Will the 2015 general election mark a low point in national politics?


Pondering on the wider national campaigns – and the woefully poor mainstream media coverage

Because what else is there to do at 2am than write a politics blogpost and drink port to slay the insomnia demons?

Simon Saggers of The Green Party at the South Cambs hustings at Homerton College. 20 April 2015

Simon Saggers of The Green Party (standing) at the South Cambs hustings at Homerton College. 20 April 2015

I was at the South Cambridgeshire hustings – the third Parliamentary constituency that I’ve covered in this election campaign. As with Cambridge, this constituency has got a relatively strong line-up compared to other parts of the country – though you may disagree. Have a look at the hustings video playlist here & decide for yourselves.

There’s a lot of fear out there…& it’s being whipped up by the print media

The headlines are as hysterical as the lack of hope & vision from the party the media moguls are backing. I remember at the time of ‘Cleggmania’ in 2010 how the print media went after Nick Clegg. It was incessant, continuous and constant. With Ed Miliband, it’s been like this but perhaps for longer. Interestingly, it could be that the print media overplayed their hand by trying to convince the public that Ed Miliband was worse than he is. Thus come the more extended TV broadcasts, what the public see vs what the print media has told them don’t necessarily match – hence slightly increased popularity ratings.

One of the things I often heard in student circles during my university days was how crises would inevitably lead to left-wing governments. History has repeatedly told us this is not the case. What we’ve seen is a polarisation with some parts of the population heading towards UKIP and others towards The Greens. What we don’t yet know is what the distribution will be in this election. I don’t think it’ll be anywhere near as uniform as implied by the opinion polls. When the dust settles after the general and local elections, we’ll get a sense of where the spikes in support for those two parties are. I expect Cambridgeshire will be one of those counties that will show rising support for both the Greens & UKIP that is higher than the national average, but spread across opposite parts of the county (Cambridgeshire): Greens in the south, UKIP in the north.

The collapse of the Lib Dems generally also means we don’t really know where that support has moved to. For me, turnout at elections between the this & the last general election is too low to make solid predictions.

The strengths (& weaknesses) of individual candidates

In the three constituencies I’ve covered, turnout at hustings & debates has been very high. Even the candidates have been pleasantly surprised to find packed community centres & church halls. Given the low standing of party politics and of political leaders, and given the rise of all things online, I wonder to what extent the calibre of candidates will make or break party prospects in individual seats?

I quite like this post by Fraser Nelson in the Spectator about how Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP has broken all of the post-1995 rules of electioneering. It reminds me of Labour’s strategy for this general election of not trying to outspend their Conservative opponents but trying to out-campaign them. Four million conversations in four months to be precise. All well and good if you’ve got the passionate, knowledgeable & competent campaigners to do it. But I’ve seen one or two comical examples online where campaigners have knocked on doors and haven’t been able to answer some of the basic questions put to activists. In this era not just of social media, but digital video too…exactly.

Having worked as a civil servant for ministers of three different parties, I’m one of the least tribal of people out there given my interest in all things politics, public policy & current affairs. When you’ve been in a career that involves picking holes in other people’s arguments, or trying to fill the holes that others are picking in yours, it’s very difficult to gloss over the gaps & pretend everything will be fine. Hence why I’m very interested in the calibre of the individual standing for election. In particular I’m interested in how independent of the party whip they will be. Hence why the Cambridge human rights hustings (which I filmed here) were interesting because Labour’s Daniel Zeichner broke from the party line to say that he was in favour of abolishing the UK’s nuclear deterrent.

“When you talk about independent-minded politicians, what examples did you have in mind?”

For the Conservatives, I’m thinking of Robert Halfon, Dr Sarah Wollaston and Rory Stewart. Obviously Julian Huppert stands out for the Liberal Democrats – as does Andrew George. For Labour, I’ve always been a fan of Dr Stella Creasy – as well as of the ‘awkward squad’ of the likes of John McDonnell and friends.

“So…why will it be a low point in national politics?”

For several reasons:

Diversity and calibre of candidates selected for election by local parties:

I’m not convinced the parties have systems in place to select the best candidates for the constituency. What might be best for the party and best for the constituency may not be the same person. Furthermore, given the decline in party membership over the years, the number of people responsible for the selection of candidates has fallen & fallen. You could say: “Tough – the voters get the politicians they deserve”. After all, aren’t the voters free-riding on the hard work party activists & members put in to select candidates – something they don’t get paid for? Alternatively, you could change the system towards open primaries or one where party members get to see the candidates being cross-examined by the general public in an open meeting.

A clash of political cultures between older & newer political cultures

Both Labour & the Conservatives have become used to having close policy control in smaller units of very well networked & connected people. Whether it was Osborne & Cameron as protege’s of Michael Howard or Ed Miliband and Ed Balls under Gordon Brown, you get the sense that control of policy is somewhere far away from that of the grassroots membership. I’m still not convinced a critical mass of the last Parliament understood the new way of doing politics – and the impact of the internet & social media on accountability. I’m not convinced that all of the incumbents in safe seats will get it either.

New political blood needs time, support & mentoring before being ready to stand for election

As many of the candidates will have already been selected prior to the much-needed surge in publicity around getting involved in politics & democracy, the 2015 elections will be too early.

One of the questions I’ve put to politicians in & around Cambridge is about what their new activists are like. In particular are there any that stand out as being potential ‘non-paper candidates’ in the 2016 local council elections we’ll have in Cambridgeshire next year. For the Green Party in Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire, their combined membership is now up to around 700 people so they tell me. Can they transfer that sharp rise in membership into effective campaigns & bring through high calibre candidates to take the place of some of their non-campaigning candidates?

The same goes for the other parties. How many of their new activists are potential new candidate material? I’ve met one or two from the other parties & have thought to myself: “Yep – that person’s got huge potential; is the party mentoring them with 2016 in mind?”

