Apps ‘n’ gadgets for community reporting


Some ‘not just for boys toys’ that I’ve become lately obsessed with – useful in the run up to the general election

I’ve been meaning to write this post for ages, so here goes.

Modern smartphones – powerful things: but do we get the best out of them?

My old eye-fone (sorry to avoid the spambots) 3S for me is still by far the most comfortable smartphone I’ve had. It was what I used to film this timelapse (with phone clipped onto this gizmo)

But that was long after I had upgraded. It’s only been in recent times that I’ve started using smartphones for recording video & audio. An example of an audio recording is Julian Huppert in a Q&A session to Transition Cambridge activists from 2014. Again, this was on the 3S attached to a lapel microphone.

Hardware – how can you make your smartphone record more stable footage?

A mini tripod. I bought this one by Manfrotto which I use with this Joby Tightgrip. Not only are both light enough to carry, they are comfortable to hold and can be set up in under 30 seconds. Furthermore, the design of the clip means you avoid the risk of recording video footage while holding the camera vertically. The clip only works if the phone is horizontal!

A smartphone with a telephoto lens?

Apparently so – though it takes a bit of time to get used to. I got hold of this one quite recently. If anything, the nicest thing about it is the case, which feels well made. In itself, that alone makes the package almost worth buying. Add the tripod & the clip, which although less pleasing on the eye & hand is more stable, means even without the lenses it’s quite a nice purchase. I can’t pretend to have gotten much out of the mini lenses. The zoom lens doesn’t allow you to zoom in & out – something that I’ve gotten used to with my camcorder. But then for the price, what do you expect? It does however give you the option of a manual focus. This can sometimes cause problems if the smartphone is in auto-focus mode.

Third party camera apps being better than the ones the phones come with?

It’s counter-intuitive, but the FiLMiC Pro app (£6.99) is one that is far more powerful than what my phone came with. The most useful aspect for me is the ability to align footage filmed using this with the settings on my camcorder. At events this means I can set up a main tripod and camera, press record & leave them running, while I film other more interesting shots from around the room. I’ve still not got the best out of the app – nowhere near in fact. I tend to compare such things to high performance motors: You’ve got to be extremely skilled in order to get the best out of them. That requires knowledgeable delicate handling.

For still photos, I have the Pro Camera App. As with the above, I am nowhere near getting the best out of it. However, the quality of some of the images I’ve taken feels better than using the normal camera app.

Field reporting – one I want to experiment with

I’ve got the lite version of the Hindenburg Field Recorder, because when it comes to recording, my quality of audio hasn’t been great. But because I’m shooting so much video (& uploading them to my Youtube channel here, or to my Vimeo page here), I’ve not really done much podcasting. Finally, I also want to experiment with the iRig setup.

All that reporting – but is anyone watching?

As it turns out, quite a few of you!

YouTube Analytics March 2015
YouTube Analytics March 2015

Given that most of the footage I have on my channel of late has been from Cambridge election debates, the above statistics are pretty good. (I think so anyway!)

I’m putting the election debate videos into event playlists – see here. Local parties can then pick from the videos and promote the ones of their candidates to their audiences, while party-neutral organisations can share the entire playlist by subject being discussed.

“Is it worth it?”

Because none of this as yet pays the bills!

A number of locals have said to me & tweeted that we’ll only really know its true value after the election – ie when we can compare who said what with what they delivered. It’s also a safe environment to learn how the various bits of kit & the apps work best together.

Finally, it’s an historical record. The local historian in me quite likes the idea of people viewing this footage in decades to come to see what the 2015 general election campaign was like.

There are also stacks more debates to come – see the list here. I’m not going to get to many of them – I’ll have to pick & choose. Alongside the Cambridge Cycling Campaign, health & housing are the two issues I feel I need to cover as far as the city is concerned. On faith group-specific, or international campaigning organisation debates, I’m happy to leave that to those who are more passionate about those issues or who are part of those communities. After all, I cannot be (nor should I be) everywhere!

Easter & Summer filming projects – community action

Following Be the change – Cambridge, I’ve had a number of conversations with various people on what might be useful for me to do between now & the autumn. One idea came up in conversation with my friends Angela & Dave. They both came up with the concept of ‘the time poor, passion rich citizen’. This concept is very very different to ‘clicktivism’. Clicking a ‘like’ button ain’t gonna save an additional life. ‘You get what you give’ and all that.

Think of it like this: You have a resident who is extremely skilled in a niche area, and who has perhaps an hour a week at home that they can devote to ‘something’ that can help make an impact on the city. How do you make it easy for such people to:

  • Identify the issues they are most passionate about?
  • Identify the functions/actions that they have the right skills sets for?
  • Identify where their input will have the greatest impact?

…and in a way that means they do not have to read through hundreds of sheets of paper? The concept I often use is the filters used to book hotel rooms. How about using the concept for:

  • Booking community rooms
  • Finding regular activities
  • Finding one-off events
  • Finding charities or local causes to support

…but instead of having to go from one website to another working separately in silos, have them co-ordinated? Hence some have come up with the concept of the ‘City Dashboard’

Films to bust myths & explain who does what

There’s only so long you can pester people & organisations before you end up having to do it yourself. Hence not long after I got my camcorder, I stuck Councillor Richard Johnson (who had just been appointed executive councillor for communities at Cambridge City Council) and asked him some very basic questions about local area committees in Cambridge.

Jeremy Paxman I am not. (As this short clip with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury shows).

The reason for my approach is I’m of the view that the general public don’t see politicians as people like them. My experience of working with politicians at a local and national level has been somewhat different: I used to work for ministers (& in one or two policy areas, meeting them quite frequently) during my civil service days. Therefore if you want to see their human side, don’t talk to them about politics (or rather policy). Hence asking Danny Alexander (along with Jo Swinson, his ministerial colleague here, and their Labour shadow opponent Lilian Greenwood here) about what got them interested in politics originally. Notice their face & body language compared to what you normally see on telly.

Other than that, between now & the election, I hope to get a couple of mythbusting videos online.



On campaigning charities and political parties


Why the rise of large non-party-political campaigning charities vis-a-vis the shrinking of mainstream political parties leaves me a little uncomfortable

Seven environmental-related charities and organisations have got together to organise a London-based hustings. (See here). You’ll be hearing of various campaign groups from across the political matrix making their case. Earlier today on telly they had a whisky trade federation calling for the Chancellor to cut tax on their products in the run up to next week’s Budget – the last before the election. Conservative-leaning bodies tend to call for targeted tax cuts in their area of business, while Labour-leaning groups tend to call for more spending in their area of interest. It’s then left to a shrinking group of people from what feels like increasingly narrow backgrounds to decide how to balance the two.

