The post-election dust begins to settle

Summary

What can we expect from the political parties?

I’m not going to be one of those commentators who tries to explain how they predicted the correct general election result when the record shows anything but. I didn’t expect the Conservatives to have an absolute majority, nor did I expect the almost total takeover of Scottish seats by the SNP. I also didn’t expect the Lib Dems to get as few seats as they did – and ditto with UKIP.

For the most part, I sat on the fence saying the whole thing was too close to call. Given that neither of the two main parties said who they’d negotiate with in the event of a hung parliament – predicted by pretty much every opinion poll, it was difficult for anyone to see who was going to emerge with the confidence of the Commons to become Prime Minister. That’s all academic now – apart from the opinion polling industry who have some serious questions to ask of itself.

Osborne’s July Budget

It’s due on 8 July if this report is correct. The Financial Times ran a headline predicting 100,000 further job cuts to the civil service. I can’t see how these are going to be delivered without some serious changes to the Whitehall machinery of government. These are combined with further tightening of laws on trade union industrial action. I can understand why politicians are saying there needs to be a minimum level of turnout for votes in favour of strike action to be legitimate – but then shouldn’t the same apply for politicians & elections? I remember in my university days that student union AGMs would be inquorate so budgets could not be passed & thus student union services closed until they got a quorate meeting. (Not having a room big enough to hold the minimum threshold of students to pass a budget didn’t help…). However, the closure of student union bars had the desired effect: lots more students turned up to rearranged meetings. What would happen to democracy if turnouts below say 40% at elections meant bins didn’t get collected until a rescheduled election? ‘Democracy’s not a spectator sport’…and all that

Conservatives hitting the ground running vs opposition navel-gazing?

Labour and the Liberal Democrats are currently in the extended processes of electing new leaders. Both parties at a leadership level appear shell-shocked (understandably) at the general election result. Their online activist roots perhaps less so – being younger, more energised and perhaps feeling less tied to decisions made by politicians at a time when perhaps some of them were still at school.

Yet just as in 2010 with Labour, do both parties run the risk of sorting out internal issues while the new government sets in concrete a new narrative that becomes impossible to undo for the next decade? Remember the problems Ed Miliband had with TV cross-examination by the public – they were all asking about issues about the 2007-2010 Gordon Brown administration. It was as if they were still waiting for the former Prime Minister to publicly account for his failures in office. The lack of his open public and media appearances over the past five years haven’t helped in that respect. Ditto with Blair. The public has not seen either former Prime Minister scrutinised in detail post-Downing Street in a way that might have drawn lines under the more controversial aspects of their times in office. Not that there’s necessarily precedence for doing so – or that repeated public appearances would help. Think Thatcher during John Major’s years in office.

How can Labour escape the shadow of Blair & Brown? 

It’s one of the reasons why so many seemed to pin their hopes on Dan Jarvis MP, the former soldier, as a new leader. But he declined due to family commitments. For me I’ve felt Labour needed someone from the post-2010 generation of MPs. The electorate took out two possible candidates – Ed Balls and Douglas Alexander – at the recent general election. The recent ‘Progress’ hustings indicated that cabinet ministers under Gordon Brown were more prepared to defend the latter’s legacy than the rest. But as Sunny Hundal said in a talk in Cambridge recently, Labour need to select someone who is a much better communicator than Brown or Miliband were – and pick someone who in the minds of the electorate looks like they are a Prime Minister in-the-making.

Rebuilding from a near-wipe out for the Liberal Democrats

For them it really is a case of going back to their grass roots. Former Cambridge MP David Howarth (who was MP before Julian Huppert) summarised the issues for the Liberal Democrats here. The most interesting part for me is on coalitions. From my perspective, one of the central pillars of the Liberal Democrats is voting reform towards proportional representation; something that increases the likelihood of either minority governments or coalitions. Yet at the same time, experiences from other countries – and now the UK – shows the electorate punishes junior coalition partners harder than the senior ones.

