Dr Stella Creasy MP & Jeremy Corbyn MP visit Cambridge on the same weekend.


Two of Labour’s rising stars visit the city that sits on an island surrounded by a sea of Conservatism. 

Dr Creasy (her Ph.D thesis is here) is one of the candidates for the Labour deputy leadership – one of three candidates I’ve either met and/or have worked with. The other two being Tom Watson MP & Caroline Flint MP – the latter who I worked with during my housing policy days when she was Minister for Housing.

Open space with Labour activists

Dr Creasy’s standing for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party. Like her opponents, she’s been going around the country to various events. Unlike her opponents, she’s been running a series of open space sessions to tap into the ideas that grassroots activists have. You can almost imagine the Malcolm Tucker (from The Thick Of It) characters in the party being apoplectic with rage.

“Listening to the opinions of the grass roots – well that’s a recipe for anarchy! They’ll be nationalising the trains, the buses, the taxis, the planes – who knows where it’ll end?!?”

Dr Stella Creasy MP (standing) invites participants to list and prioritise the issues they want to discuss.

Dr Stella Creasy MP (standing) invites participants to list and prioritise the issues they want to discuss.

There were just under two dozen people taking part – slightly lower than I had expected but this was due to the short notice of the event. For these workshops Dr Creasy doesn’t have the institutional backing of the Labour Party lest it be seen to be favouring one candidate over the others. With this being the first of three workshops she hosted that day – the others being in Nottingham & York, she had her hands full bringing in the equipment needed to run the event.

Not the usual suspects

I only recognised a couple of people in the room, one of whom only joined Labour just after the election. There was also a good mix of people and backgrounds, yet it was at a scale that made for productive conversations. One of the things I’ve noticed over the years at large left-wing or left-of-centre political gatherings is the lack of substantive conversations between people taking part. I remember one education rally at the University Arms Hotel a few years ago where the entrance had lots of middle-aged blokes in their 50s waving red flags, with an event full of speeches but no opportunity for people to get to know each other. (Something I’ll touch on later).

At this one, everyone was having productive conversations and interacting with people they otherwise wouldn’t normally converse with. The reason why this is important is perspective. Everyone in the room had different perspectives. There were a couple of people who had stood for election, including Cambridge Labour’s young activist Tim Sykes who stood in the local elections in 2014 in Cambridge in Trumpington – a safe Lib Dem seat. Putting your name forward for election and going out to the public asking them to vote for you is one of the hardest things to do – perhaps a reason why so few of us do it.

It’s probably no surprise after reading the above that I’m a big fan of Dr Creasy. Having seen her both on demonstrations and addressing large corporate conferences, she is passionate, personable and articulate. Being a fan of ‘open space’ events, I wanted to get a feel for what Dr Creasy would be like hosting such an event. Would it be ‘going through the motions’ or would there be a genuine interest in the views and experiences of participants? Fortunately it was the latter.

Stella and Jeremy singing from the same hymn sheet?

The consistent message from both Dr Creasy’s and Mr Corbyn’s events in Cambridge is that Labour – locally & nationally, cannot afford to run roughshod over the views, experiences & opinions of their members. Both were critical of past behaviours of the party where members and activists were expected to do as party HQ told them, while having their views ignored when it came to party policy. As Dr Creasy said, 600,000 people with identical views is not a political party, it’s a cult. As a social-media-savvy MP, she’s not afraid of making her opinions public, leading from the front (think payday loans) or being at ease with the idea of fellow party members having different views – views expressed publicly.

Mr Corbyn said similar – saying that members had to have much more of an influence on party policy, and consign the days of a small elite setting party policy to the history books.

Corbynmania comes to Cambridge

See the full speech below – including the fun & games at the start on where Mr Corbyn needed to stand to ensure as many people could actually see him!

Here’s Jon Vale’s report from the Cambridge News – another one here. Great St Mary’s was full to capacity, with another 100+ outside hearing short speeches by Mr Corbyn & his economics adviser Richard Murphy. See Mr Murphy’s speech below, which I filmed.

I’ve wanted to get Mr Murphy on film for quite some time ever since I heard him speak back in 2011. An economist who is not without his critics, one of the challenges for both Mr Murphy & Mr Corbyn is to bring in more people with expertise on tax, economics and finance to develop their ideas further. The reason being is that the scope of the subject is so great that it’s beyond the comprehension of any human being – there are simply not enough hours in the day. This was what paralysed Labour in their final years of government: they had become so over-centralised that decision-making froze as ministers waited for clearance on things that they should have had the confidence to have gone ahead with. The publicity the two of them are now receiving is also an ideal opportunity for them to publicise the work of new thinkers, bringing them & their ideas in the public eye for the debate and scrutiny to then happen. Just by being there, they are forcing news and media organisations to discuss policies rather than personalities.

“What did the audience make of it?”

I got the sense of the sheer ‘relief’ that there was now a safe space to talk about the policies Mr Corbyn was espousing. As Mr Corbyn said, many a demo people go on seem to be about opposing something rather than proposing something. The difference with the movement that has grown around Mr Corbyn is one of hope, one of proposing new ideas & alternative policies, he said.

There were certainly lots of Labour Party members and supporters in the audience judging by the number of people responding to one of the speakers asking for a show of hands on who had and who had not voted in the leadership election. There were still lots of people who had not voted. For those who had never been to such an event before, the experience will have been electrifying – simply because of the number of people who were there.

Mr Corbyn vs his rivals in Cambridge

At least ten times as many people turned out to see Mr Corbyn as his rival Yvette Cooper (See here on CambridgeTV). The visits of Ms Cooper and Andy Burnham were hosted at Cambridge Labour Party’s HQ at Alex Wood Hall. What strikes me about Dr Creasy and Mr Corbyn is that their events had little visible involvement of the local Labour Party at an official level. This for me reflects a cultural difference between the approaches of Dr Creasy & Mr Corbyn vs their rivals. Dr Creasy & Mr Corbyn have made their focus about building a movement – going far beyond party membership. The other candidates seem to have focussed on the party membership with a view to reaching out afterwards. In that regard, Dr Creasy & Mr Corbyn have stolen a lead on their rivals by ignoring any restrictions that could have been put on them. Such an approach is refreshing to see – and for me is essential in a social media age.

The lesson learnt: make it easy, enjoyable and exciting for people to get involved

Dr Creasy’s approach in Walthamstow is one for the rest of her party to learn from at a constituency level. When constituents approach her on campaigning issues, her approach is to get those constituents involved in the campaign. Rather than having an approach where constituents write to her and say “Why don’t you do something about it – you’re my MP?!?”, her response is: “Yes, this needs somebody to do something about it, but what if that somebody is ‘you’? I’ll help you, but I’ll need you to get involved!”

An interesting autumn ahead in & around Cambridge?

This goes out to all political parties active in Cambridge:

Publish a calendar of events and publicise them as being open to the public

The student societies are normally very good at this, but those outside political parties and/or on the ‘town’ side of the city all too often feel that such events are not for us. I’ll list & link the societies for you:

Oh, and if anyone can persuade Cambridge Labour Party that they can do so much more with their facebook page (see https://www.facebook.com/CambridgeLabourParty) please get onto them. Because compared to what Dr Creasy has for her constituency here and for her deputy leadership campaign here…exactly.

“What if Stella and Jeremy win? Could they work together?”

They would certainly make a very formidable partnership. Age and genders aside, they compensate for each other’s weaknesses while complement each other’s approaches. As Tony Blair had with John Prescott, such a partnership would ensure Mr Corbyn as party leader would have a deputy from another part of the party rather than a carbon-copy clone. It would also alleviate the concerns some have that under Mr Corbyn the party could turn into an intolerant far-left sect.