Campaigning for something is one thing. Standing for election & being cross-examined by the public is quite another.

I stood as Puffles at the Cambridge City Council elections in 2014. And the dragon beat UKIP -> 89 votes to 0. They didn’t stand so lost be default. It’ll be different in 2015 as both The Greens and UKIP in Cambridge will be contesting most if not all of the wards at the local elections in Cambridge, which are happening on the same day as the general election. It’s one thing being a paper candidate, but quite another putting yourself out in public to face scrutiny & cross-examination.

Puffles gatecrashing Cambridge Labour Party's stall in our neighbourhood
Puffles gatecrashing Cambridge Labour Party’s stall in our neighbourhood

The glamorous side of ‘charity campaigning’ is when you get invited to posh receptions and visits to Parliament. You get the kudos of being the informed, passionate expert – but don’t necessarily have to worry about other issues far removed from your areas of passion or expertise because that’s not in the job description. (That’s not to criticise – this is to compare it to standing for election). When you’re standing for election – as I found out – you’re expected to have an opinion on everything. Should that opinion be found to be uninformed, a potential firestorm awaits. Whether it’s someone fact-checking in real time to an opponent creating a straw man to knock down (taking you down in the process), you find yourself in a situation where you’re expected to be knowledgable & informed where few others are.

But how many of us get to be in that position of being that reasonably well-paid full time campaigner where we’re attending all of these ‘Whitehall-and-Parliament-facing’ events? One of the criticisms of such charities and campaign groups made by Big Issue founder John Bird was that too many highly paid executives of such charities and groups had no experience of being dependent on the work of the charities they ran. (See here).

“Aren’t campaigning charities & groups popular because they are successful at achieving policy change?”

To an extent yes. At the same time it reveals a relative failure of political party members to secure policy changes & impose them on their party leaders. The stereotype is that Conservative grassroots is more politically right wing than its leadership, and Labour’s grassroots more leftwing than its leadership. However, if a party has ambitions for government, it’s got to reach out beyond that core vote. Hence having to make compromises there. Furthermore, given outsourcing & privatisation of the past 30 years – along with globalisation too, the power that parties in government used to have no longer exists. Take house building. The state is entirely dependent on the private sector to build homes. So if achieving policy change isn’t going to come from political leaders that ignore their members, what’s the alternative?

Hence why some have set up organisations

The well-trodden path is this:

  1. set up an organisation
  2. hire some offices in Westminster within easy reach of the institutions you want to influence
  3. find out who works where – ie map the people inside the institutions
  4. organise an event at somewhere nice
  5. invite people from the institutions you want to influence to said event
  6. be very nice to invitees at said event
  7. organise informal coffee/meetings
  8. become an independent stakeholder on a policy group

…and then you are inside the system. Repeat, only this time with the media. Friends in politics, friends in the media…this in part is how corporate lobbyists work. Charities and campaign groups picked up on this and have copied such tactics. Whether this will remain successful in years to come in social media world (& in the context of growing wealth inequalities) remains to be seen. Not least with nominally public events inside ‘the bubble’ now accessible to a much wider audience – whether through eventbrite/meetup or through people live-tweeting on a hashtag.

A big advantage of party backing

It’s all too easy to forget this, but other than having fellow party members campaigning for you, you also have the benefit of someone else with similar values to you having done the research. When it comes to manifesto time, it’s reasonable to expect that the policy experts in your party have done the research to withstand detailed scrutiny.

The route to Parliament – via campaigning charities.

A number of social justice charities, campaign groups and think tanks are fairly well known as being on the path that politicians tread during their rise up the political ladder. Lisa Nandy MP at Centrepoint (homelessness), Dr Stella Creasy at the Scout Association, Jack Straw’s son Will (who is standing for Parliament at this election) at the IPPR Think Tank are a few examples from Labour. This inevitably raises criticisms from party political opponents that this sort of activity is a subsidy. They think that charities should be restricted to providing relief to those in need rather than campaigning on the issues that create that need in the first place. Recall the quotation:

“When I give food to the poor they call me a saint, but when I ask why the poor have no food they call me a communist”

It’s not as simple as saying “You’re all cowards for not standing for election!”

As has been raised by a number of people, the barrage of hatred that women in particular have to put up with for even expressing an opinion is more than enough to put too many good people off from politics altogether. It’s only fortunate that more people feel confident enough to call such behaviour out – most recently a national newspaper super-imposing the head of Scotland’s first minister (Nicola Sturgeon) onto a bikini-clad model recreating an image from a pop video of a couple of years ago. Some might say ‘grow a thicker skin’, but if such behaviour is putting off talented people from engaging in politics & policy – to the detriment of our democracy, how can that be in the public interest?

Barriers to standing for election

That’s before you’ve considered the sacrifices you have to make with campaigning. At the Women of the World – Cambridge festival at the weekend I discussed this with a number of women, including one – Anna Smith, who is standing in the neighbouring Romsey ward in Cambridge. Campaigning becomes a full time job in the run up to an election. But how many people can afford to take the time off work to campaign? How many have sympathetic employers who will allow this?

Should we have a maternity/paternity leave style system for people who stand for election?

I don’t know how this might work in detail, but the principle is that the state would pay a set rate for people standing for election for the time when nominations close to when the results are announced. (Normally about six weeks). Additionally, Parliament could legislate for employers to give staff additional paid time off (or banks to provide mortgage holidays) for those standing for elections. It’s about removing some of the barriers to people standing for election.

The Greens may be surging, but the next bit could be tricky for them


The challenges of rapid expansion in a short space of time

At the end of my civil service career I went through the opposite – the largescale downsizing of an organisation numbered in the thousands. The Green Party judging by recent headlines now has more members than UKIP, and at the time of writing is not far off the Liberal Democrats, all three hovering just over 40,000 members across the UK.

“Hang on a minute, how did this happen?”

The Green Party’s membership has been steadily rising over recent years, and shot up in 2014.

(Above graph via @Jim_Jepps and @steve4319).

What then followed after the European elections (where The Greens missed out narrowly on doubling their MEPs with defeats in the North West & East Anglia by small margins) was the Scottish Independence referendum. On the side of a dynamic and radical ‘Yes’ campaign (from what my Twitter friends in Scotland from across the spectrum told me), The Scottish Greens experienced a surge in membership numbers shortly after the ‘No’ victory was announced. By ‘surge’ I mean they more than doubled their membership of just over 2,000 to well over 5,000…in three days.

“In three days?!? Crikey!”

It was even more for the Scottish National Party – who now look very likely to take control of a significant number of Scottish constituencies in the Westminster Parliament in the May 2015 general election. I’ll explain why this matters later on.

“Are they or aren’t they a major party?”