With only eight MPs and one MEP, the Liberal Democrats may find the level of media exposure plummets. With so few politicians in national public office, there will be a huge burden on those nine. This means that the hundred or so peers appointed to the House of Lords for the party will need to step forward and take a fair share of the burden – for so long as the House of Lords remains unreformed.

What will the SNP do for England?

This for me is one of the big unknowns. Historically the SNP have refrained from voting on matters that only affect England. Labour controversially used their Scottish MPs to vote through the Higher Education Act 2003 that brought in top up tuition fees in England that ultimately gave powers to the government to bring in the even higher fees with just two debates in Parliament. This self-inflicted sore remains an irritant for those on the left who in principle don’t like tuition fees. The question for the SNP is what time and resources they’ll use for debates/campaigns that only affect England. The first test of this looks like being on fox hunting – the SNP stance angering anti-hunt campaigners in England.

UKIP and The Greens?

Over 4 million votes, only two MPs. Yet both Douglas Carswell and Caroline Lucas between them seem to have had more influence as backbench MPs than most in terms of influencing agendas. Recent headlines about power struggles in UKIP means it’s too early to know what will happen with them. The massive rise in the number of MEPs plus Douglas Carswell holding onto his seat means that there a growing number of political power bases within the party that are alternatives to Nigel Farage.

As for The Greens, aside from the widely-expected loss of minority control of Brighton Council, progress has continued at a slow but steady pace as far as politicians elected to local public office is concerned. While the Greens have benefited from the decline of the Liberal Democrats, 2015 may mark a low point at which the Lib Dems start fighting back. The challenge for The Greens is to hold onto those that switched.

Cameron with a smaller majority in the Commons than John Major

It will be interesting to see how disciplined the Conservative Parliamentary Party is compared to the Coalition. What concessions will Cameron need to make to his backbenchers to ensure is program for government can be implemented? Will he look to do deals with MPs from other parties (such as the Northern Ireland unionists, or even the Liberal Democrats?) in the face of rebellions? Would Labour or the SNP step in to save the government from defeat in the face of something (in their minds) even worse brought in just to placate Conservative rebels? Expect the House of Commons to play an even more central role in the workings of Whitehall than in the Coalition years.

New views for new ministers with old views?

Something that has been widely commented on has been the attributed views of various new ministers given their new portfolios.

To be fair to Morgan, she changed her mind & publicly said so, as did Lib Dem leadership candidate Tim Farron here. I think it’s refreshing when politicians can account for when they got things wrong & explain how & why they got things wrong. (As well as what they might do differently in the future). It remains to be seen how some of the new ministers get on in their new posts given past comments.

Cameron as a ‘hands off’ Prime Minister

One of the major differences between Cameron and his Labour opponents is how he’s seen to allow his ministers to be ‘the faces’ of his parties policies. Under Blair and Brown, I always got the sense that ministers under them were never really in control of their policy areas. The result in the late 2000s was policy paralysis. They were all too busy looking over their shoulder towards Downing Street – but there weren’t enough hours in the day for the Prime Minister to approve everything. I never really got that sense with Cameron & Clegg. After five years of a more devolved setup, I’d be surprised if Cameron resorted to the Brown-style command and control. For a start Cameron doesn’t have the parliamentary majority to ram through measures unpopular with his party.

The world in 2020 will be a very different place – but will the parties have evolved sufficiently to account for this?

Are we at a stage where the big political names of 2020 are yet to emerge? It might be that both The Greens and Lib Dems go into the 2020 elections with leaders who do not hold national elected public office. UKIP may have imploded, disbanded following an EU-exit referendum victory or they may have solidified their gains to become more of a permanent parliamentary and local government presence. We may have PM Boris or Osborne coming face-to-face with a Labour leader who would have succeeded the one about to be elected by Labour members this autumn.

At the same time, we don’t know how resilient society will be to another round of public sector cuts in the face of ever-rising housing costs, growing visible inequalities and continued global instabilities.

Encouraging women into local democracy – featured examples

Summary

Featuring some of the women I filmed & interviewed during the general election campaign 2015.

