Cambridge’s street communities on complex local public services


Spending an evening listening & learning with homeless & vulnerably housed people in at Wintercomfort in Cambridge

I was commissioned to do a short workshop on democracy and registering to vote for the local charity for homeless people Winter Comfort. It was one of the toughest but at the same time one of the most worthwhile workshops I have run. I stuck around for an extra hour to listen to what people had to say about their experiences of local public services.

“Where do you start with something like this?”

Neither I nor Wintercomfort had run one of these. The aim was to get homeless & vulnerably housed people engaged in democratic processes as part of getting their voices heard. The challenge for me was figuring out how to persuade people to go to the laptop with Emily from Cambridge City Council ready to register them to vote.

“This sounds familiar”

A couple of years ago, I wrote how lots of things needed to be done before organisations and campaign groups went out to encourage people to vote – see The challenge for me was to put some of this into action. What did I need to do in order to persuade people to get to the stage where they might be vaguely interested in registering to vote? The first thing I realised was that I knew absolutely nothing about the experiences of Cambridge’s street communities. So I asked them to ‘map’ their communities – in particular the people, organisations and activities they had day-to-day interactions with.

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The above-two photographs show just how complex and diverse their day-to-day lives are. This made me realise that if someone like me was unfamiliar with this, what was it like for the rest of the general public? It was also a wake-up call for things I took for granted when one of the participants asked me:

“How do you spell comfort?”

Yep – check my privilege.

Starting like this prevented me from walking straight into the elephant trap of coming across as over-patronising – even though a couple of the men there said that this exercise was a complete waste of time. It was only when I said this was just as much for my benefit and those of my social media followers in local politics as it was theirs. It also nipped in the bud any risk of ‘sugar-coating’ all things democracy.

A sceptical and unpredictable group of participants – with good reason

With some groups I’ve run workshops for, I’ve come across people whose view is very much the less ‘state interference’ they get, the better. The participants in this workshop are in a position where the state has a large impact on their lives – but is not delivering (for whatever reason) in terms of solving their problems of homelessness and the other problems often found linked to it. Everyone I listened to that evening had been failed by public services one way or another. The experience of that – which left them without a roof over their heads – understandably is going to influence how they viewed public services.

The personalities of people who were there were incredibly diverse. You had people who were very confident speakers with very strong opinions, and you had those who quietly huddled in the corner – unbeknown to me but who were taking in absolutely everything. There were also some people who were drinking too – though this did not disrupt the event.

Differing views about the role of central and local government

Interestingly, participants saw it as the role of central government to intervene and deliver services directly when local government failed. This is what happened in the early days of Tony Blair’s government, where new agencies were set up reporting directly to Whitehall and ministers because the view then was that local councils could not deliver the public services needed. It was only about a decade later that decentralisation became a theme, picking up speed under Hazel Blears when she was Communities & Local Government Secretary.

Strong views about governance and transparency

Participants were absolutely red-hot on failures of governance and transparency both in local government and on non-state providers such as charities. They questioned whether the staff at some state-funded providers were qualified to do the jobs they were commissioned to do, and asked why the costs of procuring some goods and services cost so much – asking where the money was really going. Given the information, I could imagine a few of them giving some senior managers at both a local and national level a really good grilling!

Services not joined up at a local level

The strongest message coming back was for Cambridge City Council to have a much more regular presence at Winter Comfort – in particular housing officers. The same goes for organisations that deliver health services. The most popular idea was having a ‘super social worker’ who would be part-employed by the police, health and local council so they could ‘sort things out’ as they said. What struck me was how similar this was to an idea I blogged about several years ago, but how they had come up with the suggestion independently. It’s more compelling coming from them because they are the ones that use the services more regularly than me. From my blogging perspective, it’s a piece of applied public administration. It’s one thing saying ‘Yes nice blogpost but…’. It’s quite another having to respond to a vulnerable member of the public who is dependent on those services and who is being failed by those services.

Their ideas for Cambridge’s politicians to consider

Emily from the council and I wrote down their questions, concerns and complaints on a big sheet of paper.


One of the things that chimed with me was when people said public services should go to where homeless people are, rather than expecting homeless people to have to shuttle from office to office. In public service social media circles we often talk about going to the social media platforms that people are using, rather than creating new ones and expecting people to come to us.

I asked Wintercomfort staff to invite local MP Daniel Zeichner to spend an afternoon/evening listening to the community, and asked them to invite a panel of councillors and political party representatives to allow people to put their party political questions to those at a local council level. Interestingly, the councillor who got the most praise from participants was Cllr Gerri Bird, Mayor of Cambridge for 2014/15. When I asked why, they said it was because she listened, visited regularly and spent time with them rather than rushing off after 15 minutes. This was my experience of Cllr Bird during her mayoralty. (We have ceremonial mayors in Cambridge rather than executive mayors – the Leader of the Council – currently Cllr Lewis Herbert, is primarily responsible for policy & strategy).

Assuming all goes well, I’ll be feeding all of this back in person to Cambridge City Council’s full council meeting on 22 October. (See for details).

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Trying to prioritise in the constraints of not great mental health


Wanting to do everything, but not being able to.

The past few weeks have been incredibly intense from a personal perspective. Yet had I had sound mental & physical health, all of this wouldn’t have been out of the ordinary. A decade ago I was managing the equivalent of all of this hours-wise on top of a full-time job.

‘Someone has to film it because ****democracy****’

I’ve uploaded at least 10 videos in the past week from a number of different events – events that would not otherwise have been recorded or scrutinised at people’s leisure. (See videos here). I don’t ‘have to’ do this. I don’t get paid to do this. I do it because something inside of me tells me this is an important function of our (local) democracy that’s not being fulfilled. This isn’t just about organised debates between candidates at elections (noting this article), but about some of the important public policy debates that take place in Cambridge too.

On the future of Cambridge – there’s lots happening, but how do we bring the conversations together?

There were over 100 people at a Q&A session with Cambridge general election candidates and with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander MP. (See my video playlist here). There were also over 100 people (a noticeably different audience) at a Cambridge Science Festival event on the connections & flows of future cities – see my video playlist here. Then finally there were 200 people at the Cambridge Carbon Footprint/Transition Cambridge debate on Friday. See my video playlist here.

The analytics tell me that over the past seven days, people have watched over eight hours of my video footage. So…there’s clearly a demand for what I’m filming – even though this doesn’t pay the bills!

Filming, editing and uploading is exhausting. But so too is travelling to and from venues

Only by taking tranquilliser medication at a frequency I’ve not had to since my 2012 crisis did I manage to stave off another breakdown this weekend. Something eventually had to give – and in both cases it was skating this and last weekend. A school governors’ strategy workshop followed a sleepless night. (Eclipse to blame?!) It was only a parental lift to/from Anglia Ruskin that got me to the Friday night debate. The funniest part of the evening was one of the student volunteers being told by the host of the evening, Dr Aled Jones of the Global Sustainability Institute at ARU that the big cuddly creature I was carrying with me was not a llama or a kangeroo, but Puffles the Dragon Fairy.

When the dragon gets an invitation…

In 2014 it was recording a music video. In 2015 it was recording an EP

But such was Saturday’s brainfog that I could not haul myself out of bed in time for the morning recordings with Dowsing Sound Collective at Jesus College Chapel. But I managed to make it through for two of the three tracks we recorded – using some state-of-the-art kit courtesy of ARU’s music department.

The view from the back - Recording with the Dowsing Sound Collective
The view from the back – Recording with the Dowsing Sound Collective. Can you spot the floating grey head?

I wanted to join everyone for post-recording drinks. But I couldn’t. And not for the first time. This has been the first year I’ve really begun to notice that I cannot do things I want to do because…of my disability. While I’ve described on ‘official forms’ in years gone by as my mental health issues being a disability, 2015 is the first year where I’ve really ‘felt the disability in my heart.’ Even more so because it feels like there’s nothing I can do about it.

Trying to articulate this in a way that someone in better health could understand

Imagine that instead of 40 hours per week, you only had 14. Go over that limit and you’ll have even fewer hours the following day or week. Or ‘Spoon theory’ as articulated by Christina Miserandino here. In the case of ‘Be the change – Cambridge’ the week before last, and all of the events last week, I’ll need to recharge batteries for most of this week. Not least because I want to be in a state where I can enjoy Dowsing’s London gig at the Union Chapel.

