as these and the NHS work seamlessly with local councils?

Leveson II

Unlike the Conservatives above, Labour has stated it will commence with Leveson II. Furthermore, and perhaps as expected, they announced they will launch a review of local and national media ownership. Given the coverage of much of the print newspaper media, calls from within Labour can only grow stronger.

“And the Liberal Democrats? Their leader says they are aiming to be the lead opposition!”

Going from 9 MPs to over 200 is the swing that would be required for that, and for over 326 MPs to form a government. They are standing in pretty much every seat across Great Britain, but even their most devout supporter would concede that their chances of being elected outright into government are slim at best. Indeed, in big letters they state: “Change Britain’s future by changing the opposition”

Pitched to hard remainers?

The opening section is all about how different policy areas will be affected by Brexit and how they would respond to each one. In that sense they’ve accepted that the Conservatives have framed this General Election 2017 as one about Brexit. Labour on the other hand have not, and are campaigning on much wider issues. As things stand today, the commentariat is noting Labour’s rise (from very low) in the opinion polls with the Lib Dems failure to make much headway, and are criticising Tim Farron for pitching so hard for the remain vote.

Similar to Labour on health and education?

As far as high level policy goes, yes. To most people, Labour, Lib Dems and Greens all have a ‘stop the cuts’ theme in these areas – something that people are bringing up locally at the hustings.

As with Labour, the Lib Dems have also covered adult education with a similar sounding policy about ‘individual accounts for funding mature adult and part time learning’ but it doesn’t read nearly as clearly as Labour’s commitment (free adult education at FE colleges) does.

A Good employer kitemark

This reminds me of Richard Murphy’s Fair Tax Mark but expands that concept to cover things like a living wage – the real one, not the Government’s one that stole the branding. It also covers unpaid internships and commits to name-blind application processes.

Fiduciary duty of firms – a big culture change?

“Reform fiduciary duty and company purpose rules to ensure that other
considerations, such as employee welfare, environmental standards,
community benefit and ethical practice, can be fully included in decisions
made by directors and fund managers.”

During my time studying economics many moons ago, I always wondered why the only duty that was mentioned was the one executives had to maximise the profits of the shareholders. Hence the above will make for interesting policy work should it be considered – as academia is doing, for example here.

Devolving revenue-raising powers

For a city like Cambridge this is essential. In my opinion anyway. But this has been a long-standing principle of the Lib Dems and their predecessors. The problem they face is a Whitehall and Westminster culture that doesn’t like letting go of the reins when it comes to taxation. The argument against devolving such powers is the risk of having a chancellor of the exchequer in every town hall in the land imposing a local income tax – as Nigel Evans MP said in this Commons debate in 1996. That debate in 1996 was about funding of local government services and starts off here noting the context that the Conservatives were on a downward losing streak of local council election results, which meant by 1996 just before their landslide loss to Labour in 1997, they controlled relatively few councils.

Legalise cannabis of a limited potency

The headlines screamed about the Lib Dems legalising drugs, but it’s much more nuanced than that. Possession will result in a health-based approach rather than a criminal-based ones, taking small-time users out of the prison system.

“What hopes for a progressive alliance? Because there’s not that much difference between Labour, the Lib Dems and The Greens?”

Ditto UKIP and The Tories – some of the former are standing down to support Conservative candidates on a pro-Brexit ticket. This is being driven locally rather than nationally – mainly because it would be unconstitutional (especially for Labour) to back another party at an election. But it’s a note of caution: not all election alliances are progressive.

The above isn’t a comprehensive look at the manifestos. It’s a scan through, picking out some of the things that the mainstream media might have missed, and picking those that seem to stand out for me for one reason or another.

As some have commented, the closer the party is to winning an election, the more nuanced and caveated the manifesto seems to be. Hence the criticism that the Conservative manifesto is short on costings and specifics. Note also that the opponents of the Conservatives have complained that the broadcast media is not subjecting their manifesto to nearly the same sort of detailed scrutiny that opposition manifestos are getting. The sentiment of former Mayor of Cambridge, Barry Gardiner of Labour, echoed the sentiments of many Labour activists in particular.