Here’s Amelia Womack, Deputy Leader of The Green Party with an appeal to students & young people in Cambridge

In terms of student activists:

I also featured regional and national volunteers, such as:

I also covered existing holders of public office prior to the general election too.

I featured candidates

And even a national party leader

Feel free to share.

Why the battle between Daniel Zeichner & Julian Huppert matters for Cambridge

Summary

Some thoughts on what either might be like as MP for Cambridge.

The bookies have Julian Huppert of the Liberal Democrats slightly ahead of his rival Daniel Zeichner of Labour. We know what Dr Huppert will be like given the past five years. In the grand scheme of things, Dr Huppert has been an excellent constituency MP. The number of constituency cases is testament to that. He’s also been a hard-working MP on the high profile Home Affairs Select Committee and an almost single point of call for the various national science campaigns. If Dr Huppert doesn’t get re-elected, then those in Cambridge in the science communities who support Dr Huppert  will only have themselves to blame for not matching the buzzing ground campaign fought in particular by Labour students. While there are a growing number of scientists engaging in public policy, more need to make the jump from policy to politics & stand for election. Otherwise too much falls onto the plate of too few MPs with an understanding on science.

What would Daniel Zeichner as an MP be like?

I can’t help but feel that people are underestimating Mr Zeichner. As a non-party type whose spoken to Mr Zeichner on a regular basis during this campaign, I don’t completely buy the idea that he will be the stereotypical ‘New Labour clone’ who only breathes in & out when Peter Mandelson tells him to. People have generally commented to me that Julian has come out stronger at the hustings as a public speaker.

Part of the problem Mr Zeichner has is that he has no record of public office in Cambridge – hence it’s harder for him to recite a list of achievements & successful campaigns other than ones inside the Labour Party. At the same time, with no immediate record in government to defend, he’s been able to go on the offensive in this campaign in the way he could not in 2010.

Daniel Zeichner as a minister?

Mr Zeichner is extremely knowledgeable on public policy, as well as being a negotiator for a trade union. With his degree from Kings College, Cambridge and along with his strong connections with Labour shadow ministers, should Mr Zeichner be elected I strongly suspect he would be offered a junior ministerial post should Ed Miliband become Prime Minister. Think of Mr Zeichner as a sort of Labour equivalent of David Willetts – the former Universities Minister in the Coalition for the Conservatives. Mr Willetts is softly spoken like Mr Zeichner, incredibly cerebral but is not the sort of person who comes across as someone who relishes the rough & tumble of party-political brick throwing. (That’s not to say they cannot do it – more that they’d rather be involved in the public policy problem solving side of politics than continually berating their political opponents).

Ed Miliband will need MPs with the disposition and talents that Daniel Zeichner possesses in his administration

You normally have about 100 ministers in a government in Whitehall. Not all of them will be the limelight-seeking media-friendly types. You need within your cohort of ministers the more reserved, cerebral types who are quietly effective behind the scenes. I get the sense from Mr Zeichner that he’s one of the latter. I can picture the scene where he’s able to use ministerial offices to bring people together and unpick some very complex problems. That’s how I think he would operate in that role.

“What would that mean for him as a constituency MP?”

This for me is what makes the choice interesting between Dr Huppert & Mr Zeichner. Should Mr Zeichner be elected for Cambridge, & should he be appointed a minister, he would need to be responsible for a transport/housing/infrastructure portfolio where what’s happening in Cambridge informs his ministerial work & vice-versa. In the latter case it would be as simple as saying to a non-co-operating local authority that he’ll put his ministerial hat on to deal with the infrastructure issues Cambridge faces.

Being a minister though means two things:

  • The ministerial convention of not being able to speak on the floor of the Commons on constituency issues – and having to toe the government line on ****everything****
  • Having to spend at least four days a week on ministerial work – which is massive.

Dr Huppert has been able to be an effective back bench MP because he’s dedicated himself full time to the role. Being a minister means you’ve got three days max on constituency issues. It also means you can’t go to all of the constituency-related events held in the evenings during the week. This means a significant burden will inevitably fall on sitting councillors in Cambridge. Are they ready to take up the excess workload?