I think Mr Corbyn is a lot more pragmatic than many think he is. I don’t buy the doom-and-gloom warnings we’ve seen in the media. The biggest unknown is with the team around him. Who are they and how will they cope with a 24/7 media spotlight? Because while Mr Corbyn & Dr Creasy are more than competent at handling the media, those who might otherwise be currently on the fringes may find themselves facing a baptism of fire. A Conservative Party fresh off an unexpected election victory won’t be doing them any favours – in particular Chancellor George Osborne who is now showing himself to be a sharp and ruthless political operator.

Puffles meets Jeremy Corbyn. Photo by David Cleevely

Puffles meets Jeremy Corbyn. Photo by David Cleevely

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Well, thank f–k that horrible month is over


…because emotionally it crushed me.

Augusts have a habit of doing this, whether I’m in work or out of work. But this one was on a level the likes I’ve not seen in ages.

The biggest blows were probably not getting shortlisted for jobs I had applied for that I & those around me felt I should have done. (In particular those who had flagged up the vacancies with ‘this has got your name written on it). But then I have to remind myself of the people who have sent off dozens if not hundreds of applications only to get no responses or just rejections.

I’m more held back by my health – not being able to work full time. It’s heartbreaking to see vacancies I’m qualified for but can’t manage full time hours for. Even yesterday I lost an entire day to sleep – yet am still not sure what it was that drove me to stay in bed asleep for all of that time. Hence waiting impatiently for this sleep clinic referral.

“So…what’s this autumn going to be like?”

Whatever we make of it.

Finding some part-time regular work to pay for the next stages of my community action work is my main priority at the moment. A mix of equipment upgrades and, if all goes well, producing some new community action videos with a variety of people in front of camera. One of the jobs I went for could have involved making these as part of the role. But hey – never mind. We’ll have to do it the hard way.

Accordingly, I went back through my 2014 manifesto of which I can’t think many people read through. (I blame my rubbish presentation – who has time to read all that?!) Hence putting it into a single PDF at 2014 Manifesto Full – all twenty-something pages of it. I still think there’s lots of good ideas hidden in there – perhaps too many for its own good? One of the few original ideas I’ve had that’s built up a life of its own is Volunteer for Cambridge – something that Anna Malan has made a reality. (Moving from ideas into delivery stage is something I’ve struggled with, so welcome her work in delivering the first fair & continuing with it on an annual basis).

The continual fight with depression

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.

The above is by Louise Kidney, who I first met not long after I left the civil service. Post-election, I’ve felt similar. I still am. There have been days where I have simply lost the will to fight – to even get out of the house. The repeated Fridays with another failed job application. Yet, just like those refugees, I just have to keep trying – their plight being much more fraught with danger & uncertainty than mine.

One of the tricky bits is doing the jigsaw of picking courses & classes that don’t at the same time shut off opportunities further down the line…while at the same time not paralysing myself & choosing nothing. For example this course on public services looks interesting but I’m not in a position to do a full-time anything, whether course or employment. A far cry from a decade ago when I was doing a full-time job and up to 15 hours of volunteering a week.

Fighting the same community action battles over & over again

One of the big themes of my community action is changing the systems, processes & actions of local institutions. For example, it’s one thing persuading councillors to visit a local secondary school (see https://adragonsbestfriend.wordpress.com/2014/04/11/parkside-coleridge-students-unlock-democracy-in-cambridge/) but quite another to persuade the council to incorporate such visits into their annual calendar of events.

Is social media in & around Cambridge reaching a plateau?

I ask because I’ve not seen a significant change in how our city uses social media for social action over the past two years. For example I’ve not seen a significant increase in the number of people engaging with local councillors on Twitter. I’m not seeing any improvement in how local public institutions are using Facebook. I’m not seeing much in terms of meetup groups making the link between a desire for an improved city and events/actions that reach out beyond their community groups to make it so. What we do know is that in some sectors we have a cultural challenge.

See the August 2015 newsletter at http://www.cambridgecvs.org.uk/reports/4 on P5 which was an emotional body blow given the number of hours I have given for free to Cambridge Online/Net-squared to help local groups learn about social media.

In which direction is my approach going to evolve into?

This I don’t know. It depends on who I meet and the impact they have on me. The glimmer of hope is that the general election result has got more people interested in local democracy to the extent we’ll see new, fresh faces in campaigns, in parties and in slates of candidates for the 2016 local council elections. As I found out in 2014, simply by being different & new you can get a fair amount of coverage for whatever issues you want to talk about. Will parties and candidates have the confidence to try new approaches to extend the profiles of those standing for election?

At the same time, there’s also a responsibility on us as citizens. Democracy isn’t baby food – it’s not something you get spoon-fed. It’s a participatory activity which involves us as individuals taking actions – and responsibility for those actions. As local Conservative activists often tell me, the people get the democracy they deserve. Four in ten people in Cambridge didn’t vote in the 2015 local elections. How we change this for 2020…starts now.

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Diversifying the Liberal Democrats – a once in a generation opportunity?


Will we finally start seeing more women taking more prominent and influential roles for the Liberal Democrats?

I’ll start with this video of Jo Swinson, which I filmed in Cambridge when she was a minister at the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills.

She’s also written a post-election article at http://www.libdemvoice.org/jo-swinson-writesdissolution-honours-make-the-contribution-of-women-look-invisible-47270.html as has former Lib Dem councillor Daisy Benson at https://englandisthehomeoflostideas.wordpress.com/2015/08/28/alright-lib-dems-at-the-crossroads/

Wiped out at the polls

All of the women MPs the Liberal Democrats had in the previous parliament lost their seats in May 2015. Even Julian Huppert lost his seat in Cambridge on what was a very depressing night for the Liberal Democrats. The scale of their defeat as a party was far bigger than I thought it would be – even though many expected them to take a hammering at the polls. As a result, their new policy spokespeople have had to draw on the House of Lords and beyond Parliament – see http://www.libdems.org.uk/new-lib-dem-spokespeople-announced.

Party conference season – make or break for the opposition parties?

The Liberal Democrats are in Bournemouth http://www.libdems.org.uk/autumn_conference for their conference, having experienced a significant jump in the number of members since the general election. What will the impact of all of those members – in particular those new to politics be? What’s the breakdown of new vs returning members? How will the party respond to the rise of the Labour left under Corbyn? The Lib Dem conference takes place a couple of weeks after Labour announces its new leader. Where the former position themselves relative to Labour depends as much on who the latter elect as it does on the decisions of Tim Farron, Nick Clegg’s successor.

An opportunity to showcase some new faces?

In part it depends on how much media coverage the party gets. While the smaller number of MPs may justify a reduced outlay from TV news, the increase in the number of people attending – in particular first time and/or new members may make this one more interesting than previous ones.

Given the news reports and pictures of empty seats from their 2014 conference, the boost in numbers and new faces could be just what the party needs to revitalise battle-weary members while galvanising and bringing together new members into co-ordinated campaigning units. With a backdrop of such an electoral low point, there might be something liberating about not having to worry about things getting any worse. This feels familiar in the pro vs anti-Corbyn debates inside Labour. For the pro-Corbyn, having lost 2 elections in a row is as bad as things can get towing a moderate line – now is the time to try something radical. For those against Corbyn, it’s the opposite – Corbyn could take Labour even lower. Hence the splits and the risk of even more paralysis should the infighting continue after Labour decides who should be its leader.

The Liberal Democrats as the primary opposition party in Cambridgeshire

They oppose a Labour-led council in Cambridge, a Conservative-led South Cambridgeshire District Council, and are the second-largest party on Cambridgeshire County Council (no overall control) and also the second-largest party on East Cambs District Council…with two councillors to over 30 for the Conservatives. Where and how do local activists position themselves?

In Cambridge, the party got crushed by the Cambridge University Labour Club steamroller that saw Daniel Zeichner MP take the seat from Dr Julian Huppert. The previous year I saw first hand an exhausted council deposed by Labour in an election me & Puffles stood in. As a result, previously high-profile councillors have had a much lower profile, or have moved on completely. I’m interested to see who for the county’s Lib Dems will step forward to take their places. Anecdotally, local activists have spoken positively about the local rise in membership, but I’ve not seen that reflected in local news coverage.

