Mobile video, the elections & local campaigns – case study in Cambridge with Emily Thornberry MP


Make it easier for community reporters to film & interview your candidates & activists, and you too could get a stack load of free footage that works away while you sleep

Being a community reporter is a surprisingly lonely business even when you are surrounded by lots and lots of people. I counted nearly 30 people who turned up for a canvassing session for the Romsey Labour Party in Cambridge – Romsey Town historically being a working class community in Cambridge where you had lots of people employed on the railways, people who worked in agriculture and also as I found out, a sizeable membership of the co-operative movement. Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry was scheduled to pay a visit, and Romsey Labour Party tweeted me in advance.

Emily Thornberry MP and Romsey Labour, Cambridge. 22 Apr 2017

Some of the people who turned out to meet Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry MP on Mill Road, Cambridge.

My video interviews

As I’ve stated before, my interview style is to inform the interviewee of the questions I’m going to ask before recording. This is because I want interviewees to give informed and extended answers without interruptions from me. I could have gone in with a series of hostile questions and an aggressive line of questioning, but that’s what the mainstream media does. I try to be different and go for the challenge of putting politicians and holders of public office in a more positive light – especially given the state of our democracy.

I saved the three interview clips with Ms Thornberry in the playlist of Labour election videos here. As I mentioned at the start of 2017, my deal for local candidates standing for election in and around Cambridge is an offer to film free short introduction videos. (I now have videos from four of the five parties standing in Cambridge). At the same time I also encourage people to donate to help cover my filming expenses.


So if you can afford it, please do. (Also, ***a big thank you*** for those of you that already have – your support is extremely welcome and helps promote democracy (and an improved understanding of it) across our city). From the Petersfield hustings and the campaigns today, I’ve had over 200 views of videos I have uploaded, so people are watching. For the whole of 2014, so nearly four months, I’ve had over 13,000 views and over 35,000 minutes of footage viewed – an incredible figure given the relatively small geographical area I cover.

Asking about the post-EU Referendum period

The Foreign Affairs Select Committee was scathing about the failure of the Government to do any contingency planning for a Brexit vote – as this newspaper report explains. The select committee itself wrote as follows:

“The previous Government’s considered view not to instruct key Departments including the FCO to plan for the possibility that the electorate would vote to leave the EU amounted to gross negligence. It has exacerbated post-referendum uncertainty both within the UK and amongst key international partners, and made the task now facing the new Government substantially more difficult.” [Para 19]

So I invited Ms Thornberry to comment.

The Shadow Foreign Secretary on the lack of contingency plans for leaving the EU

Open question, allow interviewee to respond at length, publish, publicise – and then let the viewer come to their own conclusion.

Enabling the public to hear candidates in their own voices, and having an historical record of senior national politicians visiting and speaking in Cambridge

It’s easy to forget that in reporting on all of this, I’m not just trying to be a sort-of-journalist, but also I’m creating content for the historians of the future. I intend to be long gone before the historians of 100 years time and beyond try to work out what was happening around the time of the UK leaving the EU. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is because my heart’s sort of in tears because we have no video or audio recordings of the Cambridge Heroes such as Eglantyne Jebb and Florence Ada Keynes in my Lost Cambridge project. It wasn’t for a lack of technology at the time.

Lots of photos, tweets, and video footage for local campaigners

We live in a world where mainstream and local publications are shrinking in terms of readership and funds to pay for qualified full time journalists. Incredibly sad I believe for civic society generally. It also means that there are fewer journalists and publications targeted by the same – if not growing number of institutions for press releases. Basically if you’ve not got that in-house capacity to create your own content, you need someone else to do it for you. Furthermore, the intermediary will also influence how the public judges the content – ie if it’s from an official party source or if it’s from someone independent of those parties.

Pioneers in and around Cambridge

Over the past few years it has been the Cambridge Green Party that has been the most innovative, open and accessible when it comes to media access and content creation. They now regularly create their own video content on mobile phones and upload them directly to their Facebook page.

Not surprisingly, other parties are beginning to pick up on this – most recently some of the Liberal Democrats in Cambridge such as Nicky Shepard standing in Abbey Division. Both parties have noticeably started using paid targeted social media pitches for their video content. It’ll be interesting to see what impact this has at a local level.

I may be an insecure, attention-seeking politics junkie at the best of times, but I don’t want and don’t need to be everywhere

Not least because my health won’t let me. I generally take the view that if someone else is filming a hustings or political debate, especially in the run up to an election, then I don’t need to be there. The nicest feedback I get from people is when they tell me they were able to watch the footage of a meeting that I had filmed. Generally it only needs a handful of people to watch such footage for me to feel that it was well worth attending, filming, editing & publishing. This is because I know there is a high chance that the viewers are going to act upon what they have heard/watched. No one sits through a 2 hour council meeting video and does nothing with what they heard. Whether it’s a conversation, an email, a contribution to a meeting, it’s these hundreds of ‘micro-actions’ that strengthen our democracies.

Message to local political parties?

Just give me a little advance notice and more often than not I can rock up with a camcorder and create some video content. What a lot of you miss is some of the coaching and retakes that I also take interviewees through. I want good quality footage just as much as the interviewee. If the footage is really poor, I won’t publish it. The advantage of video for candidates is that it’s your face and your voice that’s doing the work potentially while you are asleep. Take Lib Dems candidate for Petersfield, Emma Bates below.

Emma Bates of Cambridge Liberal Democrats, standing in Petersfield Division for the Cambridgeshire County Council elections on 04 May 2017.

Over 30 views in the first 24 hours of the video being uploaded, and even more on Facebook where it’s also been uploaded to party pages. Given that the average viewing time of my videos hovers around the 2 minute mark (and was at this level before I started making these short election intro clips), a short intro video is often all that is needed for residents to decide if they want to give your candidate a further hearing or not, and/or whether the candidate is someone they would want to vote for. It may sound like a very small number of views, but remember we are talking a very short space of time, a technique still in its infancy, institutions not embedding social media in mainstream communications, an election where the winner doesn’t end up with a huge amount of power, in a geographically confined area at an event that had very limited publicity. As time progresses, these variables will inevitably change.