In October, the TV broadcasters got together to announce the planned format of the TV debates as they had in 2010. They included UKIP but excluded The Greens. The Greens, supporters, sympathisers & those that wanted a more plural TV debate started signing a petition. In their hundreds of thousands – nearly 300,000 at the time of writing this. Combined with the argument of Caroline Lucas’s presence in the Commons, representation in a number of councils, three MEPs and two MSPs in the Holyrood Parliament in Scotland has put pressure on the broadcasters.

Cameron steps in and puts The Greens on the front pages

At Prime Minister’s Questions on 14 January, Cameron put The Green Party on the front pages of the politics news (and of the evening news because they report PMQs as ‘real’ news) when attacking Miliband & Labour. (See here, from 5m30s). This meant that Wednesday’s evening news led with Cameron and Miliband clashing over whether The Greens should take part in the TV debates. Publicity gold dust given that many outside of politics may not have known about The Greens, or saw them as a tiny party not worth the attention because the news didn’t feature them. With a greater frequency of higher profile news coverage and a general desire for ‘something new’ in politics, at the moment The Greens are benefiting.

“What’s Cameron’s game? Why is he deliberately inflating The Greens given they stand for almost everything he does not?”

Good question. Note that George Osborne repeated Conservative backing for the Greens to take part in the TV debates a day earlier in Parliament. (See here). In a nutshell, it’s tactical. UKIP are likely to take more votes off the Tories than Labour or the Lib Dems. By having The Greens on the same platform, Labour and the Lib Dems will have to watch their left flanks. With little chance of either The Greens or UKIP winning power, they can afford to be more radical with their policies. From a disgruntled voters perspective, between the Greens & UKIP there is very clear political water between the two. Cambridge will be a microcosm of this throughout 2015 as the media-friendly duo of Patrick O’Flynn & Dr Rupert Read (of UKIP and The Greens respectively) go head to head at the fringes. Although both are unlikely to win Cambridge, the question is how much of the Lib Dem and Labour vote will go to either of those two parties. Note in 2014 at the Euro elections the two of them totalled over 12,000 votes in Cambridge.

Rapid growth brings risks – as Nigel found to his cost

Despite electoral success, the rise of UKIP was plagued with media stories of ‘politically incorrect’ (to downright offensive) outbursts from various activists, candidates and even elected councillors. As Farage commented at the time, UKIP simply did not have the administrative infrastructure in place to do basic background checks on all of its new members and candidates. As a result, Farage found himself having to fight off negative headlines on a regular basis.

Could the same happen to The Greens? Quite easily. With a rising profile comes greater scrutiny. Expect to see a number of media splashes where a tweet or a Facebook post is taken ‘out of context’, or where the direct action past of someone is plastered all over the media. My advice? Get your staff trained in crisis management communications. The Media Trust are particularly good at this – see their courses here. In fact, that goes for other parties and campaign groups too.

Not all membership fees are comparable across parties

This is the other thing to consider. In the case of The Greens, their fees are based on income, starting at £5 pa for students, under 18s & those earning less than £10k per year. (See this tweet). For UKIP it’s a flat £30 per year bar special offers for armed forces & under 22s. Labour fees are also income based (see here). For the Tories, it’s more simplified (see here) and for the Lib Dems, I couldn’t find publicly available numbers. I’ve seen some social media comments about the impact of varying fees, but I’d guess for many people – especially young people, the low annual starting rates are not a huge barrier to getting involved.

“What do you do with all of these new activists?”

Keep an eye on the various party political vacancies on W4MP. The vacancies there often tell stories behind the headlines of the organisations that advertise. The challenge any rapidly-expanding organisation has is inducting new members into its culture, systems and processes. There’s also the challenge of developing trust. What do you do as a party/campaign administrator if you suddenly get over 100 membership applications from a part of the country that you’ve never been active in before? Where do you start?

In the case of Cambridge, there has been rapid growth – the local party having over 200 members and climbing still. The difference with Cambridge is that there are long-established environmentalist groups such as Cambridge Carbon Footprint and Transition Cambridge with a very solid core of long standing community activists, some of whom inevitably are members of political parties. But what if you don’t have that local activist or community base to build from? Where do you start? How do you know who to trust? What do you do if the trust breaks down?

It might sound corporate and bland, but I wonder if The Greens have done a basic risk assessment on the back of the surge in numbers. What are all the good and bad things that could happen as a result of this huge increase in numbers? What are their plans to mitigate any risks that might occur (and thus become incidents)? The same goes for Labour and the SNP – especially in a social media age where every social media molehill will be turned into a mountain by a sensationalist media. Why feature complicated policies when you can have a short “10 social media fails by [insert name of party]”?

Who will become the voices and faces of The Greens with this raised profile?

Updated to add: Funnily enough, within minutes of me posting this blogpost, The Greens updated their website with a substantive list of policy spokespersons (and their social media contacts). See the list here.

At a national level, The Greens have a number of experienced elected representatives – see here. But as with UKIP, how do/will they manage below that surface – especially at city/town/village level with local media? In Cambridge for The Greens this has been a real challenge over the past few years. What do you do if you’re in an area where none of your activists wants to be the point of contact for the local newspaper or radio station? Cambridge Greens have been fortunate with Rupert Read running a more proactive and disciplined media operation – not least reflected in his regular letters published in the Cambridge News reminding some 30,000 readers that the party is there. Whether that turns into votes or members remains to be seen.

How will the Greens cope when their opponents inevitably fire back?

Because party politics can be a very, very dirty business. The first exchanges in Cambridge between the five candidates together was on BBC Cambridgeshire with Chris Mann.

Obviously it won’t be the last.

Five months of mainstream media election coverage


…and even the politics obsessives like me find this a depressing scenario

Matt Frei of Channel 4 News is spot on at 4m37s

…and then goes for the jugular at 5m00s

An utterly depressing political exchange which felt like both sides had been coached in how to get their ‘lines to take’ into the footage. In my opinion.

Labour and Conservatives retreating to their safe zones at a national level?

Monday’s ‘news’ was depressing in terms of how controlled and stage-managed it was. Labour going after the Tories on the NHS, and the Tories going after Labour on the economy. Lots of shouting across the airwaves, lots of talking about how ‘orrible the other lot were, little discussion & exposition of the policies they are standing on. None of the parties so far have been able to communicate a vision of what life might be like in 2020. A positive vision, a sound strategy and consistent, co-ordinated credible policies on how to make this happen. Too much to ask for?

The thing is, tactically both Labour and Conservatives are content at a national level for this level of debate. Talk to activists on both sides and they’ll say compared to the Lib Dems, at least the other side are principled and as adversaries you know where they are. Thus they are easier to target. ‘Ideological shape-shifters’ was how one local Labour activist described their Lib Dem opponents to me. Harder now though for the Lib Dems because they’ve got the record of being in coalition tied to them. The Tories won’t want to let them get away with: “Well, things would have been even worse if it was the Tories alone in government!” while Labour understandably will be saying “All of this bad stuff happened because you went into coalition!”