Losing spoons at the Cambridge environment debate on Friday

The ‘Spoon theory’ link – and the idea of losing spoons (or energy/capacity) along the way also hit on Friday night after the hustings but before Saturday’s recording. The only point of fact I recall the chair, Dr Aled Jones of Anglia Ruskin, challenging any of the panellists on was on who came up with the policy of all new-build homes from 2016 having to be zero carbon. The Conservative candidate for Cambridge claimed it was the Coalition, Dr Jones said it wasn’t.

For those who don’t know, I used to be a policy adviser on sustainable new homes in DCLG’s climate change & sustainable buildings division in 2007-08. In what were 10 of the most intense months of my life living & working in one of the most pressured political & policy environments I’ve ever been in, I couldn’t let that point rest. See the Storify here. (In this case I’m stating that Ms Fernando was misinformed, not lying. No frontline campaigning politician is going to know the policy detail unless they were reasonably well-read in that field).

Local government in Cambridge had definitely been informed about this policy by 2007. How do I know this? Because it I was the one who told them about it. Here are the slides from my talk at Newnham College attended by developers too. ***It’s got my name on them***

“Hang on – I thought you were only going to be the cameraman in this election campaign?”

That’s my intention, but where there is an issue of fact on a policy area I worked in, & where candidates continue to argue an incorrect point, I reserve the right to step in. On this occasion, it was a shame about the timing given the state of my health.

There are lots of debates between four of the five candidates between now & election day – helpfully collated by Cambridge Conservatives. See their calendar here – scroll down. I’ll try and get to the larger ones that cover a range of issues too.

Love with a ‘broken mind’


This ‘bah humbug’ style post follows from another article by Fleetstreetfox and from half a dozen conversations I’ve had with friends around the Mill Road part of town, as well as online.

Foxy’s article is here. You may also be interested in this article about dating & mental health

“Be part of red heart day, and show the one you love how much you love them by buying lots of stuff at inflated prices putting you into even more debt!”

“But if there’s one thing that means romance more than anything else in the modern era, it’s this:

When you’re with them, you want to put your phone down.

And if you can’t manage that, people, then I’ve no hope for you”

Well that’s me doomed then!

This is the first blogpost I’ve written about this topic because it’s something that historically has filled me with sad emotions. Thus my way of dealing with it has been to pretend publicly that I don’t have such emotions or to keep them hidden out of sight & out of mind of everyone else.

During my teens, I was crushed by the fear of rejection and humiliation along with an austere religious doctrine when it came to sex and relationship education. Without anyone to make the serious case for alternative viewpoints – remember Section 28 was still around throughout my school & college years. It was ‘family values or nothing.’

What really strikes me now (in a positive way) is how I now know lots of people in a variety of different relationships, and also how comfortable I am with this given my upbringing. Part of this was the impact of spending three years in Brighton at a time when I both wanted and needed to rebel against so many of the values that with hindsight crushed my soul & spirit. But at the same time it meant I had to spend most of my early 20s getting things out of my system that I should have dealt with in my teens. No, I’m still not over everything yet. Every time I think of organised religion and its impact on my emotional health – not to say every Sunday morning wasted being indoctrinated, I get really angry and have to use CBT-techniques to calm down.

Struggling with the emotional side of exploring my own sexuality

I remember about 15 years ago at an international student conference in my first year at uni, one of the women there offered sex on a plate. I froze, not really knowing how to deal with it & the moment was gone. This was after a few months at university not really having connected with anyone whether dating-wise or friendship-wise. That said, the conference was great fun and those of us that went came away wondering why university wasn’t like this. Fast-forward to graduation & I remember the contempt too many graduands felt towards the university – something several of us talked about at the graduation ceremony. Mine was the second generation of ‘up front fees’ and felt we were treated like cash cows rather than an integral inclusive part of university life. That’s why I tend to shout down the phone at any unfortunate soul from the university trying to get more money off me.

Dashed hopes and expectations?

I wasn’t the only one. Ever since, a number of people I’ve met over the years who went to university (and came out disappointed) felt they were sold a lie by the institution, or were told by their elders about a university lifestyle that no longer existed. I still remember being told that going to university meant you were in the top 1-2% of the brightest people in the country, as well as being told that I was likely to meet my future wife there. I guess one of the hardest things about growing up is learning that what the older generation tells you about life isn’t always true. In my case it’s meant I no longer trust the opinions or advice of an entire cohort of people in my parents generation that knew me as a child. What they told me as a child/teenager turned out not to be true and it hurt me. Badly.

Living like a teen in my ‘roaring 20s’

When I returned to Cambridge after university – six months after my first major mental health crisis, I got involved in a number of societies at Cambridge & Anglia Ruskin as a post-graduate student of the latter. Having dated/had short relationships with a number of students from the former, one of the things that struck me was how intense their workloads & lifestyles were – to the extent that in your formative years I could understand how lifelong friendships & relationships were struck up. When a group of you are faced with the same intense pressures, it sort of brings you together in a way the more lethargic lifestyles of other universities (mainly in arts/humanities) at the time could not. To put it in perspective, I had 2-3 assessed essays per term, where as at Cambridge my partners had 2-3 assess essays per week.

It was only after I transferred down to London that I found myself in a reasonably stable relationship – what I call my first proper relationship. But being so single-minded & selfish at the time, I wasn’t nearly the loving, caring boyfriend that I should have been. Obviously the commute didn’t help – we could only see each other at weekends or when I took time off work during university holidays. Shortly after we broke up, I moved to London and lived the work hard-play hard lifestyle, going on various dates, having short flings but never finding the stable loving relationship that I so desperately wanted. Again, dashed expectations of not having found my life partner in the furnace of graduate professional London living.

Where I am now

In early 2012 I had a mental health breakdown which meant I was no longer able to work full time hours. I still cannot to this day. Only earlier this week there were three events I wanted to film but could not get out of bed. I was utterly exhausted.

It seems like years since I was last with someone who made me really feel the emotion of love – my definition of giving and receiving of ‘intimate love’ between people. (The English language is incredibly limited, hence liking the deconstruction of the term ‘love’ here using Greek).

Since 2012, I’ve effectively stopped dating completely. Part of it was due to my breakdown being related to rejection that in my rational mind actually made perfect sense but one that my emotional mind could not switch off. The rest is due to me feeling that while I’m not working full time & having had to move back in with my family, I won’t be good enough for everyone. Not in a ‘woe is me!’ sense but in a: ‘Let’s be realistic here and spend our time doing something more constructive than searching for a forlorn hope, getting continually rejected even more’ sense.

‘But you’re always doing fun stuff!’

I’m still struggling to connect emotionally with people. In part because I have an emotion intensity that can be off-putting. It’s something that when I see it in other people, I back away from them too. Almost as if ‘it’s bad enough being me!’ At the same time, others see me as this confident & outgoing guy who is active in the community. I on the other hand see myself as doing some of the things that ‘need to be done and have a strong public interest to have them done,’ but hardly anyone else will do or is able to do. Some of the decision-making at a very basic level is emotionally exhausting – even deciding to catch a bus into town. It uses up my supply of spoons.

No one to help recharge my emotional batteries

Over the past year it’s something I’ve started feeling more acutely. Whether it’s wanting to work as part of a bigger team on a regular, stable basis to having the loving arms and warm embrace to come back to after a hectic day, the void is becoming more and more noticeable. And all too often it feels like there’s nothing I can do about it. Essentially I’m fighting a war on four fronts:

  • Health
  • Friendships & relationships
  • Employment & financial
  • Living arrangements

The problem for me is that all of these are so closely intertwined. The other is the huge level of uncertainty both with my health (ie ‘will I ever recover to a point where I can work full time hours again? It’s been three years remember) and also what I see as the general economic/political outlook. Will I ever be in a situation where I’ll be able to afford my own place in the not-to-distant future?

“Stop sulking!”

A couple of years ago – not long after my 2012 breakdown I wrote a blogpost titled: “I’d like to teach the world to sing”This reflects my mindset today: Physically I’m past my peak of my mid-20s. Therefore if there are life experiences that I want to have before it’s too late, now’s the time to do them. So. Let’s look at that list & see what actions I’ve taken.