It’s not the stuff that’ll replace door-to-door, but it is the sort of content that can easily appear in people’s social media feeds for people to watch/listen to when in a cafe, on a bus, in a waiting room etc. And every other person under the age of 30 seems to have headphones on these days – the very cohort conspicuous by their absence in local democracy.



This general election is designed to frustrate & infuriate


The Conservatives’ refusal to give journalists access to senior politicians and policy makers bodes ill for our politics – whichever side of the EU Referendum debate you were on

I woke up to this tweet from Gaby Hinsliff

…followed by this from the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg

…followed by this extraordinary exchange with Adam Boulton being taken to task by former Mayor of Cambridge, Barry Gardiner of Labour.

…finished off by a Conservative no-show on a flagship national news programme.

That’s to say nothing of the rightwing tabloid press with one headline inciting fascism

…and then telling everyone to calm down, clarifying that it wasn’t calling for mass killings…which is nice to know.

Compare the stage-managed politics to what John Major was doing in the early 1990s

So it looks like…

  • The Conservative top brass will sit back and let the print media do their campaigning for them…
  • …while giving the broadcast media nothing but the Labour campaign to focus on – hoping that Corbyn and co will be given enough media rope to metaphorically and politically hang themselves on (and with Seumas Milne running the operation, the chances of that are raised given his record of media relations since Corbyn came in – see Paul Waugh here)
  • …and hoping that the Liberal Democrats are still too small and financially stretched to have any impact on the final result, despite their recent spikes in membership – including…

…an additional 50 in Cambridge according to Cambridge blogger and Lib Dem, Phil Rodgers.

Daniel Zeichner vs Julian Huppert – the rematch in Cambridge

This will be a fascinating rematch between two of Cambridge’s most high profile politicians of recent times. This was my take just before the election in 2015.

In the end, Mr Zeichner edged out Dr Huppert – the latter being the incumbent – by 599 votes. The Greens historically got their highest share of the vote in the city’s history – 7.9%, while the Conservatives got their lowest in their history – 15.7%, shortly after which they were to lose their only seat on Cambridge City Council. An incredibly long fall from the 1980s when the Conservatives controlled the City Council and held the parliamentary seat with the historian Robert Rhodes James.

Cambridge Universities Labour Club played a huge role in getting Mr Zeichner elected. The cynic in me says that the Conservatives chose 08 June as the polling day because so many young people will be slap bang in the middle of exams. Thus the ability for anyone doing A-levels or university exams will be extremely curtailed campaigning-wise because they’ll be revising. Or potentially putting their future careers at risk if they campaign at the expense of revising. A horrible, horrible decision by those in power to put young people in such a position. It only goes to reinforce the view that the political establishment views young people with contempt.

The bookies predict Lib Dems, but don’t underestimate Labour’s deep community roots

Social media chatter alone indicates a surge of support for Julian Huppert as an individual, one not matched by Daniel Zeichner. But as I commented in 2015, the election campaigns here was very much Brand Julian vs Labour Steamroller. Despite the problems Mr Corbyn has faced, I don’t get the sense that the Cambridge Labour Party has been significantly damaged by it. They have too many councillors and activists who have been active across the city over an extended period of time for them to be dislodged easily in a single general election. Furthermore, for those on Labour’s left wing, this is their moment: Their leader of choice with their manifesto of choice are now going to the polls. Time to get out of the doors and campaign, because another chance like this for them may not come around for another generation.

In one sense, Labour has a slight advantage in that their team is already large, trained and functioning. The Liberal Democrats have, like The Greens last time around, taken on a huge number of new members, many of whom will not have been through such a campaign/will be new to party politics, so will take time to train up. That said, in terms of numbers of campaigners and morale of the campaigns, both parties are in very different places compared to 2015. Mr Zeichner inevitably has to respond to criticism of his leader’s performance in the EU Referendum, while Dr Huppert is no longer burdened by responsibilities of his party in government, while at the same time knowing that his party is going into this election on the back of an impressive run of victories in local council by-elections across the country.

Return of some experienced hands?

We saw a number of announcements of former MPs restanding, the most high profile being former Business Secretary Vince Cable announcing his candidature in Twickenham.

There are a host of former Lib Dem MPs re-standing – see Mark Pack’s post here. In a “Puffles knew them before they were famous!” spirit, I’ll be keeping an eye on Kelly-Marie Blundell (Lewes) and Daisy Benson (Yeovil) who stuck with the Lib Dems through some very dark times to land the chances to regain seats previously held by Lib Dem MPs in areas seen as their party’s heartlands.

I was delighted to read of Jo Swinson’s intention to stand for election in her former constituency.

I interviewed her when she visited Cambridge. Here’s her message on getting involved in politics.

One of the nicest people in politics, as a former minister, should she be re-elected she’ll be a huge asset to the Liberal Democrats, to the House of Commons, and to the cause of women in politics generally.

I was also glad to see Heidi Allen announcing her intention to re-stand too, as well as Stella Creasy.

“For Remain-leaning people, what’s the best outcome?”

Professor Mary Beard asked this question earlier in this blogpost.

She ends on this:

“So lets trust us citizens to have some serious, informed, technical discussions beyond the slogans of ‘taking back control’, or ‘making Britain great again’ — or patting us on the head.”

The problem is that the print media at least, don’t seem to trust the citizens. The same seems to be the case for too many of the party handlers. Hence why for me, the Democracy Club’s Who Can I Vote For? site becomes more important – along with civic society institutions that are organising public debates in constituencies. For me it’s even more important that these are filmed – even if it’s just the opening statements from candidates. That way local people can see and hear the candidates in their own voices and judge accordingly. It’s why I filmed one hustings in Queen Edith’s for the Cambridgeshire County Council elections earlier, and will be doing the same the day after in Petersfield for the same elections.