It’s also one of the reasons I’m trying to feature as many women as possible in my election documentary. I don’t want to have to be the person that turns up to meetings & complains about the lack of diversity on panels and boards again & again. Rather than seeing a weird bloke in his 30s who carries a dragon around with him urging people to take an interest in politics, it’s better if the invitation comes from people who are similar to the audience I want to target. My aim is to get people to think/feel: “Yes! They are the sort of people I want to work with, campaign with, socialise with and help make a difference to my community with!” The reality with most council meetings, you don’t get that feeling. Can we bring in a new generation of community activists to get involved in local democracy to change this?

Well…there’s no harm in trying!

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Filming the Cambridge 2015 elections


Observations so far

For those of you outside of Cambridge, this 20-minute exchange on BBC-East covers a general exchange between the five party candidates. I am also adding videos from the election campaign to my Cambridge general election 2015 playlist here.

As far as tightly-fought constituencies go, Cambridge has to be one of the most intense. The number of public debates/hustings that are taking place speaks volumes – as does the attendance. I’ve filmed or attended over half a dozen already, and all have had well over 100 people or have been standing room only. Richard Taylor has also filmed several that I’ve not been able to attend. See his videos here. Due to the sheer number of events – over 40 in Cambridge alone, we are informally dividing up who does which events. For example recently he covered a UKIP public meeting in North Cambridge, whereas I covered a hustings just outside Cambridge, in South East Cambridgeshire whose residents otherwise had very limited video footage.

People are genuinely interested. Even outside of Cambridge in South Cambridgeshire and South-East Cambridgeshire, residents and candidates have told me how interested local communities are – reflected by huge turnout in our surrounding towns & villages.

A pano from my mobile at the South-East Cambs hustings at St Vigor's Church, Fulbourn just outside Cambridge.

A pano from my mobile at the South-East Cambs hustings at St Vigor’s Church, Fulbourn just outside Cambridge. Locals were astonished at the standing-room-only attendance in the main church.

“Is it the same group of liberal affluent middle class activists going from hustings to hustings as Patrick O’Flynn claimed?”

Mr O’Flynn made the comments in one of Richard’s videos – see here from 1 minute in. Taking out some of the headline-type comments, Mr O’Flynn has made an understandable tactical judgement call: What’s the point of him going to events organised by groups that are very likely to be hostile to his party’s policies and manifesto? Far better to use limited time, resources & activists targeting those parts of the city that are most likely to increase his vote, and possibly deliver a councillor or two. Hence his non-appearances at events organised by the Cambridge Cycling Campaign, Transition Cambridge/Cambridge Carbon Footprint and Amnesty International/Oxfam Cambridge.

While it might be irritating for some groups and organisers that he’s not engaging with them, as he said in the video it’s up to him how he decides to run his campaign. Ultimately the candidates and their agents are the responsible people – just as I was last year in Coleridge. If people feel strongly enough, they can challenge them at the events they organise – as a number of Labour and Green Party activists did at their event with Douglas Carswell.

Young activists and women take to the city

In contrast to the UKIP meeting which, according to young Labour activist and former Trumpington candidate Tim Sykes was predominantly male-attended, women have been making their presence felt across the city. For example in this video clip featuring Green Party leader Natalie Bennett in Cambridge. That said, they are still in a minority – reflecting only one in five of the candidates (Chamali Fernando of the Conservatives) is a woman.

The visit from Liberal Youth activists to Cambridge was the largest in this election campaign – over fifty activists coming from across the country for a weekend of campaigning with Julian Huppert.

Photo credit: @ReelectJulian Twitter account.

Photo credit: @ReelectJulian Twitter account.

Buzzing, articulate, passionate and understandably wide-eyed & naive in some cases, the young activists have brought much-needed energy and enthusiasm to campaigning across the city.

“You mean they’ve not all been chased out of town?”

Not at all. Activists from all parties have mentioned that members of the public they’ve spoken to on the doorstep on the whole have been very positive about someone wanting to engage & listen to their views about politics. The public generally appreciates that despite cynicism about politics in general, somebody has to do politics because if no one did, public services would shut down.

The Twitter bubble

It’s only when you follow the politicians and activists away from Twitter do you get a feel of how much of a bubble the social media political world is. While those of us active in the political and public policy world live, eat, drink & breathe politics, the vast majority of the population does not. For example while Conservative Ms Fernando (who has since left Twitter) may have been in the receiving end of some self-inflicted social media coverage over comments made at recent hustings, on television some locally told me she came across much more strongly. Even in a city like Cambridge that may be the only time many voters get to see the candidates almost-in-the-flesh and in their own voices. Everything else locally may as well be noise in some far-away forest.

“What do the video stats say?”

My Youtube channel stats from 21 March 2015 to 17 April 2015.

My Youtube channel stats from 21 March 2015 to 17 April 2015.

Note how things have been bumbling along until the very recent upturn on the back of uploading lots of new content. The context of the numbers is that the videos are of Cambridge-related events. Therefore to have had that many views is pleasantly surprising.

“Going where the silence is the loudest”

I had the choice to go to the UKIP event – & was genuinely torn between wanting to see Cambridge’s UKIP activists in the flesh vs wanting to make sure South-East Cambridgeshire had some video footage of their debates. When Richard told me he was covering the former event, I went to the latter – which strangely enough was much easier for me to get to as the bus went almost door-to-door from my house to the venue. I was astonished when the Conservative candidate, Lucy Frazer declined me permission to film on the grounds that I had not given her enough notice. However, as this was not my neighbourhood, let alone event, I politely stepped back. As the exchange took place next to the Labour candidate Huw Jones – who agreed to the event being filmed, I took the view that it was up to the candidates  (& to a wider extent, the local electorate) to debate amongst themselves the rights & wrongs.

Both Mr Jones, and Jonathan Chatfield of the Liberal Democrats said the event should have been filmed.

There may also have been other reasons (as the next paragraph explains) why candidates do not want debates to be filmed. But that is for the candidates to make clear to their electorate, not for me to speculate why or why not outside of the reasons given. I see my role in this election as that of a community reporter and a community cameraperson. Tweet what has happened, record and upload as many good photographs and as much decent footage as possible, & let the candidates & activists argue it out. I don’t have enough mental health spoons for anything more. I’m saving my comments & opinions until after the election. That’s my plan anyway!