“I’d like to sing or perform as part of a large group of people to a big audience in splendid surroundings.” Done – and still doing. See here with Dowsing Sound Collective

“I’d like to learn how to ice skate and roller-blade properly. So please can we have that long-muted permanent ice rink in Cambridge please, given that lots of building is happening anyway?” Doing – now skating with Romsey Rollerbillies, and nearly 1,000 FB likes on the Cambridge Ice Rink campaign page I created.

“I’d like to make a positive difference to my home town – making it realise (and ultimately deal with) its own flaws so that it can meet the expectations that come with a growing ‘brand’. (Yes, I hate the term too).” Doing with Be the change – Cambridge -> Join us on 14 March to have your say too! (See here)

“I’d like to overcome my mental blocks on all things creative – especially with art, music and creative media. I have a number of tools but struggle to pick them up, let alone use them in the way I’d like to.” Done and Doing with video – kicked off in summer 2014.

There’s still a lot more to do, but adopting a ‘do stuff’ rather than ‘wait for someone else to do stuff’ seems to be that little bit more constructive. Happy red heart day!

Overcoming depression and trying to just ‘get on with it’


Because in my case, depression (& my long term recovery from my 2012 mental health breakdown) means I need to use up reserves of emotional energy to do even some of the most basic tasks – such as sending an email.

I struggled to begin this blogpost for a variety of reasons. This paragraph being about the fourth attempt.

On Tues 18 Nov we’ll be having another Be the change – Cambridge gathering of interested people – see details here if you’re free. Arranging this took far more emotional energy than it should have done. From going into the venue to make enquiries, to getting everything announced, then having to rearrange. Hence one of the things I’m going to be looking out for at this gathering is for interested people to be able to step in and support me/compensate for my shortcomings.

Perhaps being a co-ordinator is exhausting in itself?

‘When you become an adult you realise that the main thing you had in common with your school friends was that you went to the same place every day.’ I can’t remember where I read it, but I remember feeling this as soon as I left college. I didn’t expect to experience the same at university – assuming that people choosing the same course as me would have similar dispositions and passions. With hindsight, I picked the wrong course for the wrong university, but didn’t have the courage at the time to fight any of it.

The difference between such an institutionalised life vs co-ordinating projects remotely is that the institutionalised life has everything timetabled for you. You know at what point of the week you are going to meet who, and where. When you’re running your own project, you don’t have that. The bit that I’m finding a very big challenge at the moment is trying to do the micro work of co-ordinating while at the same time trying to work through the substance of this idea of making Cambridge greater than the sum of our parts. And the substance is ***huge*** – and following a couple of meetings last week just got even bigger, more complex but at the same time, more clear.

‘Oh I’d love to do that!….but it’s in London’

I saw a vacancy in Parliament that normally I’d jump at – the digital engagement manager (see via external candidates). Although it’s below the salary I was on when I was in the civil service, it’s the sort of role that would be right up my street. But health-wise, I couldn’t manage a full time job, let alone one that required a commute to London. And if you look at what has happened with London house prices and rents since I last lived in London in the late 2000s…I don’t know how some of you do it. I really don’t. Combine this with the various conferences, concerts, events, workshops and the like, the cost of train fares (little change from £40) …and you wonder why so few people can access not just the big policy gatherings that happen in London, but also the ‘soft networking’ that happens.

“There’s more to life than London though!”

The Scottish independence referendum catalysed and brought together social forces from the rest of the country – in particular in England – to make this point. One of my ‘selfish’ drivers for Be the change – Cambridge is that the city could be far more interesting than it currently is. Community groups could be larger, more diverse and more exciting than they currently are – if only the public institutions could give them that safe space, support and robust challenge with which to grow.

Dealing with one disappointment after another

Over the past five years, I’ve been out and about to lots of places. Unlike what I call ‘my roaring twenties’, I’ve not come across nearly as many awe-inspiring jaw-dropping events that make you stand back and go: ***Wow!***

The reason why I think it has an impact on my mental health is I sense I am/we’re going backwards. Whether it’s things like turning up to a music or a dance event that has hardly anyone turning up to it, to a community group covering an important part of our city’s life but – despite their hard work keeping the group running, not reflecting the diversity of our city…yes, that gets me down. Perhaps with the political and media rhetoric, I am now much more conscious of ‘being the only brown face in the room’ whereas fifteen years ago, I wouldn’t have noticed. The thing is – and as I found out the hard way – I’m often not the best person to be making the challenge. Mental health means I have limited time and energy to devote to any one thing. Hence going for something that might energise more people to be that challenge inside that safe space. This is despite a number of offers/requests I’ve received for me to join various different groups, organisations and even political parties.

Back to the top – ‘just doing it’?

I discussed this with some friends in my school community. The difference between me and perhaps most of the rest of the governing body is that they are in and around school pretty much every day. They are either teaching, picking up children or helping with their homework. Being a single bloke, I have no reason to go into school unless I have a meeting there. I’ve also found I’m at my most productive for the school when I’m working on something for it with a handful of fellow governors. I’ve also found the same has been true with past projects – such as my first digital video training guides.

This is the recurring theme: I’m struggling emotionally with what is a solitary existence – one without structure

Interestingly, the part of life where I’m most content is with the Dowsing Sound Collective. I know that once a week I have to turn up to rehearsals, not think too much about what I have to do, and contribute towards something greater than the sum of our parts with dozens of friendly people – with a very clear goal in sight. This term it’s a sold-out concert at the Corn Exchange in Cambridge in a room with about a thousand people in it.

With my past in the public sector, in my early days I found the opposite with its structure – it was too rigid and inflexible. The organisation’s rigid structure & grade hierarchies meant people only did what they were allowed by their grades or job descriptions. This was amplified by being in an office with too many people charged with doing too little. Hence people in middle and senior management who found themselves with something reasonable interesting or useful all too often jealously guarded such functions from others who might otherwise have helped them. Too much structure can be just as damaging as too much. What made too much structure bearable was the regular salary.

How do you build something that you’re comfortable working with?

This is what I’m trying to figure out. I’ve picked out things that make effective director-PA partnerships work well. For a start, the two have very different talents and dispositions. The other thing is that both should trust and respect, but not fear each other. In terms of structure and processes, both are important for me because the various things I am working on right now are all interlinked with each other. By this I mean that if I were to disappear overnight, all of those things would still be interlinked. It’s not just me that is the common factor that joins them all. It’s more.

Why this matters beyond the world of work for me

It’s a vicious circle. I don’t know when/if I’ll be able to work full-time again, which makes me more anxious about the future, which makes my anxiety and depression worse, and so on. Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64? (As Paul McCartney once asked). The prospect of being in a relationship and settling down seems light years away from my current position, so in my case it’s more thinking about familial relationships with extended family. But this is also where decades of housing policy failure is having a very real impact on the life decisions I am taking. Nationally, Shiv Malik and Ed Howker quoted soul-destroying statistics on the percentage of young adults choosing not to settle down or have children because housing costs are too high and because the jobs market is so unstable.

21% of 18- to 44-year-olds without children (2.8 million) admit they are delaying starting a family because of a lack of affordable housing. (Shelter – The Human Cost 2010, p10)

Why would you want to commit to such huge life investments if you don’t know if you’ll have a job next week?

“So…what’ll be different for 2015?”

Creating that structure to work within – & make sure that those who I am working with know about it. This means people will be able to find out very quickly & easily what I am working on, how I am working on it, why I am working on it, with whom I am working with, what the resource/support gaps are and who I need what sort of support from – and what they will get out of it in return.

On mental health – again


On finding out that you’re not alone, and a big moan about politics too

We’re losing too many good people because of our society’s failure to help people facing mental health challenges. There seems to be a pattern here – of firms and employers losing some of their best employees, as well as the longer term impact on the health of current and former employees. Think James here, and Louise here. These are two that spring to mind – not least because they are two of the most talented people I’ve ever worked with.

‘Great minds don’t think alike’

I can’t remember which newspaper coined that as an advertising slogan, but the one thing that has struck me about a number of people I’ve met and worked with who have struggled with mental health issues is how they’ve not ‘thought like the mainstream’. Others posts in an academic field I’ve stumbled across – in part related to other barriers – that are worth reading are here and here. I’ve lost count of the number of extraordinarily talented people who are facing their own mental health issues. On some days, I describe mine as ‘the black velvet’ [of depression] to my demons of anxiety.