Dr Huppert has also used social media incredibly effectively during his time as MP. Should Mr Zeichner become both an MP & a minister, he simply will not have the time to use social media in the way Dr Huppert has. He’ll be stuck in ministerial meetings, signing off decisions and running his policy area instead. That would inevitably mean he would be less accessible. How would Mr Zeichner and his team compensate for that? Should Mr Zeichner get elected but stay as a back bench MP, it would be interesting to see if his approach to social media evolves from a broadcast approach to one that’s more conversational in the way Dr Huppert has used it.

So…to summarise the similarities?

Both are talented men. Be in no doubt that whichever of the two gets elected (if the bookies are right that it’ll be one of these two), Cambridge will be very well served. Both are intelligent, cerebral, hard-working and are passionate about making our city a better place. They just happen to have different dispositions and slightly different policies and approaches on how to achieve it.

…and the differences?

With Dr Huppert you’ll get a politician who is content to speak out against his party when it goes against what he believes. You’ll get the social media savvy, well-connected and scientifically literate communicator and public speaker who will continue to raise the profile of the city in the media & beyond. Will Dr Huppert’s party be in a position to form a new coalition or will they find themselves in opposition? Either way, I think Dr Huppert will still be able to influence either way. Cambridge is too important an economy for Whitehall to ignore – & Whitehall knows it.

With Mr Zeichner you will get the lower profile but quietly effective influencer working behind the scenes to get what Cambridge needs. Should Mr Miliband become Prime Minister, Mr Zeichner (if elected) could have a significant influence on how a Labour administration deals with Cambridge & the challenges our city faces. While Mr Zeichner might be less likely to speak out against his party, he might argue that it was on his party’s platform that he is campaigning on, so why would he want to rebel against it?

…And so…?

That’s the choice between the two if you choose to frame the election in Cambridge as one between Dr Huppert & Mr Zeichner. I’m not going to tell you which one to pick. You’ve got to decide which assuming you think it’s a straight fight between the two. This post highlights the similarities and differences between the two and how this might impact on Cambridge over the course of the next Parliament. Which one works for you? Because what works for me might not work for you.

Personally I think the framing goes beyond it given the 12,000 votes that UKIP & The Greens got in Cambridge last year in the European elections. The interface between the top two parties and these two newer arrivals is a huge factor in this election. Will the smaller parties be able to hold onto their gains? Will tomorrow set a new local baseline for the health of the smaller parties in Cambridge? Finally, given the leftfield interventions of two Tory-supporting national tabloids calling for Conservative voters to tactically switch to Lib Dems in Cambridge to keep out Labour, how much of the 2010 Conservative vote will hold up? How much will switch to Lib Dems or to UKIP? My guess is that the number and proportion of the vote share for the Conservatives will fall, but not enough to put deposits at risk.

Democracy is not a spectator sport – so don’t expect to be spoon-fed.

Summary

Some thoughts on the bare minimum people can do in order to cast an informed vote – should any of the candidates impress them.

This post is mainly targeted at people in & around Cambridge, but the sentiments apply more widely. I’m not going to go off in a lecture about how it’s your public duty to vote, or to make a recommendation of who to vote for. Even now, I am still torn between the various candidates in Cambridge. Whoever I choose to vote for, it won’t be because the other candidates didn’t bother. By & large they’ve worked their socks off and have taken huge risks to stand up and be cross-examined by the general public repeatedly. That takes a huge amount of courage – as many of the first-time candidates can testify. (I found out the hard way last year with Puffles).

“Well I’ve not received anything from the candidates or from the political parties!”

Most activists & candidates ***do not get paid*** for what they do. Those that don’t get paid are effectively providing you with a free service. For whatever reason the number of grassroots party activists has fallen over the decades. At the same time, our ability to access our paid-for politicians in national public office has significantly increased. Compare the caseload of what MPs used to have to deal with in times gone by (when they would seldom return to their constituencies) with the 30,000+ cases Cambridge MP Julian Huppert dealt with between 2010-15. Many of us have access to the internet, so it’s not beyond us to do the most basic of searches to find candidates, manifestos & policies.