Cambridge Student Liberal Democrats – a lack of women activists?

They’ve lost a couple of high-profile & hard-working women due to graduation, which is inevitable in any student movement in a town with stupendously high house prices. Yet even with those activists, in the run up to the 2015 general election the number of women campaigning was tiny compared to the numbers of men. As with any student political party, how do you encourage people from under-represented backgrounds, communities to get involved without frightening them off or over-burdening them?

There’s also the ‘intellectual bubble’ of Cambridge – something that social media is fortunately helping to break. This is with the organising of events. To their credit, both Cambridge Student Liberal Democrats & Cambridge Young Greens were very good in making nearly all of their events open to the public – inviting me to go along and film/live tweet. While Cambridge Labour were fine with me coming along when I put in a request, the difference in approaches in terms of political culture was that the other two parties seemed that bit more pro-active to non-members than Labour was.

My point is that there are a number of places far beyond university colleges where interested young people are. If only you’d invite them to your events. Not in terms of a tweet or a Facebook link, but going to where they are.

The suggestion I have for Cambridgeshire is a series of ‘campaigns at bus stops’. Look at the Cambridgeshire Guided Bus route: http://www.thebusway.info/routes-and-times.aspx. Pick a school day, pick a stop that lots of further education students use – eg Long Road Sixth Form College on the Addenbrooke’s route, Cambridge Railway Station, Cambridge Regional College and Huntingdonshire Regional College, schedule a stall at both stops from 2-5pm when students are waiting for buses (& will have time to talk to you/have no time to rush off (captive audience), have a specific event to invite them to, and repeat. The reason why CRC & HRC matter is because you get a very different demographic of students to those who might otherwise go onto university to study academic subjects. As students at those institutions tend to stay in their locality after completing their courses, could this help get a greater number of young activists campaigning locally in the long term?

And finally…will the men who have dominated the Liberal Democrats for years let go of the reins?

This is easier said than done – although Tim Farron set out his stall early on with a 50-50 split on gender with his list of party policy leads. The reason is that they only have eight all male MPs. This means that their presence in the Commons can be easily overlooked – especially with voting unless they co-ordinate with the other parties. This leaves their large presence in the increasingly discredited House of Lords – see http://www.libdems.org.uk/peers. Being a party of democrats doesn’t sit easily with such a large presence of appointed legislators. Yet it is in the Lords that they can make the biggest difference in terms of scrutinising, amending & blocking the Government’s plans.

Fast forward five years to a 2020 general election

This for me will be the acid test for the Liberal Democrats: Will they select a critical mass of women MPs in winnable seats given the turfing out of incumbents in 2015, or will they allow former long-standing MPs another shot at Parliament? How many of the former MPs who still have political ambitions will stand aside and instead support and nurture women activists in the party who have the potential to become good MPs? In fact, that goes for all parties while there is still an imbalance in Parliament.

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Why is the UK government not pushing for a substantial co-ordinated response to refugees crisis?


It’s like there is an international politics vacuum in the face of a big crisis. So what are our institutions doing?

Frances Coppola posted http://www.coppolacomment.com/2015/08/europes-shame.html in which I feel similar. So what are international governments doing in the face of it? By the responses on the news today, very little.

The thing is, we’ve been here before. During my teens, the news was regularly filled with the horrors of the wars of the breakup of Yugoslavia. Vukovar, Mostar, Dubrovnik, Srebrenica, Zagreb, Sarajevo – the names trip off my head as if it were yesterday. And the EU froze in the face of it. President Mitterand, Chancellor Kohl and Prime Minister John Major failed to come up with a common EU response. At the same time, the UN peacekeeping missions were regularly humiliated with repeated incidents of peacekeepers being taken hostage (as happened to British forces in 1995) or forced to back off in the face of fighters more heavily armed than they were. I can’t help but feel that ever since then, the UN has been sidelined, and ultimately made redundant on the big international stage following the Iraq War of 2003.

“Yeah – where is the UN in this?”

Good question. Because if the UN Security Council cannot respond to what’s happening in Iraq & Syria, what’s the point of it? Has the UK given up on the UN as an international policy-making institution? The UN has been conspicuous by its absence as a place where decisions are made and things happen as far as mainstream news is concerned.

Trying to deal with international issues while placating domestic audiences at the same time

Both Chancellor Merkel and Prime Minister Cameron seem to be caught in the headlights on this. Chancellor Merkel has to keep domestic critics in line with all things Greece, while Mr Cameron has his own self-tied hands with the EU referendum coming up. In the latter’s case, it was something completely self-inflicted as he panicked in the face of the 2014 UKIP threat – one that failed to materialise in the 2015 general election. EU institutions are paralysed at source. They have no separate source of funding (for example through a financial transactions tax, a multinational corporations’/’we’re based on an offshore tax haven’ tax or through duties on imports into the EU) for European institutions. EU commissioners are tied by patronage to member states that nominate them. Hence little appetite to take on powerful national leaders. What do they do in the face of the refugees crisis?

What about the refugees?

The UK government’s response is the policy equivalent of putting some plasticine into the channel tunnel. Hearing ministers and the Prime Minister talk of fences, sniffer dogs and more private security guards has been quite frankly embarrassing. Everyone knows that the highest walls in the world around Calais are not going to solve the problem. People will simply switch to another port. Even then, the numbers being mentioned of those heading to the UK are a fraction of those heading say to Germany.

A little bit of history

On the difference between Germany and the UK, having spent several months in both Germany and Austria in the middle of the last decade, one thing that struck me culturally was the impact of land borders with the rest of Europe vs the UK. In a post-1945 and a post-1989 world, I could understand the desire to remove what seemed like unnecessary land border controls. Compare this to a history of at one time having the world’s most powerful navy. In the run-up to the First World War, the UK maintained a ‘two-power standard’ – that’s to say government policy was that the Royal Navy would be bigger and more powerful than the next two most powerful navies in the world combined. Up until 1900 this was always thought to be France and Russia. So our historical mindset is that we’ve always been able to control our sea borders.

Yet being a sea-trading nation and a former imperial power, we also find that a number of these refugees speak English pretty well. You only have to watch the news reports of the UK journalists interviewing refugees – sometimes in pretty distressing circumstances. I recall clips of some being interviewed on crowded trains, or having just stepped off death-trap boats having survived hazardous crossings.

“So…what is the solution?”

You know what? I don’t know. Haven’t a scoobie doo. Not the foggiest.

All I know is that what’s currently happening isn’t working, and that no one single policy response will work. The problem is too big in scale and too complex in its makeup for something like ‘remove all border controls’ to work without creating its own problems elsewhere.

“Has the hollowing out of nation states contributed to the crisis?”

I think it has. Having been in a policy team where I felt we did not have the staff or expertise to face down very powerful industry lobbyists in pre-austerity days, I can’t imagine what it must be like for those in policy teams who have to advise ministers and politicians whose world view seems ever so narrow. If you’re a minister and the main public comments you make are about fences in Calais rather than a co-ordinated EU-wide policy response, your world view is narrow. In my opinion anyway.

Looking at https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2014/12/facts-figures-syria-refugee-crisis-international-resettlement/ by Amnesty International, it’s interesting to note the lack of solidarity from other Gulf nations. Given the UK’s close diplomatic links with countries in that part of the world, shouldn’t ministers and royals be pushing for those states to do far more regarding a crisis that is on their doorstep? That’s an example of an action that could form part of a co-ordinated policy response. So why won’t ministers make more of a big deal of this given the wealth from those parts of the world we see in our media and sometimes on our streets in the form of expensive cars?

People taking their own actions inspite of the UK government…

Cambridge politicians and activists have formed a refugee support group https://www.facebook.com/groups/1671185293117244/ – there are also numerous other examples of civic society putting ministerial inaction to shame. Inevitably what small groups can do will never be enough to match the powers that the state has, but while the state does next to nothing, it’s understandable that people will want to take their own positive action.

