Loneliness – and public policy responses

Summary

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

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

In response, the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness was launched – see https://www.jocoxloneliness.org/ – it’s well worth a look.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about the public policy responses?”

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

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

“So…what’s not working?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Private sector responses to loneliness

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

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

What if you have no money?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

A slow start to the local and mayoral elections?

Summary

With the ease of access of social media, should the public expect more from candidates in terms of online content – and should candidates expect more from their electorates in terms of interacting with them?

TL:DR? See Democracy Club at https://democracyclub.org.uk/projects/ and take your pick. Because democracy is not a spectator sport. It requires us to be active and interested for it to work.

I went to my first public debate/hustings of the election season earlier, covering the new Cambridgeshire/Peterborough executive mayor (See the video playlist here). Despite the best efforts of everyone involved – including the candidates, there was nothing anyone said that convinced me that the whole policy was an ill-thought through stitch up by ministers whose political careers are now toast. See this interview with Dotty McLeod of BBC Cambridgeshire from May 2016 on the policy development issues. So in one sense, all of the candidates are lumbered with the millstone of campaigning for a post that does not have nearly enough finance and powers to deliver what they might otherwise want to deliver for the county.

Nominations close on 04 April

For those of you in Cambridge, see the election details here. Don’t know who your local council is for the purposes of elections? Type your postcode into here.

In the grand scheme of things, the campaigns really kick off as soon as the nominations close on 04 April 2017 at 4pm sharp.

“Why aren’t you standing, Puffles? You stood before and beat UKIP!”

True dat.

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My DIY results poster for the Coleridge Ward, Cambridge 2014 local council elections

That was one weird campaign looking back on it, but it provided one incredible platform for a whole host of ideas at the time – see my 2014 manifesto for Cambridge here.

Interestingly, a number of policies in that manifesto are being implemented by the local council, including:

  • Funding democracy outreach to secondary school students
  • An audit of community facilities and venues in Cambridge
  • Far greater use of social media – including councils filming their own meetings
  • An annual fair bringing together community groups and local charities to show their work and meet the public

Goes to show that if your ideas are good enough (and you’re not too fussed who takes political credit for them), your local council may well implement them.

“Tempted to stand again?”

Extremely unlikely – simply because I no longer have the health to film and report on the election campaigns while trying to run one myself. Furthermore, given how toxic election campaigns can be – even if you are a local equivalent of the Monster Raving Loony Party. Actually, we have Lord Toby Jug down the road in St Ives.

I’d vote for the sleep alone – though I don’t think my body could deliver on it!

I was recently asked by a few people about standing for election. I summarised by lessons from 2014 as:

  • Be absolutely crystal clear about purpose
  • Note you will still get questions on issues that are not even on your radar, but will be of paramount importance to the person asking the Q
  • Be specific on what you want people to do even if they do not vote for you
  • It will get personal at times – especially on social media. Don’t respond in kind – difficult as this may be. At election time politicians take political testosterone and respond accordingly
  • Make sure you have support (a lot more than I did) – especially online with people who can fight your battles for you when you need downtime, as you will
  • Have fun
  • Be unpredictable – don’t feel you have to follow party political conventions set by others. You only have to follow the law.
  • Remember that you’ll still have to work with the victors after the election
  • Take the view that everyone has a say, even if they do not have the vote – see what happens with under-18s and migrant workers re campaigning. (ie people often ignored at election time).

The one thing I learnt from the 2014 elections is that I don’t have a strong enough support network of family and close friends to stand for public office. One of the things that probably hurt the most was that lots of people indicated on social media that I should stand for election, but when I really needed people to stand up for me, only a couple of people really did to the extent they were prepared to go public with it – Penny Homer and Ceri Jones.

But that was 2014 – before the EU Referendum and Donald.

We are in a very, very different place today. 

We’ve had to learn the hard way what happens when we take democracy for granted and allow one group or another to have a disproportionate impact on our politics. But then isn’t that how it has always been and how it always will be?

This May will see lots of people standing for election for the first time. For those of you who know someone who is standing for election for the first time, they are going to need you to support them – far more than perhaps you might realise. It’s one of the reasons why generally I try not to take a confrontational approach to local democracy round these parts. It’s hard enough getting people interested, let alone involved as it is. I feel it most acutely within my own age group. It feels like there are hardly any people in their 20s & 30s involved in local democracy. It’s like there’s this yawning gap between what the students are doing and the age group of people who are in their mid-40s and older.