 

 

 

 

 

The general election in and around Cambridge – the first public debates

Summary

Featuring videos of the candidates

It’s a busy time of the political cycle for me as I get out and about filming as much as I possibly can. As with 2015 I’m trying to cover South Cambridgeshire and South-East Cambridgeshire because as otherwise ‘safe seats’ (in these cases for the Conservatives) they get little coverage and even fewer public debates in comparison to Cambridge City, which has got at least 15 this time around.

Democracy Cambridge on Facebook

DemocracyCambridge Screengrab

It’s at https://www.facebook.com/DemocracyCambridge/ and I’m trying to keep everyone up to date on that page. Feel free to ‘like’ it and post links to election events in and around Cambridge. Just like the political parties, I’m also encouraging donations – not least to pay for some of my bus and train fares to hustings, and also for the additional hard drive I now need to buy due to all of the extra events I’m filming. So if you can afford to, please click on the button below.


Donate

You can see all of the video playlists I’m creating at https://www.youtube.com/antonycarpen – feel free to share and embed, but please attribute to Antony Carpen if you are doing so.

If you’re organising a hustings – particular in South Cambridgeshire & South East Cambridgeshire, and would like it filmed, please get in touch ( antonycarpen [at] gmail [dot] com ).

Cambridge City – Julian Huppert vs Daniel Zeichner, the re-re-match

…alongside Stuart Tuckwood of The Green Party, and Dr John Hayward of the Conservatives. They had their first hustings at The Junction in Cambridge. You can view the full footage of the event here.

Fellow community reporter Richard Taylor filmed the candidates at the Human Rights hustings (see here) and to a predominantly Christian audience at the Eden Baptist Chapel hustings (see here).

South Cambridgeshire – the band reforms

Heidi Allen for the Conservatives faces a rematch with Dan Greef of Labour and Simon Saggers of the Greens, with Susan van de Ven standing for the Liberal Democrats this time around. They faced the public for the first time as a quartet in a good-humoured hustings in Great Shelford – the playlist of videos is here.

South East Cambridgeshire – Lucy Frazer QC vs Huw Jones – the re-match

…alongside Lucy Nethsingha for the Liberal Democrats. They had their first public debate in Waterbeach chaired by Chris Elliott, Chief Reporter of the Cambridge News in a sometimes tense and passionately debated hustings. The playlist of videos is here.

“Yeah – why do you ask them such easy questions in the post-hustings interviews, Puffles?”

For a number of reasons.

The first is my primary aim – to strengthen local democracy. That means encouraging and inspiring people to get involved in local democracy. Therefore I want to create content & footage where the viewer thinks:

“Yes – I could have a reasonable conversation with that person and raise my issues with them”

…rather than:

“Why did that de-humanised individual just recite a bunch of lines to take programmed into them by Party HQ?”

That means interview technique has to be very different.

“Why don’t you ask difficult questions? After all, you’ve been inside the system!”

In one sense that would be too easy. A far harder challenge is encouraging the interviewees to be on top form, at their most passionate and knowledgeable where they can inspire people not just with their answers but also with their delivery – speed and tone of voice.

“Isn’t it your responsibility to ask awkward questions?”

Not in these interviews.

“Why not?”

That’s your job – to get in touch with the candidates yourself having decided they are worth conversing with. My role in all of this is to make the first introductions. What happens *after* that introduction is entirely up to you, and in the grand scheme of things, none of my business.

It’s also not the job of candidates and elected representatives to read your mind. Be an adult, take some responsibility and make the effort to find out who is standing for election in your area. You never know, one of the candidates might positively surprise you. But until you make the 1-2-1 contact, you might never know.

“Which candidates do you think are strongest?”