Being ‘burnt out’ for a long time

I almost took it for granted the rumour in economics circles that graduates who went into The City burnt out after a decade because of the workload. When you think about the amount of investment that has gone into a person’s education alone, what a terrible waste of talent. In my case, I still feel burnt out. I spent much of today in bed with a frazzled head. It’s a horrible feeling – one where I still look around and wonder when it’ll come to an end – if it’ll come to an end.

Why would employers care in what’s becoming a ‘tempocracy’?

This is what worries me about the direction of travel we seem to be going in – whether the rise of the zero hour contract to the continual cutting of terms and conditions to people in the public sector. And what for? Do we have to wait for the economic upturn to allow ‘the [very imperfect] market [not least because it’s riddled with information failures and assumptions too strong to be applicable in real life]’ to drive up terms and conditions? There’s also the false economy of those ‘self-employed’ but who would rather be in permanent work. I wonder if senior politicians and policy advisers ****really**** know how people make ends meet. Because if they did, surely we’d be hearing about some very different policies. Or is it a failure of imagination from the Whitehall policy bubble?

So much talent with so much to give – and the desire to give it too…but going to waste

That’s one of the most frustrating things. The people I follow who are struggling are just a raindrop in the ocean of what’s out there. Yet they’re not getting the support that they need. In 2012 the figure of people getting mental health treatment that needed it was as low as 25%. Which made it all the more interesting to read the headlines about the Conservatives realising what a mess the Health and Social Care Act 2012 was.

A former number 10 advisor briefed the Times that “No one apart from Lansley had a clue what he was really embarking on, certainly not the prime minister. He kept saying his grand plans had the backing of the medical establishment and we trusted him. In retrospect it was a mistake.”

You think Lansley had a clue what he was embarking on??? After all he was the one that tabled and drove through the legislation that the Electoral Commission now says charities have to record every time they use social media in a political context – see here.

But getting angry at a failed politician (he’s gone in 2015 – but coming to a corporate boardroom near you) isn’t going to change much. The more I look into these things, the more it comes back to the structure of our economy and society. I wonder whether policy-makers in Whitehall that come up with a loan/debt-related policy for people to pay for things that were previously taxpayer funded considered the mental health impact of debt. That’s before I’ve even mentioned house prices or commuting prices – the latter now so high that some employers actually offer season ticket loans to their employees.

Cuts, cuts and more cuts

This was splashed across the headline of the Cambridge News recently. It just doesn’t feel sustainable anymore. It also makes me question what the senior politicians (in a nutshell, the party leaders and the chancellor/shadow chancellors of this world) have in terms of a vision for local services – and even local government. Will there be a local council left worth standing for outside of any statutory services that the law requires local authorities to provide? Will anyone want to work to deliver such services on an underfunded shoestring budget? The mantra ‘work harder for less with less’ while costs of living remain high and get higher…exactly.

Sorry seems to be the hardest word

At a recent visit to Cambridge, Green Party Leader Natalie Bennett started her speech with an apology on behalf of her generation for screwing up the planet and society. I’m halfway between her generation and the one that’s just started university. (I feel so old!) It seems strange that it’s my generation that’s moving into the frame where we have to pick up the baton – where it’ll be people and politicians my age making the decisions.

I look at the problems and the institutions that underpin them. The task ahead of turning things around is more than daunting. It frightens me.




Looking deeper into the findings by Relate that one in ten of us do not have a close friend

The headline in The Guardian is here. The full report by Relate is here. (Note it’s good practice when blogging in response to a newspaper headline to provide links to the original source the article is based on – as newspapers often overlook this). There’s also an interesting thread on loneliness in The Guardian here. I’ve blogged about loneliness as a public policy issue here (in late 2013 – subsequently picked up by Labour MP Tom Watson who wrote about the issue in The Sunday Mirror newspaper) and my personal experiences soon after leaving the civil service three years ago (see here).

How we live and where we live

A recurring theme from the comments I’ve seen posted online is about shared experiences and regular contact with people who you have positive things in common. All of these seem to be common factors in reducing feelings of loneliness. When I compare them to my own life experiences, I can see where the gaps are. I may have had regular contact with people at work, but we didn’t have shared experiences. I may have had shared experiences with some people, but didn’t see them regularly. Where I had both of the first two, I didn’t have many things in common beyond one or two hobbies – such as dancing.

Combine that with the sort of housing that is being built. Rabbit-hutch Britain. Gated developments. The closing down of public buildings and community centres. Furthermore, combine this with increased instability in the workplace. The rise of zero-hour contracts – fine for bosses but how can you plan ahead if you don’t know how much you’ll be earning next week? House prices and rent costs completely out of sync with salaries and wages – what would society look like if both were much lower? What would society look like if you could meet your essential expenses with a little bit to spare working a four day rather than a five day week? What about the increasing distances (and time taken) to commute to work?

‘What is there for those of us in our 30s-50s in Cambridge who have no children or who are not part of Cambridge University?’

I was asked this question by a couple of people earlier this summer. It got me thinking because before I moved to London, I had a very vibrant social life in Cambridge. In my mid 20s I never felt out of place at student events – it was only a couple of years previously that I was a postgraduate myself. Fast-forward a decade or so and having attended a recent talk, I remembered feeling distinctly…’out of place’. In the discussion, we noted that there were people trying to self-organise – eg this Meetup group (and note the numbers). Yet as this comment in response to my last blog states, rising land values in Cambridge are making things very difficult for community groups to find decent premises.

What can local institutions do?

This tweet caught my attention recently

It got me thinking about what I did and didn’t do in my late teens. I still assumed that adults – and more importantly local institutions either didn’t get things wrong or could not be influenced. It’s easy to look back and say I should have switched subjects, classes, teachers or even institutions – but not when you put yourself in the context of that mindset at the time.

For those not aware, I’ve been snapping at the heels of various institutions for quite some time – Be the change – Cambridge being the culmination of a lot of this work. My view is that local institutions in Cambridge can have an indirect yet significant impact on reducing loneliness and isolation. This was something that was picked up in a workshop I went to for adult education tutors run by Cambridgeshire County Council. As me and Ceri Jones are running a 10 week course called An introduction to social media for social action at Parkside in Cambridge we were invited to what was an enlightening workshop with other tutors. Visualising the collective impact of all of us was what I took away from that workshop – as well as thinking how we could increase that impact.

Roots not chains. Wings to fly with strong branches to land on

The above song by folk group Show of Hands is one I stumbled across a few years ago. They wrote this in response to Labour minister Kim Howells’ comments from 2001 (see here). That plus the group were at the forefront of stopping political extremists from hijacking folk music for their own ends (see here).

In my case, I was never able to settle in either Brighton or London after leaving Cambridge. In the nearly two months I spend in Vienna in 2006, I asked myself if it was a city I could imagine myself living or working in, in what was the future. Again the answer was ‘no’. In those days I always pictured myself of moving out of Cambridge permanently. Today, I can’t see that happening. Hence going back to some of my childhood roots to shape my own future – and that of my home town. And at the same time, confronting my own demons whether they be mental health ones or loneliness & isolation ones.

The principle of the subheading ‘roots not chains, wings to fly and strong branches to land on’ is about a balance between having a place called home with a supportive community, and the ability to move as and when you feel you need to. In my case, too many local institutions were chains, not roots. At the same time, while I was able to metaphorically fly to Brighton and London, I couldn’t find strong enough branches to land on. I wonder how many new arrivals to Cambridge experience some of the feelings I felt when moving to Brighton and London? Hence for me the importance of strengthening community groups.

And finally…?

Back to the Relate report, the scale of the findings indicates a possible public policy response. What I don’t know is what that response should be, and which people or institutions could lead on that response.



Pondering on an emotion that I fear I’ll never feel in the way that I wish I could.

Socrates scores for Brazil against Italy in a titanic clash between two footballing giants in Spain 1982
Socrates scores for Brazil against Italy in a titanic clash between two footballing giants in Spain 1982

You’d struggle to find a scene of such chaotic euphoria and its opposite at a 21st century major football tournament – not least because of the all-seater stadia. Supporters of both sides mixed together on the terraces. In this photo, one side is ecstatic at Brazilian striker Zico turning one of the toughest defenders of the era Claudio Gentile inside out before setting up Socrates (see the video of the goal in the latter’s obituary here), and the other the opposite.