Labour’s troubles north of the border

I was astonished to see this from the newly elected leader of Scottish Labour – calling for a mansion tax to pay for Scottish nurses and quote: ‘over and above anything the SNP promise.’

Two issues with this. The first is that they have framed a policy with a massive reference to their political opponents. Rather than having a ballpark figure of the number of medical personnel needed, they’ve said: SNP+1000. So if the SNP for a laugh say: “We’ll have infinity nurses!” …exactly.

The second issue is Murphy framing the funding for this as being one drawn from London. Tactically he can say that because the SNP want independence, they can’t campaign for this extra funding. But it doesn’t make things easier for Labour activists in London faced with a “You’d give our money to Scotland!” message that the London-based media will have a field day with. Even though policy-wise such a tax only hits those with properties valued at £2million.

The result? Policy-wise Labour looks disunited because of the public disagreements. It also gives the impression of a lack of co-ordination and a lack of strategy. Not what you want just before an election.

“What about the other parties?”

In the context of Cambridgeshire, me and Richard Taylor, a fellow community reporter discussed this with Chris Mann on BBC Cambridgeshire. Have a listen below.

There was much more that both of us wanted to say. In Cambridgeshire, any upsets I think will be at council seat level, with UKIP gaining more seats in the north of the county and possibly the Greens with one or two in Cambridge City and the south. The big unknown is where the Greens and UKIP will be taking votes from – assuming they do. Will voters that backed them at the European elections in Cambridge (over 12,000 in total for the Greens & UKIP, at roughly 7,000 & 5,000 each) return to the main three, or are they sufficiently weak vs-a-vs Greens & UKIP for them to stick with their 2014 voting pattern?

TV trying out new things in this election

Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis is trying out joining running clubs, asking members about politics in the process of joining them on their runs.

This I like because there’s a shared activity – one that you have to be passionate about to do it. Getting up early in the morning when it’s cold and wet takes a lot of motivation. Rather than approaching people in the awkward arena of a town centre, she’s embedding herself in community groups who happen to be doing something that she’s passionate about (outside journalism) as well.

Anglia TV are also trying out engaging with schools. (See here). This is something I’m going to see if Shape Your Place can help with too.

Sophy Ridge of Sky has also made a list of things politicians should avoid in this campaign – see here. This sort of links to David Dimbleby’s superb lecture on the future of the political interview. It’s a long lecture but worth watching in full.

So all of this along with the social media commentary I’ve observed is that even the mainstream media are getting sick of the current state of play. It remains to be seen whether something gives (and if so, what) with the way things are. My guess is that it won’t be something major, but rather something seemingly innocuous that sets things off.

We live in interesting times…

What impact can you have in the May 2015 elections?


Some thoughts on how you can take part in this year’s elections – even if you are not a supporter/member of a political party, do not have the vote or don’t rate the candidates standing in your area

The basics

The team at Democracy Club who I met in 2014 said they wanted to help make the 2015 general election less crap than it risks becoming. Although they have their own personal political opinions and biases – don’t we all? – one of their main aims is to help as many people as possible cast an informed vote. At a very basic level, this means ensuring the electorate know:

  • That there is an election on
  • What the election is about – ie for which institutions with what powers
  • How to register
  • Who is standing
  • Where, when and how to vote

An example of this in Cambridge is here, by Chris Rand for the Queen Edith’s ward by-election.

Action: Could you create a similar poster for your local area to share online or perhaps to print out and display in a shop window, coffee shop, library or community centre?

Why this might help: At a very basic level they help remind people when voting day is. You might be interested, informed and passionate about politics, but are others?

Let the candidates know you exist – and are interested

  • You can find out who is standing for Parliament in the 2015 general election at
  • You can find out from your council (see if you don’t know which council is responsible for elections in your area – it’ll be the district or borough council if you are in an area with county/district/parish councils) if there are local elections.

What I did in 2010 was to ask all candidates the same set of questions on the issues that were important to me. That way I got to frame the conversation rather than allowing the politicians to do it for me. If you have social media pages – Facebook, Twitter, blogs, tumblr or others, feel free to share the responses. Others may want to quote the responses in their follow-up questions.

Action: Could you find out who is standing in your area and share this information with your family, friends & contacts?

Why this might help: You may just catch someone at the right time who can then fire off an email about an issue on their mind. It could be a big picture international issue or it could be something very local or personal where a political advocate could help bring in proper support from a public service.

If you have a smartphone, learn how to use it to record audio and video

Websites such as have links on how to use them to record what politicians are saying. Follow the candidates on social media to find out when and where they are campaigning, and ask them questions face-to-face. You can upload the footage you capture onto Youtube or Vimeo for video, and Audioboom or Soundcloud if you are recording audio. Here is an example of where I recorded Cambridge MP Dr Julian Huppert at a recent event in Cambridge.

Given the huge range of issues you could ask questions about, you may want to focus either on your local area, and/or you may want to pick one or two important issues that you can research in depth so it’s harder for politicians to catch you out or bluff their way through your questions!

Action: Do you know how to use the video and audio functions of your phone? If not, how about learning how to use them for this specific purpose: local democracy

Why this might help: You are creating an evidence base that other people can then follow up in their own time. It also helps the candidates because people get to hear them in their own voices and as human beings. This sort of footage is more likely to be informal, therefore the candidates are shown as they are rather than as the polished products of central office. You can also tie down candidates to very clear commitments once it is recorded and shared.

Organise a debate or a hustings?

For those of you who are members of community groups, you can organise community gatherings to allow people to meet the candidates. It can be along the lines of a formal hustings – see the videos here for an example. Alternatively, you might want to set aside a regular gathering at a community centre for candidates and politicians to drop in and have informal conversations with people in your community.

Think about audiences that might be excluded by the political process – in particular those not allowed to vote whether by age or status. They are still part of your community, so how can you organise an event for those that might otherwise be and feel excluded?

Action: Ask your community group if there is interest in organising something that allows your community to meet and question the candidates

Why this might help: You never know, but there might be others in your community feeling similar. You might also have ideas on how to organise something more exciting than traditional hustings.

If you have children or friends who are under-18, invite them to suggest questions for the candidates.

If you are a very busy person with little time to research and find out about who is standing for what, why not mobilise the next generation? Drop an email to the candidates to say that you are going to vote based on the recommendation of your children/young friends, and that you expect the candidates to answer their questions factually and honestly. See what happens.

Action: If you can, try it – and suggest it to family friends. What would it look like if a group of parents got together and put their power of the vote into the hands of their children?