***Because Democracy***

They say freedom isn’t free and that democracy is not a spectator sport. With my filming of local hustings, I hope that as many of you as possible can see and hear the candidates standing for election in their own voices. If you can afford to contribute to my costs of filming and editing, I would be most grateful. Please click on the button below.




Tactically brilliant but strategically weak?


On the looming general election – assuming Parliament as expected approves the Government’s motion to call a general election under the Fixed Term Parliament Act.

I had a strange sense of foreboding when I read a tweet giving advance notice of the Prime Minister making an important statement outside Downing Street. It couldn’t be anything other than a general election – otherwise it would have been announced in the House of Commons.

Out of all of the social media posts that I saw during the say, the one that stood out for me was Richard Murphy’s one.

Essentially it gives Theresa May an extra two years to manage the post-Brexit situation should there be an economic hit when the UK leaves the EU. You can read his full thoughts in this blogpost.

UK-wide opposition parties starting from weak points

Given the fortunes of Labour, the Lib Dems, and UKIP, if the polls are to be trusted (big ‘if’) then they are all in very weak positions compared to the Conservatives. The Greens, despite polling their highest number of votes ever in 2015 still only have 1 MP – Caroline Lucas. Watching Emily Thornberry’s woeful performance on Newsnight last night indicates that the decision to go to the polls was tactically spot on. When Evan Davis stated that unlike the Tories or the Lib Dems, Labour hasn’t got a strong, clear collective position on Brexit, she responded:

“We haven’t decided which side we’re on yet”

The Shadow Foreign Secretary tried to claw back, stating that as a party wanting to represent the whole country, this was a position of strength – trying to cover all bases. The problem with trying to cover all bases is that you risk end up covering none. If this is “The Brexit Election” as the media commentators are making out that it is, then there is no middle ground.

With the Lib Dems having been crushed in 2015, have they recovered enough to present enough of a threat to the Conservatives? Unlike previous general elections, the Lib Dems don’t have this huge slate of reasonably well-known politicians to appear on the TV shows. Hence lower TV coverage since the 2015 general election. That said, this election is a huge opportunity for them to repair some of the damage done that year. One big question is to what extent has the electorate that voted for them in 2010 but abandoned them in 2015 forgiven them for their record in coalition?

The Greens polled a million votes in 2015 – their highest ever, and UKIP 4 million. With the loss of Douglas Carswell MP (will he stand as an independent?) as their only MP, with Nigel gone off to pastures new – will he really want to restand given that Brexit is, as far as he is concerned, in the bag?, will many UKIP voters switch to the Tories to deliver Brexit? Or will the 2015 UKIP voters feel that Brexit is not secure yet and that UKIP need to stay in place in order to keep the pressure up on the Conservatives to deliver?

Strategically weak?

The decision to do no contingency planning meant the Conservatives already had a structural strategic weakness built in – utterly self-inflicted under Cameron but one signed off by both Theresa May as Home Secretary and her Chancellor Philip Hammond who was the Foreign Secretary. The Conservative Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee didn’t pull his punches in describing that decision as an act of gross negligence. (See the news report in The Guardian here too).

There are a host of other ‘delivery issues’ that have come up since the start of the year as it has become more clear what leaving the EU will ultimately entail – debates that we should have had long before the referendum itself. It reflects badly on Whitehall and Westminster that they did not ensure these issues were debated publicly at a high enough profile so as to engage and inform the public.

Resigned to the Conservatives winning?

It looks like it, doesn’t it?

…If the media noise is to be believed. But then at least one has gone full 1930s rabid.

For pro-Remainers, their only realistic hope is that enough candidates who back their views are returned irrespective of party. As far as England is concerned, that generally means hoping that any gains made by the Conservatives are more than matched by gains for the Liberal Democrats or Pro-EU Labour candidates. Note the Greens will be looking at Bristol West as a target for their second seat in the Commons, given they polled over 17,000 votes there in 2015.

And in/around Cambridge?

I’m going for ‘It’s too close to call’ again.

Phil Rodgers’ analysis is here. Given the two leading candidates – Daniel Zeichner of Labour (the incumbent who won by 599 votes last time) and Julian Huppert have both been very high profile pro-EU figures in the local media, it’s not nearly so straight-forward a call to assume that pro-EU voters in a strong remain-voting constituency will switch from Labour to the Liberal Democrats. Given that both have experience of being MP for Cambridge – one of the most demanding constituencies in the country as far as amount of casework combined with extremely high expectations and demands of constituents, the losing candidate won’t have lost because of lack of effort.

The Greens have got Stuart Tuckwood as their candidate this time around. A nurse at Addenbrooke’s, he stood in Market Ward at the local elections in 2016. The Conservatives and UKIP are yet to declare candidates. There is also always the chance of an independent or two putting themselves forward as happened in the previous two general elections. Puffles won’t be one of them though!

Around Cambridge in South Cambridgeshire to the west, and South East Cambridgeshire to the east of Cambridge, I expect Heidi Allen and Lucy Frazer to re-stand. Despite the strong ‘Remain’ votes in Cambridge & South Cambridgeshire district council areas, I still expect both to be re-elected, though perhaps on smaller majorities than their 50% figures from the last time around. The other complicating local factor in and around Cambridge is the Greater Cambridge City Deal – which has resulted in a number of local protest campaigns against some of the plans over the last couple of years. Will this have an impact on voting patterns not just at the general election but at the Cambridgeshire County Council elections on 04 May? To what extent will the county elections reflect what might happen for the parliamentary elections here? We shall see.

Parents: Lend your vote to your children!


An idea on how to get the voice of children and young people heard in the snap 2015 general election.

The idea is straight-forward:

Parents: ask your children to do the research, and make a recommendation on who to vote for.