In one sense it seems crazy given council tax bills. Why wouldn’t you take an interest in something that you spend over £1,000 on? That was why I started taking an interest in our railways & buying Modern Railways Magazine! – because my season ticket to London cost me over £5,000 a year. That said, I don’t want us to go down the root of “A councillor for your ward! You pay for them! You choose them!” It’s a bit too “A Wife For William – you pay for her, you choose her!” aired by Channel 4 about a decade ago. It also reduces local democracy to a financial transaction when really it should be about people taking an interest and some responsibility for their local neighbourhood. (Even though arguably the economic, financial and political system feels set up to make this as hard as possible).

5 minutes a week for local democracy?

Or even 15? Or half an hour?

It makes me wonder again about how to enable people to stay informed about what is happening in their local areas. I can understand the incredulity some #localgov comms types sometimes feel when the public say they’ve not heard about a big project when it’s been on TV, radio, the internet and newspapers, and on printed literature in cafes, pubs, bars and libraries.

Hence the likes of Democracy Club going back to the basic functionality of our democracy and trying to make the essentials work. Eg. making it easy for the ‘passive’ types to find out who is standing in their area, on what policy platforms and to make getting in touch with candidates and local parties as easy as possible. Know people who are standing for election? Make sure their details are uploaded to https://candidates.democracyclub.org.uk/

A levy on the profits or turnover of language schools in Cambridge?

Summary

How could Cambridge fund a programme of joint activities bringing together local school children and college students with the thousands of students from abroad that come here for courses?

TL:DR – Exploring if Cambridge could introduce a voluntary 1% levy on the profits of all of the private colleges in and around Cambridge to fund a comprehensive programme of events and activities that bring together local children and young people with those that come here to undertake short to medium-length courses at private colleges in Cambridge.

“Why not make it compulsory?”

No legal powers to do so – it would require an Act of Parliament to bring in something like this. A snowflake is more likely to survive inside an active volcano than the chances of The Treasury relinquishing such tax-raising powers to local councils. The culture of The Treasury and ministers that work with them is not one to relinquish powers on taxation and spending.

“Hang on – what’s the problem we’re trying to solve here?”

The issue as I see it is that young people from across the world are coming to Cambridge for their courses, and are socialising with each other in a bubble that seems to exclude locals of the same age. There are a number of things that come to mind:

  • Some of the friendships started up on such courses can last a very long time – ones that can extend into the world of work later on, and our young people are missing out on this
  • The price of studying in Cambridge is not cheap – thus we have created an exclusive bubble in our city that our young people don’t have access to
  • Students coming to Cambridge studying at these institutions only get to experience a limited side of Cambridge
  • Our young people miss out on the cultural exchanges that they could otherwise benefit from – especially as most of the people coming to study here are not from countries on the traditional ‘exchange students’ circuit

“Why would any private institution voluntary hand over their profits or turnover for such a scheme?”

Good question

In part it depends on the values that such colleges want to have, and what role they see themselves as having in the life of Cambridge. For the more responsible ones, having such a scheme like this – a city-wide one, would be of huge benefit to them. As well as having the positive publicity of being a civically-minded institution, such a scheme would benefit from economies of scale and also take much of the administrative arrangements of running such a scheme out of their hands, ensuring they concentrate on what they specialise in. Furthermore, the more difficult part of the work – outreach to young people in and around Cambridge – is done for them as part of the scheme.

As a city-wide scheme, it also means that no one institutions disproportionately benefits over others – while at the same time not being part of it means that not only do their students lose out, their competitors will have an advantage over them.

Benefits for Cambridge state schools

I’ve lost count of the number of times people have told me that the biggest barrier to engaging with young people is the school receptionist. Short of sacking an entire cohort of school receptionists (who collectively may not be where the root of the problem is) which may sound tempting to those frustrated by them, a better and less disruptive method would be to set up a city-wide function that takes the complexity and delivery out of the hands of schools – similar to what Form the Future does brilliantly for careers outreach in & around Cambridge for our young people.

For young people in Cambridge, the benefits for them as well as having something to do, would also be the free access to a host of leisure facilities that might otherwise be inaccessible to them – eg on costs grounds. For sports and arts activities alone this could be transformative for many of them – thinking on physical and mental health benefits amongst other things. It may also help reduce some of the crime and anti-social behaviour rates if those at risk have something to both divert their attention and also make them more familiar with those that come here and study. I’ve lost track of the number of depressing reports of visitors being the victims of crime. One for our Police and Crime Commissioner to look at?

Food for thought…

 

 

On retrofitting Cambridge’s ugly new buildings

Summary

On covering Cambridge’s ugly bland ‘could-have-been-built-anywhere’ buildings with green walls – once the developers have cut and run off with all the money

I’ve had a number of exchanges online and offline with people who know more about working with developers on a day-to-day basis than I do. With that in mind, it’s worth watching the short talks at the AGM of the Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations, who commissioned me to film the meeting.