Why this might help: If more and more adults got together and told candidates their vote was going to be the direct result of recommendations from under 18s, would the issues young people and children face be taken more seriously?

And finally…

Whatever you do, follow it up! Let the candidates know whether you voted for them once the election is over, letting them know why you did or did not vote for them. The feedback for all might get some of them to change their policies, behaviours and actions over time. Keep tabs on them once the election is over. It might be that what happens in the 2015 election might inform future electorates in future elections.

Community conversations in the run up to the 2015 general election?


How can local political parties make themselves available for face-to-face conversations with voters, potential supporters and fellow activists beyond door-to-door canvassing and organised hustings?

This post stems from a number of conversations I’ve had with activists of various political colours (and those independent) locally in recent times. It comes at a time when – in Cambridge at least, all of the main political parties should be showing an increase in membership and volunteers given that we are less than six months away from a general election.

The five main parties in England – Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens and UKIP have all been out campaigning visibly in Cambridge in the past month or two. All of the parties here have selected their candidates:

My take remains that it’s too close to call between Julian and Daniel. There are many factors that make Cambridge a particularly volatile seat – and one more difficult when it comes to campaign tactics & messages. My analysis just after the May 2014 elections here remains broadly the same. Perhaps the only contextual change is that UKIP and The Greens have already started campaigning aggressively. Not a week goes by without a letter from Cambridge Greens being printed in the Cambridge News. UKIP are also targeting safe Labour wards where other parties in recent years have only stood paper candidates. With UKIP continuing to benefit from mainstream media amplification alongside the more quiet but steady growth of the Greens locally – membership in the city now having exceeded 200, how best could Labour go about campaigning against opponents on two opposing political fronts?

Any places to informally gather new activists & introduce them to each other?

Whether it’s the Lib Dems in Coleridge, the Greens in Queen Edith’s or the Conservatives in Abbey wards, it can’t be much fun being a lone activist for your party in your part of town. Nne thing that has struck me about all the local parties is the lack of publicity for organised informal gatherings to introduce new members or supporters to each other. I’m aware that Cambridge Greens have now started doing monthly pub gatherings (with about 12 attending this one that I popped into on the way back from filming another event).

With the canvassing & leafletting that they are already doing, where are the regular informal social gatherings from the other parties that allow potential supporters and new members to meet with seasoned activists, candidates and elected representatives? Could they be advertised on the next round of leaflets that they all distribute? Could you send personalised targeted correspondence (or a phone call) to members and supporters in your databases to come along? (Which is more likely to have an impact – a mass email/leaflet drop or a personalised invitation?)

In the conversations I’ve had regarding the above, the Greens have shown the most interest in the idea – in part because they have signed up dozens of new members locally in a very short space of time. The challenge remains for the Greens to turn these new members into trained and effective activists – ones that can sustain their campaigns long after the adrenalin of the general election has died down. For various reasons, they failed to do this post-2010, despite getting three councillors elected. In anycase, since then, two of their former elected councillors have since passed away and the third left Cambridge altogether.

Other formats for community conversations and campaigning?

I’ve always wondered what it would be like if activists from two different political parties teamed up together to go door-to-door campaigning, thus creating a three-way conversation on the doorstep. For example what would it be like if the Lib Dems and UKIP or The Greens and the Tories teamed up in pairs to go door-to-door? How would the dynamics of conversations be changed? I know it’s highly unlikely to happen – party hierarchies wouldn’t stand for it. But it’s a thought.

Another format – one we use for Be the change – Cambridge, is collective problem-solving. Rather than having a traditional ‘audience vs the panel’ set up, scatter the politicians into groups who have self-divided into groups according to the issue they would like to discuss. These gatherings are very difficult to organise – as I’ve found out. But local community groups & organisations – esp those with their own venues are in an ideal place to host such gatherings. Transition Cambridge demonstrated how to do this recently – see my videos here.

My role in the 2015 campaigns in Cambridge?

I’m not planning on standing this time around – although it remains an option if things stay quiet in South Cambridge! As far as my aim of increasing participation in local democracy is concerned, I’m probably better suited to filming & reporting from gatherings, meetings and events than participating directly. My experience from the Queen Edith’s hustings (see the videos here) and the number of plays the videos got shows that there is likely to be demand for such content in the run up to the elections.

As I’ve said to the three parties represented on Cambridge City Council, I’m happy to film ‘point and record’ pieces to the camera and upload or hand over the footage I capture free of charge. The reason being I want to use digital video to help dispel some of the negative myths around local democracy. Part of that means getting footage of local candidates introducing themselves in their own words. This is what I did in the November videos below:

My aim with these is to get people to the stage where they can relate to the candidates that are on camera and think: “Yes, I could have a reasonable conversation with them” and overcome the ‘All politicians are the same’ mindset. As far as digital video with local candidates go, that’s pretty much my limit – leaving it to the public to then ask any follow-up or policy-specific questions. I had my say by standing in the May elections – in which I learnt lots. Now it’s time for others not just to have their say, but to join in some wider conversations. Through community reporting & digital video I hope that more will be able to take part.

Community reporting in 2015 – could you give it a go?


…including new apps, new tools, and encouraging more people to try it out themselves

2014 was an eventful year for me as far as learning new things and doing things for the first time was concerned.

  • Standing for election
  • Singing on stage in a public performance
  • Submitting my first media reports
  • Carrying out my first media interviews
  • Taking part in my first studio interview
  • Creating my first digital videos and podcasts

For 2015, I’m thinking: “Can you do the above again, but better?”

Vimeo stats 22dec2014 copy

The above-stats are for video plays on my vimeo account – I also have a Youtube account here, where I’ll be putting some of the longer digital videos & final versions up at in future. Essentially my video stats are rising compared with blogpost reads, which are falling. Interestingly, despite continually rising Twitter follower numbers (hovering around 6,500), interaction has fallen. I have far fewer conversations on it these days. Hence it’s much harder to get a feel for what other people get out of the content I post.

Out, about and visible to the public

It’s been fun and eventful. It’s got me out of the house & doing something positive. I’ve also become more comfortable with a new way of learning – one that involves not getting things right first time every time. I look back at some of my early digital videos & cringe at some basic errors – whether it’s holding a smartphone portrait rather than landscape style, to really poor audio.

I took the above footage during Puffles’ election campaign – I’d just finished a stall outside The Guildhall and recorded Jack Man Friday – now Mr Shepherd. Basic error here is holding the camera portrait style. Fortunately I’m now at the stage where filming out and about feels ‘normal’, making fewer simple errors and having basic safeguards such as asking for consent to film as habitual.

Filming Dr Rupert Read of Cambridge Green Party just before Christmas 2014
Filming Dr Rupert Read of Cambridge Green Party just before Christmas 2014

“How can we get other people into community reporting like this?”