“But it takes ***soooo long*** to search for each party and candidate!”

Type in your postcode to https://yournextmp.com/ and you’ll find the links to candidates standing, their websites, email addresses, social media pages & leaflets they’ve delivered that you may or may not have received.

“But I haven’t met them! I want to see/hear them in their own voices!”

You could have done what thousands of other people have done & gone to a hustings/public debate, or alternatively you can see some of the video footage that people (such as me & Richard Taylor) have uploaded for anyone to view. For example:

All of the above cover all but two of the candidates standing for Parliament in & around Cambridge.

I’ve interviewed as many of the candidates as I can get my hands on, plus a series of activists and visiting politicians. See my video playlist here. Clearly more than a few people are watching the footage – since 01 April I’ve had over 10,000 minutes (over 166 hours) of video footage viewed. That’s before the recent final few days of footage. My view of ‘success’ for each video equals more than one person viewing the video who was not able to attend the event concerned. For the interviews, success for me = people being able to decide whether the individual was someone who they could have a reasonable conversation with. Success for me isn’t about voting generally or about voting for a specific party. That’s someone else’s metric; not mine.

Ask your local candidates and activists questions.

It could be something as simple as a statement – such as:

“I think all politicians are the same. Convince me they are not. Inspire me to vote and vote for you.”

…and give them a chance to convince you otherwise. It’s also worth recording audio/video of candidates with a high chance of being elected to national public office – especially if they are promising things. Locally in and around Cambridge, candidates know that being filmed at debates and being interviewed by local community activists is now the norm – despite the fun & games me & Richard Taylor have had. (See Richard’s example here). To be fair, most of the candidates have welcomed the presence of us filming – some proactively inviting us to events to get them on video for wider audiences to see.

“So…who should I vote for?”

For incredibly busy parents, you could do what some parents in Cambridge have done: Get your children to come up with a short list of questions, put them to the candidates & say you will vote according to your children’s recommendation following their analysis of the candidates’ answers.

In 2010 I sent 10 questions to all of the candidates. Everyone bar Daniel Zeichner responded. When Daniel collared me at the station asking me to vote for him, I had already voted & told him that I could not vote for him because he didn’t answer my email – despite all of the other candidates having responded in full. Hence I excluded his candidature by default. It’s up to you whether you choose this route in 2015.

“No, really, who should I vote for?”

It’s more ‘what do you want to vote for?'” Do you want to vote for:

  • The person you think will best represent the place you live in?
  • The party whose values you most associate with?
  • The party whose policies/manifesto you like the most?
  • The individual who you think will make the best prime minister?
  • The individual who has the best chance of keeping out the party/candidate you dislike the most?

What weighting/prominence do you want to give to each of the above?

“So…why have you done this? Why do lots of filming & … let’s be honest, asking lots of soft interview questions to the candidates & activists?”

My interest is in getting more people into local democracy. I’ve been to too many council meetings where big decisions impacting on our city have been taken with very little external scrutiny. I’ve seen elections where too many paper candidates are ‘recycled’ time after time. I’ve tried numerous approaches over the past few years. From offering (& delivering) free social media training for Cambridge councillors, to assertively challenging them at council meetings, to finally standing for election myself. All of the above had a very limited impact if I’m brutally honest.

Hence for the general election I’ve run around Cambridge filming as many candidates and activists as possible with the following aim: To show them in the best possible light so that the general public feel that they can have a reasonable conversation with them. It also changes the previous dynamic between me and the local politicians: instead of having to convince someone who eats, sleeps and breathes politics, they have to convince the wider public. I’ve also deliberately disabled the comments on the videos too.

I’m not too bothered about the discussions people have about the content of who said what. That’s for the person being filmed/speaking to account for, not me.  I don’t need, nor want to be part of every conversation. My role is to help stimulate conversation informed by what people see and hear from the candidates. How the public holds the candidates accountable is entirely up to them. In most cases the videos give a social media link for them to do so.