As we found out with the Tsunami of just under a decade ago, it’s one thing raising money & aid, but quite another thing effectively distributing & delivering it. Hence needing competent (in more ways than one) authorities to at least do the co-ordinating. Whether it’s reception centres for refugees to having a unified response to those oppressive governments in those countries that are the source of refugees – both numbers and as a percentage of population.

The issues and problems are linked, and that means the policy response must be linked & co-ordinated too. Unfortunately we’re seeing perilously little of this. As a result, the end to the refugee crisis seems to be a very long way away.

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On life’s great equaliser


On life after Mog – and on dealing with one of life’s final taboos.

A sombre day today as we took Mog to the vet to be put to sleep following a short illness. A large stomach tumour and failing kidneys meant she’d lost a huge amount of weight and was drinking continuously. This despite struggling to do so, getting water up her nose each time. With her decline she inevitably looked worse for wear – having stopped grooming as well.

How are you supposed to feel about the passing of a creature who had been there for half of your life?

Mog, shortly before she died.

Mog, shortly before she died.

She arrived one spring morning just before the 1997 general election. This six-week-old bundle of fun looked far too small to be away from her mum, but having been a cat-less house since the disappearance of Mog’s predecessor some 18 months earlier (who had been in the house since before I was born), was glad to have a four-legged friend to scare off rodents. I’m not good with meeces.

She’s been one of the few constants over the years. Always loud, always sociable…and always hungry. She pre-dated the house having internet access, & bridged the gap between four generations of our family – from my late grandparents through to my young niece & nephew. She saw me leave to go to university, & saw me return from London exhausted as I exited the civil service during the big post-2010 cuts. She was even around to see the arrival of that Twitter phenomenon known as Puffles the Dragon Fairy – even being there for our election campaign.

Puffles, Mog & Michelle working on a digital video project with Dana & Ceri in the background.

Puffles, Mog & Michelle working on a digital video project with Dana & Ceri in the background.

People have drifted in & drifted out of my life, women have come and gone, I have joined institutions and have left disappointed – sometimes heartbroken as with relationships & flings aforementioned. But Mog was always there – that constant in the background (or the foreground, depending on her mood). After a while, I guess I assumed she’d always keep on going.

Her final few weeks were a struggle for her

It’s never easy to see a living being in such a state. Struggling to eat, losing weight considerably and struggling to drink properly despite an increased thirst linked to failing kidneys. Hence the vet’s recommendation to put her to sleep – which the vet did this afternoon.

I could have gone along, but chose not to – leaving it to my Dad & sister-in-law to take her to the vet. When she returned, she was finally at peace. I spent part of the previous night sat down on the floor by the fridge with her, watching helplessly as she struggled to drink without getting water up her nose & sneezing. Health aside, nothing had changed. She was still the same cat with the same personality & the same ‘miaow’. Perhaps we both knew what was coming.

Digging her grave

I’d never done this before. I can’t pretend to have done the greatest job, going as far down as the stoney chalk layer below the topsoil would let me. I guess this was ‘my bit for her’. There was something therapeutic about doing so – something that was missing in the funerals of past deceased relatives. My sister-in-law and I laid Mog to rest in the ground before I covered her with the topsoil I had dug out earlier, placing several very heavy pot plants on top to as to keep out scavenging creatures.

A poignant reminder of my own mortality

Mog joined our family half my lifetime ago. At that time, I was struggling emotionally at college, disappointed as my hopes & dreams seemed to vanish & with no support from friends or institutions. Fast forward to now, and a number of my younger Twitter followers are preparing to make that step to college or university for the first time. How I wish I could recapture those days & not make the mistakes that I did – which amongst other things were not having the courage to follow my heart & fight for what I wanted. I was already conditioned to follow, not rebel against authority & established conventions – irrespective of whether they were working for or against me. All the more harder now as I struggle with sleep, a lack of energy and a state of health that means I cannot work full-time hours. At the same time, the fight hasn’t gone out of me.

Comparing experiences – Mog vs human family

This article appeared in my FB feed https://www.facebook.com/humanism/posts/10153461209920923 during the day. It got me thinking about how our family’s ‘human’ funerals were handed over to other institutions that had their pre-set procedures & rituals. In the ones that have involved close relatives, I’ve always felt like I was a bystander. A group of strangers in mourning/morning suits would move the coffins while clerics from the churches that our family went to during my childhood would run the services. Where the deceased were regular attendees of services, you can understand why a religious institution would take the lead at a time when the family of the deceased is going through emotional turmoil. Less so perhaps where there is little or no relationship between the family and the institution. Hence the comments on the Facebook article.

What are the alternatives for dealing with what’s left of us after we’re gone?

For example, we have a city cemetery that a handful of my family members are buried in, but has anyone thought of having a city woodland where people can choose to be buried in an ecopod with a tree planted over them as at http://www.buzzworthy.com/coffins-eco-friendly-burial-pods/? Given the relative lack of trees in these parts vs more forested areas, I think that would be quite nice. We also have a county crematorium. During my civil service days I was taken on a tour of one in Norfolk or Suffolk – one of the two. People forget that this too is a public service.

The first time I came across alternatives to church funerals – or mainstream religious ceremonies generally, was with former Hove Green Party Parliamentary Candidate Anthea Ballam (http://www.antheab.com/) who I got to know when she stood in 2001 at the time I was living in Hove on the south coast. Over the years, I became more familiar with alternatives as people threw out the rule book and as laws changed. My cousin chose to ditch formalities for her wedding several years ago, going for readings & performances by those close to her, & treating the legalities as a simple formality required by law. (The best bit for me was the big ‘dressing up box’ idea for the children – who quickly changed out of formalwear to dress up as superheroes).

I can understand why some people get angry with religious institutions in particular when funerals & weddings seem ending up being more about the faith than the family concerned. Even more so when it seems like an attempt to get money from or control over people by whatever means. Is this the result of us not talking enough about something that is a constant for all of us – something that we will all experience? Is it in part the result of only giving serious thought to this at a time when entire families are going through emotional distress at the loss of a loved one?

Mog as a marker of time

I tweeted that her passing was the end of an era for me –  a chance to reflect on the changes in the world we live in over the course of her life. Yes, the house will be more quiet without her. No longer: “I have to get home – got a cat & a dragon to feed” as I sometimes joke. Sleep well Mog, will miss you.

Making posters for 'Be the change - Cambridge'

Making posters for ‘Be the change – Cambridge’

Puffles & Mog - bestest friends forreva!

Puffles & Mog – bestest friends forreva!

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Has leisure & entertainment in Cambridge kept pace with the growth of our city?



(That’s not to say nothing has happened since the Millennium).

I’m writing this shortly after news that demand to see Jeremy Corbyn’s visit to Cambridge on Monday has exceeded the capacity of the largest indoor venue in Cambridge. Cambridge Corn Exchange holds 1,400 people, with Great St Mary’s Church holding 1,200.

“Is there any evidence that Cambridge needs bigger venues?”

It’s a bit ‘chicken & egg’ because if bookers know that the biggest venue in Cambridge has a capacity of 1,400, then anyone looking for something bigger that’s indoors will automatically look elsewhere. That said, during my civil service days in Cambridge a decade ago, I remember event organisers saying that the city had a distinct lack of four-star-hotel-and-conferencing facilities the type that are the norm in larger cities. It remains to be seen whether new developments by Cambridge railway station and in south Cambridge meet some of this demand.

The scandal that remains the old Mecca Bingo building

The old bingo hall that has remained unused for far longer than is sensible

The old bingo hall that has remained unused for far longer than is sensible

The continued lack of use of the above-building is a civic disgrace. It makes me angry even thinking about it. See here for some photos inside, and this blog by some former squatters who briefly turned it into a community centre. This is something I’m tempted to bring up at future Greater Cambridge City Deal meetings given the people & organisations that sit on its boards.