Because I can’t cover the city alone! Also, far better to have a number of people covering things and bringing their different perspectives.

For people in Cambridgeshire, the offer of support & training is with Shape Your Place. Also, this website iphonereporting came recommended by Cambridge 105.

In spring 2014, Cambridge Regional College produced a BBC Question-Time-style programme where students cross-examined a panel of Cambridgeshire County Council councillors – see here for the 1 hour episode. For me, the next step is to make this programme an annual event (if not more frequent), and so something around building community reporting into either extra-curricular programs or the curricula of media studies and politics courses for post-16 students.

The ‘soft’ learning in what can be a solitary activity

Being a lone ranger means having to cover everything yourself. You’re not this outside broadcast machine that BBC Question Time is, where you have multiple people on cameras and microphones alone. Far more thought goes into creating solid digital content than the detractors of media studies might care to acknowledge. At the same time, operating some of the kit requires an incredibly sensitive touch – something that takes a huge amount of time to perfect. Think of operating your piece of kit to that of playing a musical instrument. It’s a little bit like that. You can’t give someone a text book & expect them to take to it. It takes time to get used to the piece of equipment and become ‘as one’ with it.

For me, some of the soft learning has included:

  • Getting used to the zoom controls on a camcorder
  • Getting used to the controls on a tripod
  • Becoming sensitive to the natural light and sounds around me – in particular prior to and during filming
  • Becoming aware of what might make good pieces of digital video – and setting up quickly my kit to record.

Making it easy to record with smartphones

For videos, I often carry a small smartphone clip and a mini tripod with me just in case I happen to be somewhere where there’s something that’s worth filming. The advantage of these two attachments is you can have the phone standing on something solid, avoiding the dreaded camera-shake! The clip also works for normal tripods too – which I used when filming for the Cambridge Buskers Festival.

Most recently-made smartphones do a reasonable job recording face-to-face spoken-word video and audio. My own footage has been used by local radio this year. Audio for music is much harder – especially trying to get a decent bassline and/or if the music and vocals are not amplified.

Creating that safe space for people to learn together

This is what I want to explore in 2015 – perhaps in the form of a few evening workshops in a community venue somewhere. In two sessions you could take people through the basics, put in people’s diaries who would be filming what events, and have a second session reviewing what people had filmed. Ideally I’d like to get something like this done before the election campaigns really kick off – that way there might be a few more people around to cover what happens.

Cambridge Hub turning ideas into actions


Taking a ‘Be the change – Cambridge’ problem to Cambridge student activists…and watching them run with it

Some of you may be aware of the Volunteer Cambridge event that the Cambridge Hub is organising for Cambridge City Council on 28 February 2015 at The Guildhall. In previous blogposts I cited this as an example of an idea I had which is now coming to fruition. So you can imagine my delight when I heard that the Hub was organising an open space gathering for Cambridge’s many environmental groups and campaigns. Almost a year ago to the day, I posted this blogpost. Despite a persistent cold, I went along.

I’d say there was a 60-40 split of students-town activists, starting off with a couple of ice-breakers before going into open-space pitching.


The above is a pano-photo I took during one of the ice-breakers.

The sessions pitched ranged from hyper-local (encouraging students to get involved in growing on community allotments) to the mega-global (campaign preparations for the Paris 2015 Climate Talks). The session I pitched was on mobilising Cambridge’s 16-19 year olds through environmental activism. One of the challenges we face for Be the change – Cambridge is getting young people involved in a way that interests them and also has them influencing the decisions made by the city’s institutions. One of the pieces of advice I’ve had from community youth workers was to work with people closer to their age range to to bridge the age and credibility gaps. I’m in my 30s now – when I was in my mid-teens the current generation of mid-teens were not even born. Mine was the large generation of ‘the ignorant’ – ie one where we didn’t have the internet and thus all this information at our fingertips. Thus I will have my blind spots – or my ‘unknown unknowns’.

Mobilising Cambridge’s 16-19 year olds through environmental activism

My approach as a facilitator was one where I asked questions about the problem – focusing on specifics and how participants might go about dealing with them. Quite rightly, we had a steer of not making the sessions about pet projects or existing schemes – hence not mentioning BTCC until invited to by the organisers. My premise being that this was their space, not mine, and that those interested in taking forward the ideas we came up with also needed to take ownership of it – with me and others in support.

‘What does success look like to you?’

This was one of the first things I put to our breakout group. While I have a vision for what success looks like, I wanted to find out based on their experiences what it would look like. Hence these notes.


The most interesting part of the discussion for me was about the safe space to make mistakes and to learn by doing. It’s easy for someone like me to say: “Oh well we tried that a few years ago and it didn’t work” in response to someone’s idea. Such a comment reduces the influence and control that young people have on their projects. Hence far better to either let them get on with it or say: “Have you thought about the risks with your approach? What could go wrong and how could you prevent this?” Rather than defining the solution for them, allow them to figure it out themselves – because that way they might come up with something you’re completely unaware of.

Strong support and confidence in young activists

Within that same context came the above – the back up young activists want or need from older people. In particular making clear that things might not go to plan, things might fail and that this is OK. This is especially the case when time and money is involved. In terms of learning basic transferrable skills, the top three I came up with included:

  • Working as a team to achieve a greater goal
  • Communicating in different contexts
  • Managing a budget

In terms of visible changes, diversity within existing city campaign groups is one of the most important ones for me. I’ve been to gatherings of too many community groups that are not fully reflective of the communities that they are within. In many of the cases that I have seen, young people are conspicuous by their absence. From the Cambridge Cycling Campaign to the Cambridgeshire Local History Group, I have often been one of the youngest people there, and often the only non-White person there. When you consider the number of young cyclists, or the number of young people doing local history projects, you can see the opportunities our city is missing out on.

“So…who’s going to do what then?”


Apologies for the stupendously blurred picture above. The Cambridge Hub have the originals.

In terms of actions, the two most important were:

  • Mapping the community – finding out what is already happening
  • Planning your approach for each institution or group – in particular being crystal clear about what you want from them and what your offer to them is

The two big risks the students identified were:

  • Sustainability and continuity with the annual turnover of students & young people on both sides
  • Groups and institutions being deluged with lots of ideas, and being overwhelmed to the extent that nothing happens because they don’t know how to respond

On the first one, the students came up with suggestions on having permanent teacher contacts with each school, and ‘desk instructions’ for newly-elected reps – such as school council reps on what they need to do as soon as they take on their responsibilities

On the second one, they suggested the Cambridge Hub could come up with criteria that projects/proposals could be assessed against, ensuring that a limited number of developed proposals can be put to outside organisations rather than an uncoordinated wave of requests/invitations to get involved.