  1. Find out who the candidates are –
  2. Discuss and decide what criteria you want to judge candidates and manifestos on – what are the issues and how important is each one to them?
  3. Ask them to read the manifestoes
  4. Ask them to come up with a list of Qs to put to all of the candidates standing in your area
  5. You email the text of the questions to all of the candidates – telling them that your children will be reading their answers and making a recommendation on who to vote for on the basis of those answers – a recommendation you’ll follow through
  6. Ask your children to read the answers and make a recommendation
  7. Take your children to the polling station on voting day
  8. Vote according to their recommendation

Job done – and your children get to take part in democracy in action.

I’m bored of moaning about Cambridge’s bland new buildings


And the root of the clash between architects and local residents is in the structure of our systems of planning, politics and big finance

There was a powerful series of tweets by Oliver Bullough on Twitter earlier about how the UK Government is complicit through its inaction over ‘dirty money’ and its impact on UK house prices.

170412 OliverBulloughDirtyMoneyUKHousingThread

In 4/6 you’ll notice that, as with the planning system, public sector cannot compete with the private sector. I’ve lost count of the number of people locally who tell me that the private sector regularly poach staff from Cambridge City Council’s planning team. But who can blame staff for moving given these ratios of income to housing?

Earlier today, the Standard (which will see Mr Osborne taking up shop as editor, a widely criticised move given he has no experience of such a job) actually published a powerful article on the impact of ‘buy to leave’ by Simon Jenkins – a former newspaper editor himself. Do parts of Cambridge risk this? I note at local councils are willing to release some information about empty commercial properties, but not about empty residential properties other than the totals per year in a local authority’s geographical area.

Does The Government have a policy on reducing the prevalence of empty new homes?

12 months ago, ministers released this statement. What assessment have they made on the impacts of those policies? Are there datasets that they could be collecting but are not? Might be worth asking directly – in particular the points that Mr Bullough has made above.

On design and planning permission

I’ve been attending and filming a number of planning committee meetings over the last six months. One consistent theme that comes up time and again is poor design. Unfortunately this is one area where local councils seem to have extremely limited powers to refuse planning applications – even though this useful blogpost on how to object to planning applications by Martin Goodhall, a Legal Associate of the Royal Town Planning Institute indicates otherwise.

“Isn’t ‘design’ a very subjective thing anyway?”

It is. Also, the last thing any place wants is one person imposing their views onto an entire city. I wouldn’t even wish for my home town of Cambridge to have my views on planning and design to be imposed on the city. In the grand scheme of things, I’m more interested in the fairness, accessibility and usability of the process by which the general public can get involved in shaping our homes, neighbourhoods and places we live in. (i.e villages, towns and cities). Unpopular architecture for me is a symptom that something has gone badly wrong with the controls, systems and processes by which a city functions. That London can be littered with empty tower blocks of unoccupied luxury apartments while ‘demand’ continues to rise (and few ministers are brave enough to address where this ‘demand’ is coming from, let alone do anything substantial about it) is a symptom that something has gone very wrong with our politics, our economics, and our societies. Even more so given the homelessness crisis that we have – something that remains visible in Cambridge.

Who has time to go through planning applications in detail?

This for me is one of the fundamental structural problems faced by many towns and cities – not just Cambridge. The culture of long working hours (in part made worse by high housing and rental prices) combined with long commutes means that fewer people in full time work have the time, let alone the energy to put their minds to what is happening in their communities. Scrutiny matters.

In Cambridge, we’re very fortunate to have a critical mass of of residents who have the time, passion, the education (it takes months to become familiar with the language and legalese used in these fields) and also the resources to scrutinise what’s happening to our city and make decision makers at least think twice about what they are doing. But resident groups alone will never be enough to face down big corporates on schemes valued in the £hundreds of millions. If anything, it’s that complexity that is a barrier in itself to more people getting involved. Given the technology we have, shouldn’t we be using maps and pictures much more instead of text? (He says…typing a blogpost).

Councillors, planners and architects in the firing line?

On one side, you could say they don’t help themselves. On the other hand, they are only functioning in a system that is not of their making – and get railroaded into things that were decided by much more powerful interests. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve posted on social media that the fault of unpopular developments is not the fault of councillors but of a system imposed by ministers lobbied heavily by developers and rubber-stamped by Parliament.

“So…now what?”

I’ve blogged about planning workshops and the like. But such things will have their limitations – not least a very small audience. Everything keeps coming back to the problems of how our city is run. But then that leads back all the way to Whitehall and Westminster who, in the grand scheme of things have no appetite to overhaul how our cities should be run.

And when you start looking at the scale of the challenge, you end up feeling very, very, very small. And overwhelmed. And crushed.


Why the future of Cambridge’s transport needs to incorporate all things leisure, art and heritage


On why so many people miss out on three of our historic gems – and how accessibility matters to make sport for all

It was Faye Holland who raised the issue of Cambridge needing a second city/civic centre most recently at Grant Thornton’s Vibrant Cambridge event.

At some stage, Cambridge is going to need it. The incremental growth at the moment risks the slow, growing swamp of suburbia that inevitably stem from developments that never build the much-needed community and civic infrastructure. Not that the larger developments are coming up with the ground breaking, awe-inspiring buildings that have the *Wow!* factor inside and out. All too often even when there is the chance for something great and wonderful, the developers tell the architects to get out their Etch-a-sketches ***because profit margins***.  But it wasn’t always like this in Cambridge, as our local Royal Institute for British Architecture told Puffles.

I was in one of the Victorian buildings earlier today – All Saints Church.

Cambridge historian, Dr Sean Lang of Anglia Ruskin University presents this documentary on the building.

As Dr Lang explains 13 mins in, the church was earmarked for closure. The people who would otherwise have made up the congregations had moved out to the growing suburbs of post-war Cambridge – places like Arbury. The old inner city slums and working class areas were replaced either by lower density housing, student accommodation or expanded colleges. That combined with the fall in church attendances, along with rising costs of maintaining increasingly aged buildings meant somethings were going to have to give.