As things stand, requests have been made by Mr Jones & Mr Chatfield to enable filming at the final two hustings for the constituency. After the debate, I did manage to film three short interview clips with three of the candidates – Mr Jones, Mr Chatfield and surprisingly Ms Frazer (following advice from Vicky Ford MEP, whose intervention I am grateful for). See the playlist here. Clive Semmens of the Greens having declined for personal reasons and Deborah Rennie of UKIP having departed earlier to join Richard & company across town. For info, Mr Semmens disclosed at the hustings that, like me he has long term mental health condition. As a result, he said that public speaking didn’t come naturally to him and that speaking on such platforms was incredibly exhausting for him. This is something I can testify to. I was exhausted after this hustings for Puffles last year.

“Oh Puffles! You’re hardly Paxo! Why didn’t you sink your teeth into the candidates & rip them to pieces?!?”

Because to be honest that would have been far too easy. The bigger challenge in this current environment is allowing politicians to come across as being like us – human beings. People who have similar insecurities, vulnerabilities, passions & emotions. The way ***not*** to do it is to go in guns blazing with: “When are you going to resign as a candidate following this outrageous re-tweet that demonstrates you are completely unfit for public office?!?!” etc, etc.

Starting from the point of not having ***any*** video footage of the candidates

This is my starting point. Given the state of democracy and politics at the moment, I take the view that in order to improve things, we’ve got to get to the stage where people feel they can have mature & substantive conversations with their local politicians. There’s no point in going straight for the robust substantive conversations if people don’t see local politicians as people they want to have a conversation with. Hence I see my role as inviting people to ask themselves the following question:

“Are these the sort of people I would like to have a conversation with about issues in my local area?”

Now have a look at this video featuring the two leading candidates for the South Cambridgeshire seat, Heidi Allen for the Conservatives and Seb Kindersley for the Liberal Democrats that I filmed in late 2014.

Compared to normal politics interviews, note the face & body language of Heidi & Seb. It’s far more positive than what you see on TV. Also standing are Simon Saggers for the Greens, Dan Greef for Labour & Marion Mason for UKIP.

“Why do you want that sort of posture & disposition?”

The simple point is most of the local political parties have had a very limited amount of video coverage available online. Last summer I set myself a challenge of changing all that, having given up on pleading with the parties to create the footage themselves in the run up to the 2014 elections. But being on video for the first time is intimidating. It took me ages to get used to it. Why should they all be experts first time around? Therefore it’s in everyone’s interest to get politicians, candidates & activists comfortable with the medium first, before diving into local Paxo-style grillings!

“Why not grill them more? Doesn’t the dragon bite?”

Very rarely & sparingly. It’s more effective that way. As I sometimes say, when Puffles bites government policy very hard, ministers get criticised by Parliament – as happened here in 2013. At the same time, I’d rather more people took an interest in local democracy, came along to public meetings & had conversations using social media directly with their elected representatives. Our city can only benefit.

“Who is the most accessible?”

The Greens & the Liberal Democrats have made things the easiest for me so far. Given Richard’s coverage of UKIP and given much of their campaigning/events seem to be north of the river (I’m south – it takes an hour to cross town by bus), I’m leaving it to Richard to give his already extensive coverage of them. In the meantime, it allows me to expand south-and-eastwards to catch the edges of the constituencies of South Cambridgeshire and South-East Cambridgeshire.

Labour’s has been variable – reflecting the institutional close top-down media management the party became famous for in the mid-1990s. I generally only find out about big-name visitors by friends inside the party who tip me off. On a frontline activist level however, they have been friendly and personable. In the grand scheme of things, it’s the latter that matters to me, not the former. Several of the senior politicians who have been coming to town were people I was familiar with when they were ministers in the last Labour government. I’m more interested in covering the local history that won’t be covered in the local or national press. Hence looking forward to covering the campaigns in particular by their student activists and also some of their local council candidates.

It’s not been straight-forward with the Conservatives vis-a-vis the other parties – in part for reasons I’ve described in my previous post. Comparing the people & networks inside the local parties, I’ve got to know quite a number of Labour & Liberal Democrat campaigners because many of them are or have been councillors in the city. In Cambridge we also have local council elections – Phil Rodgers listing all of the candidates here. With The Greens, I’m familiar with several of them because they are active in some of the community groups & geographical areas I am active in.

“Who’s going to win?”

I still think it’s too close to call. In Cambridge there are too many variables, such as:

  • How many people will vote for Dr Huppert despite his Liberal Democrat party ticket?
  • How many people who did not vote for Mr Zeichner/Labour in 2010 will vote for him in 2015?
  • How many people unconvinced by Labour will switch either to the Greens or UKIP?
  • How many Conservatives (who came second last time) will switch either to the Liberal Democrats (given both the Coalition & Dr Huppert’s record in a party part of it) or to UKIP?
  • How many people who did not vote in 2010 will vote as a result of things like the higher profile five-party race, the Coalition’s record, the qualities of the candidates, the calibre of party leaders and the content of manifestos?
  • Where will the student vote go?

We live in interesting times…

(Style note – for the purposes of the elections, I’m going with formal titles of the candidates after their first mention of their full name to de-personalise the content).

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


A busy day for Cambridge Conservatives 

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

From Richard Taylor's tweet to front page of the national papers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How are the campaigns going in Cambridge for the Conservatives?

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

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

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

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

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And…they’re off! The race to get elected begins!

Summary Let’s not forget that in Cambridgeshire, we have local council elections too! The candidates have been announced:

And….the lack of consistency across the election pages is farcical. As is the lack of online contact details. Looks like me & the Cambridge Twitteratti are going to have to sort this out by producing something ourselves. From a personal perspective, I’m interested mainly in Cambridge, plus a few of the South Cambridgeshire wards. For others of you, the other Cambridgeshire council elections may be of interest.