Life after the election

Whoever gets elected for your area, my recommendation is to follow them on social media and stay informed about what they do in your area. Once they are elected, they are then responsible for everyone who lives in the area they represent. Make this a start of an ongoing conversation with those elected to represent you. In the meantime…choose wisely!

‘Tory turmoil as ex-council chief quits amid social media firestorm’

Summary

A busy day for Cambridge Conservatives 

They say 24 hours is a long time in politics. Earlier on, former Conservative councillor & leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, Mr Nick Clarke, switched allegiance to UKIP. Around the same time, Cambridge Conservative candidate Ms Chamali Fernando found herself in the middle of a social media firestorm following remarks made at a recent health hustings. See the full transcript here recorded by Jon Vale of the Cambridge News. Then do a Twitter search for “@Whereis007” (Ms Fernando’s Twitter handle) and compare your judgement of the transcript with responses from across Twitter.

From Richard Taylor's tweet to front page of the national papers.
From Richard Taylor’s tweet to front page of the national papers. Screenshot via @CllrRJohnson (Lab)

Note too that this story has now hit the national newspapers. This piece on the BBC News was put out presumably by Conservative Central Office to help clarify things. From my perspective, this episode underlines the importance of recording these debates on video/audio.  Note the Twitter exchanges here on the accuracy of the tweets.

My original thoughts reading the tweets from those there was that Ms Fernando’s was trying to articulate where people could choose to wear a discrete piece of jewellery that contained information that might be useful to emergency services when responding to an emergency call. Hence posting a few links & asking if this was the case – but otherwise left it at that as the Twitter storm gathered pace.

At the same time, I can also see how through the spiralling of social media exchanges how vulnerable people wearing bands identifying mental health conditions would inevitably be seen/visible, and could lead to further discrimination against people who already (like myself) struggle with mental health issues. Note the context of the latter is disability hate crimes – see here.

As soon as it became clear Mr Vale of the Cambridge News had recorded the entire debate on a dictaphone, I took the view that this and any further clarifications from the Conservative Party would deal with any issues of who reported what/accuracy.

The final straw for ex-county council leader Nick Clarke?

Here’s Mr Clarke in his own words on his blog, and here’s his interview on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire. What’s noticeable in both is his dissatisfaction with Conservative Party leadership at the very top – focussing on the issues of immigration and the UK’s relationship with the EU. It’s worth noting that Mr Clarke’s views on climate change are also more in line with UKIP – the party he’s rejoined, than those of Ms Fernando. In 2012 Mr Clarke & Dr Huppert clashed over climate change – see here.

The timing of Mr Clarke’s switch is interesting – the day of the Conservative Party’s manifesto launch. Given his remarks in the radio interview, Ms Fernando hardly gets a mention – certainly not by name. To what extent was it the party’s national manifesto that made him think in his heart of hearts that he could not publicly campaign with those policies? Remember that at the time of posting (& at the time of Mr Clarke’s switch), UKIP had not yet published their full manifesto.

How are the campaigns going in Cambridge for the Conservatives?

It depends which part of town you’re in and who you ask.

Certainly on my side of town (mid-south Cambridge) the Conservatives are much less visible than their Labour and Liberal Democrat opponents. Labour on one side, the Liberal Democrats on the other, & in between 89 votes for Puffles. Even in some of the most expensive houses in the city, Labour and Liberal Democrat (and even Green Party) posters/boards are conspicuous by their presence.  It’s one thing looking down a road full of 3-4 storey town houses or quiet roads with expansive detached houses without any party banners if you’re a Conservative activist, but quite another if you see them full of banners of your political opponents. Where do you start?

Remember that the Conservatives barely have a presence on Cambridge City Council. This means between elections, they don’t have a presence in grassroots city decision-making. Add to this that displaying posters/boards may indicate a long term friendship with (or even the address of) an elected representative of the party concerned. Note Cambridge has more than a few former Labour ministers who have returned or retired to the city too.