Buses and cars breaking up the natural flow of pedestrians

My simple take is that bus routes, lorry deliveries and cars have disrupted one of the natural flows of pedestrians.


Screenshot from Googlemaps.

You can see All Saints in the centre-right of the map. Buses go down Jesus Lane, Manor Street, Park Street and Round Church Street. Much of the accommodation that Dr Lang says was once occupied by locals east of Manor Street is now either lower density housing association accommodation or student accommodation for Cambridge University Colleges. Wonderful as the inside of Sidney Sussex College is (and it really is), the narrow pavements and high walls don’t invite anyone to walk down the streets – especially with buses, lorries, and in more recent times, recklessly driven cars with illegally loud engines going past.

Museum of Technology – off the beaten track too

If you follow the road down Jesus Lane eastwards, you get to Maids’ Causeway and then onto Newmarket Road.


Newmarket Road – and the bottom left of the snapshot above. The Museum of Technology is in the top right. Where Tesco is was once the Cambridge Gas Works. The Museum is going through a transformation thanks to a big lottery grant. It’s a site that has so much potential that I really hope the grant helps it reach it. Personally I think the city should have kept one of the old gasometers – the big one in this photo being the last to go. A shame they couldn’t do something like London did here.

The problem with the site – or rather the road infrastructure, is that it’s too far away from the museum. The part of the museum that borders the riverside doesn’t make it nearly as clear as it could do where the main entrance is.

Cambridge United Football Club

Further east along Newmarket Road is the Abbey Stadium. (It’ll always be called that for me irrespective of who sponsors it).


Bottom left is the Museum of Technology, and bottom-right is Cambridge United FC.

You can see two bus stops either side of Newmarket Road, but on match day the road gets blocked completely by thousands of football fans. For decades, fans have been frustrated by the incredibly poor infrastructure to get people to and from the stadium. One of the hopes with the new north-south Cambridge cycle path – the Chisholm Trail – will take away some of the road traffic as a direct, high quality cycle path makes cycling much easier from more parts of the city.

There are no road routes out north or south. North you have Stourbridge Common and Ditton Meadows. The attempt to complete the planned eastern ring road were thwarted when residents understandably rebelled against the Holford Wright plans to build a dual carriage way over the aforementioned meadows. South of the stadium you have Coldhams Common – again, not something that Cambridge wants to build anything on. These are our green lungs doing what they can to help improve our shockingly poor air quality.

This is why, short of a stadium move – repeatedly blocked by successive local councils, the Cambridge Connect Light Rail project – and Extension A, are ever so important.

cambridgeconnect_newtonline_extensiona_v5-0If Cambridge gets this network – a very very big ‘if’, then well-designed footpaths and cycle paths could open up what is a part of town that’s not pleasant for pedestrians. Car parks take up a lot of space and are not pleasant to walk across. You feel like you are in the way of the cars.

An alternative city centre?

I’ve suggested before that Cambridge could move Marshall’s Airport out to Mildenhall and build a railway line to it, through to and circling Norwich to connect the University of East Anglia and Norwich Airport by rail, before going onto Great Yarmouth.


The moving of the airport was also something that was suggested in the old Cambridge Futures Project. See Option 4 here. (The other options are here). This is where I agree with Faye Holland in that Cambridge needs an alternative city/civic centre, and needs something other than retail to build it around. The question is where you put it. In one sense, the Northwest Cambridge site is on its way to becoming an engineering centre, Addenbrooke’s a biotech centre, and the existing centre an historical centre/tourist day trip hell hole [delete as appropriate].

The problem I always come back to is that the city authorities do not have the legal powers, financial powers or the tax raising powers to manage our city. The lines of accountability don’t head towards a single unit/institution in the town centre, but away – whether to a Police & Crime Commissioner based in Huntingdon, this new executive mayor who will be county-based & cover Peterborough, a city bigger than Cambridge with its own cathedral, (Cambridge falls under the bishopric of Ely with its magnificent cathedral in the fens. It’s not King’s College Chapel – King’s doesn’t have a bishops throne).

The Leisure case by Cambridge City Council and South Cambridgeshire District Council

They published this document in 2013.  Do a ‘word search’ on ‘Olympic’ and you will find an ice rink and a swimming pool mentioned. Given the projected growth not just of Cambridge but the surrounding areas – Cambridge alone is due to be at 151,000 in 2030, a civic sports, arts and leisure complex that is very well connected by public, walking and cycle transport sounds compelling.

You’ll always get those who will say “Who pays?” By which they mean:

“The public sector won’t pay for it and no, you are not allowed to raise taxes on businesses or people/organisations based abroad/in tax havens who buy up stuff in Cambridge either and no you can’t subsidise nice things like we subsidise other business activities with grants and tax breaks so stop dreaming and shut up” 

Which is why Cambridge can’t have nice things anymore. For decades we’ve had a political class imprisoned by their own ideologies. As I’ve repeatedly written, so long as ministers – mainly in the Treasury, and their senior officials, continue to sit on their hands while much needed new homes are sold off abroad (up to 30% at one local estate agent) and stop local councils from imposing the punitive measures to that will restrict such anti-social purchases – especially ‘buy to leave’, we’ll get nowhere. Instead we’ll see more speculative developments that are popular with faceless investment institutions who clean up financially while the local communities have to bear the costs. As fellow community reporter Richard Taylor writes, the development at the railway station unwittingly designed in anti-social behaviour and is now desperately trying to correct this.

But when local council planning teams are faced with the best planning professionals money can buy, what hope do they and local communities have in the face of international finance that stands to make a financial killing from a place like Cambridge?

Post-EURef and thoughts/observations on all things Remain


So…who in the institutions that make up the European Union resigned over the Brexit result in the EU Ref? And how will affect elections in and around Cambridge?