That’s not for me to say as far as the videos are concerned. That’s for you to make a judgement call accordingly. In the interviews I encourage the candidates to talk about the issues that they are most knowledgeable and passionate about – it avoids the ‘line-to-take’ delivery and means you get a more extended and more informed answer. When you have all candidates speaking passionately and knowledgeably, they are more likely to be at their best – which is what I want. That way you have a level playing field and people can judge accordingly.

“Even though lots of your tweets have been very critical of the Conservatives?”

Two separate mediums. Also, I treat each election almost like a mini filming project – it has a defined end point. Social media on the other hand is an ongoing continuous thing. Furthermore, whichever party is in power inevitably gets more criticism thrown at it because their decisions are more likely to impact on the people than opposition parties.

Finally, I stood with Puffles as an independent candidate at the Cambridge City Council elections in 2014. In that sense, I’ve already established a level of political independence far beyond most people.

Cambridgeshire local elections

 

Summary

Outside the Cambridge bubble, Conservatives take control of the county. What now for Labour and the Liberal Democrats?

The Conservatives have retaken political control of Cambridgeshire County Council, which they lost in 2013. They now have 36 of the 61 seats at Shire Hall – a reduced total of councillors due to the boundary changes instigated by David Cameron to ‘reduce the cost of politics’. Labour have seven seats, and the Liberal Democrats gain one, now with 15. The Cambridge city vs Cambridgeshire County political split remains – there are no Conservative councillors at city level inside Cambridge City.

The thing that struck me about the Conservative vote is that their most prominent and hardest-working candidate, Julius Carrington, got the fewest number of votes for his party in the most affluent ward in the city – Newnham. That ward is something of a Liberal Democrat stronghold. The Conservative vote was twice as strong in some of the most economically deprived wards of the city – places where in the grand scheme of things they stood ‘paper candidates’ – ie candidates that did not do any public campaigning. For Cambridge Green Party, they seem to have been beaten back to their roots by Labour and the Liberal Democrats, but still took over 3,000 votes across the city – polling nearly 500 votes in Market and Petersfield wards where they had two competent and articulate candidates in Jeremy Caddick and Virgil Ieurubino respectively.

Was it/wasn’t it a good day for Labour/The Liberal Democrats?

It depends who you ask. In terms of councillors, Labour taking 7 of the 12 vs the Lib Dems taking 5 of the 12 puts things in favour of Labour. On the other hand, the total number of votes in the city were ever so slightly ahead for the Liberal Democrats. That means both sides will be taking heart from the results, promoting the positives and diminishing the negatives. The third contest in seven years between Daniel Zeichner and Julian Huppert will go to the wire.

What about turnout?

It was noticeably higher in Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire for the mayoral elections – won as expected by James Palmer for the Conservatives, though the other parties did push him to the second round.

As an aside – what about the mayoral contest?

If I’m ****really**** honest, James Palmer was the only candidate who both really seemed to want the post and was able to articulate what he would do if elected. The other candidates were never able to articulate the specifics of what they would do county-wide in comparison. The particular advantage Mr Palmer had over his opponents – in particular Kevin Price of Labour and Rod Cantrill for the Liberal Democrats is that as a county council, he had more working familiarity with county-wide issues – and also area-specific issues that he could name-check at hustings. The risk that Cllr Price had to deal with was going beyond simply stating ‘I achieved £70m for council houses in Cambridge, I’ll negotiate the same outside Cambridge.’  The feedback I’ve had from politicians outside of Cambridge is that residents there don’t see civic Cambridge and its politicians in the best of lights. The problem that hampered Cllr Cantrill in my view is that vs Mr Palmer, he seemed much less committed to specific transport schemes – such as the proposed Cambridge light rail idea developed by Dr Colin Harris. It will be interesting to see how Dr Harris and Mr Palmer work together to develop the proposals. Campaigners supporting Cllr Cantrill said their concern was that Mr Palmer was making commitments – spending commitments that he would not be able to keep. Time will tell.

Back to turnout?

Higher in Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire

South Cambridgeshire pipping Cambridge City for the highest turnout

Reasonable for a local elections contest – turnout was lower in East Cambridgeshire, Fenland and Huntingdonshire.