“So, who’s standing where?” The Conservatives, Greens, Labour and the Liberal Democrats are standing a full slate of candidates across Cambridge. (See here). UKIP are standing in eight of the 14 wards up for election – focusing mainly in the residential areas of the city.

“What are the candidates like?” Having stood for election as Puffles last year, my take generally is to welcome anyone who stands for election wanting to make a positive contribution to their neighbourhood and area. I can understand the concept of a ‘paper candidate’ and why people might choose to agree to be one. However, in the age of the internet & social media, I think it should become less & less acceptable to not have some of the online basics if your name is on the ballot paper. Such as:

  • Web page on your party’s website
  • Some sort of social media contact – whether email (yes, that counts!), Facebook page or Twitter handle
  • A short video clip introducing yourself

Things are slightly different at a local government level in general election year as turnout is inevitably higher. Thus people are more likely to vote on party brand rather than because they are familiar with the local candidates – especially if the candidate lives in a ward on the other side of town.

Students standing for election and campaigning actively There are a few of them looking at the addresses – a couple for the Conservatives and one for The Greens. The Liberal Democrats, Labour and The Greens all have active student societies, and have been heavily canvassing their target wards.

I had an interesting chat with Holly Higgins of Cambridge Universities Labour Club earlier about my documentary mentioned in my previous blogpost. (I’ve filmed her before – see here). Also anecdotal feedback from Millicent Scott, standing for the Lib Dems in Hammersmith, is that young women in particular want to see other women both out & about campaigning and standing as candidates. Hence my desire for the documentary is to focus on those activists that help break some of the negative stereotypes about who gets involved in local democracy. One of the reasons I wanted Holly to say a piece to camera earlier this year is because she’s far more likely to connect with people of her generation than me – someone carrying the scars of Whitehall!

The other thing I mentioned in a Twitter conversation is that ‘I know too much’ about public policy to be able to take the view of someone who doesn’t live, sleep & breathe politics 24/7. Take the recent leaders debate. The outcome didn’t surprise me. The attempts to spin who won didn’t surprise me either. The snap opinion polls were here today, gone tomorrow.

But what of those for whom the TV debate was the first time they had seen any of the party leaders talking reasonably extensively (in an age of soundbite TV) about a wide variety of issues? Or those tabloid newspaper readers who felt that Ed Miliband didn’t come across nearly as bad as they have been saying for the past four years? It’s ironic that politicians wax lyrical about connecting with ‘ordinary people’ and then allow their party managers and apparatchiks to do everything possible to shelter them from said people – see Marina Hyde in blistering form here. My take is that any senior politician worth their salt should not be afraid of such open and ‘unplanned’ exchanges. Note John Major in 1992 taking on far left protesters here, & how he remarked that ‘they were always there’ on his tour of the country. If John Major – who won in 1992 but got politically thumped in 1997 – could handle hecklers, why can’t today’s senior politicians? Or is it that they can but their party handlers are too nervous to let them try?

“Who’s been leafletting what?” As my ward is a safe Labour seat, I tend to get very little from the other parties – with the exception of the Liberal Democrats in this election. When it comes to campaigning, it’s as if there is this big sign on my door that says:

***Beware of the politically-aware dragon!!!***

The owners of this property will not be held responsible for the consequences of you being given a lecture on sustainable housing policy or local government finance should you disturb the creature that dwells within’

Cambridge, being the city that it is, has the high chance of someone being an expert in one policy area or another. Which is why it’s best not trying to argue the case unless you are on rock-solid ground. Otherwise things like this happen. More experienced canvassers & campaigners tend to take the community activist approach with door-to-door campaigning where they ask the residents what they think the key issues are. It may not be fun or glamorous to go door-to-door knocking on a cold November evening, but that approach can pay huge dividends come election time.

“What will become of the new party members after the election?”

My hope is that some of them will become first time candidates in 2015. Essentially Cambridge needs a bit of a refresh when it comes to candidates standing. I found this out last year when Puffles got a disproportionate amount of media coverage in the local elections. This was despite on paper being the least credible candidate who ultimately got the fewest votes in the city in 2014. Yet because I was accessible & available through social media, and was publishing things regularly online, I got featured.

I think there’s something to be said for Cambridge’s political parties & civic societies getting together to boost participation & make local democracy feel like a continuous activity rather than this one-off thing where party-political types knock on your door every spring to get you to tick a box for someone you don’t know/have never met. Hence my posters from 2014 encouraging people to contact the candidates & ask them questions.

“Why aren’t you standing?”

Because I have a very limited number of ****spoons**** – see here for an explanation.

I have enough spoons to film, edit & upload videos of the various election debates & events, or to run the bare bones of an election campaign. Not both. And there are lots and lots of debates taking place in Cambridge – I reckon over 30 will take place in this campaign. Hence my personal aim is to cover those on the big issues that matter in Cambridge:

  • Transport (rail and cycling)
  • Housing
  • The environment
  • Business
  • Health
  • Education

It also means I get to appear on panel discussions where they need informed non-party types to discuss the election – as in the video below:

I think I’ll have videos covering five of the six key issues in Cambridge. There are other smaller interest hustings, ranging from specialist policy areas such as a given strand of healthcare, to extremely wide issues such as human rights. My take is that if filming such a debate allows at least one extra person (who’s not a regular follower of local politics) to see/hear the candidates in their own voices, then it’ll have been worth it.

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Making a film about the general election campaigns in Cambridge – want to get involved?


Can we crowd-source support for a documentary on the Cambridge election campaigns? 

I was discussing this idea earlier this week with Claire Meade, having pondered what to do with the increasing amounts of video footage I’m collecting during this campaign. Having just finished filming the Cambridge Cycling Campaign hustings, I’ve realised there is going to be a wealth of footage and lots of things going on – something far too great for any one person to manage.

Uploading short videos is relatively straight forward. Creating medley’s is more complicated. Making a documentary is something else – and requires a much more professional approach.