At the same time, general election time could be the time where the higher turnout boosts their chances in their target wards such as Trumpington (where they have one councillor) and Queen Edith’s ward – where Andy Bower (who’s also my webmaster) is standing again. That said, Queen Edith’s ward as far as the Parliamentary constituency is concerned sits outside Cambridge City. Will the more visible presence of Heidi Allen in the ward compared to her predecessor Andrew Lansley help Mr Bower? If the Conservatives are going to revive their long term political fortunes in Cambridge, they need to be winning wards such as Queen Edith’s & Trumpington.

Apps ‘n’ gadgets for community reporting

Summary

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.

 

Trying to prioritise in the constraints of not great mental health

Summary

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.

On campaigning charities and political parties

Summary

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.

Natalie Bennett struggles in the media again – a problem of style or substance – or both?

Summary

Thoughts on Green Party Leader Natalie Bennett’s recent interviews, and a recent piece by Liberal Democrats’ president Baroness Sal Brinton on a visit to Cambridge recently.

The detail via The Spectator’s Isabel Hardman (who in the grand scheme of things I rate quite highly as a journalist/political commentator even though she operates in a different part of the political matrix) is here. Social media has also noticed that this wasn’t the first interview she’s struggled with – the BBC’s Andrew Neil making mincemeat of the citizen’s income policy.

Some damage to their brand and the standing of the party has been done. But is it the end of their campaign and prospects? Unlikely. One of the reasons for this is that in the minds of the electorate that is aware of them, The Greens are the opposite ‘brand wise’ of UKIP. Given the lack of mainstream media coverage until of late, it’s unlikely that Bennett’s past media appearances were a major reason for people joining the party – unlike Farage’s extended & ongoing media coverage in the face of seemingly increasingly bland & anonymous politicians from the mainstream parties. As Natalie Bennett was only elected party leader a couple of years ago – succeeding Caroline Lucas MP who had served her constitutional maximum 2 terms, (See p7 here) Bennett won the leadership election succeeding Lucas who until then had been their highest profile politician as both leader and only MP.

Are the problems one of media style or policy substance? Or was it just another bad day?

There’s a mix of all. Could Natalie Bennett (given how ill she was with a cold – as you can hear in her voice) have said: “I am ill – Caroline Lucas/Jenny Jones will be available for interview instead”. I’m surprised more ministers and politicians choose to plough on than take time to recover and put a substitute spokesperson in their place.

On both style and substance, The Greens have not had to face intense policy scrutiny from the mainstream media and their political opponents. Just before their recent problems, I posted this blogpost. Since then, they have faced scrutiny over social media posts – here in Cambridge with candidate Dr Rupert Read, followed by the challenges over policy from Andrew Neil and on Newsnight just now from Evan Davis over style & on how media-savvy they are. (He was interviewing Baroness Jones, the only Green Party peer in the House of Lords – who also was elected to the London Assembly).

You can’t solve a policy problem with media training and you can’t solve a style problem by overhauling your policies 

If I were on the inside track with The Greens, I’d be investing not just in some short-term intensive media training from someone who really knows their stuff, but also in some longer term mentoring. (Ideally also from someone who has been through something similar or worse & bears the scars from the experience!) In particular, how to prepare for media interviews – both in the run up & on the day. This blogpost by Janet Murray covers the essentials if you are appearing in the media for any political party. (Or organisation for that matter).

How much policy detail should a political party know at this stage?

Former Labour Party special adviser Damian McBride is spot on here. He posted that post shortly after Ed Miliband and Ed Balls got into a bit of bother over their proposed mansion tax. No political party in the UK has the resources to give the level of policy detail being asked on some of the policies. That’s why we have a civil service in this country to do the detailed policy work for whoever gets elected. Take for example Labour’s flagship minimum wage policy. It was in their 1997 manifesto, and lots of people understandably asked: “What will the new minimum wage be?” To which their response was to set out a process for how the wage level would be set (so as not to frighten off the business lobby whose vote Blair courted heavily). Even when the National Minimum Wage Act 1998 was passed into law, the new minimum wage was not on the face of the legislation. It simply gave powers to the Secretary of State to set the minimum wage subject to the due processes set out in the legislation.