What will this new county council look like?

UKIP vanquished by the Conservatives – all 12 UKIP councillors gone

It won’t have UKIP, and it will have a Conservative majority. That means it will be far easier for the Conservatives to get their agendas through the chamber. It also means that the otherwise toxic relationship that existed between the Conservative councillors and UKIP councillors is now no longer there – with all UKIP councillors losing their seats. Even I was surprised by this – I was expecting both Paul Bullen and Peter Reeve (who was recently awarded an MBE for services to local government) to hold their seats.

New & returning faces for Labour and the Liberal Democrats

The retirements of Paul Sales and Ashley Walsh (hardly a retirement for the latter, who is due to complete his Ph.D soon and is still in his 20s!) meant the door was open for new candidates for Labour in relatively safe seats of Arbury and Petersfield. The voters elected new candidate Linda Jones, and Jocelynne Scutt – the latter having moved sideways from West Chesterton – now merged with East Chesterton to form ‘Chesterton’, won by Ian Manning in a close contest with Labour’s Kelley Green. We also see a new face in King’s Hedges – Elisa Meschini, replacing Fiona Onasanya who is now Labour’s MP candidate in Peterborough. Surprise of the morning was the gain of Castle from Independent John Hipkin, by Claire Richards. Only 40 votes separated the top three candidates. (And only one of them had an intro video made by me – the winner. Just sayin’!)

In Market Ward we see the return of Nichola Harrison for the Liberal Democrats after several years away from all things local government. Outside of Cambridge, Linton switched from Conservatives to Liberal Democrats with Henry Batchelor taking Roger Hickford’s old seat – the latter successfully contesting one of the two seats in the neighbouring division of Sawston & the Shelfords.

Double-hatting – yes or no?

There are a number of councillors that sit on county, district and parish councils. This tells me that there is something structurally wrong with local government in our county. Parties should not need to do this, though I can understand why they do if the individuals concerned are particularly competent and the alternatives are thin on the ground. In Cambridge City, Lucy Nethsingha (Newnham) and Donald Adey (Trumpington) sit on both Cambridge City and Cambridgeshire County Councils. Donald Adey happens to be the other serving councillor who, alongside Cambridge City Council leader Lewis Herbert, lost 89 votes to Puffles the Dragon Fairy in Coleridge Ward in the 2014 Cambridge City Council elections. Few city councillors will ever be able to have that claim to fame! I don’t think any member of the public has ever asked them:

“You lost 89 votes to Puffles the dragon fairy – how can we be sure you’ll be a splendid councillor if you are going to go around losing votes to that pesky bag of fluff?”

Talking of colourful candidates, we missed the presence of Lord Toby Jug of the Eccentric Party in St Ives, Cambs in these elections.

A new generation of Conservative women

I would say I’ve been keeping a watchful eye on some of them but that sounds creepy. And they were the ones who started following Puffles in the first place, which is how I found out about some of them. Local MP Heidi Allen is mentoring a number of women in her party. One of them, Ruth Benson was elected in a by-election on Bourn ward, South Cambridgeshire District Council, which took place on the same day.

Returning to the county council benches are Anne Bailey in Ely, and Lynda Harford in Bar Hill. Samantha Hoy also returns for Wisbech in a hard-fought campaign against UKIP who until these elections had made significant gains in what was a Conservative heartland. Lina Joseph takes over the seat in Hardwick.

Near misses for people who stood out in the campaign

I was gutted for Sarah Cheung Johnson who missed out by a few hundred votes in Longstanton.

A progressive alliance could well have seen her take that seat.

Nicky Shepard also missed out in Abbey Ward against Joan Whitehead for Labour in what had been a safe Labour ward for several years.

There were only 75 votes between Labour and the Lib Dems in Abbey, Cambridge.

I was also sad for Labour’s Katie Thornburrow, a new face taking on the Liberal Democrats in Trumpington. She hit the ground running both campaigning and with social media – essential in what was a village but now a rapidly growing part of Cambridge with extensive new house building.