Essentially I want to produce:

  • A 30-60 minute documentary about the 2015 general election in Cambridge
  • Extended linked video pieces of events, debates & hustings that happened in the run up to the vote
  • A launch event after the election


  • A group of participants who might become community reporters or activists who can help scrutinise what institutions do in and around Cambridge
  • Raising awareness of what happened during the campaign, with a view to inspiring people to get involved in local democracy & possibly stand in future elections
  • Further break some of the community & generational barriers in our city
  • Create a historical video record of the campaign for future generations at a time of significant change in our city

Learning from Be the change – Cambridge

To make sure we get both the best out of the footage, and that those taking part get as much experience and as many new skills as possible, I want to have a mix of passionate young people with huge potential, experienced wise minds & well-networked individuals, and older people who perhaps want to learn something new.

Having nearly completed Be the change – Cambridge, I’ve learnt a huge amount about what I am and am not capable of. In particular I want to make sure that it’s not me looking after the details of:

  • Detailed project, people management & sequencing
  • Detailed financial management, budgeting & fundraising
  • Marketing & publicity

The above are all essential components that, on reflection I was weaker at than I would like to have been with Be the change – Cambridge events in late 2014/early 2015. Therefore, in the process of making this documentary I would like to have a small core team of talented, experienced & competent people managing those aspects of the project.

I want the project to be one that pays the participants

Hence the importance of fundraising, budgeting & financial management. In particular, I want to ensure that the young people taking part in this are paid – because all too often they are expected to work for nothing in the world of unpaid internships. I met someone over Easter who, for her degree has to spend a ‘year in industry’ working as an unpaid intern because of the nature of the industry that she’s in. (ie a highly competitive one where they can get away with such practices).

‘You have left this far far far too late!!!’

In one sense, I have. In another sense, I’m already halfway through the project having got a lot of the essentials. For example:

  • I have the kit with which to film video footage
  • I can do the basics with the kit – ie film, do basic editing & upload it to the internet
  • I have a means & ‘niche’ contacts for publicity both on and offline

On the other hand, yes I have left it far too late. But my original intention was simply to film as many of the debates & upload footage to my Youtube channel.

‘So, what do you need other people for?’

Two of the candidates, Julian Huppert here, and also Daniel Zeichner here, have helpfully listed the debates & hustings they will be taking part in. My well-documented mental health issues mean I simply do not have the capacity to attend all of the ones I’d like to, let alone all of the ones listed.

Having more participants means we can cover more of the campaigns, and it’s also a chance for people to get to know some of the politicians, activists and campaign groups in Cambridge. (And get paid for it!)

‘I’m interested! What do I need to do?’

First of all, I need to know what you’re interested in doing. This will depend on your circumstances. Are you:

  • ‘time poor but passionate about doing something positive for our city’?
  • ‘time-free but with very limited funds’ – ie cannot do much without financial support?
  • Someone who ‘has qualifications but not the experience’ that employers are looking for?
  • Specialists in areas that we need? (I’m not just talking about the professional skills listed above, but for example those of you who check your social media statuses before breakfast and who might not leave the house in the morning without having sent a snapchat message to one of your friends.)

…then this short project might be of interest to you.

If you are interested, please send an informal expression of interest to me at antonycarpen [at] gmail [dot] com, stating why you are interested, what you think you could contribute, & what you would like to get out of participating.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

One day like this a year…


The cost of a bus ticket: £4.10. Entrance to the Cambridge Corn Exchange. Free. Outselling some of the big-name bands from the mid-1990s that I saw at the Corn Exchange: Priceless. The Dowsing Sound Collective don’t make beers…

Oh, and we got to sing this number to over 1,000 people in a packed out Guildhall too. Not only that, just before the gig I handed over a cheque for £250 to The Dosoco Foundation from some of the sponsorship we raised for Be the change – Cambridge.

It was one I wanted to give a go myself a few months back, but when I read the music I realised it would be out of my vocal range. Which was why I was more than relieved for our Lungjam gig on 1st April 2015 we had Cambridge’s Trevor Jones to do the lead vocals for us – and a splendid job he did too!

Blown away by the audience. Again.

Funnily enough, it was a group of teenagers from my old sixth form college who had turned up to see one of their friends on guest-lead-vocals for us that helped electrify the rest of the audience. Being in & around Cambridge’s local music scene means I get to see & hear my fair share of up-&-coming talent. This time around it was Daisy Hill – who is in the same cohort/age bracket of students as Grace Sarah, Rachel Clark and Ellie Dixon. (What would a collaboration by the four of them be like?)

@Debsmoreyx and friends taking a selfie from the front row of the Corn Exchange.

@Debsmoreyx and friends taking a selfie from the front row of the Corn Exchange. (Pic – Dee Morey)

From where I was perched at the top of one of the chorus stands, most of the energy in the audience was coming from Daisy’s crew – Dee Morey and friends. Whenever they started singing or moving, most of the older adults around them started to do the same – even the new chairperson of the Cambridge Live Trust – who’s launch we were there to celebrate. (Some of you eagle-eyed watchers may remember my original idea for a ‘Cambridge L!VE’ back in 2012 – see here. My mental health crisis of April 2012 sort of put paid to running with that project in a big way. It was to be another three years before Be the change – Cambridge took its place.

Watching with pleasant astonishment fellow singers deliver commanding performances. Have a flick through the photographs by @KimberlyOhBrien here and you’ll get the feel. What our musical director Andrea Cockerton is really good at is rotating lead vocalists. Yes – even I had a go last summer in Bury St Edmunds!

Me at The Apex in Bury St Edmunds - Photo by Mike Oliver (http://photography.bymikeoliver.com/)

Me at The Apex in Bury St Edmunds in July 2014 – Photo by Mike Oliver (http://photography.bymikeoliver.com/)

Silence, a stunning performance and the loudest applause of the night

The photo below by Mike Oliver (who took the above one of myself) speaks more than a thousand words.