No new nightclub venues of note since my teens

By that I mean venues the size of The Junction or larger. There have been a few smaller venues that have cropped up, or others that are former pubs with extended licenses to allow dancing & late serving of alcohol. Other than that, there’s been a lot of rebranding of existing venues. That said, the actions of Cambridge’s colleges, the police and the council have been incredibly restrictive over the years – the old bingo hall being one such victim.

The question inevitably is where to put such new venues. Local residents inevitably won’t want new venues close to where they live. Having The Junction in my neighbourhood has been  over the years both a convenience and a curse. I remember 20 years ago going to a night out and meeting a couple of people who had come all the way from a village just outside Stevenage – and was astonished there was nothing better closer to them. It was only during my sixth form college days that I learnt just how dependent on transport friends from far outside Cambridge were – especially when it came to missing last trains!

We can’t talk about venues without talking about transport networks to get people to and from them.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been out with friends and had to bail out early in order to catch the last bus home. It leaves just before 11pm. I’m not expecting services to get any better as The Chancellor looks to cut local government & transport budgets even further later this year. (Something The Campaign for Better Transport are campaigning against). Transport matters in particular for sport – take Cambridge United’s mens & women’s teams. For me, it’s the poor transport provision that restricts numbers at The Abbey Stadium more than anything else. As for the women’s team, they play their ‘home’ games in Ely – over 10 miles north of Cambridge and on the other side of the small city to where the railway station is. That Cambridge cannot host the women’s football team that bears the city’s name is also a disgrace. Cambridge’s women deserve better.

Are Cambridge’s housing & tourism-retail bubbles harming the city’s provision of leisure facilities for residents?

I’ve looked at the history of some of our buildings in the town centre & have noticed how former leisure facilities have become retail outlets. A former ballroom and two former cinemas are now high-volume retail. A number of former warehouses used by a variety of community groups have now been given over to cramming-college-type en-suite student housing – the sort that Anglia Ruskin University (the supposed target market) has said is not suitable for its students. Cambridge City’s former ground at Milton Road was sold off for housing as well.

“What about Cambridge Leisure Park? And North West Cambridge?” 

For me, the old Cattle Market site was a big lost opportunity. The whole site was a lost opportunity. Essentially the site was redeveloped to cater for two non-residential markets: language school and short-stays, and the extended north-north-London railway line. After all, why would a part of the country with very low crime rates need three high-rise tower block gated communities? The property owners made it very clear to councillors they had no interest in renting out units to independent firms. That’s why so many of the shop units in and around the railway station are made up of identikit clone brands. North west Cambridge is still under construction, so it remains to be seen what this delivers and how accessible it is. As far as I know, Cambridge still awaits the construction of the proposed Cambridge University swimming pool. Hopefully that will ease some of the pressure on Parkside. In an ideal world, that pool would be expanded to make the main pool longer and/or add a couple of extra lanes & a bigger toddler pool.

A city-wide approach to…?

You’ve heard me say this before on many occasions across the piece. It’s not the fault of the local politicians – the way our local institutions are structured means that politicians are unable to deliver on many of the things I’ve listed above. Some changes require an Act of Parliament (such as a single council for the city, and/or powers to raise revenues beyond local council taxation), others require central government grants and others require different institutions to behave more civically, more collaboratively and less narrow-mindedly than they currently do.

The same goes for improving our existing venues. Things such as more, better & bigger dancefloor space for the many dance groups that are in Cambridge is something that regularly comes up in my circles.

Remember the above from Be the change?

For me though, the ultimate challenge comes from getting more people involved & active in local democracy. This is why things like Jeremy Corbyn’s visit that seems to be attracting the interest of thousands, through to next year’s volunteers fair are ever so important. If we want Cambridge to have an improved entertainment & leisure offer, more of us local residents need to become more active in local democracy to push for this.

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Jeremy Corbyn to visit Puffles in Cambridge!


With over 300 1,700 people signed up, can Cambridge Labour Party use this opportunity to get more people involved in local democracy?

I chose this headline because Mr Corbyn’s been following Puffles on Twitter for ages. See https://www.facebook.com/events/1638506863062553/ for event details – the local Unite Union branch is organising this one.


See bottom left of the above screenshot :-)

Over 400 people have signed up [and over 1,700 on his website] – and given the momentum behind his campaign (which is in the mainstream news almost every night), I’m expecting quite a crowd. The question for Cambridge Labour Party is what to do with them. Easier said than done given the spread of votes for different candidates inside the party across their elected councillors. See Phil Rodgers below:

The leadership campaign has shone a light into just how broad a range of opinions there is within the local party. Some councillors supportive of Mr Corbyn see this as a once-in-a-generation chance for Labour’s left wing to take control of the party, while those opposing Mr Corbyn see his prospective leadership as a one way ticket to electoral oblivion. What we may probably never know is what the breakdown of votes will be in the Labour leadership campaign in Cambridge. Not that the party has any obligation to publish the results – at the end of the day it’s their party & their business. But it would be interesting to get a picture of the disposition of Cambridge Labour Party through the lens of the leadership contest.

It’s not just Labour activists that are going to this gathering

If you look at the list of who is going, you’ll see some familiar faces from other political parties. This approach is the complete opposite to my experience of big-name visitors from the Labour Party to Cambridge over the years. High profile visits have been shrouded in secrecy, only announced to selected media at the last minute by party HQ. Thus it has made it very difficult to get the sorts of numbers going to such visits that Mr Corbyn has been attracting. The reason for this local activists & councillors tell me is that they don’t want their senior party figures to be ambushed by their political opponents. Understandable if you’re trying to write a media script. But for me, any politician worth their salt should be able to handle hecklers and opponents in the crowd. See John Major at 1m30s here. Will any political opponents of Corbyn try to heckle in a room full of Labour activists in their hundreds?

Potentially hundreds of people turning up – some perhaps for the first time to a ‘political’ meeting. What do you do?

Organisers have just confirmed it’ll be at Anglia Ruskin University’s Ashcroft Building. here are some thoughts having organised ‘Be the change – Cambridge’ in the same venue:

UPDATE: Due to very high demand, the venue has been switched to Great St Mary’s opposite Senate House/King’s College Chapel https://www.facebook.com/events/1638506863062553/permalink/1639224352990804/ – now on Parker’s Piece.

Make everyone feel welcome 

Have your friendliest & most energised activists welcoming people on the door. Give people a sense of: ‘Yes – this is a group of people I’d like to be involved with!’ For most of the people attending, this will be something that is far outside their normal routine. The venue and agenda may well be something they are completely unfamiliar with, and may feel uncomfortable in. Bear this in mind – especially with any young people there.

Have any elected councillors wearing badges & rosettes

Make them easily identifiable. Brief them to be the ones that are proactive in starting conversations with the public. Even if it’s a case of: “Hi, my name is X and I’m the Labour councillor for Y in Z. What brings you to this event?”

Start conversations before people move into the main lecture theatre

For Be the change – Cambridge we used the same venue. There is ****lots**** of breakout space. There’s nothing to stop you from hosting mini group conversations on different themes in that space and in the courtyards. Someone holding up a piece of A4 card with the topic area for people to spot should be enough. Invite everyone to have a conversation with someone who they’ve not met before.

Q&A – have a strong MC who can strictly limit questions to a maximum of 30 seconds

I was at a gathering of 25-30 pro-Corbyn activists convened by Dan Greef, the Labour candidate for South Cambridgeshire in the general election. Dan started the meeting with a chance for people to introduce themselves and say why they were there. Too many people took far too long to explain while they were there – one taking nearly 10 minutes, forgetting to introduce herself in the process. There will be a lot of people there, and it only takes one person rambling (I have been ***that*** person in the past!) to kill the atmosphere & energy in the hall. Bring a horn, a whistle, a something – and time the questions. Be absolutely ruthless – but above all consistent & fair, about moving on.

Have a means for people to submit questions in advance for those people who are not confident at asking questions themselves. 