Katie came within 300 votes of the incumbent Liberal Democrats of taking Trumpington – something that could well be attributed to the performance and the policies of the national parties in recent times.

Newnham and Petersfield – strong slates of candidates

I was particularly impressed by the collective strength of the slates in Newnham and Petersfield in Cambridge. In both those divisions voters had a genuine choice between the candidates. Past records and policy preferences aside, there was no ‘automatic favourite’. For each, any one of three out of the four candidates would have made excellent county councillors.

Three who were unlucky – Emma Bates for the Liberal Democrats and Virgil Ierubino for the Greens, both in Petersfield, and Joe Dale for Labour in Newnham, all have huge potential as future councillors.

And finally…

Civic organisations outside of Cambridge need to stand up and be counted when it comes to future elections. The number of public debates and hustings organised – or rather publicised, was noticeably higher in Cambridge than outside. This was also the case in the general elections where candidates inside Cambridge took part in up to five times as many public debates as candidates in South Cambridgeshire and South East Cambridgeshire.

If you want to see things change in your village or town, around election time, get together with a few friends and/or a community group and organise a hustings/public debate. See Chris Rand’s guide. Simply said, create the conversation space. It might be that those turning up are inspired by the people that they meet and hear from. It might be that they become so frustrated by the people they hear from that they choose to stand themselves. This is exactly what happened with Lady Trumpington – onetime Cllr Jean Barker, Mayor of Cambridge in the 1970s. If you do organise something, make it easy for local media to come along too!

Want video & social media footage in your election campaign? Make it easier for us community reporters!

Summary

Standing for election in/around Cambridge in 2017? Want video and social media footage of your events? On how to make things easy not just for us community reporter types, but for local journalists too

I’ve written in previous blogposts that my role in these elections are to create social media content – in particular videos, that showcase the candidates as best as they can be, and then let the electorate come to their own conclusions. For the mayoral local elections in/around Cambridge, I created 65 videos covering hustings, debates, interviews and intros. Of those, 17 were short, sharp, introduction videos with candidates from four parties introducing themselves to the general public.

Over the past month or so, my Youtube Channel tells me it’s had over 5,000 hits and over 10,000 minutes of video footage watched. For a niche channel covering local politics over a very limited geographical area, that’s incredible.

Social media commentators have said for some time that the future is with mobile video. Make it easy for someone with a half-decent camcorder to turn up and speeches like this get recorded.

Owen Jones rallying Cambridge Universities Labour Club to campaign for Daniel Zeichner, restanding in Cambridge in the 2017 general election.

Want things like this recorded?

  • Please give me advance notice
  • Consider venues – are they easy for people like me (and your activists too!) to get to using public transport?
  • If there is no public transport, can you give me lifts to and from venues? (I’m incredibly grateful to those party volunteers across the spectrum who have given me transport in the past)
  • Is there free wifi or a decent mobile signal?
  • Does the room have plugs?

Note too that people are turning away from the very highly stage-managed campaigns – noting that Tim Farron of the Liberal Democrats is getting plaudits for how he’s dealing with people who don’t agree with him:

Tim Farron facing a member of the public who voted to leave the EU

48 videos for the 2015 General Election

You can see them in the playlist here.

My main principle behind filming is this:

I want more people to take an active part in our democracy – especially locally to me. Therefore I create this content and film meetings, speeches, interviews and gatherings. My aim is to create content showcasing the candidates ***at their best***. If all of the candidates featured are on top of their game, not only are the electorate more likely to be inspired, but they will have a more informed choice to make having seen everyone being as best as they can. What happens after that is up to the electorate and the viewer. I’ll have done my bit.

I put the videos up online free to access, and also break some of them up so that individual parties and campaigns can share the ones of their candidates with their activists and supporter networks. How far and wide the footage gets viewed…well that’s up to you.

65 videos filmed of Cambridgeshire’s election candidates

Summary

Have we reached a tipping point on community videos in election campaigns?

