A new political party arrives in Cambridge – Women’s Equality Party

Summary

Reporting from the first gathering in Cambridge of the Women’s Equality Party (WEP), and also from The Green Party’s summer gathering

I was with both the Cambridge branch of the WEP and with the Cambridge Green Party today – ***thank you*** to both for the warm welcomes!

Earlier this year, former Radio 4 presenter Sandi Toksvig quit the BBC to help set up the new Women’s Equality Party. They’ve had a number of gatherings in London. Recently I became aware of their presence in Cambridge on Twitter – shortly afterwards they started following Puffles. The early responses from Cambridge’s local democracy Twitteratti was from Phil Rodgers – now back in the Liberal Democrat fold.

I rocked up half-way through (mental health/messed up body clock) around 3pm to a room with over 50 people inside, all of them women. While I was expecting the vast majority of the people participating to be women, I didn’t expect there to be a) so many of them and b) no familiar faces from the local democracy scene in Cambridge. Funnily enough, being the only bloke in a crowded room hardly registered with me in the way it did with some of the regulars that accidentally stumbled into the meeting. In large part that’s down to training with the Rollerbillies where often there will only be one or two of us men in a hall of dozens of women skaters preparing for competitive roller-derby. (They don’t have a men’s team). In my case I’m learning in order to get some moving video footage, filming while skating alongside some of the skaters to make some videos for them.

(Here’s one I made earlier)

The comical moment of the afternoon was this:

Pete strolled in, looked like he’d just seen a ghost…and ran out. Fortunately I spotted him in deep but friendly conversation with two of the participants after the event.

“What did people taking part discuss?”

The organisers asked two very good questions for such a first meeting:

  1. What can @WEP_Cambridge do for Cambridgeshire?
  2. What can you do for @WEP_Cambridge?

In the case of Q1, there was a lot of crossover with Be the change – Cambridge‘s (BTCC) conversation cafe event last September: people in groups identifying local issues and then identifying how they might go about responding to them. In my past experience of such events both inside & outside the civil service, the issues people raise are inevitably a reflection of the backgrounds & life experiences of those taking part. Just as with BTCC, we were never going to be able to bring on board representation from every part of our city – much as we would have wanted to. This was also something the WEP participants discussed for their organisation: how do they make it diverse in terms of people and experiences? I am all ears on this because trying to achieve this is ***and*** sustain it is incredibly difficult.

On Q2, it was finding out who could offer what. In my case it was introducing myself as a community reporter & blogger who could do video interviews similar to what I did in around the general election, thus giving them video content for their website. Here’s one example with newly-elected MP for South Cambridgeshire, Heidi Allen.

“What does the WEP stand for?”

Their objectives are here – but as a newly-formed party, don’t expect to see an in-depth platform of detailed & thoroughly-researched policies (ie what, if in power they would do to achieve the objectives set out above) overnight. They’ve only just opened for membership for a start. This is not to say there are no policies being discussed or that no research has been done. Quite the opposite. The point is about the ***legal requirements*** that registered political parties (which the WEP is in the process of becoming) have to meet. See the Electoral Commission here. Until the party nationally has agreed what its policy-making processes are, and then put them into action, no one will be in a position to say what their specific policies are. As a comparison, here’s a summary of policy-making for Tories, Lib Dems & Labour.

“Why can’t someone just stand up and say: “This is our policy!”?”

Because someone else in the party might disagree. How many times in the general election did candidates forget their policies or had to be corrected? Hence needing a suitable process to agree & get consensus on policy.

In May 2014, I stood as Puffles in Coleridge Ward for the 2014 Cambridge City Council elections – mainly because I didn’t think councillors were listening to young people & because the lack of social media use by local public sector institutions compared to pioneers across the country. My manifesto is here. And the first question I was asked at the King’s College hustings was about fracking. I didn’t have a policy on it in my manifesto, so I made one up. On the spot. Fortunately I made it consistent with one of the manifesto themes on Green Cambridge, & said I was against it due to climate change. As a party with a fast-growing membership, you can’t get away with that.

“Will they be a force in the future?”

Too early to tell, but in terms of political plurality (ie having more challenges to the existing political parties) their presence is certainly a welcome one. Not least because the people taking part were people I had not seen at other meetings before. As Pete from the pub said to the participants outside, it’s all very well having meetings inside the pub, but they also need to be ‘out there’ talking to the people. Something far easier said than done. I’m rubbish at it.

Kathryn leading a feedback session for the Women's Equality Party in Cambridge

Kathryn leading a feedback session for the Women’s Equality Party in Cambridge

“Will we see their activists at local area committee meetings?”

I hope so. The contribution I made to the meeting was to invite people to get involved with their local area committees, and for those outside Cambridge City, in their parish councils – ie at neighbourhood level. I also mentioned the Cambridge Central Library campaign win as an example of how they can succeed on issues they are passionate about.

“What did The Greens make of this new political movement?”

Interestingly, at the same time as the WEP gathering, around the corner the Greens had a summer open space event for their activists – followed by a well-attended summer ceilidh that I popped into prior to a photographing the sunset from the edge of town. Given where the two groups are, it’ll be interesting to see what the relationship between the two will be like.

What’s really hitting home about Cambridge Greens vs their local political opponents is their advertising of social gatherings online – in particular to Cambridge’s very active environmental communities. It’s something I touched upon in this article ages ago, yet for whatever reason Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats seem to be much more cautious about who they advertise events to. I think it’s a shame because whenever Labour and Lib Dem activists have organised talks and events, I have found them to be incredibly interesting and of the type that many other members of the public would find interesting too.

Labour trialled a ‘Socialism on tap’ series of events a few years back, featuring current & former Labour MPs, which was excellent. The speakers talked openly about what got them into politics, their values & life experiences, and responded openly , substantively & positively to the difficult questions of the day. Gavin Shuker MP springs to mind as one speaker. It would be great to see the parties actively publicising a series of events this coming autumn term that goes far beyond their normal circles, to members of the public. (And if there’s someone who repeatedly interrupts & is generally anti-social, kick them out. Life’s too short!)

“What will the established local parties make of the WEP?”

It’s slightly more complicated for Cambridge Labour and Cambridge Liberal Democrats because in the grand scheme of things, they are the ones holding all bar four of the seats on Cambridge City Council. If anything, it’ll come down to whether they stand candidates for local elections and if so, how they campaign. (Labour praised The Greens in the recent Romsey by-election for fighting a ‘clean’ campaign). That said, the issues the WEP discussed in Cambridge were ones that went far beyond party politics. I can’t think of any of the issues raised that Labour, the Lib Dems & The Greens would have disagreed with.