As far as football goes, it was either Michael Owen’s goal against Argentina in France ’98, or probably the goal-feast at Euro ’96 between England and The Netherlands that I felt any sense of euphoria in a football match. In both cases a childhood of football played a huge part. Yet this side of the millennium…well…it simply no longer excites me. As far as sporting events go, probably the Paralympics 2012 (which I took Puffles along to – twice) is probably the only time I’ve got anything more than moderately interested in international sporting events in recent times.

2012 was probably one of the worst years of my life – not least because of a big mental health crisis, the impact of which I still feel every day. Not being able to work full time hours means in this economic climate I’ll never be able to have a place of my own – which then has a knock on impact not just on what you can & cannot afford, but on your own self esteem & even things like going out socialising or even dating.

The curse of depression lingers on…

Things have been rubbish for a lot of us for a very long time. Think back to the economic, political crisis of the late 2000s and ponder to what extent things have improved for the many. This isn’t a party-political point. You only need to look at the media & wonder what would happen if everyone decided they were going to put their weapons down for the day. The wider global context isn’t something anyone can be content with…unless they are an arms dealer perhaps. My point is even if something is going well personally, the mess that is the wider world puts a dampener on it. Is our personal happiness limited by the unhappiness of the world around us? In my case it most definitely is.

Yet I’ve somehow learnt how to grind through the depressive symptoms that crushed me during my teens and early 20s. Only now am I getting some sort of a feeling that I’m emerging from it all while at the same time avoiding the ‘pretend to be confident and it’ll be all OK’ approach. The latter ‘worked’ to some extent – in that it got me to places and events that with hindsight I’d have never have got near, such as going to grand balls full of ballroom dancers – whether locally or in a palace in Vienna. My first ballroom ball (described in this post) was one such euphoric experience – one where you can forget about your past & future & simply enjoy the moment for what it is. Yet so much of what was good in those days never lasted. Why? Because the mindset wasn’t one of being true to myself and the sort of person I wanted to be.

“Be part of it!”

It’s as if every marketing company is trying to tap into our innate desire to be part of a wider collective that achieves something greater than the some of our parts. “We sell niknaks – be part of it! We sell expensive properties! Be part of it!” One of the big new developments is inviting me to be part of it – not that I have the hundreds of thousands spare to be part of it. Inviting people to ‘be part of it’ – ie being part of something positive puts an onus on the person doing the inviting to remove as many of the barriers as possible. As far as music goes, in Cambridge this is what The Dosoco Foundation is helping support. You’ll be hearing more about them in future blogposts.

Talking of London 2012 earlier, there’s this photo much talked about at the time in the media.

Just for a moment Cambridge’s ducal couple were able to forget there were lots of photographers there not interested in the sport but in photographing their reactions. Yet on the part of the former, it’s understandable how they felt very much part of London 2012 in the way that others perhaps felt differently. Remember the run-up to the Olympics wasn’t good. I blogged about it here. What made the Paralympics more exciting for me was seeing the achievements of people who could do more despite their disabilities than most of the general public. When going to see professional artists, one of my criteria over the years has been: “Are they doing something inspiring that I could never do/hope to achieve?” During my dancing days I was incredibly critical in my mind of performances that didn’t meet that standard, even though publicly I acknowledged that for first-time watchers they would have been inspiring for them.

Becoming part of something takes time and effort – and success in your endeavours isn’t guaranteed

If I’m honest with myself, since 2001 the groups, organisations and societies I did long term regular voluntary work for were ones that I never really felt the sense of belonging. This was despite on some occasions spending more than 10 hours a week outside of a full-time job doing unpaid work for them. For me to feel the sense of ‘euphoria’ that I’m looking for, I need to feel that sense of belonging first – sharing both the failures and successes. That was one of the things that struck me about Cambridge Labour Party’s victory in the 2014 city council elections. The people celebrating the hardest were those that had taken the electoral kickings in 2009. I dare say the same will be the case for the Liberal Democrats post-2015.

Close friendships and relationships

Both of which generally have eluded me over the years. (I’ve blogged a few times on the curses of loneliness in a variety of contexts from personal to public policy). There are times that stand out for the right reasons though. For example when I had my own place in Cambridge, having friends round to watch England vs France in Euro 2004. Seven of us – all blokes in a stereotypical beer & junk food scene in front of a big telly talking football. My house, friends from different friendship groups with a shared interest watching & discussing the same event.

In a lover/relationship context, having just had a messy split which again caused my mental health to implode, I found myself with two opera tickets going spare that I had got a month previously. Fortuitously – and at my lowest point I was whisked off my feet by someone new – just when I least expected it. I had never been to an opera so when I found out there was going to be a performance of Bizet’s Carmen I thought it would be nice to see what an opera is like – one where I’m familiar with at least one of the musical pieces. The latter, being more than familiar with all things choral and classical music chose to come with me even though she had actually sung some of the parts in performances. Having her as my ‘personal guide’ whispering a combination of brief explanations of what was happening (despite the text-LED translations above the stage) along with sweet nothings that you do in the ‘besotted-with-each-other’ stage marks that out as one of the most romantic and euphoric moments of my life.

The next generation 

Having arrived back in Cambridge earlier than planned from a training workshop I was delivering in Suffolk, I popped into the Cambridge Botanic Garden for one of their ‘summer sound’ events. The Yorkshire band ‘Steppin Out’ were playing.

The above filmed on a cameraphone due to battery running out on camcorder. What you don’t see are the hundreds of people behind me and the camera enjoying the evening sunshine and the music. Primary school children where conspicuous by their presence. I spotted one parent taking a photograph of four nursery-school-aged children beaming from cheek to cheek. A memory that makes even the coldest heart melt. It’s the sort of experience that every child should have.

It reminded me about the next generation of my family, which I see regularly as they live close by. With my niece now walking and learning to talk, she’s at the stage where she can recognise and distinguish between individuals. Recently when I popped my head round the door after being out, she ran up to me and gave me a big hug – completely spontaneously. I didn’t see it coming. She’d not done anything like that before. Even though she’ll never remember it when she’s older the emotional power of that hug was immense – to the extent that I felt almost paralysed by it.

“Welcome to the new age, to the new age, to the new age” – Euphoria in music

Here’s the Dowsing Sound Collective missing the 2014 World Cup Final

Bonus points if you don’t spot me in the video above.

It’s not for me to say what makes people tick musically. It’ll be different for different people. If there is something in common though, it’s scale. Lots of people in a packed big venue with a love and familiarity of a similar type of music – or alternatively an open-enough mind to embrace a new style of music. The biggest proper music festival I’ve been to is probably the Cambridge Folk Festival – on numerous occasions. It has been taking place in my childhood neighbourhood since before I was born so is a permanent feature.

I’ve not been to any of the ‘mega-festivals’ or the large classical or stereotypically middle-class ones. Much as I’d like to experience them, I don’t have the close friendship group to go with that would make it meaningful to me. It’s strange when I see acquaintances on Facebook posting pictures of them at such events. My reaction isn’t: “I wish I was there with them” – because I’ve not met the other people in the picture. Rather it’s more: “I wish I could feel similar emotions with a close group of friends at a similar event.”

Facing down my own demons

On the back of a timely and powerful article by Louise Kidney, published in The Guardian here, I’m in this continuous battle against my own mental health demons. One of the reasons Louise’s article is so powerful to me is that so many of her experiences sound similar to mine.

“Underneath all of this, of course, is the bubbling narrative of failure. I failed. I let every one down. I was supposed to be kicking ass and instead I was quietly dying, all the systems going off line, giving up, giving in, all the fight sucked out of me by cognitive absence.”

This was how I often felt when I was on the Fast Stream. ‘Work hard, play hard’ is fine when things are going great, but when they are not it crushes you. It crushed me. Hence looking back on my days in London, I can’t think of many – if any – euphoric moments. The bubbling narrative of ‘not failing’ (along with the financial pressures of London living and pre-existing mental health issues) sapped the energy I needed to enjoy my time down there. That’s not to say I regret the London move. It was both the breaking and the making of who I am today.

Euphoria is temporary, is hard work, but ‘oh!’ the life memories! 