65 videos in five weeks – not bad going is it? With my filming of local council meetings in and around Cambridge, I aim to bring local democracy to your desktop. Please consider supporting my work if you can afford it and haven’t donated already. Click on the button below:
Donate

I’ve broken them down into a series of playlists as follows:

The mayoral hustings are as follows:

Cambridgeshire County Council elections – and the mayoral ones too

34 local councils – mainly the shire county councils – are up for election on 04 May 2017. The county councils – covering large rural areas are traditionally Conservative-voting councils so even though the results are likely to be strong for the Conservatives, they won’t necessarily translate directly to the general election. Furthermore there are the controversial (in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough) mayoral elections.

Irrespective of my personal political views, I’ve taken on the (self-appointed) role of filming as many hustings and community debates in and around South Cambridge in the run up to both the mayoral and the Cambridgeshire County Council elections. I generally leave meetings in North Cambridge to Richard Taylor as that’s the side of the city where he lives and is far more familiar with than I am. See his video channel at https://www.youtube.com/user/RTaylorUK/videos

Have we reached a tipping point with community video and local elections?

Not yet – but there is now clearly some momentum. In and around Cambridge, it is the Green Party collectively, followed by the Liberal Democrats with a handful of individual notable pioneers who have struck out creating their own short video clips for sharing on Facebook. Videos uploaded to FB directly are much more likely to appear in people’s news feeds than links to external sites such as Youtube and Vimeo.

170503 DemocracyCambridgeFBVideoStats

Stats: Data from DemocracyCambridge indicating a greater use of Facebook by the Greens.

Now, I’m not about to say that on the basis of the videos alone that the election results will follow accordingly. What it might indicate in future is how local political parties and candidates might be able to influence the political agenda and what people discuss whether online, at public debates or in general conversation.

Feedback from candidates filmed

The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Note that on my part I have done a fair amount of preparation and planning – along with about three years of learning that goes with it. It’s not simply a case of turning up, pointing a camera at people and saying:

“OK….aaaaaaaaaand-AC-SHUN!!!!”

If you go through the candidate intro videos one after the other, you’ll notice a common theme.

“Hi! My name is Dave and I’m standing for my party in my local ward at my local council elections on the 1st of April”

What is the essential information that people need to know about the individual speaking before a social media notification distracts them? It’s the above. You know that ‘stat-you-read-on-the-internet-so-it-must-be-true’ you heard about interviewers making a decision to hire someone in the first 90 seconds? You can sort of apply similar principles here. The average viewing time for my videos anyway is around the two minute mark. Not long at all. That means the candidates have 60 seconds max to explain why they are standing for election – before a final reminder on when polling day is.

Principles behind the videos

My simple principle is this: I want all candidates I film intro videos for to be at their best when delivering their lines. I want the viewer to see all of the candidates at their best. That way everyone has had an equal chance to put their case, and the voter & viewer can make as an informed choice as possible given otherwise very little time. Because let’s face it: how many of you are going to read through and fact check all of the local manifestos of the parties standing in your area? How many of you are going to do background research on the candidates for local council elections? How many of you will be putting a cross in a box for someone you’ve never met, don’t know what they look like and have no idea about other than they are a given party’s candidate?

Watching previous first time candidates grow in confidence

This is possibly the bit I get the most satisfaction from – watching camera-shy first-time candidates growing in confidence as they appear in more videos and as they come face-to-face with the public more frequently. I

It’s a doddle to tear politicians to pieces. Even more so for me because I’m familiar with the internal workings of the system at a level that most candidates are not. The much harder task is working across the parties to make them all appear in the best light possible to the voters so that at least they might make a judgement call to find out more about the candidates – and even initiate their own conversations following. If that happens, I’ve more than fulfilled my role and met my aims. What happens between candidates and voters after that is none of my business – it’s in their hands.

Future videos over the next few years?