The first question they all might want to ask is how was it that over 50 women interested in politics met up in Cambridge right under their noses (across the road from Cambridge Labour’s HQ!), and no one thought to ensure someone popped along to see what it was all about. A lovely hot sunny day and they still chose to spend the afternoon in the pub talking politics – while on the other side of the bridge a similar number of Green Party activists were doing similar, followed by food, music & dancing.

A cross-party ‘Women in Democracy – Cambridge’ event?

Given the inevitable rise in political party membership as a result of the general election, I wonder what such an event would look like. Perhaps one of the branches of the Cambridge WI to consider? (Bluebelles, Cam City WI, Cambridge Ladybirds). Why women in democracy? Look at the chart of councillors for Cambridgeshire County Council.

Food for thought?

Oh – and the photo from the top of Lime Kiln Hill.

Lime Kiln HillSmall

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On filming local democracy & local music – some interesting similarities

Summary

What I’m learning from featuring women in both local music and democracy – with some interesting questions too

In the run up to the 2015 general election I very deliberately focused my filming efforts on party activists who broke the negative stereotypes of politics. This was also my approach to interviewing the candidates. Rather than doing a series of ‘hatchet-style’ interviews I chose an approach where I challenged myself to make the interview subjects come across as presentable, interesting and the sort of person the viewing public could see themselves having a conversation with.

Hence the videos at https://adragonsbestfriend.wordpress.com/2015/05/09/encouraging-women-into-local-democracy-featured-examples/ featuring women in democracy.

The relative lack of women performers at this year’s AlexFest and also in part the Cambridge Buskers Festival was something that got me thinking further about widening participation in things generally. I’ve complained in the past about the lack of diversity in the line-ups of shows hosted by various venues in Cambridge. Take the Cambridge Comedy Festival as an example. In comedy, in music, in sport, in politics, the lack of diversity is something that I’m now much more aware of – in large part thanks to my Twitter following who have continued to discuss this over the years I’ve been on it. There is still this long-running diversity-sore in football too.

The local music scene – encouraging women who are musicians

I can’t recall having filmed an all-women band in recent times – in particular one that plays their own musical instruments live. Where I’ve seen women in a band, more often than not they are a lead vocalist supported by a team of male musicians. Other than that, it’s soloist singer/songwriters or friends/sisters performing duets.

“Why the difference between the genders?”

I don’t honestly know. It’s something I’ve invited the younger singer song-writers to ponder over when I’ve spoken to them post-performance. What is it that means we have soloist women singer-songwriters but not the all-women groups, while for the men there are both?

“We’ve tried booking more women for our venue but…”

A line I’ve heard before. Yet just as with local democracy, I’ve taken the line that if I want things to improve, I have to do something – something different that perhaps has not been done before. Ie doing more than just shouting/ranting/moaning/blogging about it. Because as I’ve found out the hard way, repeatedly complaining at ever louder and abrasive levels just ends up annoying people. Hence now being in a place where my approach evolves depending on what comes back.

Going out listening & filming…

I had a trawl back through my online video channels and can list the following:

So…there is local talent out there. Those are the ones I happen to have had a camcorder with me and/or planned to film having been invited. There are others out there that I’ve heard of but not seen live.

“What difference does filming make?”

You’ll have to ask the musicians themselves. From the conversations I’ve had – in particular with the younger musicians, seeing themselves from the audience’s perspective is a big learning point. In corporate communications training it is now standard practice to film the trainee speaking/presenting, and review video footage of that presentation. I went through it myself in my civil service days. Excruciating, but essential.

With the younger teenagers too, there’s also a self-awareness they as performers are still growing into – something that will come with more public performances under their belt. It was interesting to listen to the discussion Beth & Eleanor had when I played back some of the footage I had recorded only a few minutes earlier – picking up on things like expressions & mannerisms they were not aware of on stage. It was the same with me when I first saw video footage of me singing as part of Dowsing Sound Collective in 2014 – see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cIYIZyezDtk – and again when I reviewed footage of our winter gig later that year with me spending far too much time staring at my folder & not the audience!

Having video footage of women who are experienced musicians & performers helps too.

Take Ruby Florence here.

She’s one of the most assured & confident of women that I’ve met – I sing with her in the Dowsing Sound Collective. Having footage of more experienced local musicians such as Flaming June and Jo Ash can also spark off ideas as well as help build a stronger community of musicians. In particular this can help with new young musicians getting slots as support acts for more higher profile performers. Note the number of musicians in the list above that I discovered because they were supporting someone else.

“Is building that community one of the missing links?”

Building any community is an ongoing activity by its very nature. In my case I asked what I could do that supported what people are already doing, but without taking over anything. (I don’t want to be this guy, y’see?) As it turned out, it was filming and producing reasonably good video footage of the musicians playing at live venues. The two ideas that I’ve floated with a number of local singer-songwriters are:

  1. A concert with a variety of women singer-songwriters supported by a band of professional session musicians
  2. A music-storming day for women musicians to encourage collaboration

A session-musicians-supported concert

The concept is relatively straight-forward: Invite local women singer-songwriters to arrange two-three of their favourite self-written songs for a large group of session musicians to perform live. This could work at The Junction 2.

A music-storming day

Best suited for somewhere with lots of additional musical instruments that participants can use. This could work either as an open space event or a semi-structured event. The aim is to see if women can meet and ‘jam’ with as many other musicians as possible in a single day to find out which of the other musicians they would be happy making music/collaborating with on a regular basis. From this could spring the groups of women bands that our local music scene seems to be lacking.

The thing is, I don’t have what it takes to make either of the above happen. But I’m sure someone in Cambridge does. Are you out there?

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Going beyond ‘set up and record’ with community video – overcoming recurring problems

Summary

Some thoughts following several months of regular filming out and about – in particular overcoming recurring challenges

One of my favourite local artists, Melody Causton, headlined a relaxed evening of acoustic music alongside one of the first musicians I filmed – Rachel Clark. Still getting to grips with my kit at the time, I screwed up the audio recording of her set at AlexFest 2014. (Both Rachel & Melody performed there – see the playlist here).

I’m now at the stage where I’m moving on from simply setting up and pressing ‘record’ to considering a whole host of things that, in the past I’d have been unaware of. Have a look/listen to Melody’s final track:

I was reliant on the audio mixing desk of the venue and the young man operating it – something [operating a sound board] easier said than done. Although I had the correct cable to attach sound recorder to mixing desk, between us we couldn’t figure out how to get my recorder to pick up the signal once connected.