The concert with the Dowsing Sound Collective? Two days of sleep and general inactivity for the rest of the week to recover it took me. Worth every minute of it, but that’s the nature of mental exhaustion. It takes years to recover from the sort of mental health crisis I went through in April 2012 (see blogposts from the time – I blogged through it!) That and collective music is part of my solution of facing up to those demons. Re-living past bad stuff in therapy/counselling has sometimes had the opposite effect. In my case 2014 has been as much fighting those demons with positive experiences rather than over-analysing the past. As far as the first six months of 2014 have been concerned, two things stand out that are Puffles-related:

  • Getting your dragon fairy to appear in a Basement Jaxx-produced music video (See here!!!)
  • Having nearly 100 local residents consciously voting for your dragon fairy in local council elections ahead of four political parties – and getting an article in The Guardian (despite a ‘we don’t want to win’ message)

Recently, it’s been all Dowsing Sound Collective and Be the change – Cambridge. And with good reason. Both are long term commitments on my part, including time, emotions and financial. This brings me back to my first radio interview I did for BBC Radio Cambridgeshire in the mid-1990s on the day of my GCSE results. A hot sunny day, I had just opened the envelope with my results and was shaking as they were far higher than I had expected. Some bloke then grabbed me, shoved a microphone in front of my face and asked:

“How do you feel about your results?”

A family friend recorded the interview when it was played on the radio. The reporter said in his report that the common theme was: “All that hard work paid off”. This picked up on one of my comments, which was along the lines of:

“So many people have worked so hard to get the results that they deserve”

Euphoria? In that case there was something that involved lots of hard work over an extended period of time in partnership with lots of people too. The amount of work that went into the Dowsing Sound Collective’s gig at Bury St Edmunds on 13 July 2014 is also testament to this. My favourite track from that gig was ‘Every Teardrop is a Waterfall’. Here’s Coldplay’s version – live. I’ll leave you with tat.


Peace makes Parker’s Piece


Facing the crowds in their hundreds at an open air performance. Glasto next?

Have a listen to ‘Reality Checkpoint’ here – it’s our song about the history of Parker’s Piece. It was commissioned for Cycle of Songs, led by Helen Weinstein for the Cambridge bit of the Tour de France 2014.

Here’s a snippet from the open air performance on Parker’s Piece too

View this post on Instagram

Big Weekend

A post shared by Sir Cam (@camdiary) on

…from @Camologist – kindly tweeting & posting from the audience – also see @Camologist’s panorama pic here. Andrea asked us to wear colourful shoes. Mine were red – as modelled by Puffles here. Did any of the audience spot our collective’s eclectic footwear?

The view from the stage before the hosts brought the crowds in is as below.

The view from the stage 10 mins before we kicked off.
The view from the stage 10 mins before we kicked off.


Fortunately the clouds lifted as we progressed. The crowds also gathered once we got going – noticeably filling up even though getting people to sing along was a bit of a tough sell. People weren’t as drunk/stoned for our gig as they were when Dreadzone came on for what was a stomping set. But to whoever was smoking a jo or three near the stage between 4-5pm, we noticed it on the stage! I managed to film Dreadzone’s first few tracks.

Again, not the greatest footage on my part, but as a live act Dreadzone were superb. The first track of theirs I got hold of was on the first indie compilation album from 1995 – it was Captain Dread. It was followed up by the more well known Little Britain which really was a song for its time in the run up to the 1997 general election (irrespective of what followed politically). In 1996 Dreadzone were a support act to Oasis at their giant Knebworth concert – playing to over a quarter of a million people over that weekend. (My brother went, but I chickened out – but sort of made up for it the following year seeing Oasis at Earls Court).

So thanks to the Dowsing Sound Collective, I’ve featured on a video produced by Basement Jaxx and been part of a support act to a group that played to 250,000 people when I was a teenager. If someone said in 1999 that in the distant future I’d do the above…exactly.

Life…it’s about experiences – collective experiences

And also giving as well as getting. It’s one of those ‘If only I had known this and had lived by this when I was younger’ moments. Mental health problems and my lack of courage (the latter being my biggest personal character failing) amongst other things robbed me of what should have been some of the best years of my life – aged 15-22. Ever since then I’ve been trying, perhaps too hard at times, to make up for them. Yet to really enjoy those experiences, more often than not in my case there’s been more than an element of hard work over a long period of time, doing things that make me feel nervous/uncomfortable and…just a little bit of good luck? That plus picking a challenge, focussing on it and persisting with it in the face of any set backs, however big.

Being exposed and vulnerable in front of hundreds of people

I wasn’t intending to stand at the front on stage. My intention was to stand at the back, safe in the collective security of everyone else and taking in what is an awesome experience of being in the middle of a choir singing loud and proud. With many of our tenors being bigger, taller, older and wiser than I am, we had to be in sort-of-height order, which put me towards the front end. Hence I was *****Eeeeek!***** when I found myself standing at the front in full view. There was nowhere to hide.

I also wasn’t as confident with all of the songs as I would like to have been. (I only joined the collective in March 2014). I have a habit of being ‘easily led’ when it comes to singing in a group. I’m not disciplined enough at holding my own line – whether being pulled by altos on one side or basses on the other. What sort of came through (especially when I look back at some of the footage) was years of ballroom dancing kicking in: the body language of ‘confidence’. If you don’t show nerves, the audience won’t know.

Not being able to hear yourself sing – overcoming that challenge

I’ve never sung in an amplified outdoor performance before – certainly not on a stage and to that scale. This means the sound of your collective voices doesn’t bounce back. Combined with amplified instruments, you don’t get nearly as much of a sense of how ‘together’ you are with everyone else. Hence singing outdoors on a large stage to a large audience is actually a much more difficult skill than telly gives the impression of. With that in mind, I can sort of see where & why Jemini went wrong in Eurovision in 2003.

One thing I found compared to the Basement Jaxx recording we did at the Cambridge Union (see this short clip) was that I had to listen much more with my eyes. That meant looking around to see what Andrea our musical director was telling us (communicating with eyes back at us) as well as whether I was keeping time with the other tenors. At the same time, I kept on glancing up at the audience (while trying to keep track of the music score) not only to project my voice outwards but also for audience reaction. Smiles and people moving to the rhythm seemed like good signs as we were singing.

“Was it worth it? (& would you do it again?)”

Heyell-yeah! But only with a group of people as supportive & patient as the Dowsing Sound Collective have been with me. And anyone who knows me knows what an ‘intense’ personality I can be at times – with the energy of a power station but the attention span of a dragon fairy on sucrose. Hence having a critical mass of people who are about half a generation older than me being a calming influence.

“You’ve come a long long way, baby”

Said a long lost friend many moons ago after a past mental health crisis – sort of paraphrasing Praise You by Fatboy Slim. As I head into my fourth year of blogging regularly, I’m coming back to early blogposts of 2011/12 which sort of plot past years of ‘angst’ and ‘past dreams unfulfilled for all time’. The final two paragraphs from On music – a personal journey for me are particularly striking. Not least because at the time I had no idea of the collective’s existence, let alone what Andrea was & still is doing in breaking down the narrow mindsets of some of the musical establishment.

For us as a musical collective, I think we’re at an exciting and challenging time – not least because of plans to expand into Brighton, Norwich, York and London. In Cambridge though, the collective seems to be tapping into something far wider than music.

“Hang on – isn’t this a bit ‘Gareth Malone’?”

The Dowsing Sound Collective got there first 🙂

Part of it you could say is a response to the economic, political and even national sporting climate – it’s glum for a lot of us, irrespective of party. Another part of it is a change of mindset on the back of rapidly changing communications technologies & the spread of ideas & information through many different forms. For example, it’s one thing to read a positive review in a newspaper about a performance. It’s quite another to view the reactions of people as they come out of an event.

Music plus people plus digital media to connect, motivate and inspire.

We’re just getting started…



Confrontation in an age of anxiety


Because standing for election can be a frightening undertaking

This post follows on from one I wrote almost two-and-a-half years ago – Cowardice vs courage. Re-reading it now, it seems to be standing the test of time. In particular this line:

“Courage for me involves ‘feeling the fear and doing it anyway’ – or even doing it because you feel the fear.”