Everyone’s camera shy!

I wanted to film some short interview clips about the event, but everyone was camera-shy, despite encouragement from organisers. This is coming up as an issue time and again. People seem to be very nervous about being filmed in an interview. It’s got me thinking about whether as a city we need to do something about very basic interview training, to whether I need to overhaul both my own image and how I go about my work. For example setting up myself as my own media network to make it sound more professional? I’m thinking along the lines of Novara Media.

Next steps?

It sounds like this is something that students are interested in running with, so I’ll be keeping in touch to see what comes out of this after the Winterval break. 😛 #PCCorrectMassiv

It also sounds like Cambridge Hub will be running a similar open space gathering in early 2015. If interested, they are on Facebook here, and on Twitter at @CambridgeHub.

There’s more to unlocking democracy than campaigning alone


Sometimes it takes someone to turn up to events and report from and/or film them.

Here are the results:

Or you can listen to them below

Congratulations to Cllr Viki Sanders (@Taw_66) and commiserations to Rahima Ahammed, Andy Bower and Joel Chalfen. You can view my interviews with each of the candidates at

Citizen journalism matters

I made it matter in this by-election campaign. Not because I wanted to influence the election in any way. If I did, I’d have started much much earlier. No. My role in this was to report without prejudice. That is what I did. It’s for others to make their judgements on the content.

The only reporter at the count

With local media being starved of funds (irrespective of the reasons), democracy and democratic institutions are put at risk by the lack of external scrutiny of what happens. I was surprised to be told I was the only reporter at the election count. I also wasn’t aware of the need to give a week’s notice of a media presence at such counts. But…Puffles being Puffles…

***Thank you*** to Vicky at Cambridge City Council for ensuring there was someone from outside the political parties & the council to report from inside the Guildhall.

Puffles the dragon fairy with Mayor of Cambridge, Cllr Gerri Bird.
Puffles the dragon fairy with Mayor of Cambridge, Cllr Gerri Bird at Cambridge Guildhall

Being described as ‘local TV’

I’m quite proud of the dragon fairy for this one – the Conservative prospective parliamentary candidate Cllr Heidi Allen at describing my digital video account as local television. But if you think about it, that’s sort of what I’ve been doing over the past 24 hours – if not more. Me and Puffles (who was with me for both the hustings and the count) were this ‘one man and his dragon multi-media-machine’. We were micro-blogging (Twitter), macro-blogging (this), sending radio reports for Cambridge 105 and filming, editing and publishing video content – and conducting our own interviews with candidates. Think about it from another perspective. As the results were about to be announced I realised no one was there to capture it on film. Hence pulling out phone and filming it. The quality isn’t great, but it proved the event happened.

Goodwill from political parties

I can’t recall hearing a single bad word from any of the political party activists and elected representatives to my filming. Quite the opposite. Why? From their feedback the following:

  • Trust: When I tell them what I want to film for, what I intend to ask, and describe how the footage will be used, I follow through on it – repeatedly.
  • Transparency: They get to see the full footage that I publish, rather than the ‘edited soundbites’ that you often see in the mainstream media. In the May election campaign I noted how I’d do extensive interviews with the media and only a snippet gets used. Why bother?
  • ‘Shareability’: The format I publish them on means it’s simple and straight-forward for people to share the footage with others. Rather than having to mess about with large media files, all they have to do is copy and paste a hyperlink
  • Control: I’ve made the videos available for the parties to download free of charge and use in their own materials – my only condition is that they attribute it to me. This means they can use footage I’ve filmed for their own campaigns – but also are all in the knowledge that the full footage is available online. Hence an onus to use responsibly & not take a selective quotation to use out of context.

As mentioned in my previous blogpost, the Cambridge Young Greens have been the most proactive in inviting me to events to film. Following interest from some of the local Conservative Party activists who were pleasantly surprised to hear how successful things have been, it’s likely I’ll be filming for them in the near future. [Transparency: Andy Bower is my webmaster for my work things].

At an individual level, a number of Cambridge Labour and Cambridge Liberal Democrats activists are now warming to the concept of digital video. This is even more so for those that saw the footage that I uploaded from the hustings. At the election count I spoke to members of all parties on the ballot paper and mentioned how they could use the hustings videos for training purposes. What worked and what didn’t? Could the candidates have spoken more clearly, more concisely, more passionately? At what points could they have intervened on other speakers? At what point could they have stopped talking earlier? What points needed extending or following-up? Did they get tone and body-language right for the audience? The same goes for the interviews I did. Tone, posture, clarity, content. What worked and what didn’t?

“What about at a ‘group’ level for Labour vs the Liberal Democrats?”

I understand why they are more cautious than the Greens or the Conservatives. Cambridge is already a strongly-contested seat – one which I maintain is too close to call between Julian Huppert and Daniel Zeichner for the 2015 General Election. This means they’ll be running an incredibly disciplined operation. You only have to see what happens at election counts to watch the parties in operation. It is like clockwork, with activists assigned to tally all the votes counted to get an idea of who is most likely to win. The precious extra minutes/hours give the candidates time to prepare for any responses to the results before they are formally announced.

Me turning up with camcorder is a new unknown that existing campaigning processes haven’t yet accounted for in terms of opportunities and risks. What do you do if I record a major ‘gaffe’, or someone says something highly inappropriate/offensive that on second thoughts they want to withdraw? If they are not ‘in control’ of the person filming or editing, then what? On the other hand, this is all free publicity – which if used well could be incredibly positive. But how best to use it? With such a tightly contested election looming, is it worth taking risks with new things or is it better to focus on the tried & tested?


The stats above for me speak for themselves. With the exception of the digital inclusion video, all of the above-mentioned videos were uploaded within 24 hours prior to the election result being announced. Over 100 plays in 24 hours? I’m more than happy with that. Chances are most of those views will also have been from people who were not at the event itself. Therefore it’s making something available to a much wider audience. Remember that, subject-wise we are talking about a council by-election in November on the edge of Cambridge. I.e. don’t expect the squillions of hits beloved of marketing men.

What the videos do for even a small number of people is allow them to see and hear the candidates in their own words with their own voices. They don’t need me to ‘tweet-quote’ for them. People can view what they want and come to their own conclusions. At last night’s hustings, I heard a variety of opinions of who did well and who did not. Some I agreed with, others I didn’t. What inspires one may alienate another. That’s a risk you take when you stand for election and submit to cross-examination by the public.

“What does video community reporting mean for future campaigns?”

The challenge is with candidates. The pendulum may well swing back towards strength of individual candidates and away from ‘party brand’. There is a risk that this level of community reporting puts off some people from standing. On the other hand there may be people out there who see a panel of candidates and think: “I can do better than this lot!” and either stand as an independent or join a party and put themselves forward for selection by party members.