Furthermore, I had no control over the backdrop – in this case windows in bright daylight. From a filming perspective, this is a significant challenge – one that even a high-end ‘prosumer’ camcorder struggled with. In a nutshell, camcorders the next step up are not sold on the high street – you have to go to specialist retailers. Reviewing this video, backdrop is clearly a problem – but the windows had no curtains. Audiowise, I’d have rebalanced the sound to enhance Melody’s vocals.

“Sounds like you need to start planning these things!”

…Which isn’t really the way I have been operating. Normally I just rock up and film, giving a tweet/email/facebookpost notice in advance as opposed to doing a pre-event visits and the like.

Melody Causton


Melody Causton at The Architect Pub in Cambridge

Note the difference between this photo I took on a DSLR camera vs what you see with the camcorder. (Note – I’m more familiar now with improving photos than with video images – ie going beyond ‘auto-correct’ functions).

The thing is, being the one-man-and-his-dragon-fairy-operation, I can’t do everything I’d like to. At any one event I can find myself filming, recording audio (which I often do separately), photographing, live reporting and posting photos onto social media. With Melody’s performance above, I recorded the audio onto a separate specialist sound recorder. The difference it makes compared with onboard microphones or even external ones is huge. The reason for this is microphones are often attached to cameras rather than pointing towards the sound source or being close to the sound source.

It’s the same with local council meetings

In Cambridge, the plan for seating (similar to many other councils) is as below:

A traditional seating plan for council chambers

A traditional seating plan for council chambers

The problem for anyone trying to film a meeting here is that you’ll always end up filming the back of someone. Councillors also don’t always appreciate the need for using microphones – not helped by the very fiddly arrangement many councils have for them. Basically they have to press a button to switch their microphone on in order to speak – and if they forget to switch it off you get horrendous feedback.

The above seating plan, taken from Cambridge City Council’s AGM on 28 May 2015 shows the seating plan in the council chamber of Cambridge Guildhall – something that hasn’t changed in many years other than the people and parties in the seats. You have the mayor in the chair with deputy and senior council officials in a row at the front. You then have the councillors in a semi-circle forming a sunrise/sunset sort of shape. But what of the public? Their seats are either on the far left or the far right edges, or stuck up in a balcony which I would not recommend to anyone afraid of heights!

So the choice for the public – and film crew like me is to be close to the people we want to film – but have them with their backs to us, or sit on the other side facing them but from a long distance away. Whenever school children come along to the Guildhall to see a debate, they often can’t see, let alone hear what is going on. It’s so sad.

“Why does this matter?”

Because people want to see the faces of those speaking, not their backs. Take the locally significant decision on Cambridge Central Library where local people supported by councillors forced Cambridgeshire County Council to think again. The significant moment in the meeting was the concession by the Conservatives group on the county council. Have a watch:

Note the comment from the chair asking Cllr Criswell to speak into the microphone – not for my benefit but for the 50+ members of the public in the room but out of shot. Had I known of the significance of what Cllr Criswell was about to say I would have set up my camera position from the opposite side of the room. As it was, I wanted to be as close as possible to a mains socket to keep my camera going. Again, lack of mains sockets means for extended meetings our filming positions are even more limited.

“What would work better for everyone?”

Split the semi-circle in half and put the mayor/panel in between the two quarters, and have all of them facing the public where the mayor/panel used to be. That way it is much easier to film the councillors and much easier to avoid filming watching members of the public that may not want to be on camera.

“Why would someone not want to be on camera?”

Many reasons – but I don’t see it as my place to argue with a member of the public who is simply there watching but doesn’t want to be on camera. For elected representatives and senior council officials, I take a very different view – but again don’t force it down the throats of people. For public meetings, it’s far better than people know but don’t notice that you are there: ie you have their consent, but you’re not a distraction. I can’t help but think that the way we do public meetings currently helps no one.

“So…how do we improve things?”

On my side, I’ve got to get better at planning filming sessions – including giving organisations reasonable notice of what my needs are and what they need to consider if they want decent video footage.

I also need to help organisations help themselves. This may involve creating a guide on why some seemingly innocuous things like microphones, or what a background is, are actually really important.

Food for thought.

Anyway, after Rachel & Melody’s performances, I raced up to the top of Castle Hill & photographed this sunset.

CambridgeSunset2

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Democracy in action – Cambridge style

Summary

A by-election in the People’s Republic of Romsey (it says so on the t-shirts) along with a citizens’ revolt over library business plans

Told you.

I was the only independent face (ie outside of any political party and not council staff) at the by-election count – one of the most hotly-contested by-elections in recent times.

The results were:

The turn-out was 32.5 per cent.

Romsey was blessed with three strong women candidates. I had threatened to stand myself to help raise the profile of the contest, but in the end I didn’t need to. Labour, the Liberal Democrats & The Greens campaigned the living daylights out of the ward to the extent some of the residents put notices on their doors telling campaigners not to knock!

Too close to call?

The Liberal Democrats party-wise were the incumbent party. They were, however always going to be under huge pressure following their general election losses and a Cambridge Labour Party still buzzing from their success in Cambridge. Had Julian Huppert held his seat in Cambridge, the result may well have been different. The simple reason being that as local MP, Julian was in the media regularly. The profile alone may have been enough to strengthen the resolve of Liberal Democrat-leaning voters and/or demoralise Labour-leaning voters.

Three talented women – I hope all three of them will be holding local public office soon as paper candidates these were not.

I met all of them either during this campaign or during the general election campaign. Zoe I have known for longer as she’s a former Cambridge City Council councillor who stood down in the recent local elections – her replacement being Anna Smith -> @Anna4Labour.

To throw yourself into the frontline as a candidate is a very brave thing to do. Even more so to go door-to-door campaigning. All three parties had well-organised teams campaigning throughout the ward. All three candidates came across as bright, passionate and in their different ways, experienced. Identical they were most definitely not.

The historical context is in Phil Rodgers’ graph below

In a nutshell:

  • The Liberal Democrat vote did not fall further following the general election – could they hold Cllr Catherine Smart’s seat in the 2016 elections?
  • Labour have an additional councillor at Shire Hall
  • The Greens’ share of the vote held up in the face of strong competition from two strong opponents
  • The Tories got only 11 more votes than Puffles got in the neighbouring ward of Coleridge in 2014
  • UKIP hardly registered

“Was this a social media election?”

Not really. As far as local politics in Cambridge goes, only The Greens seem to be going beyond the Cambridge Twitter bubble and making greater use of both Facebook and digital video. The Liberal Democrats and Labour are still very much in broadcast mode. Perhaps it’s all the more stark with the Lib Dems with the loss of Julian Huppert as MP – he was a pioneer for using social media conversationally. While the party has councillors and activists who use social media regularly, inevitably they do not have the influence that Julian had as an MP. Furthermore, being in opposition means there is even less news coverage for them – something compounded by a miniscule Westminster presence – down from the mid-50s to just eight.