Did anyone?

Just before the referendum I published a short vlogpost in favour of remaining inside the EU – in order to overhaul it. Oh – and I frown a lot in this one!

As things stand, my general take on where we are now is:

  • You Brexit, you fixit
  • I don’t have enough spoons to go full on-campaigning on EU politics, but I’ll film stuff happening locally
  • The unleashing of hate across society concerns me greatly

“What do those that want to block leaving the EU want?”

…other than keeping the UK in the EU that is. Because they are out there. Alistair Campbell and Prof AC Grayling are two of the most high profile.

For example, would it be ‘business as usual’? If not, what in their view would change?

Politics becoming more interesting?

Because of the uncertainty in national and international politics, in one sense it has become more interesting because the institutions are all now out of flux. The cluelessness of ministers, and the woeful nature of Labour’s communications operation in one sense has created a bit of a vacuum that is both an opportunity (for someone to fill it) and a threat (someone nasty fills it).

We’ve also seen UKIP losing Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless – though whether the Tories take them back remains to be seen.

Where now for Remain?

I’ve lost count of the number of people complaining about Labour HQ’s stance on the result of the EU referendum. For all of the pro-EU rhetoric from a number of high-profile backbenchers, the poisonous relationships between then and Corbyn’s communications team means that this is not following through into the broadcast media headlines. The hostile relationship between Labour HQ’s communications team and the broadcast media means that their messages are not getting through nearly as consistently as they should be.

The Liberal Democrats have understandably tried to take full advantage of this split in Labour – between the pro-EU cosmopolitans and the EU-sceptic working class constituencies in the urban north. But it’s not just there. In pro-remain Tory constituencies such as South Cambridgeshire, they have noticeably increased their activities. Locally here it’ll be interesting to see how many seats the Lib Dems take off the Conservatives (and vice versa) in the south of the county, and also how many the Tories take of UKIP in the northern fringes too. (UKIP rose from 2 to 12 councillors in the 2013 elections in Cambridgeshire). I certainly don’t expect UKIP to be a pushover for the Tories – some of the UKIP councillors have established a reputation of competent councillors and activists compared to some of their Conservative opponents.

Finally, there’s all this talk of ‘the best deal’ or a deal that keeps as close a relationship as possible with the EU. Whoever it has come from, I’m not nearly as clear as I’d like to be as to what this means. Just as the Government doesn’t have a clear starting position, I’m a little surprised that the Lib Dems didn’t produce their own policy paper setting out what they think the Government’s starting position should be. (If they have, I’ve missed it).

The local impact.

We also have mayoral, and local elections coming up on 04 May across England where there are district and county councils. Cambridge being such an area on the latter has elections to Cambridgeshire County Council. We are also in full hustings mode for the mayoral elections – a policy I still disagree with and think was a political stitch up. My long held view is that Cambridge needs a unitary authority – a single council for the city and the wards that immediately surrounding it. Why ministers won’t agree to it…you’ll have to ask them.

Irrespective of my views, there are still elections for the mayoralty of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. Therefore, ignore me and watch the videos of the candidates:

I’m also filming free introduction videos for candidates standing in and around Cambridge for the county council elections, also on 04 May. The playlist is here.

The first elections after the EU Referendum

My general prediction is we’ll see just how split England is over Brexit. Will pro-leave voters switch en masse to the Tories now that they are effectively delivering UKIP’s headline policy on leaving the EU? Given the hostile relationships between UKIP and Conservative councillors on Cambridgeshire County Council over the past four years, I’m not expecting things to be nearly as simple as that.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats have had a similar hostile relationship on Cambridgeshire County Council – though I note that with all parties combined, just under a third of councillors are retiring. The new county council makeup surely will have a very different feel to it – especially if we get a younger, newer fresher generation of county councillors.


I’ve taken the view that the EU referendum vote was a symptom of a whole host of much deeper problems in our economy and society. Given my limited capacity (health) I took it upon myself to focus on local grassroots activities rather than national or international projects and campaigns. I have neither the resources, the health nor the close friendships to sustain anything far beyond the borders of my home town.

Locally in Cambridge, the role I seem to be taking is one of ‘social bumble bee’ – like a social butterfly but more stressed and less pretty. Very active, buzzing from group to group and linking them up, but easily squished (emotionally) when things go wrong. I’m also linking people to groups who are already active in their interested areas. Rather than trying to start something new or doing everything myself as perhaps in the past, I’m reconciled to the idea of not needing (or wanting) to be involved in everything – rather just maintaining a distant staying-aware-and-updated brief.

In and around Cambridge we’ll see a number of people standing for election for the first time who got involved in local democracy as a result of the EU referendum.


Cambridge City candidates for the county council elections on 04 May 2017


Some new faces standing for election – which is a good thing

Phil Rodgers summarised them in the table below

Note that there are two fewer seats than in 2013 due to the Boundary Commission reductions. A stupid decision because now the seats for the city and county councils no longer match, which will confuse voters. Again, my preference is for a single council for Cambridge and the surrounding rural districts.

Phil’s examination of the last set of Cambridgeshire County Council election results in 2013 is here. Since then, the collapse of the Lib Dems has reached its trough and the party is beginning to bounce back on the back of the EU Referendum result and also of the Labour Party’s problems at a national level. Former councillor Colin Rosenstiel has done some number-crunching to work out which bits of the old wards moved into the new ones.

I’m not going to make a place-by-place prediction – I’ll leave that to the gentlemen above. With a number of incumbent councillors standing down, we will inevitably have new faces representing the city in a month’s time.

Getting your party’s candidate details up on Democracy Club’s database

Simply do a county search at

Democracy Club is being funded by the Electoral Commission (See here) to help ensure voters have access to all of the candidates standing for election in their neighbourhood.