The team matters

For all the things social and digital media has going for it, it won’t replace door-to-door canvassing or campaigning with a rock-solid team behind them. Labour, The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats had teams of campaigners out and about regularly in Queen Edith’s. If anything, this is the difference being in a party makes. They can bring in significant backing. In Rahima Ahammed’s case, Labour were able to arrange meetings with both Ed Miliband and Harriet Harman in Cambridge. If you are a first time candidate and your party arranges photo opportunities with the leader and deputy leader of your party, you’re set up for [political] life. In Rahima’s case, I also recorded footage of Ms Harman endorsing her. It also matters in the face of hostile residents – and unfortunately we’ve got a few of those in Cambridge.

Utterly depressing and completely unacceptable. There’s no place for this in Cambridge. Don’t think that the risk of such abuse was not a consideration when I considered standing earlier this year. The despicable inflammatory headlines in the print media have created an atmosphere where people are afraid to get involved in community action and local democracy. Why would anyone put themselves forward in the face of such hostility? Hence having that rock-solid support network is essential to survive in politics. It also gives an insight into why I wouldn’t be good at party politics: I’m too sensitive (and that’s not considering my anxiety/mental health issues – I have always had a sensitive disposition) and don’t have a strong enough support network to deal with the s**te that you get in politics.

Hence looking for alternative ways to ‘unlock democracy’

In my case it was doing something that no one was doing on my side of town. (Richard Taylor mainly covers North Cambridge and focuses on policing and civil liberties issues). It looks like being a ‘community cameraman’ is an interesting niche to explore in the near future. The only problem I have now is I’ve run out of digital storage space! New hard drive needed!

Cambridge Climate Vigil, Climate March, Scottish Referendum


Ramblings on three events – one local, one Scottish, and one worldwide

The world ain’t a happy place at the moment – has it ever been? I watched the Scottish independence referendum through both the mainstream and social media lenses. In the end, it was the No campaign that won 55% to 45%. Already Labour and the Conservatives have fallen out about what to do next – leading to accusations from Yes campaigners that the Westminster parties broke their promises within hours of winning the referendum.

45% of an electorate despising a system so much that they voted to set up their own country is not a stable steady-state to be in

What the fallout from this both within Scotland and the wider UK remains to be seen. From my couch in Cambridge, I spotted a number of people from both the Yes and No sides in the media that I have met in person. Seeing the emotions on both sides showed a lot of people threw everything they had into the campaign plus more. Yet on the No side the visible emotion was one of relief, not triumph. On the Yes side, ‘gutted’ is an understatement.

A constitutional convention?

Unlock Democracy have called for one – as have a number of other groups and individuals. Now, call me old-fashioned but if you are part of an institution, aren’t you in a position to be able to get on with organising the damn thing? Why wait for someone else to do it? That’s the mindset we’ve taken with Be the change – Cambridge. We had our first event on 13 September 2014 (see here) and are building momentum autonomously rather than waiting for a large institution to take the first step.

Negative vs positive campaigning, top-down campaign vs an uncontrolled movement

The overall impression I got was that the Yes campaign had much more positive vibes about it, and was much more of a movement that went far beyond traditional political circles. On the other hand, I saw large predominantly London-centric institutions panicking on the back of an opinion poll that said the Yes campaign might win. There was a noticeable split between how the mainstream media reported things vs what was coming out on social media. Despite some of the abuse that was being thrown around, I got a sense of ‘hope’ from the Yes side that I didn’t feel coming from the No side. The list of bad things that the headlines that I read in the national papers gave me the impression of just how wrapped up our political system is by very wealthy interests. This contrasted strongly with debates outside the political parties on the Yes side that had spilled out into communities that were otherwise disengaged with party politics.

Was this ‘social media’ firing warning shots for future general elections?

Yes – but…

Yes – but don’t expect the impact of social media users to be equal across constituencies. There will be a whole host of factors that will either amplify or diminish the social media impact.


The competition between candidates – a safe or a genuinely contested seat will be one. In Cambridge there is a chance that all five mainstream party candidates will get over 5,000 votes each, judging by the European elections earlier this year. Yet in neighbouring South Cambridgeshire, Andrew Lansley was returned with a 27,000 or so votes – 7,000 ahead of his Lib Dem rival. And that was on a 75% turnout.

Digital literacy and accessibility

Is there a critical mass of people using social media? Do they have the hardware, software and internet connection to enable this? Even if they have all of these things, do they have the desire to use social media for democracy? My experience shows that at the moment, few outside political circles do.

Local political culture & local single issues

This can range from people getting used to being able to use social media to get in touch with politicians to the complete implosion in trust of the public sector as shown in some of the recent abuse scandals. There is also a greater possibility that local single issues could rise to the top in individual constituencies. This could amplify the messages of single issue candidates, or make/break candidates from established parties depending on how they handle the issue concerned.

Think global, act local?

There were a series of climate marches that took place on 21 Sept – see . These were organised to coincide with the gathering of world leaders in New York. I wanted to go to the London march but it clashed with a rehearsal, so I took camcorder along to what I thought would be a handful of Green Party types gathered around Reality Checkpoint on Parker’s Piece, holding candles. As it turned out, about 100 people took part all lined up from the University Arms hotel to the centre of the park.

Quite a few people had already left by the time I filmed this clip – not long afterwards about fifty people stayed around for a final group photo. I was originally planning on doing some more Be the change – Cambridge voxpops, but with so many people there I thought the best thing to do was to get people to explain on camera why they were there.

I was surprised at how reluctant many people were to put their views to camera. I assumed – incorrectly as it turned out, that people prepared to turn out for a public protest would have been comfortable to explain why they were there and what they were protesting about or raising awareness about. But then I saw a clip on TV by Allegra Stratton from a Labour Party meeting hosted by Ben Bradshaw MP (former Culture Secretary) about English devolution.

The people attending when collared by Allegra with cameras rolling looked like rabbits caught in headlights – they froze. Only Bradshaw seemed the least bit bothered. And yet this was a meeting involving a group of people so passionate about politics they will turn up to a political party convention, giving up a weekend and possibly annual leave too. (When was the last time you took time off work to go to a political or campaigning event?)

Community reporting with digital video for the 2015 general election?

Something to ponder, as I expect there will be a greater amount of footage filmed from hustings and other events far beyond the traditional broadcast media that will go beyond soundbites. With a limited number of broadcast media outlets in 1997, it was relatively straight-forward to run a very tightly-controlled and centralised campaign. Short soundbites with lines to take were the order of the day. With a much larger and far less disciplined social media world awaiting the 2015 campaign, it’ll be interesting to see how party machines cope with candidates going ‘off-message’.