The Greens leaving their opponents behind with digital video

Green Party activist Michael Abberton has done a great job for the local party and is now making short local politics videos for fun. This is something that will stand them in good stead throughout the year – in particular throughout the colder winter months. For whatever reason, the other candidates declined offers to feature in videos in the run up to polling day – as is their right. Personally I leave it up to the voters to contact the candidates directly and ask any questions about this should they have any issues with it. I see my role as a community reporter and democracy activist as giving candidates the chance to introduce themselves in their own words & in their own voices. It’s up to the voters to then decide if they want to have a further conversation with the candidates, and on what issues.

“What’s the point of digital video if it didn’t affect the election?”

Two points:

  1. No one has done any research locally on what impact these sorts of videos are making
  2. The data I have from the general election shows there is demand for such videos
  3. It’s too early to tell what the long term impact will be.

Most of us are just making it up as we go along, learning as we go. I’m now at the stage where I’m recording audio separately to video because of the problems I’ve been having with on-camera microphones & the poor acoustics of buildings.

What we’ve not seen locally is the effective integration of social media and video with offline and paper-based campaigning. The Romsey by-election would have been ideal for the commuter traffic to London. People stationed at the Eastern end of the cycle bridge with cards taking potential voters to local party social media pages could have swayed it one way or another.

I managed to get one video from Cllr Zoe Moghadas just after the result was announced – see below

The acoustics in the small hall are not great – hence using a separate microphone for this.

Citizens force council library U-turn

In other news, discontent over Cambridgeshire County Council plans to turn the top floor of Cambridge’s popular central library turned into open revolt as campaigners assailed Shire Hall from all sides. Paul Lythgoe threw Freedom of Information requests over council meetings with the Kora group (which then encouraged more from Phil Rodgers & Richard Taylor – see the list here). An active group on Facebook with over 200 members kept lots of people in touch (see here) and email campaigns targeting county councillors got underway.

The ongoing campaign involving political activists from Labour, Liberal Democrats and The Greens, along with non-aligned activists and the Cambridge People’s Assembly were all involved. The culmination of all of this was Phil Rodger’s speech at Shire Hall on 26 June 2015 after councillors were persuaded to reconsider their decision – the original plans being approved by a narrow vote in the face of protests.

The deeper story for me beyond the library itself is that the campaign uncovered a host of unsatisfactory systems and processes inside Shire Hall – one that left Conservative councillors in particular feeling very angry over the conduct of this issue. What will happen in the very near future is a full council debate on how the county council is run – and in particular the relationship between council officers and elected council committees. In the extended exchanges (which I’ll put more up), county council officials came under close, detailed, forensic and hostile scrutiny the likes of which I had not seen before. In particular, the general public did not accept the assurances that officials were giving them.

Given the number of people (over 50 from the general public alone sticking around for over 2 hours) there, councillors expressed concern that the public did not have confidence – in particular that the issues arising were not around just around the principle of private sector involvement, but over issues of competency, transparency and propriety. In particular, councillors were disturbed over not being provided with all the information they felt they needed in order to make an informed decision, and that there was unnecessary secrecy in preventing the public from scrutinising plans too.

Officers not reading the mood of councillors in the room?

The intensity of questioning from the public (Dr Alison Power here, Phil Rodgers & Hilary Goy here, and on behalf of local town centre residents, Cllr Ed Cearns here) was strong. I hadn’t seen council officials struggling in the face of such forensic and multi-pronged scrutiny before. The bit that made me think: “Hang on, they’ve conceded!” was when Conservative group spokesman Cllr Steve Criswell announced the largest political group on the county council could no longer back the proposals. See the video below from 3 mins 45 seconds in.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ANP9q68sadk

What surprised me even more was how officers seemed to plough on defending the scheme as if nothing had happened. From that point onwards it was clear that the proposal to turn the top floor of the Cambridge Central Library into an enterprise centre run by Kora was dead in the water. It was at that point council directors could have conceded that without the backing of elected councillors, all that was needed was a vote to rescind and a decision on what alternative path to take. The longer the debate went on, the more confidence officials seemed to lose from the watching public who were there in numbers.

Lessons learned?

In the near future there will be a full council meeting which I anticipate will become very heated – not least when the working relationship between senior council officials and elected councillors comes under scrutiny. Watch this space…

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Weak political and media responses in the face of very serious global problems

Summary

Some thoughts on global and historical perspectives all too often overlooked in mainstream news reporting – and also in UK policy making.

I awoke from my slumber to find Defra minister George Eustice MP being cross examined by Andrew Neil over the latest migration crisis. (See http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b060kn9g/daily-politics-24062015 – the first item).

I found the minister’s response around 5 minutes in to be laughable.

“We’ve got HMS Bulwark and three Merlin helicopters”

Yeah…like that’s going to solve the problem.

The way I was trained in the civil service with policy making was to try and go to the root of the problem by continually asking: ‘Why?’ and ‘Then what happens?’

For example, if you’ve got thousands of people risking their lives to make the crossing from the shores of North Africa, the question of ‘Why?’ follows, just as for those that (understandably) say we should increase the number of rescue ships, the question that follows is: ‘Then what happens?”

“How do you deal with this arc of instability from the north-western shores of Africa to the Middle East to the Ukraine, through to increased military tensions in the eastern Baltic?”

Personally I don’t think we have the institutions with the capacity & competency to deal with this. I believe part of the reason has been the hollowing out of state institutions and their ability to deal with problems they face. This ranges from local councils dealing with the poor state of roads, to the often reported shortage of equipment and personnel UK armed forces faced given the tasks Tony Blair and Gordon Brown charged them with undertaking. This also covers international issues including the continued leadership vacuum in Europe in the face of some of the biggest crises the EU has faced.

The large-scale movement of people globally.

Why are people moving? I found this article about the lack of media attention given to people and governments in Africa to be interesting. In The Guardian this article mentions the impact of the collapse of Libya as being a factor. Did the presence of ‘strong national leaders’ (AKA dictators) mean that it was easier for wealthier countries to ignore pressures that were building up in those countries? Why did those pressures build up in the first place? Why are so many people moving from their homes to make perilous journeys by land and sea?

Does data on the flow of wealth help explain?