I think it was @Rattlecans who told me that courage is not something you feel, but something you see in other people. Over the past month or so I can’t ever recall having ‘felt courageous’ in what I had done. I certainly felt frightened, afraid, vulnerable and exposed – but also felt at the same time I had started something that I could no longer stop. It just would not have been right to have stopped with the whole Puffles election thing half-way through.

There is a lot of fear out there

Yet I don’t get the sense that senior politicians really understand the things that are driving it. If they did, the election results last week would have been very different. In the cases of both Cameron and Miliband, their recent statements read as if the electorate backed up both their positions at the same time, even though it was a third party not represented in the House of Commons that topped the poll!

In the case of Miliband, I stated in my last blogpost that he got his strategy wrong. (See here). He’s now in the difficult position of being forced to change his approach as a result of not coming top in the Euro elections. It reminds me of the position some tabloids took about the Liberal Democrats pre-2010. They simply did not report about the party, so as far as their readers were concerned the party didn’t exist – until the formation of the Coalition changed that.

Political policy uncertainty making things worse?

As far as the Euro elections were concerned, all three of the main Westminster parties had too many basic policy questions unanswered. At least with The Greens and UKIP you pretty much knew what they stood for.

David Cameron:

Renegotiate Britain’s relationship with Europe. Sounds great, but as Ska Keller of the European Green Party on Channel 4 News on 27 May asked, ‘What specific regulations do you want to get rid of?’ (Watch it again here). Her opponent despite repeated pressure from Jon Snow could not name a single one. Cameron has been unable to list the specifics, let alone indicate what the net benefits financially would be. He’s not even given a firm starting position on negotiations. Vs UKIP who simply want out, it looks like dithering.

Ed Miliband:

A policy vacuum. There was nothing there to compare what Labour would do (other than not have a referendum unless more powers were transferred to the EU) compared with UKIP. (See my blogpost here on what he could have done instead).

Nick Clegg:

Stay in the EU. Which is fine in principle but it leaves the problems – both perceived and real – unsolved in the mind of the electorate. Combine that with the lack of credibility Nick Clegg has with the electorate; people simply won’t listen to him or believe him.

UKIP vs The Greens:

At least with these two the electorate are much more sure of what they are getting. With UKIP it’s out of the EU, and with the Greens it’s a changed EU that’s much more environmentally friendly. So with one it’s ‘Non-green change by getting out’, and with the other it’s ‘Green change while staying in’. You may not like one or either of them but at least you know where you stand.

Confronting your opponents and adversaries 

Surveying the scene at 6am outside Cambridge Guildhall following the elections – me and Ceri stayed all night – Labour were naturally delighted while the Liberal Democrats looked a sad, sorry sight. Utterly exhausted not just by the all-nighter but also by the campaign and over a decade running the council. There was a very rare moment where raw political passion exploded in the hall after the announcement of a very close result – when Cambridge Labour broke out into ‘The Red Flag’ (have a listen here courtesy of Richard Taylor and BBC Cambridgeshire). It was all the more powerful from where I was sitting opposite because it was so spontaneous too. The political equivalent of scoring a goal in the FA Cup Final.

Having seen the two tribes go to war, I’m glad me and Puffles were not caught in that cross-fire. At the same time, I never got the sense that Cambridge Green Party were ever seen as or taken as a threat by the two main parties in Cambridge. The Tories were always going to get a kicking from both of them – and the former polled poorly given the high point of 2010 when they beat Labour into 2nd place at the general election. How would both Cambridge Greens and Cambridge Conservatives react to the local Labour and Liberal Democrat machines turning on them as they seek to expand their presences in Cambridge? The reason I ask is because both parties have a number of younger new activists on the scene who may not have experienced what it’s like to have the guns of opposing local party machines turned on them. At some stage though, both The Greens and the Tories in Cambridge are going to have to go beyond standing paper candidates if they want to expand their presence and increase their vote count. This means finding candidates willing to do more than just stand up and be counted – but to campaign and take some hits in the process.

You need either a thick skin or a lot of support. Preferably both

One of the reasons I have felt the way I have throughout the campaign is because I lacked both of the above. When a push came to shove, Ceri was the only person who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with me locally. At public events bar the count, it was just me and Puffles. One event after another, reaching out, listening, asking questions, facing scepticism and reservations from new audiences and new faces…it was exhausting.

At times, the lack of responses and actions from the various online communities and activists in Cambridge was sobering and frustrating. It wasn’t that I wanted them to engage with me, but rather to engage with the candidates standing for parties that covered Cambridge – for they were the ones seeking power. I confess that at times I also got a little angry too. For a city with a reputation for being all digital and dynamic, much of the online discussion about the elections remained in the little guildhall bubble. At the same time I was taking fire from both sides – one side saying they didn’t trust politicians and the other side saying social media has little impact. How do you bring these two sides that don’t see eye-to-eye together for the better of our city?

Why would anyone want to put themselves up to such scrutiny?

It is not the nicest of places to be when you are up there being questioned. I’ve done it in the civil service defending the policies of the government of the day, and now I’ve done it standing up for my own beliefs. (Have a listen here – me in my own words). For many, that’s a frightening place to be. Standing on a platform doing public speaking is one thing. Being scrutinised about your beliefs in public – risking ridicule and humiliation in front of a hostile audience with media reporters there is quite another. I completely understand why most people wouldn’t go near anything like this. Not everyone is cut out for public speaking. Not everyone is cut out for handling this sort of scrutiny in this manner.

If you want to make an impact, at some stage you will come across people who will oppose you – and people who will not like you too

Interestingly, these people won’t necessarily be the same. You may even find people who despise you but agree with what you are saying and doing. Personality clashes and all that. Over the past few months in particular, I’ve stumbled across people who have been hostile to me.

“You have enemies? Good! That means you stood for something, sometime in your life!”

A quotation attributed to Churchill. I’m also reminded of this exchange between former Conservative MP Charles Wardle on the Public Accounts Committee, where he roasts alive the then Home Office Permanent Secretary over the passports fiasco of about 14 years ago – have a read of the transcript here. There is a small part of me that is taking the mindset of Mr Wardle on this. Having been patiently trying to help things along since 2011, I’ve felt a more assertive (and sometimes aggressive – even I’ve stepped over the line once or twice verbally) tone has occasionally been required. That has unsettled some people in some institutions and understandably they’ve resisted – and even shot back. I have to keep telling myself that “this is par for the course – deal with it!”

‘I’m glad someone else is doing it’

This sort of brings me on to a tiny little challenge to all of you reading this – because me and Puffles made history – literally. It’s gone down on record that Puffles was on the ballot paper for the Coleridge Ward in the 2014 local council elections in Cambridge, polling 89 votes. (See here). In the days before I announced Puffles’ candidacy, I blogged about how I felt.

“It’s as if some ‘unseen voice’ is now holding a mirror up to me, telling me:

“It’s your turn now”

I can’t say it wasn’t coming.”

Well…that was my turn. It’s been and gone, and the election results have been published. For those of you that are unhappy about the local and/or European election results, my challenge to you is this:

“What one-off action or behaviour change are you going to make as a result of your dissatisfaction with the election results?”

Now, I’m not asking people to do what I did by standing for election and campaigning. Actually, the smaller and more achievable the better. It could be something as small as:

  • Doing some online research about community and campaigning groups in your area
  • Share an inspiring book with someone
  • Designing, printing and displaying a poster with the election results of your area in a local community centre. (See my effort at the end of this post – I’ve made several ward-specific versions of this & have displayed them in local supermarkets)
  • Going along to a local council meeting that you’ve never been to before – just to see who your local councillors are and find out what they do
  • Dropping an email/social media post with some questions for your local political parties to respond to
  • Publicising a local community event to your friends and family
  • Overthrow the global capitalist class ruining our planet and replacing it with a utopian federation of co-operative autonomous collectives that live in peace and harmony with each other

OK – I was joking with the last one. (I think!) What matters is that you do something different to what you normally do – something that makes you feel just a little bit uncomfortable. Perhaps together we can be greater than the sum of our parts. Because remember, for bad stuff to happen it requires good people like yourselves to do nothing to stop it. Please don’t be one of those inactive good people.

What say you?