The numbers will be intimidating for a lot of people. Ensure you have something in place – for example at the welcome desk for people to submit questions that they don’t want to stand up & ask themselves.

Diversity of people asking questions

There will be lots of men used to public speaking wanting to ask lots of questions – again, I’ve been ***that*** man. Make sure you vary who gets to ask questions. It may be an idea to say “I want the first two questions to come from women/young people”.

You’ll have to decide what you want to do with people and organisations not affiliated to your party or trade union

This could range from opposition councillors attending through to people from other established groupings trying to sell publications. The complexity here involves the terms & conditions of your booking – which may not allow anyone to sell anything on campus (but fine off campus), through to someone trying to be deliberately disruptive & obnoxious. Because of the numbers you have, you’ll need to liaise with ARU staff. Make sure you have your contingencies covered – even though in all likelihood nothing bad is likely to happen.

What’s going to happen after the event?

Will organisers be hosting a post-event drinks say at The Tram Depot over the road? Will there be people to welcome those heading over there, in particular those that don’t know anyone?

Mr Corbyn has spoken of the importance of social media, so why is there so little activity on the Cambridge Labour Party’s Facebook page? How many people turning up will be on Twitter, and are they following local councillors that use Twitter? See here for some examples.

Can organisers encourage people to get involved in local democracy through their area committees? See https://www.cambridge.gov.uk/area-committees. What about Labour activists just outside Cambridge where the two sitting Conservative MPs got over 50% of the vote in their constituencies in 2015? Both Huw Jones & Dan Greef had their work cut out. Just as the Conservatives have a minimal presence inside Cambridge, Labour struggles outside of the city. Who will be the activists to take campaigns along say the towns & villages along the Cambridge Guided Bus route, or to the villages along the Citi 7/8/X13 bus routes? Bear in mind that the growth of the city means a future boundary review could split the city constituency, resulting in safe Labour wards being joined with safe Conservative wards to form new constituencies. Given the growth in membership & supporter numbers along with the new-found energy from Mr Corbyn’s campaign, is now the time for Cambridge Labour Party to campaign beyond the city limits?

Food for thought.

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Labour leadership, & the migrants crisis


Thoughts on recent news

We’ve got another month or so of the Labour leadership campaign to go. Leftwing MP and longtime dragon-fairy-Twitter-follower Jeremy Corbyn has been polling consistently highly so as to worry the Labour establishment. As an outsider, it’s been fascinating to watch those so used to being in control responding with such panic – such as Tony Blair here.

Mr Corbyn continues to speak to packed out halls, and the noise on social media continues to be mainly pro-Corbyn. At the same time, some of the personal abuse being thrown has been very unpleasant. Credit to Mr Corbyn for publicly stating he doesn’t do personal abuse. It might be an idea to remind some of his supporters of his stance too.

For me, the big unknown remains the Labour members & supporters who don’t follow politics as closely as the very active members or those in the social media bubbles. I’ve yet to see any detailed polling done that allows for those that don’t use the internet or mobile phones.

A period of bridge-building?

Whoever wins, Labour will need to go through some sort of reconciliation process given some of the vitriol that’s been unleashed. Given the continued high polling & raised expectations, if Mr Corbyn doesn’t win, will his supporters feel ‘robbed’ in the way some of David Miliband’s supporters did back in 2010? If Mr Corbyn wins, what place will there be for the likes of Liz Kendall and those on the ‘Progress’ wing of the party? Will they, in such a situation be tempted to split – leading to 1981 all over again? Is the era of two-party politics over, as Professor Colin Talbot asks here? Note Prof Talbot’s comments on a Mr Corbyn leadership & the challenge of filling shadow ministerial posts.

“Why are we not seeing more celebrations from Labour over their membership rise?”

I asked this on Twitter

As others tweeted, this huge membership rise can’t be attributed to ‘entryism’ from the far left alone. As Michael Crick tweeted:

i.e. there simply aren’t enough people in the old established far left to account for such a rise, even though paper sellers may be conspicuous by their presence at Mr Corbyn’s rallies. My hunch also is that there are enough Labour Party loyalists in grassroots constituency parties who experienced the 1980s that they’d be able to spot entryist tactics by new members (who may be familiar faces locally anyway), and see them off.

“Isn’t it fun giving a fright to people in power?!?”

I’ve seen various tweets expressing a desire to do the complete opposite of what ‘Establishment’ figures & organisations are recommending – whether politicians or newspapers & their columnists. At the same time, there will be greater public policy scrutiny of Mr Corbyn’s policy platform as well as greater scrutiny of those he’s shared public platforms with over the decades – as Ivan Lewis MP has done here.

“Won’t the Tories be laughing at what’s happening?”

This is where I agree with Prof. Talbot in the second half of his post here. David Cameron tied himself up in knots with the commitment of an EU referendum – a cheque that the electorate subsequently cashed, but one that did not entirely do away with UKIP given their 4m votes in 2015 (despite only 1 seat) and their victories in the 2014 European Parliament elections. Does Cameron really want to be the person leading the ‘Out’ campaign? (Or will he stand down as leader just before the referendum and leave it for his successor to sort out?) Either way, in 18 months time the Conservatives could find themselves split over Europe at a time when society has had to absorb further cuts to public spending. The problem the pro-EU campaigners have is the EU as an institution isn’t covering itself in glory over Greece, & is also failing again over international migration.

‘A bit o’ fencin, a bundle of sniffer dogs and some burly chaps – job done…’

Only, it’s not.

The international migration crisis from the Middle East & North Africa for me has been a long time in the making. Ever since the 1997 election I remember the newspaper headlines being an almost daily deluge of inflammatory headlines about immigrants & asylum seekers. William Hague let the genie out of the bottle in the late 1990s as a policy he could embarrass Labour on, which in part led to the rise of UKIP following Robert Kilroy-Silk’s intervention in the 2004 European Parliament elections, & UKIP has been around ever since.

At the same time, with the ascension of the 10 ‘new’ EU states, eight of which were former Warsaw Pact countries meant that the free movement of people (one of the founding principles of the EU) was extended to these new countries. At the time, the UK, Ireland & Sweden were the only countries that did not place any restrictions – not least because their economies were booming. The big mistake Labour made was not ensuring there was a corresponding increase in resources for public services in the areas that people moved to. (Combined with measures to regulate the banks and take the pressure off the property bubble).

What I’ve not seen – and what I think would be fascinating, is a widespread study of people’s experiences of moving from Eastern Europe to the UK – both those that stayed temporarily & those that settled. For example, children that moved to with their families from Eastern Europe to the UK at primary school age & stayed here may well have just picked up their A-level certificates. We hear from the newspapers & their columnists, but what about the people who lived the experience?

Power vacuums in North Africa and the fallout from the Iraq War II

Unlike in 2004 with the expansion of the EU which was agreed by politicians and governments, what’s happening in the Mediterranean seems to be showing politicians and governments at their most powerless & impotent. The most striking thing in all of this for me is the complete absence of international leadership. It’s as if both national governments and international institutions have been hollowed out to such an extent that no one has the competency or authority to get a grip with the situation in the way perhaps The Marshall Plan did in the late 1940s onwards.

Perhaps stung by past interventions, there seems to be no desire at an international level to take action / provide support for those areas & countries that people are leaving. The problem is that history is littered with failed ‘development’ programmes. Having had a strong ‘development studies’ component part to my economic degree, I found this article fascinating reading. The final few words of that article: “As outsiders, we don’t necessarily know what’s best.” But then, how many public policy types have for example gone out to where the migrants are and conversed with them? This is what Liberal Democrats leader Tim Farron MP has done, as have Green Party deputy leaders Shahrar Ali and Amelia Womack (the latter who I interviewed in Cambridge earlier this year) went to do in Calais. They joined their French counterparts on the visit. (See a video here).

These were their words before they made their visit. It’ll be interesting to see what impact their visit will have on their parties’ international policies at next month’s annual conferences. Would Labour politicians have done similar if they weren’t in the midst of leadership campaigns?