One of the first things I stumbled across when I went to university to study economics in the later 1990s was the debt crisis in developing countries. I remember reading some of the figures thrown around about the level of debt owed by developing countries to the International Monetary Fund & the World Bank – £100billion was one figure thrown around at the time. I remember how sobering that felt at the time…then fast forward to 2008 finding out that the UK banks had been bailed out by over ten times that amount. Ever since that point my view of mainstream finance and economic policy has been very dim indeed. Can’t drop the debt? Can’t fund the housing program needed but can bail out Fred Goodwin and friends? What’s the point…

And who remembers Live8 in 2005 with all of those celebrities desperate to be on stage or in the VIP pit? Tony Blair was there telling us how important it was that the G8 summit made a difference. (Has it? (*Looks around*))

Net flows of wealth from poorer countries to richer countries, and richer countries to tax havens. 

There are numerous articles about the net flow of wealth from poorer countries to richer countries (eg here and here – 2010 figure approx $557bn) and ultimately into offshore tax havens (eg here). It doesn’t surprise me that in an era of neo-liberal governments, people are following the wealth. The economic theory says that to make markets more free, you enact policies that free up the movement of capital, of knowledge…and of people. Then sit back and watch supposedly pro-free market politicians and their newspaper cheerleaders tie themselves up in knots over immigration.

“So…how do you deal with it?”

Funnily enough, Ed Miliband was onto something with his concept of ‘predistribution’. But having picked a rubbish word to describe it and having been subsequently lampooned over it, it died a quick death. But the point was that more of the people that made the goods or carried out the services  got a greater amount of the price received so that they would not need to rely on things like tax credits or other state support – and would be able to pay taxes too. Furthermore, they would more likely to be able to work fewer hours and have time to do other things with their lives – perhaps even live healthier, happier lives.

Now, extend this concept globally and apply basic workers rights worldwide. What would happen if people had:

  • rights to paid holiday, weekends, maximum working weeks,
  • minimum wages that reflected a living wage/realistic cost of living in decent accommodation with access to public services (not just health & education, but public transport & more)
  • the right to working conditions that meant death & injury were not regular occurrences

Yes – costs of cheap goods would go up. But why should we have access to cheap goods at the expense of the health and livelihoods of our fellow human beings who happen to be in a worse situation than us? I discussed this here.

What would the situation be like if wealth flows between poorer countries and richer countries were more balanced? By ‘poorer’ countries I’m talking about people and countries being impoverished by such unfair economic systems. This isn’t about who works harder or smarter. It’s about social and economic justice. What would it look like if the people that made the goods or delivered the services got more for their work than the employer or shareholding firm with their headquarters artificially registered in a tax haven?

Colonialism and after

The above was the title of the first module that I studied at university – probably the only one in my time at university that really got me thinking. (Yes – I still have a ****big chip**** that gets bigger every time they phone me up for money I don’t have. No! Feck off!)

What’s going on in Iraq and Syria is soul-destroying. The most appalling violence being inflicted on civilians as a weapon of war, the destruction of antiquities…all in the shadow of Tony Blair & George Bush’s misadventures in the Middle East. What I don’t understand is why there is no UN mission to deal with this – one not led or driven by NATO members. I don’t understand why there is no global attempt to bring about reconciliation between Iran and the Gulf states.

Forgetting the historical picture

I had a conversation with a longtime family friend who died recently, who lived and worked in East Africa and in Iran during the 1950s-1970s. She told me she could not believe how the UK & US went into Iraq with no postwar plan – not least one that recognised and planned for the complexities of the mixes of groups, cultures & religions there. The same struck me about what happened in the Ukraine which has far deeper and more complex roots than the mainstream media reported. (This example, when viewed in the context of the Second World War was a piece of analysis I thought was missing in the news reports of the time).

International policy paralysis?

Whether it’s migration in the Mediterranean, ongoing war & horrific violence in the Middle East to sabre-rattling on the EU’s eastern borders, the one thing that strikes me is that no one seems to be in control of the EU’s response. Furthermore, it’s not clear how the UK is playing a constructive part & a positive impact in solving the problems.

Given how interconnected the world is, I can’t see how retreating from international institutions EU-exit style is going to help things. With each of the three cases I’ve touched upon – and I’ve not even mentioned climate change yet, I don’t see any solution in sight. I also don’t see any individuals or groups of individuals in mainstream politics as having what it takes to solve them either.

More questions than answers

In the 2015 election campaign we never had the in-depth debates and discussions of the type they had in Scotland’s independence referendum. Other than UKIP or no-UKIP we didn’t get the chance to thrash out the UK’s future place in the world, the EU or the sort of EU within which we’d be comfortable in.

I don’t know what the answers or solutions to those mega problems are. But from my TV-shaped window into the world, the way the mainstream media is presenting, analysing & contextualising the issues doesn’t seem to be helping.

“Why does the media matter?”

Because media influences policy. If broadcast media can get to grips with the complex roots, bring them to the surface where they can be properly analysed, maybe we might get some better policy-making. This is why projects such as The Women’s Room are ever so important – bringing in new, more diverse voices with a greater range of experiences and expertise to bear.

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Ballots, protest marches and ‘doing democracy’

Summary

Unpicking who is saying what on protest marches and elections – and why democracy encompasses far more

A number of friends and social media followers went on the march in London earlier. Poor health (in particular hay fever & mental exhaustion) plus lack of money put paid to any desire by me to go. I had the idea of doing a time-lapse scene in Trafalgar Square but the forecast & subsequent rain also put paid to that idea: my kit ain’t waterproof.

“Hang on – your side lost the election! Sit down, shut up and accept the will of the people you anti-democracy freed0m-h8ting communist!”

Chances are people would still have been protesting had Ed Miliband been returned with a majority given their messages on spending plans & ‘tough decisions’. Also, note the 2002 Countryside Alliance march which was just over a year after the 2001 general election. Marching & protesting is just as much a feature of a healthy democracy as is a sound & transparent public policy process that involves those with an interest & expertise in a range of different areas shaping public policy. (To what extent those taking part in the ‘non-voting’ aspects of democracy are successful in their endeavours, is a different question).

One of my earliest but least-read blogposts asked what impacts on people’s voting preferences. In the run up to the recent general and local elections I asked:

Do you want to vote for:

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

There’s a lot that people can extrapolate from a cross in a box – especially when it comes to the convention of manifestos. The convention is that Parliament (in particular the House of Lords) will not oppose legislation implementing policies listed in a winning party’s manifesto because this is ‘the will of the people’. But how many people at general elections read through all of the manifestos and pick the one they like the best? How many even get through a summary of each one?

Were the 2015 manifestos written as programmes for government or written with an eye on possible coalition negotiations?

This is something we the general public may never find out – or not until the memoirs of those around at the time are written. Which of the policies were included to be dropped as a means of persuading another potential coalition partner to drop one of theirs? Which policies were included in the different party manifestos with the authors knowing that there were serious problems with them? With the Conservatives, the top few include:

  • Scrapping the Human Rights Act
  • Extending the ‘Right to buy’ to housing associations
  • Uncosted cuts to social security budgets

Similar unpicking of Labour & Liberal Democrats’ manifestos could be done, but as they did not win the election, such an exercise is academic. The Liberal Democrats – facing the next five years with MPs totalling single figures don’t have enough to cover the ministerial portfolios.