The point being that for the citizen’s income policy, Natalie Bennett did not need to go anywhere near giving away any numbers or ballpark figures. The policy itself is far too complex with too many factors & variables in it for such a small organisation to come up with a robust policy on it. What she should have said – in particular to Andrew Neil is to have argued the principle of the policy on its merit and said that the detailed policy analysis would come from the civil service assuming the Greens (or another party supporting the policy) got elected. Remember Natalie Bennett has gone on record saying what matters – in particular environment-wise, is that their policies are adopted, rather than getting ministerial seats.

Managing expectations

As I’ve mentioned before, The Greens have a significant number of published policies – click here. Ever since the Green Surge the mainstream media has been pouring over these in detail. Because there is so much there, it’s ever so easy to get caught out by an interviewer saying: “Your website says…”. No party leader is going to know that level of policy detail. This is where Bennett might have gotten away with: “Our policy spokesperson who knows far more about the detail you’re asking for, is [click here for the list of spokespeople]…I can put you in touch with them because you’re asking me about a level of policy detail that you wouldn’t expect from any other party leader.” This is a media cultural problem of wanting to go to the party leader for any and every question under the sun, rather than going to the party policy specialist.

“Isn’t the risk with ‘media style training’ that you turn ordinary political activists into political media clones so derided by so many people?”

Yes – and it’s a significant risk. But that doesn’t mean you have to turn into a political drone pre-programmed by party HQ incapable of independent thought. Whether it’s the ‘straw man’ question (“You’ve said that you want to increase green taxes on businesses to help deal with climate change, why is it that you want to put lots of hard working small business owners out of a job, with the knock-on impact on their hard-working families and…won’t someone think of the children??!?!?!”) or any other trap (there are a few here), you can see why simply repeating the ‘line to take’ becomes easy to fall back on. Funnily enough, the only person I’ve ever heard openly ‘rejecting the premise of a question’ (see last point here) posed by an interviewer on mainstream TV is Laurie Penny.

Being your own media

I’m still surprised more politicians and parties don’t do far more on this. In The Green Party’s case, one of the things they could do is create some short digital videos setting out detailed and informed responses to all of the questions put to them in the difficult media interviews of recent days. Not ‘soundbite responses’ but ones that demonstrate just how complex and difficult public policy is to develop and deliver – and how trying to reduce these to soundbites or even short political exchanges does no one any favours. Let’s take another example – but from a different political party: The Liberal Democrats.

If the Greens are taking heat now, that’s nothing compared to the 5 year roasting the Liberal Democrats have taken for choosing to go into the Coalition

Given the huge number of controversial decisions Liberal Democrat MPs, peers & ministers have taken, they have often found themselves on the back foot. At times it’s as if the mood from some sections has been: “We expect these sorts of policies from the Tories, but not from you!”

The structural & existential challenge the Liberal Democrats have is that proportional representation is in their political DNA – understandably so. Look at the difference in seats vs total votes in the 1983 & 1987 elections from their predecessor Liberal/SDP alliance (1983 here, and 1987 here). Imagine if the House of Lords took the general election results & allocated seats to members of an elected upper chamber via proportional representation & gave that chamber far stronger powers to vote down and/or delay/change legislation. History could have been very different.

How do the Liberal Democrats defend the decision to go into the Coalition given the 4+ years we’ve had since?

Lib Dem President Sal Brinton, now in the House of Lords but a former county councillor here in Cambridge gave it a go on a visit to Cambridge recently. I filmed it. It’s almost 20 minutes long but is worth a listen irrespective of your political affiliation.

The point of the above being: ‘Yes, there are difficult questions to answer, so here are my answers in my own words in my own time.’ The risk with this is that if you don’t answer those difficult questions, you run the risk of any positive content being ignored as people focus on what you refuse to answer.

Food for thought?

 

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

Summary

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.