My point however, remains. International problems require international responses. Nation states, the EU, the UN and other international organisations have found themselves wanting in the face of this. What I think is really sad is that UK politicians – in particular those in government – have been nowhere near attempts at finding credible solutions. Instead, Mr Cameron uses terms like this, and his Foreign Secretary, this – having failed to demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of the problems, let alone showing any substantive foreign policy responses that might deal with it.

A failure of leadership?

Where is the EU-co-ordinated relief effort to help the public authorities on the Greek and Italian islands? Where are the high-profile co-ordinated UN missions to provide relief & support in those areas where migrants are coming from. Why isn’t the mainstream media pinning down ministers and asking them these difficult questions?

Where is the co-ordinated EU response supporting Greece? Where is the co-ordinated EU/UN response in those countries that m

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Charities paid by the state to deliver public services – lines of accountability


The fallout from Kids Company has led to questions about the role of charities delivering public services

My interest in this news item is primarily around public administration rather than frontline service delivery. I’ll try & refrain from commenting on the merits or otherwise of the work that Kids Company and their former chief executive Camilla Batmanghelidjh did working directly on the front line.

It was the ministerial direction sought by Richard Heaton, Permanent Secretary at Cabinet Office, that brought the issues into the mainstream news headlines.

“What is a ministerial direction?”

This is where the civil servants in a government department have such strong reservations about ‘value for money’ or propriety of a minister’s decision that they ask for a formal, public written direction to proceed. If a minister wants to go ahead and issue such a direction, the decision is made public and Parliament is formally notified in the form of a letter to the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee. Josh Harris of the Institute of Government explains more here.

“Why did the Permanent Secretary ask for a ministerial direction?”

Mr Heaton’s letter is absolutely crystal clear on this (the first of the two in this link). The organisation has not met the terms and conditions of an existing £4m+ grant and is therefore recommending against authorising a further £3m grant.

Whenever the government issues a grant of money to an organisation outside of the state, there are terms and conditions attached to it in the form of a grant funding agreement – a contract if you like. These ensure that the money is spent on what was agreed, and allow for the money to be claimed back if it is misspent or not spent at all. The greater the amount of money awarded to organisations, the closer the organisation is likely to be monitored and/or required to report on how that money was spent (& what it achieved).

Part of that monitoring is likely to include a requirement on the grant-receiving organisation to have their accounts audited annually, with a statement from the auditor saying that the figures in the organisation’s annual financial accounts are a fair and accurate statement of accounts. Cabinet Office has clearly had their eye on Kids Company as they directed auditors to carry out an audit on the latter’s governance systems & financial controls. Click on KidsCoAuditorsReport (which I’ve downloaded from http://www.kidsco.org.uk/about-us/annual-accounts & hosting separately just incase their website shuts down). There doesn’t seem to be anything substantial raised in that audit report other than cashflow.

It turns out that civil servants in the Department for Education had similar concerns – as former minister Tim Loughton MP stated publicly recently. A ministerial decision on whether to pay a grant or not is one where a minister follows the advice of civil servants. The minister is responsible for deciding the priorities, and civil servants work on the detail on how to deliver on them. It was perfectly reasonable for civil servants in the Department for Education in receipt of information about problems with Kids Company – or any other charity – to advise a minister against making further payments until such problems had been resolved. Interestingly, the links to previously public documents are now dead – so I’ve asked DfE via Twitter to update them.

‘Why are we in a position where a high profile charity working with such vulnerable people is seemingly so dependent on central government funding? Isn’t this a local government issue?”

In part, this is where the huge cuts to local government have come back to haunt ministers. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation investigated here. Local councils have statutory duties regarding vulnerable people – children & adults alike. We are reminded of this every time there is a high profile failure of people in care being abused. Something that seems to be all-too-frequent unfortunately.

As the cuts to local government have hit, so more and more people have become dependent on charities, and thus charities have faced an environment where funding is harder to come by while demand for their services is rising. We’ve seen recently the fallout in the news over aggressive fundraisers.

With Camila Batmanghelidjh, Kids Company had a high profile, media friendly leader who was clearly successful at lobbying for grants from central government. Charities and organisations lobbying for, and receiving grants from central government is not new. During my civil service days during Labour’s time in office, I remember a number of times where people from organisations would tell me what extra they could do if the government gave them more money. I recall one senior civil servant giving me advice on how not to get trapped into verbal commitments around funding early on at the start of one of my policy areas – which served me well.

This made me appreciate the systems and processes we had in place to ensure money was being spent properly – and that competing organisations had a fair chance to apply for whatever grant funding programmes were in place. The risk otherwise was that someone would have a chat with a minister and the minister would direct the money be handed over without any scrutiny or due process. Can you imagine the temptation for a minister to get a disproportionate amount of grant funding for programs in their own constituency? Exactly. That’s why we have systems to uphold propriety.

“A disproportionate amount of civil servants and ministers time on one organisation?”

This bit is about the structure of the state, not about Kids Company. The statement on the website of the latter states they have eleven outreach centres in London & Bristol, & an outreach project in Liverpool. The fact that its closure has embroiled the Prime Minister and two government departments is a reflection of the over-centralised state we have in the UK, & England in particular.

After the 2010 general election there was a big change in the face of austerity. The days of large centrally-managed grant-funded community regeneration programs were over. My final job in the civil service involved closing down one such big-spending program – the New Deal for Communities Programme.  It was in this post that I learnt to appreciate the limitations of such centrally-managed programs – and how the real challenge was (& still is) improving local councils. The academies policy with schools at the Department for Education is one example of where successive governments have taken power away from local government to run things centrally, rather than taking on the harder challenge of overhauling local government. As with academies, when you outsource to charities or to the private sector, accountability becomes more contractual and less about citizenship & democracy.

“Should any ministers resign?”

Ministers have resigned over less, but for me the question is whether this was a failure of policy. Jill Rutter of the Institute for Government is spot on here – by the sounds of things having experienced an almost identical case during her time at DEFRA. It sounds like ministers Matt Hancock MP & Oliver Letwin MP were incredibly inspired by the work that Kids Company did – as they stated in their letter confirming the ministerial direction, or they did not want to have the battle in the media that Mr Heaton’s advice to pull funding would have led to. As it turns out, Mr Heaton’s judgement on the grounds he set out, in my opinion was the correct one – and that he’s also been proved right by events. That is not to cast a cloud on the work and achievements the frontline staff & volunteers have done in what sound like incredibly challenging circumstances.

More broadly, I concur with Jill Rutter’s conclusion in her blogpost on the not-for-profit/third sector. There needs to be greater transparency & consolidation across the sector. By the sounds of things, the revolving doors often complained about in public & corporate sectors seems to be an issue in this sector too.

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Local democracy social media – comparing political parties in Cambridge post-2015 elections


Some thoughts following tweets & posts from Labour’s Cllr Carina O’Reilly & Lib Dem former councillor Daisy Benson

The Twitter post concerned is as below:

Ms Benson’s blogpost on old vs new party members (in the context of Liberal Democrats – but is worth reading by all parties) is at https://englandisthehomeoflostideas.wordpress.com/2015/08/01/how-libdemfightback-found-its-voice-and-is-teaching-us-oldies-a-lesson/

Longtime readers may be familiar with my ongoing persistent poking of local political parties to improve how they use social media to have conversations with local residents and activists in & around Cambridge. It was one of the main drivers of Puffles standing for election in 2014. (89 votes – beat UKIP :-) )

Political parties aren’t under any obligation to tell me anything as per Cllr O’Reilly’s post. What Labour or any other party chooses to tell people is entirely up to them. What I’m examining here is the impact, and a comparison of approaches. Let’s have a look at the four parties represented on Cambridge City Council.

Cambridge Conservatives:

Cambridge Green Party

Cambridge Labour Party

Cambridge Liberal Democrats

Now, compared to where we were a few years ago, nominally we now have full coverage on the three main social media platforms: A website, Twitter & Facebook. Progress.