Daisy Hill at the Cambridge Corn Exchange, 1st April 2015. Photo, Mike Oliver

Daisy Hill at the Cambridge Corn Exchange, 1st April 2015. Photo, Mike Oliver

Daisy’s also got an album on iTunes here.

There was a big ‘hush’ before Daisy sang a cover of ‘Stay with me’ by Sam Smith. Andrea had auditioned about 15 incredibly talented local singers before selecting five to sing with us. As well as Daisy and Trevor, we had Shakila Karim, Steve Linford and Katey Grant, all of whom were brilliant too. All five guest vocalists stood out for different reasons – whether it was Steve for getting everyone going with ‘Let me entertain you’ by Robbie, Shakila covering Amy Winehouse or Katey with Paloma Faith. The three high-profile musicians with very distinct voices were not easy to cover by any means.

This meant that Daisy’s challenge was to deliver an alternative to the bright lights/high energy performances that the others gave. And she more than did that…along with the added pressure of friends and family in the audience too! (I still can’t cope with the idea of family being in the audience at music gigs I’m on stage for.)

Slaying a demon or two from the past

There were a few tracks we sung that gave me very mixed emotions – not that the organisers would have known. With quite a few numbers from the mid-late 1990s – ie my teenage years, I was a little nervous about how I’d react. But my place on the stage (ie not at the front) and with Erin McAlister next to me as this stabilising presence, I needn’t have worried. The most emotionally powerful performance of the night for me was by Rachel Hanna (below) covering ‘Don’t look back in anger’ by Oasis.

Rachel Hanna singing 'Don't look back in anger' - photo by Catherine McDonnell

Rachel Hanna singing ‘Don’t look back in anger’ – photo by Catherine McDonnell

Funnily enough, it’s one of the Oasis tracks I like the least because commercial radio overplayed it in 1996. I was a massive Oasis fan at the time but by the time I got to sixth form college, they had ceased to be ‘trendy’ – to the extent that I got abuse for my troubles. It was also the beginning of the end of a number of childhood friendships as I both grew apart from people I had known for almost half my life (if not more), while struggling with as yet undiagnosed mental health problems in the final few years before the internet became mainstream.

So my emotional mindset was: “I can’t sing this song without someone absolutely belting the f–k out of this number on lead vocals!” Step forward Rachel who, in incredible alto tones went and did exactly that. Interestingly enough, I don’t think the song would have had the same emotional impact on me had it been a male vocal lead. So, even though Rachel hardly knows me, she somehow managed to slay a demon that had been around me for a very long time. ***Thank you!*** (It’s one of those strange things in life: you can never predict where or through whom you are going to find inspiration from – & to be grateful when you do).

By this time the audience applauses were getting louder & louder after each track – Daisy’s mates finding the energy from I have no idea where. Now that was music therapy!

In the audience for Dowsing Sound Collective’s London group

I made my way down to the first London performance of our Camden and Hammersmith collectives at the end of March at the Union Chapel up the road from where I used to live in central London. Click here for photos of the venue: It has a *****Wow!!!***** factor – not least because it’s over 100 years old and an octagonal church – part of the congregationalist tradition.

The last time I had been in an audience for such a Dowsing gig was in late 2013 – shortly before I joined them. At that gig the only familiar face I had for company was Puffles. No one else I knew was interested. For this gig, we had a ***party train***

There were more of us on this carriage than in this selfie

There were more of us on this carriage than in this selfie

Now, the last time I had been on a party train down to London was when Cambridge United went to Wembley at the end of the last decade…and lost. We hadn’t drunk enough to break out into a flashmob like we did in 2014 when we occupied two-thirds of a restaurant between performances.

A sizeable group – over 20 of us – made the journey down from Cambridge to see our new musical siblings take to the stage for the first time. Remember quite a few of them came to see our Christmas gig a few months earlier – see here. Given the emotional state I was in prior to that gig, and the emotional pick up I got from what I can only describe as this ‘wall of positive energy’ coming back, I sort of knew that repaying that favour would be in order for the London groups’ first gig. Being surrounded by so many familiar faces, along with more compliments than I’ve ever had in one night for choice of outfit (including being hit on by a very friendly camp waiter to add to the comedy value) lightened my mood immensely after an intense time with all things Be the change – which concluded only a couple of weeks prior.

We didn’t need to got nuts with applause for the hell of it. It was a superb performance – with noticeably different musical nuances compared to the Cambridge group that I am part of. For a start, having two extremely talented multi-percussionists rather than just one – Paul Richards for Cambridge, meant they were able to do more with the rhythms. On the other hand, they didn’t have a small brass or string section. There wasn’t enough space on the inevitably crowded stage in any case.

I filmed the above clip testing out a new app on my phone. Bear in mind a number of the people singing probably haven’t sung on stage in public ever, a gig with over 600 people in the audience is quite an achievement. The most important thing I felt was that those on stage proved to themselves that they could do it, and that those in the audience who were ‘curious but non-committal’ until that gig would have been firing off emails asking to join having experienced that performance.

And if you’re in London on Easter Monday…

The Dowsing Sound Collective’s London groups will be at the Royal Festival Hall – see here for details. Happy Easter!

Posted in Cambridge, Charities and Big Society, Music | 2 Comments

Apps ‘n’ gadgets for community reporting


Some ‘not just for boys toys’ that I’ve become lately obsessed with – useful in the run up to the general election

I’ve been meaning to write this post for ages, so here goes.

Modern smartphones – powerful things: but do we get the best out of them?

My old eye-fone (sorry to avoid the spambots) 3S for me is still by far the most comfortable smartphone I’ve had. It was what I used to film this timelapse (with phone clipped onto this gizmo)

But that was long after I had upgraded. It’s only been in recent times that I’ve started using smartphones for recording video & audio. An example of an audio recording is Julian Huppert in a Q&A session to Transition Cambridge activists from 2014. Again, this was on the 3S attached to a lapel microphone.

Hardware – how can you make your smartphone record more stable footage?