“So…what did the march achieve?”

I didn’t go on it so don’t feel qualified to comment.

The bit I’m interested in are the experiences of those taking part in a large demonstration for the first time – as a handful of people from Cambridge did. My first experience of a large London protest march was in 2001. My reasons for being there were to protest against exploitation by multinational corporations, and about the debt crisis, and for the environment. It was a miserable rainy day and me and lots of inexperienced new activists found ourselves led by the established far-left and their front organisations straight into a police kettle in Oxford Circus where we stood for 9 hours getting drenched & bored before they let us out. The context was the year 2000 demo the previous year. Hence lots of riot cops in 2001. Being alone having lost my flatmates in the crowds, with no familiar faces around me and being face-to-face with fully-tooled-up riot cops in the days before smartphones was not a fun place to be – and I’ve kept my distance from the organised far left ever since.

“Have there been better marches?”

One of the things easily overlooked on marches is the social side. Lots of experienced activists questioned (again) the merit of A-to-B marches, with speeches by speakers regularly found at such demonstrations – see the list on Urban 75 here. One I went on a few years ago that I got more out of was where I had Puffles with me and was able to chill out afterwards with a mixture of Puffles’ followers and Young Green Party activists in a pub off the beaten track. In a social media age, bringing people together to meet face-to-face who might only have corresponded online is one of the positive things about such gatherings. Personally I tend not to go on marches directly because I don’t feel like I’m making a difference. In recent times I’ve started reporting from, & filming/interviewing because it’s creating new content and giving a voice to those who might otherwise not get the chance to speak out on video.

“How do you ‘improve’ an A-to-B march?”

Putting on such a large demonstration requires the mobilisation of huge resources – the like of which very few organisations have. In 2001 no trade unions backed the May Day demonstration, and as a result a few thousand of us got locked in a kettle for ages and achieved very little. But then some might say A-to-B marches don’t really achieve much more.

Given the diversity of interests & organisations taking part, I’d be interested to see organisers trying the People and Planet methods -> see their summer camp in July here. Rather than having tens of thousands of people watching one stage, why not have say Hyde Park as the end point where you have a massive mix of open space conversations, freshers-fair-style stalls, ‘big speech’ stages for those that want it, & art, music & spoken word alternative stages elsewhere?

“That sounds dangerously autonomous!”

This is the culture shift Labour & those to the left of it have struggled with ever since the development of the Internet. Which of the established institutions – whether political parties, trade unions or campaign groups are prepared to put their resources into something that they don’t have complete control over? With Labour’s affiliated trade unions, would they be prepared to finance something that other political parties such as The Greens, the SNP or Plaid Cymru benefit from? This is already an issue Unite the Union is grappling with in Scotland following the general election. (ie ‘What do you do if the majority of your members voted for a party other than the one your union is affiliated to?’)

“From marchers to locally-active citizens?”

I’m thinking of younger and/or recently politically active people here. There still feels like we have a huge gap between what happens at demonstrations and the day-to-day life of local government and what council & councillors do. The number of ‘uncontested elections’ at a local government level reflects this. Hence one of my starting points for lots of people is to invite them to send an email to their elected representatives simply to let them know they are there, as well as the issues they care about. (See https://www.writetothem.com/)

My take is that there’s far more to democracy than either the ballot box or marching alone. Not everyone will be comfortable marching just as not everyone will be comfortable joining a political party or campaigning at election time. But how do you go about creating the spaces where people (who all too often have very little time) can find out what activity suits their lifestyles & dispositions? Hence the thought about demonstrations, protest marches and gatherings being much more than A-to-B marches sandwiched between speakers.

“Your lot still lost the election!”

Just as with Labour in 2001 & 2005, election victories can hide a multitude of problems. Tony Blair was faced with an astonishingly weak Conservative Party as an opposition just as David Cameron faced a Labour front bench that never looked like a government in waiting. Internally, the Conservatives still have to deal with historically low membership numbers along with the 4million people who voted UKIP. (Just as Labour & the Liberal Democrats have to face up to the 1million people who voted for The Greens).

With the EU in-out referendum due in the next two years, UKIP are unlikely to go away despite their documented internal troubles and the disappointment at the number of seats (one – Douglas Carswell MP) they won at the general elections. The political fault line along the Conservative-UKIP boundary will remain in the news for the foreseeable future.

Democracy and devolution

One of the things the London-based media don’t seem to understand with Scotland is the concept of Scotland being a country in the mindset of the people of Scotland. Those opposed to the Conservatives can understandably say that Scotland comprehensively rejected the Conservatives. And Labour. And the Liberal Democrats. Watching a debate on The Scotland Bill in Parliament (in part implementing the Smith Commission recommendations post-independence referendum), it was interesting to see Conservative MPs saying that the people of Scotland had comprehensively rejected the commission’s proposals 2 months after they were published by voting SNP MPs in 56 of the 59 constituencies. (See the SNP response to the commission at the time here).

Thus you have the largest political grouping in Scotland saying ‘We did not vote for the Conservatives’ policy agenda’ in a similar way that Euro-sceptics say ‘We did not vote for the EU’ – but with the Euro-sceptics in the Commons being predominantly from parties backing the union of Great Britain & Northern Ireland.

Devolution in England too?

Since the middle of the last decade, slow progress towards devolving powers to local government has been made. But old Treasury habits die hard. To what extent will The Treasury allow local councils to raise their own fund through taxation, or borrow to invest in essential infrastructure such as housing? In places like Cambridge where housing demand is huge, it feels like a no-brainer.

Yet irrespective of party political persuasion, in order for democracy to work at a local level it requires active citizens. But then this means people doing more than putting a cross in a box once every few years, or going on a march every so often. Hence messages such as this one do no favours – unless an elected dictatorship where you vote once every five years for someone to take all the power to do whatever they like without any checks & balances is what you want.

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Filming alone at festivals

Summary

You get to see some brilliant performances, but…how do you get decent audio? And what do you do with drunk people and photographers getting in the way of filming?

I got lucky at The Strawberry Fair as most of the groups and musicians I wanted to film were on the Cambridge 105 tent. They kindly gave me a copy of the audio they recorded, hence not having to rely on what my microphones were picking up.

The above was originally by Jefferson Airplane in the 1960s. If the lead singer from Jefferson Airplane looks/sounds familiar, she was the lead singer in ‘Nothing’s gonna stop us now‘ by Starship.