Democracy – it’s not a spectator sport

In Cambridge, there are four parties standing full slates of candidates:

Even if you don’t intend on voting, just for curiosity’s sake please have a look around their websites to find out who would want to put themselves up for election to public office – one of the most abused posts in humanity. (As Bruce Waldron who chaired the Sawston hustings for Cambridgeshire/Peterborough mayor said).

Videos of candidates

I’m filming free intro videos for candidates standing in and around Cambridge for the county council elections on 04 May. The playlist so far looks like this:

Video playlist – in the top left is the number count of candidates’ videos I have uploaded.

In return, I ask candidates and their supporters to help contribute to my filming costs


“Please donate to my filming (and living) costs in the course of bringing democracy to people’s desktops!” (Click on the button above-left).

Local neighbourhood hustings

The Cambridge Cycling Campaign had theirs earlier.

You can watch representatives from the Greens, Labour and the Liberal Democrats deal with cycling and public transport issues in Cambridge.

Video and social media won’t completely replace face-to-face campaigning

One of the things I’ve found over the past decade or so using social media is that people’s interactions online are very different if they have met face-to-face.  If anything, social media breeds familiarity. You become familiar with an individual’s tone and manner – to the extent it helps you judge whether media stories about them are true or not. Important in this current climate.

That said…video can work for you while you are asleep

That’s not to say you’ll suddenly get thousands of views and a new fan base. They will only get as many views as you and your party are prepared to share and publicise. And let’s face it, collectively our political and democratic institutions collectively have been slow to realise the potential of social media despite some excellent individual case studies.

One thing I’d really like to see in these local election campaigns are some candidates demonstrating expert synchronisation and co-ordination of what they do offline with online – to the extent it is the difference between getting elected and not getting elected. My guess is that it’ll only be once this happens that we start seeing social media in Cambridge’s local democracy come of age.

On organising local politics debates – Sawston’s example


A textbook example on how to do it – in Sawston, Cambridgeshire.

Anyone can organise one of these. For the purposes of elections, the term husting is often used.

Local (to me) blogger Chris Rand wrote a guide at aimed at those of you looking to organise one for local council elections.

Lessons from Sawston – positive ones.

Earlier this evening I filmed what I thought was a very good example of how a local hustings or political debate should be run and chaired once everyone was in the room.

A competent chair

Sawston’s fortunate to have the Rev Bruce Waldron, Minister at the Sawston Free Church in the chair. Public speaking kinda comes with the role of being a minister of religion. Ideally you want someone who either possesses that natural ‘reassuring authority’ with people or who can establish it very quickly. Local broadcast journalists and teachers/lecturers are others I’ve seen chair events well.

Time-keeping for questions and responses

One thing that kept the 90 minute event flowing was Rob Grayston with one of the church bells – one of the little ones.

That’s all it takes to keep people to time. Compared to things like horns and whistles, the small bell seemed to be the least intrusive and least oppressive. The quiet chiming was just enough to caution speakers that time was pressing and to bring their comments to an end – without blowing ear drums out.

Briefing your audience

At the start and in the opening questions, Rev Waldron set out clearly why everyone had gathered in the room – ie to meet and cross-examine the candidates who had put themselves forward for election as the new mayor for Cambs & Peterborough. Important given that this is an historically unprecedented role for our part of the country. His opening questions as chair covered the very basic, high level questions that might have been on the minds of a number of people who had not heard about the new mayors – adverts for the elections of which now seem to be plastered across every other phone box in town – we still have a fair few around these parts. The opening Qs included:

  • Where did the policy for a mayor come from?
  • What powers will the mayor have?
  • Why have you put yourself forward as a candidate?

It was then up to audience members to ask issue-specific questions. The answers to the first three questions from the chair also framed the exchanges that were to follow.

Having a decent sound system

Microphones are essential once you get beyond a classroom-sized audience – not just from a filming point of view but also so your audience can hear you. Note that even if you think your voice is loud, it doesn’t necessarily carry. People who are hard of hearing need you to use the microphones.

The other thing is that when one speaker uses a mic and a follow up speaker does not, it creates more work for me when editing, as the volume of the speakers are noticeably different on the camcorder’s internal microphone. Furthermore, we’re seeing more examples of smartphone users filming short video clips. A sound system makes audio for them much more clear.

Microphone technique.

Look and learn

Personally I’d like to see local political parties doing more on public speaking training for their activists and potential candidates – offer the training long before asking them to stand. It takes time to get used to speaking into a microphone. Teaching them how to do so in the middle of an election campaign is not the best time to start learning. In Cambridge there is a public speakers’ club where people can hone their public speaking skills.

Announce somewhere to go collectively (and indicate who is taking people in that direction)

Chances are you’ll have more than a few people who don’t know each other but will want to continue the conversation somewhere. Having one or two designated people to go to whichever watering hole for post-event chats helps bring those people into any follow-up conversations or activities.

There were a number of other things they did:

  • Ensured the event was filmed
  • Ensured someone was live-tweeting from the event
  • Took photographs of the event
  • Had a donations box for costs and also for one of the church’s charities
  • Invited local news and broadcast journalists – in this case Julian Clover of Cambridge 105 turned up and interviewed the candidates afterwards.

There were just over 40 people there, of which around a third seemed to be party-political supporters.

You can see a playlist of videos from the Sawston hustings here.

Loneliness – and public policy responses


Are recent public policy responses avoiding the ‘too difficult’ questions and issues?

The tragic assassination of the late Jo Cox MP was something that understandably shook a lot of people active in elected politics. In this age of wanting to increase personal privacy in the face of everything online, it’s easy to forget that MPs and councillors have to make public a whole host of personal information that many citizens would more than think twice over doing the same. For example home addresses and personal phone numbers.

In response, the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness was launched – see – it’s well worth a look.

‘Loneliness can affect anyone at any stage of their life’

So writes the Commission. How many of us look back at the unpopular child in your class from school and wonder what happened to them? Or the old person at church who would turn up every Sunday but never speak to anyone?