A mini tripod. I bought this one by Manfrotto which I use with this Joby Tightgrip. Not only are both light enough to carry, they are comfortable to hold and can be set up in under 30 seconds. Furthermore, the design of the clip means you avoid the risk of recording video footage while holding the camera vertically. The clip only works if the phone is horizontal!

A smartphone with a telephoto lens?

Apparently so – though it takes a bit of time to get used to. I got hold of this one quite recently. If anything, the nicest thing about it is the case, which feels well made. In itself, that alone makes the package almost worth buying. Add the tripod & the clip, which although less pleasing on the eye & hand is more stable, means even without the lenses it’s quite a nice purchase. I can’t pretend to have gotten much out of the mini lenses. The zoom lens doesn’t allow you to zoom in & out – something that I’ve gotten used to with my camcorder. But then for the price, what do you expect? It does however give you the option of a manual focus. This can sometimes cause problems if the smartphone is in auto-focus mode.

Third party camera apps being better than the ones the phones come with?

It’s counter-intuitive, but the FiLMiC Pro app (£6.99) is one that is far more powerful than what my phone came with. The most useful aspect for me is the ability to align footage filmed using this with the settings on my camcorder. At events this means I can set up a main tripod and camera, press record & leave them running, while I film other more interesting shots from around the room. I’ve still not got the best out of the app – nowhere near in fact. I tend to compare such things to high performance motors: You’ve got to be extremely skilled in order to get the best out of them. That requires knowledgeable delicate handling.

For still photos, I have the Pro Camera App. As with the above, I am nowhere near getting the best out of it. However, the quality of some of the images I’ve taken feels better than using the normal camera app.

Field reporting – one I want to experiment with

I’ve got the lite version of the Hindenburg Field Recorder, because when it comes to recording, my quality of audio hasn’t been great. But because I’m shooting so much video (& uploading them to my Youtube channel here, or to my Vimeo page here), I’ve not really done much podcasting. Finally, I also want to experiment with the iRig setup.

All that reporting – but is anyone watching?

As it turns out, quite a few of you!

YouTube Analytics March 2015

YouTube Analytics March 2015

Given that most of the footage I have on my channel of late has been from Cambridge election debates, the above statistics are pretty good. (I think so anyway!)

I’m putting the election debate videos into event playlists – see here. Local parties can then pick from the videos and promote the ones of their candidates to their audiences, while party-neutral organisations can share the entire playlist by subject being discussed.

“Is it worth it?”

Because none of this as yet pays the bills!

A number of locals have said to me & tweeted that we’ll only really know its true value after the election – ie when we can compare who said what with what they delivered. It’s also a safe environment to learn how the various bits of kit & the apps work best together.

Finally, it’s an historical record. The local historian in me quite likes the idea of people viewing this footage in decades to come to see what the 2015 general election campaign was like.

There are also stacks more debates to come – see the list here. I’m not going to get to many of them – I’ll have to pick & choose. Alongside the Cambridge Cycling Campaign, health & housing are the two issues I feel I need to cover as far as the city is concerned. On faith group-specific, or international campaigning organisation debates, I’m happy to leave that to those who are more passionate about those issues or who are part of those communities. After all, I cannot be (nor should I be) everywhere!

Easter & Summer filming projects – community action

Following Be the change – Cambridge, I’ve had a number of conversations with various people on what might be useful for me to do between now & the autumn. One idea came up in conversation with my friends Angela & Dave. They both came up with the concept of ‘the time poor, passion rich citizen’. This concept is very very different to ‘clicktivism’. Clicking a ‘like’ button ain’t gonna save an additional life. ‘You get what you give’ and all that.

Think of it like this: You have a resident who is extremely skilled in a niche area, and who has perhaps an hour a week at home that they can devote to ‘something’ that can help make an impact on the city. How do you make it easy for such people to:

  • Identify the issues they are most passionate about?
  • Identify the functions/actions that they have the right skills sets for?
  • Identify where their input will have the greatest impact?

…and in a way that means they do not have to read through hundreds of sheets of paper? The concept I often use is the filters used to book hotel rooms. How about using the concept for:

  • Booking community rooms
  • Finding regular activities
  • Finding one-off events
  • Finding charities or local causes to support

…but instead of having to go from one website to another working separately in silos, have them co-ordinated? Hence some have come up with the concept of the ‘City Dashboard’

Films to bust myths & explain who does what

There’s only so long you can pester people & organisations before you end up having to do it yourself. Hence not long after I got my camcorder, I stuck Councillor Richard Johnson (who had just been appointed executive councillor for communities at Cambridge City Council) and asked him some very basic questions about local area committees in Cambridge.

Jeremy Paxman I am not. (As this short clip with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury shows).

The reason for my approach is I’m of the view that the general public don’t see politicians as people like them. My experience of working with politicians at a local and national level has been somewhat different: I used to work for ministers (& in one or two policy areas, meeting them quite frequently) during my civil service days. Therefore if you want to see their human side, don’t talk to them about politics (or rather policy). Hence asking Danny Alexander (along with Jo Swinson, his ministerial colleague here, and their Labour shadow opponent Lilian Greenwood here) about what got them interested in politics originally. Notice their face & body language compared to what you normally see on telly.

Other than that, between now & the election, I hope to get a couple of mythbusting videos online.


Posted in Cambridge, Campaigning, protesting and demonstrating, Party politics, Social media | 1 Comment

Trying to prioritise in the constraints of not great mental health


Wanting to do everything, but not being able to.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When the dragon gets an invitation…

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

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

The view from the back - Recording with the Dowsing Sound Collective

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

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

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

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

Losing spoons at the Cambridge environment debate on Friday

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Cambridge, Events I have been to, Mental health, Party politics, Social media | 4 Comments

On campaigning charities and political parties


Why the rise of large non-party-political campaigning charities vis-a-vis the shrinking of mainstream political parties leaves me a little uncomfortable

Seven environmental-related charities and organisations have got together to organise a London-based hustings. (See here). You’ll be hearing of various campaign groups from across the political matrix making their case. Earlier today on telly they had a whisky trade federation calling for the Chancellor to cut tax on their products in the run up to next week’s Budget – the last before the election. Conservative-leaning bodies tend to call for targeted tax cuts in their area of business, while Labour-leaning groups tend to call for more spending in their area of interest. It’s then left to a shrinking group of people from what feels like increasingly narrow backgrounds to decide how to balance the two.