At the moment, the videos fall into three categories:

  • Short head-and-shoulder intro pieces to camera
  • Short-to-medium length interview pieces
  • Speeches and exchanges at hustings or events

What we are yet to see is anything that is artistically and musically creative. Understandable given the infancy that this field is in, and also given the expense incurred at commissioning high quality videos for as yet unquantified returns where total election spending is (quite rightly) limited by law.

One reason why I’m a little surprised that local parties haven’t gone beyond the basics is because over 2 years ago I made the video below for my ‘Be the change – Cambridge’ project.

“Many bridges, one Cambridge – it’s your city. Be. The. Change.”

The concepts I used in this video could easily be applied to a local party election broadcast. Clips of the issues the election is being fought on – eg housing and transport, short vox-pop comments from party supporters, statements from the candidates standing, and an upbeat musical soundtrack underneath to give a subliminal message of hope and inspiration.

It can be done.

What do you think of the candidates standing in your area?

Summary

Some thoughts on the importance of finding out who is standing in your area for both the local and general elections

Background reading: How to organise a local hustings – by Chris Rand

The Cambridge Zero Carbon Society organised a rally outside Cambridge Guildhall on 29 April as part of their campaign to persuade Cambridge University to divest from its £370m of fossil fuel investments. Speaking were the three candidates who had announced their intention to stand/re-stand for the city’s parliamentary seat – incumbent Daniel Zeichner for Labour, his opponent in 2010 & 2015 & predecessor Dr Julian Huppert for the Liberal Democrats, and Addenbrooke’s nurse Stuart Tuckwood for the Greens.

Speeches outside The Guildhall

Two years ago, Cambridge was one of the battle grounds between Labour and the Lib Dems – and also to some extent for the Conservatives and Greens in the battle for third place. I turned up to as many events as possible, creating an extensive video playlist here. Over 3,000 people would have attended the over 30 hustings (even accounting for repeat attendees) in Cambridge alone in what was a bitterly fought contest that Mr Zeichner won by 599 votes.

Risks with a tightly-controlled national campaign

Much has been made about the robotic repetition of ‘strong and stable’ by the Conservatives, hence the awkward opening of the interview between Andrew Marr and the Prime Minister earlier on. In Scotland, people are noting of the Prime Minister’s reluctance to meet voters who have not been pre-vetted by the party. With so few opportunities to ask tough questions on policy, and so few opportunities for the general public to meet senior Conservatives, any mistakes that are caught on film are suddenly magnified. What else is there to talk about if the party in power that called the election doesn’t debate policy in the media?

Furthermore, what we don’t know is to what extent the public will start to resent this sort of campaign. It might be a snap election but there are still six weeks to go before polling day. And to think that 24 hours is a long time in politics.

Local hustings as an antidote for tightly-managed national campaigns

I’ve been filming a host of local election debates and hustings of late (see the playlists here) – we have county council and mayoral campaigns in Cambridgeshire. The first parliamentary hustings I’ve spotted is at The Cambridge Junction on 08 May. Which means I get to ask the candidates about my new concert hall idea which I want named after Florence Ada Keynes, complete in time for the 100th anniversary of the mayoralty of ‘The Mother of Modern Cambridge‘.

Actually, the hustings are even more important this time around given the widely-reported weaknesses of the UK-wide parties – real or perceived. Given Labour’s divisions on Brexit, such local hustings are even more important where they have a ‘remain-supporting’ MP facing a strong challenge from the Liberal Democrats – such as here in Cambridge. But that’s just on the Labour-Lib Dem axis. What we also don’t know is how the election will turn out on other political axes – 40 miles north of here in North East Cambs  is a constituency where in 2015 over 75% of voters voted for either the Conservatives or UKIP, mirroring vote for Brexit where just under that number voted to leave the EU. What do you do if you are in any of Labour, the Lib Dems or the Greens in the face of those election results?