I got lucky again with several members of the audience intervening to get some drunk people out of the way while filming Fred’s House. Because I really wanted to clobber one of the drunkards who was oblivious to everyone else around him. In the meantime, others near me had to deal with someone drunk in charge of a mobility scooter steamrollering his way to the front. (Interestingly, there seems to be a legal loophole on this).

I had a great early afternoon at The Strawberry Fair, a number of very talented young musicians – some of whom seem to have been around for ages, such as Ellie Dixon below.

I first spotted Ellie playing support to Grace Sarah, who occupied a much later slot on stage this year. After Ellie & Sophie Winter’s set, I asked them both about why there were so few all-women bands around generally. It’s something they said they would give some thought to in a follow-up interview. I also suggested the idea from this blogpost of getting a group of young women singer/song writers to pick their 3 favourite songs (each) that they’ve written, arrange them for a big band and have The Junction/Music East book some professional session musicians to perform them live with.  Grace Sarah has already piloted this approach with GoldStar.

What do I get out of it?

I’m of the view that every filming session is a learning opportunity – one that goes against the way I was taught to learn as a child. The latter being:

  • Get it right first time, every time
  • Mistakes are bad and bad is sinful and shameful
  • Failure is bad and bad is sinful

You can see how the exam factory screws people up.

This new way of learning was something I only picked up last year – see here. Most of the footage I film does not get uploaded. Editing is extremely labour-intensive.

The past week or so has been a lesson about soundboards – from small hand-held ones to the big studio ones. I’ve effectively had a crash course in what other stuff I needed to get in order to get better audio. (Other than ‘A USB stick’). If you’re going to a gig at a small concert venue and want to record the audio, have a USB stick with you as most soundboards can record the audio directly onto them).

I get to meet more people on a fairly regular basis, which is always nice. Also, given the profile of the groups & musicians I film (ie local/unsigned generally), any extra half-decent video footage is always welcome. For singer/songwriters it works best because picking up a decent bassline is very difficult. Here’s one example by Cambridge Octet Makossa where even my main camcorder struggled. Note how you can hear but not ‘feel’ the bass guitar.

Being alone at a festival and ‘working’

It was kind of a loaded situation for me to be in – 20 years from a summer when many of my school friends were experimenting with cigarettes, alcohol & soft drugs. As it turned out it took me a few months to catch up with them in the drinking stakes. But I missed the Strawberry Fair of that year, everyone singing the praises of how they all got stoned. A couple of weeks later and at the midsummer fair the atmosphere was noticeably more tense & less easy-going than the previous year culminating in a sharp exit before some local nazeez hanging by a burger van spotted us.

Yet just as back then, I found myself feeling not entirely comfortable as darkness began to make itself known. It wasn’t so much having the kit with me – minus an expensive tripod that went missing earlier that afternoon at The Cambridge Union where I popped into the Unlock Democracy event. It was the sense of vulnerability of not being with a long term stable group of friends – despite the presence of more than a few familiar faces throughout the evening.

It was very much the sense of having spent the whole day with people but at the same time spent the whole day alone. But given what I was doing, I had to be. When you’re concentrating, you zone out of everything and everyone else around you. Whoever gets in the way of filming becomes a target of extreme internal rage at the time, only for it to have diminished the following morning.

“Festivals and fairs are supposed to be communal things, aren’t they?”

In part it’s where I show my age, but also where I show my anxiety. As documented in many-a-past blogpost, I never had the camping out festival experience that I should have had either at college or university. Illness put paid to that. In my ‘roaring 20s’ my equivalents of music festivals were probably the ballroom dancing balls in Vienna & Zurich. One of the most well-known of the smaller music festivals – the Cambridge Folk Festival happens every year in my neighbourhood. Every so often I pop along – I even took Puffles one year.

Is time running out for that ‘festival’ experience?

I stumbled across the word Torschlusspanik recently. Essentially it means the fear that time to do things in life is running out, & that the gate will close on the opportunity to do them. Literally it means ‘gate close panic’. Yet having watched one of those fly on the wall documentaries while editing last night [lads go to festival with film crew not knowing their parents are watching the footage etc], even if I did have the stamina I don’t feel a sense of having missed out as such. As far as performers go, I got to see many of the biggest bands around at the time that I wanted to see live in concert. Much of the TV footage reminded me of post-A-level holiday to Newquay & clubbing every night.

Wisdom, experience, growing up, courage – call it what you will, perhaps part of the process of us finding our true selves is acknowledging what we do and don’t like. (And not worrying about whether it’s cool or not). In that regard I grew up far too slowly. Being the solitary community cameraman filming politics and performances isn’t the stuff ‘cool’ is made out of. Yet when I look at the data, clearly more than a few people are watching the results – Charlie & Molly having 250 plays in 24 hours of the Strawberry Fair ending, being one example.

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Please support my work making community films

My 2015 general election videos proved highly popular with the viewing public – over 6,000 views and over 16,000 minutes/250 hours of video footage viewed between 1st April – 10th May 2015 alone.

YTStatsforWebsiteAppeal

I incurred significant expense in time spent filming and editing the video footage, along with further expense in equipment to deal with the challenges of recording decent audio in a variety of different venues. If you would like to help contribute to the costs of producing this content, and/or would like to support my future projects where I will be filming and interviewing local MPs, politicians and civic leaders at length, please click -> Digital Democracy support details.

Thank you for your continued support

Antony Carpen

Heidi Allen MP being filmed by me at the Queen Edith Pub, Wulfstan Way, Cambridge

Heidi Allen MP being filmed by me at the Queen Edith Pub, Wulfstan Way, Cambridge

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What impact will Heidi Allen MP have on her neighbouring constituency, Cambridge City?

Summary

Some thoughts on the potential impact of a new, highly-motivated MP for South Cambridgeshire who represents one of Cambridge City’s wards – Queen Edith’s.

Me and Chris Rand, a community blogger in Queen Edith’s ward interviewed Heidi Allen MP over the weekend.

Heidi Allen MP being filmed by me at the Queen Edith Pub, Wulfstan Way, Cambridge

Heidi Allen MP being filmed by me at the Queen Edith Pub, Wulfstan Way, Cambridge

I’m uploading the two videos I filmed later in the week as this will form part of a mini-launch of what are likely to become monthly extended interviews with Ms Allen, covering what she has been doing in Parliament and how the Government’s plans are going to affect our neighbourhood.

A significant change for the Conservatives in and around Cambridge?