“Here we go again. Crazy dragon dude saying Twitter will win elections. It’s door-to-door campaigning that matters!”

If anything, from where I was watching it was the sustained campaign by the print media that had a massive impact on the election campaign. 2015 wasn’t the social media election. It was the national newspapers’ election. My anecdotal take on the print media is that most people (thinking those that don’t follow day-to-day politics closely) don’t buy their newspaper of choice because of their political coverage – especially the tabloids. With some of my old housemates it was things like crosswords, sport, jubblies, celebrity gossip and the TV guide. Yet if that newspaper is the only insight into politics that you have on a daily basis…exactly. Then picture the doorstep conversation with a political activist:

Resident: “Yeah – wot is your party doing about asylum-seeking terrorists living in five-star hotels that we’re paying for?”

Party activist: “That’s simply not true!”

Resident: “Are you calling me a liar?!?!”

And thus the party activist is automatically on the back foot. This is even though we as a society have issues about how informed we are about things – on refugees in 2000, on just about everything in 2013, and on just about everything again in 2014. Hence various calls in 2015 to improve the teaching of politics & citizenship in schools in the run up to 2015.

“If it’s all mainstream media, why bother with social media?”

In the context of Cambridge, it matters because of the big changes that are happening here and some of the devolution of funding & powers looming with the City Deal (which far too few people know about). With local news outlets having a very limited capacity to cover politics, social media allows local journalists in particular to follow what’s going on without having to attend every single meeting. You only need to look at the number of videos Richard Taylor and I have had embedded in news articles for the Cambridge News. It’s also why I’m experimenting with ‘Introducing…’ videos such as the one below.

That video alone has had a total 4 hours of video footage viewed by over 70 people with almost zero publicity.

“Yeah – but why should our members-only society tell you stuff? You might leak it to opponents!”

From my perspective that would completely undermine everything I’m trying to do to get more people involved in local democracy. The reason why I’m doing this is I want to see decision-making improved in the city because I want my home town to be a better place, not an expanded finishing school for ‘crammers‘ or a safe haven for property speculators. The difference I can make is to get more people involved, and in order to do this I continue to persuade local political parties to make it easier for new people, members or not, to get involved with them. This is because they are the ones with the powers & influence. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read a reader’s letter in the local paper about how someone must do something about bad stuff happening in the city other than ‘clowncillors’. What if you are that ‘somebody’?

“We’re still not going to tell you what we’re doing!”

This is where we get into the comparison of approaches online. Let’s compare the Facebook pages of the parties.

  • Conservatives https://www.facebook.com/CambridgeTories – 605 ‘likes’
  • Greens https://www.facebook.com/Cambridgegreenparty – 997 ‘likes’
  • Labour https://www.facebook.com/CambridgeLabourParty – 404 ‘likes’
  • Liberal Democrats https://www.facebook.com/CambridgeLDs – 191 ‘likes’

Not a patch on the over 5,000 fans of the Disco Kenny Appreciation Society. What we don’t know is the geographical distribution of the fans. But given that all bar four of the councillors on Cambridge City Council are Labour or Liberal Democrat councillors, it’s interesting to see that both the Greens & Conservatives have more fans on Facebook. As far as content & activities are concerned, The Greens upload a greater volume of more diverse content more regularly. Video footage, party events, links to national party news, links to national party announcements. Even if I didn’t do what I do following local democracy, as a local resident I feel more informed about what’s going on in The Greens locally than what’s going on with other parties.

Leadership debates – a missed opportunity for both Labour and the Liberal Democrats?

Liberal Democrats’ leadership

The Lib Dems had a hustings in Cambridge in the contest between Tim Farron & Norman Lamb. The hustings was a members only affair – hence why I didn’t go along to it but had a number of friends – a few who are new members, who did. Given Mr Farron’s electrifying speech following his subsequent victory over Mr Lamb, I wonder what the impact would have been if a full hustings and Q&A session had been made open to anyone who wanted to go along. See below for Mr Farron’s speech

Ms Benson (https://twitter.com/_DaisyBenson on Twitter) has been persistent in calling for changes in her party – in particular on diversifying membership of, and candidates for her party.

The Newbies group is a public group, established groups tend to be secret…The main difference I’ve observed between the Newbies Facebook group and others that abound in the Lib Dems is in terms of tone –  posts and comments tend to be generally positive, hopeful, open and discursive.

In Cambridge, this autumn could have a significant impact on what happens to the Liberal Democrats. In the 12 months leading up to the general election, I attended a number of events hosted by Cambridge Student Liberal Democrats. I couldn’t help but notice how few women there were at those events. This was despite the visits of Lynne Featherstone (video https://vimeo.com/120850313 & Jo Swinson (video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jip3E3yI-Jc) and Baroness Sal Brinton (video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wsg8GqkBCJo) amongst others. I’ll be interested to see what the demographics of the new membership is locally, given that over 10,000 people have joined the Liberal Democrats nationally since the general election. (Anyone got the numbers for Cambridge & South Cambridgeshire?)

Labour leadership

Both Andy Burnham and Tom Watson have been in Cambridge recently to talk to Labour Party members and activists. A couple of friends who weren’t members went along to Mr Watson’s talk & found out it was open to everyone. I’ve met Mr Watson on a couple of occasions before – someone more than capable of holding his own in a debate. So why so little publicity whether online or offline of his visit? If you’ve got some of your most high profile politicians visiting the city, doesn’t it make sense to enable them to meet as many people as possible? Yet as Cllr O’Reilly tweeted just now:

This brings me back to the mindset & culture issue that Ms Benson raised in her blogpost.

Let’s stop shutting people and conduct our discussions in open forum – not exclusively or behind closed doors.

Compare it with the blogpost by Guardian Columnist and Labour Party member Alex Andreou – read from the sub-heading: Labour as a private members club at https://sturdyblog.wordpress.com/2015/08/02/on-labour-being-taken-over-by-lefties/

“But your not a member. Why would we want to publicise when and where our members meet and socialise?”

For me, that mindset is completely at odds with the builders of the Romsey Town Labour Club in Cambridge whose members not only raised the money for a party social club, but who also built it in their spare time too. Next door is the Conservative Club, a place now more well-known locally for its salsa classes than for its politics. Where are the informal places that the wider community can go to knowing that they might bump into one of their local politicians? Or am I imagining an age that no longer exists?

Making gatherings energised, interesting & exciting

Over the past year I have been to events hosted by The Greens, The Liberal Democrats & The Labour Party – and all have been able to host events that are as in the sub-heading. Hence (finally) coming to the purpose of this blogpost:

To encourage local political parties to make more of their events explicitly open to non-members, and to publicise them more widely in the run up to the autumn term


Because I’ve found that when people meet and have informal conversations with politicians local & national, it helps dispel some of the negative stereotypes about politicians and politics in general. It’s one of the reasons why in 2013-14 I was creating, printing & displaying posters (at my own expense) in community venues and local colleges where current & former ministers were speaking in Cambridge.

From the perspective of Labour, The Liberal Democrats & The Greens, they should consider that several thousand 16-17 year olds are going to be starting further education in Cambridge having previously attended village colleges & schools outside the city – in constituencies & council areas dominated by their Conservative opponents. (Both Heidi Allen MP & Lucy Frazer MP got over 50% of the vote in South Cambs & South East Cambs in 2015 respectively). Can your city parties help revitalise your rural parties? For the Conservatives, it’s the other way around – where in Cambridge the party was in the lowest 10% of constituency voter share despite it winning the general election.

In a nutshell though:

  • Make it easy for the general public to find out about what events & activities you are organising (& be far less secretive about it)
  • Host events in venues that are accessible for people – think public transport/car parking (I have made the mistake of organising events in places not accessible by wheelchair – a big issue for venues in Cambridge)
  • Go out of your way to make new faces feel welcome at such gatherings

After all, make us feel welcome at a buzzing event and we’re more likely to tell people about it. :-)

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