One of the things the Police and Crime Commissioner campaign hustings taught me was just how different the political cultures are between Cambridge, at the southern end of Cambridgeshire, and Wisbech, at the northern end of the same county. The messages from the Labour and Liberal Democrats’ candidates just didn’t resonate with the audience. Ironically, what the audience wanted was a permanent, visible police presence in the town, and none of the parties could offer this – mainly due to the budgetary restrictions coming from Whitehall. The important thing from my perspective was that what happened at that hustings came as a surprise.

Civic society organisations and their roles as organisers of local political debates

The number of hustings events in Cambridge – along with high attendances, reflects a strong civic society culture. Not everywhere has that. Much as religious institutions may wish to stay out of party politics and/or humanist/secular/atheist groups want to exclude religious institutions from political and state institutions generally, one of the things religious institutions have in local communities are premises – halls in which to host hustings. In Sawston just outside Cambridge, the Sawston Free Church has hosted a couple of hustings recently – including for the county mayor. What helped immensely was having the Minister – Rev Bruce Waldron, a figure known in the village, as chair and as a competent chair too.

Again, the civic dynamics differ from village (Sawston) to town (Wisbech) to city (Cambridge). In a village it might be that a church is the best place to host such an event. In a town in an economically deprived town, a council-run community centre might be the best place. In a city, it might be a large institution with access to a massive conference theatre that steps in. In Cambridge I would like to see far more of the science and technology institutions hosting such political debates – not least so as to encourage more people from such backgrounds to get involved in local democracy.

Personally I’d also like to see more opportunities for multiple conversations before and after the formal exchanges at such events. How you arrange for this I don’t know. Much depends on premises and budgets eg for breakout rooms and refreshments.

Hustings feeding into local news

Having someone there filming the exchanges helps local journalists in established publications such as newspapers and local radio at a time when staff and budgets are stretched. In Cambridge me and Richard Taylor do much of the local filming, publishing the full event for people to go through at their leisure. For those without such activists, it might be worth getting in touch with a local media studies department at a local college to see if anyone is interested in videoing the events for you – & offer to pay them via an appeal for donations or a collection bucket at the end.

Remember that having that permanent video record sitting online means that there is a record people can go back to. In recent years the mere existence of an extensive library of Cambridge meetings has been more than enough for candidates and councillors to be more careful with their remarks. They can’t promise one thing to one audience and say the opposite to another without someone picking up on it.

Hearing the candidates in their own voices

I’ve filmed introduction videos for these sixteen candidates for the county council elections on 04 May 2017.

Town planning researcher Joe Dale, the first of the candidates

What the videos do is help even up the political playing field as far as digital content goes – at a time where the more established parties are still cautious about all things digital. What it also does is enable those with mobility and accessibility problems to hear from the candidates in their own voices. For better or worse, the public will probably have decided which candidates are worth voting for/exploring further in the first 30 seconds of a speech or video.

Pressure on those standing for election – fewer ‘paper’ candidates

One of the things I say to all of the candidates I make these short videos for is that I want them to do well. I want them to come across to the voting public as best as possible so that the public can make an informed decision on all of the candidates at their best. The more competent chairs of hustings have expressed similar sentiment about people standing for election & being cross-examined on platforms.

“These people are offering to do a lot of work for our community in return for very little. Please keep things cordial”

Or words to that effect from Chris Rand at the Queen Edith’s hustings recently. When it comes to a local level, you often get first time candidates who have never stood in elections before. Make the experience too unpleasant and they won’t stand again – not good if the individuals concerned have potential to become great councillors. Especially roles that rely on a huge amount of unpaid work as being a councillor inevitably does.

Over to you.

You can find out who you can vote for in your area via https://whocanivotefor.co.uk/

If none of the candidates impress you in your area, how could people in your area go about improving the calibre of people who put themselves forward for election? Do initiatives such as http://beacouncillor.co.uk/ help?

Thank you for your continued support

As always, I can only continue filming with your support. With my filming of local meetings in and around Cambridge, I aim to bring local democracy to your desktop. Even more important now with the general election coming up. Please consider supporting my work if you can afford it. Click on the ‘donate’ button below. Thank you.


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