It was no accident that Ms Allen got over 50% of the votes in South Cambridgeshire – see the full results here. But it wasn’t because the population and the electorate of the constituency growing in the same way as the Conservative share of the vote has done over the years. (See here). Ms Allen’s predecessor was the controversial former Health Secretary Andrew Lansley. My experience of him (he was once my MP prior to boundary changes) was that he was absent from our part of the constituency. That said, I hardly ever saw much of Cambridge’s 2005-10 MP David Howarth either. When Julian Huppert became MP in 2010, he set the standard of how to be a strong constituency MP in terms of casework (30,000+ in five years), visibility and availability communications-wise. Dr Huppert’s example hasn’t gone unnoticed by Ms Allen and her team.

Had Mr Lansley stood for re-election, chances are the other parties would have thrown significant national resources into the constituency due to the presence of Addenbrooke’s Hospital – one of the biggest hospitals in the country. His announcement he was standing down meant that one of the safest Conservative seats in the country was up for grabs – and Ms Allen was the candidate successful in gaining the nomination from the local party.

That’s not to say the other candidates didn’t fight – they did. South Cambridgeshire benefited from a line up of competent candidates who worked their socks off. I filmed them at Homerton College’s hustings – see here. Following those hustings I interviewed Ms Allen – see here. Without the extra burden of ministerial/shadow ministerial office, and having only become a councillor in neighbouring Hertfordshire (St Albans) in 2011, she wasn’t nearly as burdened by things like the MPs’ expenses scandal or even voting records during the Coalition.

What does this mean for the new Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner?

While both Mr Zeichner and Ms Allen have said publicly they will work together to deal with the issues that both constituencies face together, this is the first time in living memory that there has been a complete change in parliamentary representation personnel-wise across three constituencies in and around Cambridge – the final of the three being Lucy Frazer MP for South East Cambridgeshire.

With Dr Huppert as MP 2010-15, he was in the new position of being a backbench MP of a minority coalition partner, with two parliamentary neighbours who at various occasions held ministerial office. With ministerial office inevitably taking up four days per week plus more, Dr Huppert effectively had most of the Cambridge area to himself. Or so it felt – reflecting his very strong use of social media to keep constituents, campaigners and the local media up to date. Mr Zeichner faces the next five years in opposition – not having the sort of ministerial access Dr Huppert had. Furthermore, he is next door to a new MP on the Government benches who has already shown herself to be more open, approachable and accessible than her predecessor was.

“Will we see a Conservative resurgence in Cambridge as a result of Ms Allen’s presence?”

2010 was a low point for the Conservatives in Cambridge. Despite Cambridge City candidate Chamali Fernando working incredibly hard on the campaign, she scored over four thousand votes fewer than her predecessor candidate Nick Hillman. There are a number of reasons for this. They include:

Ms Allen said prior to the election in an interview with me that she would be focusing her efforts on wards in and around Cambridge (have a watch here) if she were elected. Now that she has been elected, and given her very personable disposition, I expect over the next few years it will begin to pay dividends not just in Queen Edith’s but in others as well. For Queen Edith’s – a traditional Liberal Democrat stronghold, this will be a further challenge for a local party recovering from the loss of Dr Huppert as Cambridge MP.

How will Labour, the Liberal Democrats and The Greens respond?

We’ve got a by-election already in June following the resignation of Kilian Bourke. Given the national results, I’m sure the post-election membership surges for the three parties will have had some impact inside the city – especially the Liberal Democrats. The expected candidates as per Phil Rodgers:

Conservatives: Rahatul Raja
Greens: Debbie Aitchison
Labour: Zoe Moghadas
Liberal Democrats: Nichola Martin

Here’s how things turned out in Romsey in May 2015 -> with Anna Smith elected. Having met Ms Martin and being friends with Mrs Moghadas, we’ve got two strong candidates from the top two parties. Also, expect The Greens to poll well too – especially given their victory in Market Ward with Cllr Oscar Gillespie. I think Mrs Moghadas will win due to being a former city councillor and residents being familiar with her. That said, in Ms Martin the Liberal Democrats have got an energised and personable and relatively young candidate (as Cambridgeshire County Councillors go!) – so much depends on how actively her and fellow Liberal Democrats campaign.

A changing constituency attached to a growing (overheating?) city in a time of further spending cuts

It’s not going to be a walk in the park given the challenges facing Cambridge. Ms Allen has identified housing as the biggest issue for her. The urgency is underlined by the comments from planning inspectors to the Cambridge/South Cambs local plan – see here. Some of her constituents in surrounding villages are not going to like being told that they have to allocate more rural land for housing. Furthermore, The Chancellor is expected to announce a new budget in July which is likely to have even further cuts to government spending – cuts which Ms Allen will be expected to support as a backbench MP of the governing party. Although from Parliament’s perspective it’s unheard of for a backbench MP to vote against their party line on a budget vote, Cambridge Labour skilfully and ruthlessly exploited Dr Huppert’s voting record on Coalition budgets.

Will this mean that Ms Allen and Mr Zeichner will be loggerheads for the next five years?

Unlikely. For a start Ms Allen isn’t a fundamentalist dyed-in-the-wool career politician. I expect she will be far more pragmatic than her predecessor. As for Mr Zeichner, although he has a long record as a candidate for Labour – winning after four unsuccessful campaigns in Cambridge & Norfolk, he’s not the ‘attack dog’ type of politician. When I look back at the many hustings he took part in against Dr Huppert, very rarely did he make personal attacks on Dr Huppert. It was local councillors & activists who were far more aggressive online.

One of the more interesting things to watch out for will be which parties can establish a local presence in the new housing estates that continue to spring up in and around Cambridge. Without the long and established histories of the surrounding villages, these could be the places where the other parties can establish a strong presence.

Given the impact of their student campaigning machine in Cambridge, will Cambridge Universities Labour Club ‘bank’ the Cambridge City result and start regular campaigns in South Cambridgeshire and South East Cambridgeshire? Because just as Ms Allen’s presence in South Cambridgeshire could open some doors to the Conservatives in Cambridge, the growth of Cambridge City beyond the parliamentary boundaries could open lots more doors not just to Labour, but to a resurgent Liberal Democrats and even the Greens, who between Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire are heading towards 1,000 members.

We live in interesting times…

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The post-election dust begins to settle

Summary

What can we expect from the political parties?

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

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

Osborne’s July Budget

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

Conservatives hitting the ground running vs opposition navel-gazing?

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

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

How can Labour escape the shadow of Blair & Brown? 

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

Rebuilding from a near-wipe out for the Liberal Democrats

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

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

What will the SNP do for England?

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

UKIP and The Greens?

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

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

Cameron with a smaller majority in the Commons than John Major

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

New views for new ministers with old views?

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

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

Cameron as a ‘hands off’ Prime Minister

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

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

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

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

Posted in Elections 2015, Party politics | 2 Comments