I’ve written a number of blogposts on loneliness – both personal perspectives and analyses of the growing concern of what is now seen as a public policy issue.

It was also such an issue for me that I wrote it into Puffles’ 2014 manifesto for Cambridge under Theme 10 – An Active City.

One of the saddest songs from my teenage years about loneliness was from 1993/94 by The Levellers – Julie.

…followed by one from around the same time that I listened to lots during my final year at university, from the Riverdance.

Fortunately the cassette tape (remember those?) finished with more upbeat tracks, so it wasn’t all doom & gloom!

“What about the public policy responses?”

Much of the focus thus far has been aimed at the over-65s. The Office for National Statistics put out a research note on loneliness. Note Age UK here. The Jo Cox Commission has got other organisations involved note The Co-op & British Red Cross.

It was in 2015 that there seemed to be a growing awareness that the issue went far beyond the over-65s. Note this blog on the UK Government’s public health blog.

“So…what’s not working?”

The causes of loneliness, from my personal perspective, feel a lot more complex and complicated than the policy responses seem to indicate. Furthermore, solving the problem (if you can at all) is one that is going to take a very long time and an incredible amount of persistence. This is one of the limitations of the Jo Cox Pledge. It risks being the equivalent of liking a social media page, getting lots of ‘likes’ back from your social media contacts that you ‘liked’ this social media page, then everyone forgets and moves on. A sentiment spoofed in the video below:

So how do we go beyond the superficial without getting to a stage I can only describe as sympathy or empathy fatigue?

It takes a lot of effort from a lot of people to overcome loneliness

It’s not simply a case of doing a bit of outreach or gathering lots of people for an annual ‘big lunch’ (nice as they are – such as the Eden Project here), especially if four walls, whether a bedroom or a rabbit hutch flat is all that you have to go back to. Further more, as the studies are now showing, different things can trigger sensations of loneliness, that can spiral down into depression and mental health problems – as they did with me in the late 1990s. In my case it was anxiety – along with not knowing it was a medical condition and so not seeking any help (not that there was much out there at the time) to deal with the mental health bit. But for others it might be things such as:

  • Moving to a new place (eg for study, work etc)
  • Retiring
  • Taking maternity/paternity leave
  • Family split/friendship group split
  • Deceased friends/family

This means that there is no ‘one size fits all’ policy response.

It’s nice to see campaigns to encourage people to watch out for the mental health of their friends – such as this one. It breaks my heart that we didn’t have something like this in the mid-1990s. Hence my take with a lot of the social issues I’ve been asked to support in recent times locally, my take is to do it for the next generation, knowing that it’s all too late for me to benefit personally.

Private sector responses to loneliness

When I first moved to London a decade ago, I looked around and found a few entrepreneurs had set up online social clubs for professionals (such as this one) who had graduated from university, moved to a new city and found they didn’t know anyone. The arrangement was simple. You paid a monthly subscription then booked the events you wanted to go to. They had a returnable £5 deposit refunded on turning up due to the number of no-shows early on.

For some people they worked, for me they didn’t. I found myself meeting new people all the time and then never seeing them again…and getting bored at having to re-explain a bit about my background to someone who would either never see me again or who wanted to sell me something related to their business. Basically I got to the stage where I wanted to meet up with people who already knew me. But health plus long hours in a high profile intensive policy area just as the banks were about to topple meant that it was always going to be hard work for me. I didn’t seem to have the knack of turning up to a gathering of strangers and instantly becoming an integral part of their group as I have seen others do. I’m too intense as an individual.

What if you have no money?

Health and finances are the two biggest things that stop me from going out and about to the things I’d like to go to. I know people who are in a worse position than me who are completely dependent on the state because of life circumstances. Relationship splits, disabilities, injuries, breakdowns – all things that can have an impact on a person’s capacity to earn a living. Hence from a public policy perspective, part of the challenge is finding a ‘zero fee’ solution to responding to / preventing loneliness.

The elephant in the room – the structure of our economy and society

One of the things that strikes me about going through newspaper archives in Cambridge is just how ‘social’ the town seemed to be. There always seemed to be something going on and there were always adverts inviting people to take part. Bearing in mind that the town was much smaller geographically back then – where my home is was once an open field a hundred years ago, it’s strangely wonderful to see such a buzzing civic society.

But with so many of us moving away from working for large employers and now working as ‘self employed’ – a false economy in my view and something that enables the government of the day to show its getting the unemployment figures down – see here, the instability of self-employment and zero hours means that the institutions that helped bring and more importantly, keep people together, have crumbled. Traditionally, Tories have pointed to the decline of church attendance while Labour have pointed to the decline of trade unions. Yet the archives show that it wasn’t a simple left-right split. Just as there were many non-left-wing associations, there were many left wing churches and religious associations – a number of people in the latter going on to become local councillors in Cambridge. The most well-known being Dr Alex Wood for the Labour Party who also stood for Parliament repeatedly in the 1930s. (Alex Wood Hall in Cambridge is named after him).

While ministers are happy for this rise in self employment and zero hours contract work to remain – at the expense of the many but for the profit of the few, loneliness is not going to go away for the working population. It’s going to get worse. No sick pay, no paid holiday, no time off for civic duties – and you wonder why there are hardly any people in their 20s and 30s willing and able to put their names forward for election to public office? Governments and politicians of all colours over the past couple of decades have been content in the name of ‘supply side economics’ and a ‘flexible labour force’ amongst other things to undermine the very things that could help prevent the rise of loneliness.

Take the uncertainty and anxiety away – and perhaps people might have an incentive to get involved in civic life. Cambridge University’s model of short-term contract after short-term contract has been incredibly destabilising for our city’s state primary schools. Children are here for a few years at a point when there are a shortage of places, but then end up with a small surplus as families move on due to research contracts not being renewed.

This is where I consider too many politicians to be imprisoned by their own ideologies – unable to consider policies that are outside the neo-liberal straight-jacket of the past few decades.