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

Puffles’ turn to be cross-examined


What it’s like to be on a Question-Time-style panel in front of an audience of mainly students from Kings College, Cambridge

Me and Puffles went to the event detailed here as part of the panel of candidates standing for election. Our new campaign website, is also up and running – with two more sections to add. (Explained in this post).

Have a listen to my speech here: 

Unfortunately due to the poor lighting conditions in the hall and the not-fantastic quality of my camera the film footage hasn’t come out well at all. But ***Thank you*** to Tim Sykes for doing the filming. The audio fortunately seems to be of a reasonable enough quality, and there was enough space on the memory card to capture most of the opening speeches of the other candidates. I’ll try to edit and upload them as soon as I can.

There’s always something you forget, and in my case it was the memory card for the digital video camera. Hence the problems with filming at the start. Fortunately I had a spare smaller one so managed to get the opening speeches covered. Have a look at the hashtag #KingsQT to see who said what in the Q&A session.

Preparing for a keynote speech with your dragon fairy

This week has been a hive of activity for me – probably my busiest for over 2 years. Ceri @TheWobblyWomble) has been working her socks off on BeTheChangeCambridge. I’ve produced a printed ‘mini-manifesto’ to hand out, as well as a couple of posters too. On top of that, I had the workshop in London with some superb historians (see here) that required preparation too. So it’s been busy-busy-busy.

Of course if this were a conventional election campaign, I’d have done the ground work months and months ago. But it’s not a conventional election campaign. I’m also learning why most election campaigns fail. Remember that for every candidate that wins, there are a handful accompanying them that do not. With this speech, my challenge was to come up with something inspirational that would encourage both the other candidates and the audience to pick up and run with. I’ll let them be the judges on how successful I was in this endeavour.

Overcoming mental exhaustion

I also had my first counselling session in many years. For those of you not aware, I went through a mental health crisis in 2012. Hence suffering from burnout/exhaustion that currently means I’m not able to work full-time hours. Hence my statement about overcoming mental health problems and “Hashtag: #TimeToChange” (Which was a verbal link to in my speech).

That’s probably been the biggest challenge for me and Ceri – overcoming our own personal health issues to produce what we have. Ceri’s the creative brains behind much of the materials I’ve produced – she’s far better at digital image editing and web coding than I am. At the same time, there’s been a satisfaction that we’ve overcome those barriers to produce what we have. There’s still lots more to do on our website, but I’m glad that it’s there, and that we have the links to our living manifesto and to the digital democracy challenge.

Now…what to wear?

Yes, this was a serious consideration! Slob up or dress up in something that matches the sheer bizarreness of standing for election under a persona that is a cuddly toy. I went for the latter. Silver suit with silver-and-black shoes. I’m sure there’ll be a picture of it somewhere.

“That was a…’brave’ move”

It’s got to the stage where anyone who wants to take the proverbial out of me over this whole thing has already done so. In one sense it goes with the ‘fun candidate raising serious points’ disposition. At the same time, it takes some of the pressure off. I can be ‘intense’ at the worst of times. Running a campaign like this allows me to be light-hearted as and when the occasion suits.

The speech

In one sense, there were too many electronic distractions. Going last probably didn’t help. Nick Clarke, representing the Conservatives got it spot on when he said the temptation to rewrite his speech was very very tempting. One of the themes I have been campaigning on for quite some time is getting more women involved in politics and local democracy. The panel of candidates was a symptom of this problem. We were all men. That said, Eleni Courea did a superb job keeping us under control as chair because some of the more controversial exchanges could have descended into personalised spats.

Looking back at the video coverage, I probably moved about too much and didn’t have nearly as much eye contact with the audience as I could have done. But this was more looking upwards and outwards rather than down at my script – which I printed out on card.

The Q & A fisticuffs

Exchanges between Nick Clarke and Sam Wolfe – the latter representing Labour – got heated over the issue of climate change. Nick explains his views in his own words here – something that local MP Julian Huppert has taken issue with (See Julian here). Fortunately I wasn’t asked to comment in this particular exchange. It’s one of the issues I refrain from discussing with Nick. Nothing I say will change his mind so why waste oxygen doing so? At the same time, Nick thinks I’m a bit potty over all things Puffles. Yet for some reason, we seem to get on reasonably well. It’s as if we both know where we stand & know that it’s pointless trying to persuade the other side – yet at the same time know there are interesting insights that we both have as a result of being inside large organisations with large budgets.

Nick told the audience about a conversation him and I had following the Conservatives’ launch of their East of England manifesto when he gave me a lift back into town. That caught some of the panel off-guard – Lib Dem Cllr Rod Cantrill turning to me asking if what Nick was saying was true. It was – see my account in this blogpost. Nick went onto explain what the city of York does with rents for small businesses, and complained that Cambridge University and its colleges were squeezing the life out of small firms. Hence paying Nick a back-handed compliment by including that point in my manifesto under civic responsibility. (See the second-last point here).

Too much focus on national and EU issues

I was surprised that we were unable to keep a focus on local issues – all too often referring to Westminster politics. On the issue of tuition fees – I mentioned how all the three main parties were responsible – referring to this blogpost in the debate. At the same time, I was mindful of what potential impact me and Puffles alone could have on the current policies of the political establishment on universities’ policy. Raindrops have had bigger impacts on oceans.

The debate brought out what I feel is the big gap in our local democracy. There’s a gap between ‘the potholes in the street’ and ‘When our party is in government…’ politics that is not really being covered by anyone. A number of the other panellists mentioned improved partnership working, but none had the specifics that some of the audience in their questions were calling for. Me on the other hand, themes 1, 3 & 5 in our living manifesto have a number of specifics – including community action summits.

The above-two mentioned tweets – in particular Gabriel Fleming’s one indicates what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to influence (in a transparent manner) local democracy in Cambridge by raising issues and ideas that I’ve found are seldom discussed at the council meetings that I have been to. (Also ***Thank you*** to everyone who posted nice comments about me and Puffles in the debate!)

The above was something a few people in the audience asked me after the event. Having worked in public policy and for ministers of the three main parties, I’ve learnt that I value my independence from ‘top-down’ political institutions. At least with the civil service, you have the separation of duties that doesn’t tar you with the government of the day. One of the toughest gigs you’ll get as a civil servant is making the case publicly (ie in a speech followed by a Q&A session) for a policy or course of action that in your heart you don’t believe in.

What I hope I’m demonstrating to people in the course of this campaign is that you don’t have to join a political party if you want to have a positive impact on local democracy. Yes, there are many advantages of being inside one – not least having a team and a ‘party machine’ behind you.

“Who was the best out of the other four panellists?”

Strangely enough, I don’t think I’m qualified enough to make that judgement call. When you’re on a panel under such scrutiny, your mind is buzzing. Rather than listening to the flow of the debate, you’re listening out for who is saying what about you/in response to your points. It’s similar to when you are briefing a minister taking part in a debate as a civil servant in ‘the box’ in the House of Commons. Your ears are sensitive to anything mentioned about your policy area, but less sensitive to anything else.

Also, you’ve got to look at the audience context. Nick Clarke & Cllr Rod Cantrill got a more hostile reception than Sam Wolfe and Matt Hodgkinson, representing Labour and the Greens respectively, & both of whom I met for the first time. If we were in North Cambridgeshire (where UKIP has a number of councillors), would things have been different?

First impressions of Matt & Sam, Matt’s one of the Greens’ local rising stars in Cambridge. Similar intellectual capacity and disposition to Julian Huppert. Keep an eye on Matt if you’re a local politics watcher. Sam, like a number of Labour activists of his generation is a highly intelligent activist. He’ll give Cllr Cantrill (who are both contesting the Newnham ward) a strong challenge. Will Sam’s targeting of student halls of residence in canvassing provide him with enough votes to unseat Cllr Cantrill? Have a look at what Phil Rodgers says.

And finally…

Have a look at the websites and the Facebook pages of the 4 local parties standing across Cambridge – see here. Make suggestions, ask questions & demand answers. If any of them particularly impress or inspire you, please vote for them. If none of them did, but you like the ideas I’ve put forward, please write #Puffles4Cambridge on your ballot paper as activists and agents from other parties will be watching. But please ensure you’ve given the other candidates a chance to make their case. The reason being that they are the ones who will have the ability to implement things if elected. I on the other hand have a dragon fairy.

Cambridge – It’s your city

Be the change