Campaigning for something is one thing. Standing for election & being cross-examined by the public is quite another.

I stood as Puffles at the Cambridge City Council elections in 2014. And the dragon beat UKIP -> 89 votes to 0. They didn’t stand so lost be default. It’ll be different in 2015 as both The Greens and UKIP in Cambridge will be contesting most if not all of the wards at the local elections in Cambridge, which are happening on the same day as the general election. It’s one thing being a paper candidate, but quite another putting yourself out in public to face scrutiny & cross-examination.

Puffles gatecrashing Cambridge Labour Party's stall in our neighbourhood

Puffles gatecrashing Cambridge Labour Party’s stall in our neighbourhood

The glamorous side of ‘charity campaigning’ is when you get invited to posh receptions and visits to Parliament. You get the kudos of being the informed, passionate expert – but don’t necessarily have to worry about other issues far removed from your areas of passion or expertise because that’s not in the job description. (That’s not to criticise – this is to compare it to standing for election). When you’re standing for election – as I found out – you’re expected to have an opinion on everything. Should that opinion be found to be uninformed, a potential firestorm awaits. Whether it’s someone fact-checking in real time to an opponent creating a straw man to knock down (taking you down in the process), you find yourself in a situation where you’re expected to be knowledgable & informed where few others are.

But how many of us get to be in that position of being that reasonably well-paid full time campaigner where we’re attending all of these ‘Whitehall-and-Parliament-facing’ events? One of the criticisms of such charities and campaign groups made by Big Issue founder John Bird was that too many highly paid executives of such charities and groups had no experience of being dependent on the work of the charities they ran. (See here).

“Aren’t campaigning charities & groups popular because they are successful at achieving policy change?”

To an extent yes. At the same time it reveals a relative failure of political party members to secure policy changes & impose them on their party leaders. The stereotype is that Conservative grassroots is more politically right wing than its leadership, and Labour’s grassroots more leftwing than its leadership. However, if a party has ambitions for government, it’s got to reach out beyond that core vote. Hence having to make compromises there. Furthermore, given outsourcing & privatisation of the past 30 years – along with globalisation too, the power that parties in government used to have no longer exists. Take house building. The state is entirely dependent on the private sector to build homes. So if achieving policy change isn’t going to come from political leaders that ignore their members, what’s the alternative?

Hence why some have set up organisations

The well-trodden path is this:

  1. set up an organisation
  2. hire some offices in Westminster within easy reach of the institutions you want to influence
  3. find out who works where – ie map the people inside the institutions
  4. organise an event at somewhere nice
  5. invite people from the institutions you want to influence to said event
  6. be very nice to invitees at said event
  7. organise informal coffee/meetings
  8. become an independent stakeholder on a policy group

…and then you are inside the system. Repeat, only this time with the media. Friends in politics, friends in the media…this in part is how corporate lobbyists work. Charities and campaign groups picked up on this and have copied such tactics. Whether this will remain successful in years to come in social media world (& in the context of growing wealth inequalities) remains to be seen. Not least with nominally public events inside ‘the bubble’ now accessible to a much wider audience – whether through eventbrite/meetup or through people live-tweeting on a hashtag.

A big advantage of party backing

It’s all too easy to forget this, but other than having fellow party members campaigning for you, you also have the benefit of someone else with similar values to you having done the research. When it comes to manifesto time, it’s reasonable to expect that the policy experts in your party have done the research to withstand detailed scrutiny.

The route to Parliament – via campaigning charities.

A number of social justice charities, campaign groups and think tanks are fairly well known as being on the path that politicians tread during their rise up the political ladder. Lisa Nandy MP at Centrepoint (homelessness), Dr Stella Creasy at the Scout Association, Jack Straw’s son Will (who is standing for Parliament at this election) at the IPPR Think Tank are a few examples from Labour. This inevitably raises criticisms from party political opponents that this sort of activity is a subsidy. They think that charities should be restricted to providing relief to those in need rather than campaigning on the issues that create that need in the first place. Recall the quotation:

“When I give food to the poor they call me a saint, but when I ask why the poor have no food they call me a communist”

It’s not as simple as saying “You’re all cowards for not standing for election!”

As has been raised by a number of people, the barrage of hatred that women in particular have to put up with for even expressing an opinion is more than enough to put too many good people off from politics altogether. It’s only fortunate that more people feel confident enough to call such behaviour out – most recently a national newspaper super-imposing the head of Scotland’s first minister (Nicola Sturgeon) onto a bikini-clad model recreating an image from a pop video of a couple of years ago. Some might say ‘grow a thicker skin’, but if such behaviour is putting off talented people from engaging in politics & policy – to the detriment of our democracy, how can that be in the public interest?

Barriers to standing for election

That’s before you’ve considered the sacrifices you have to make with campaigning. At the Women of the World – Cambridge festival at the weekend I discussed this with a number of women, including one – Anna Smith, who is standing in the neighbouring Romsey ward in Cambridge. Campaigning becomes a full time job in the run up to an election. But how many people can afford to take the time off work to campaign? How many have sympathetic employers who will allow this?

Should we have a maternity/paternity leave style system for people who stand for election?

I don’t know how this might work in detail, but the principle is that the state would pay a set rate for people standing for election for the time when nominations close to when the results are announced. (Normally about six weeks). Additionally, Parliament could legislate for employers to give staff additional paid time off (or banks to provide mortgage holidays) for those standing for elections. It’s about removing some of the barriers to people standing for election.

Posted in Campaigning, protesting and demonstrating, Charities and Big Society, Party politics | 1 Comment

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Managing expectations

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

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

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

Being your own media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food for thought?


Posted in Events I have been to, Party politics, Social media | 3 Comments