Speeches by Emma Fletcher of Smithson Hill, and by Stephen Kelly & Joel Carré of Cambridge City Council.

Shall we look at some bland ugliness drawn by profit-guzzling developers and their financiers who care nothing about the future of Cambridge?

Hell yeah!

It’s like the developers and their senior staff remembered this teeny-bopper number from the Year 2000 and thought! ***Oooh! Let’s take some inspiration from this!!!***

Actually, it’s not as harsh as that. After all, two of the buildings in that series above are over 40 years old. The post-war era was also a time when nice buildings were flattened and replaced by blocks to meet growing demand for new office space. Hence Hills Road on the north side looking like it does. Interestingly, in the most recent study of the quality of buildings by Cambridge City Council, it’s the post-war buildings that now ‘detract’ rather than add to the character of the road.

But…in too many places, blandness and greyness is going up.

We’ve got so many ugly new buildings in Cambridge that Dave Jones even wrote a book about it!

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So brilliantly written and photographed and so appalled at what developers are doing to Cambridge that The Spectator shortlisted it as one of their books of the year in 2013! What no one told them was that it was the policies of their political party of preference that made it a doddle for developers to game the planning system. Even when the city needs a decent piece of transport infrastructure that doesn’t take up much space…

The so-called ‘piazza’ is actually just a big taxi rank.

They’re still working on it…

Finally, we had the point made by Landscape Architect Kim Wilkie at the AGM of the Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations that architects should want to showcase their work – which goes against what I’ve seen with recent planning applications where developers are saying they will plant trees in front of new buildings to screen off the ugliness. So any developer trying to use the trees argument as a mitigation against poor and lazy design is a stick we (locals who want better buildings built to higher standards) can beat them with…metaphorically.

“Not all developers are bad – and what’s this got to do with Retrofitting?

Oh – absolutely – Emma Fletcher of Smithson Hill mentioned above is one of the very few developers I’ve met who actually has a track record of getting things right and working with communities. Developers that don’t have any women on their board and/or senior management team automatically make me suspicious. Such #DiversityFail is unacceptable in a city such as Cambridge and on this planet in the 21st Century.

Green walls

The Sir David Attenborough Building recently opened in Cambridge has got an indoor green wall.

Personally I’d like an outdoor one.

The reason why green walls and retrofitting existing buildings matter, is because between 66% and 74% of the 2050 housing stock has already been built by 2006. And building new industrial buildings doesn’t come cheap either. This means that at some stage all of the new buildings going up in and around Cambridge will have to be retrofitted at some stage – not least because observing some of the materials being used to build them, going against the wishes of John Maynard Kenyes who for me, set the standard for Cambridge to aspire to with his bequest to Kings’ College – a bequest (using the Bank of England’s inflation calculator as being worth about £20million in today’s money).IMG_0558

A screenshot from this book by Lord Skidelsky on Maynard Keynes.

Despite their ugliness, the medley of photos and snapshots featuring various buildings I don’t like in Cambridge (Hey – my blog, my rules, if you disagree feel free to set up your own blog and praise those developments to the hilt), actually have a lot of potential for green walls. See? There ***is*** environmental and ecological potential in all of that blandness! Even more important given Cambridge’s poor air quality.

“Are the developers really as evil as you seem to portray here?”

Actually, no.

My real criticism is for the economic system that we live in, and the inability of our current political system to get us out of the mess that we are currently in. The system of global finance is one that provides immense financial rewards and incentives for people to behave in a specific way. There is no financial incentive for architects and designers to be truly radical, creative and to meet the needs of people, let alone inspire the public, because the system is hot-wired to create maximum short term profits.

In particular, with a system that allows short-lived companies with limited liabilities to be created for the purposes of development, once the development is completed, the company can be liquidated – along with the liabilities of those that financed (and profited from) the activities of the developer. The system is hot-wired to encourage large developers to game the system and avoid/wriggle out of commitments to local communities and local councils – the latter of whom are starved of resources and legal power by ministers who have acquiesced to policies that benefit wealthy developers who have been able to commission the professionals to write ministerial policies for them. The fault with ministers and politicians is that none of them have the courage to think outside of their very narrow political ideologies. Again, the political system only encourages ministers to think of their next promotion rather than wanting to stay in a ministerial post for an extended period of time to deliver something socially, economically & ecologically useful for the many.

It’s one of the reasons why for all of mine and others’ vocal complaints about how ‘orrible too many developers are, the real roots of the problem are much, much deeper.

Back to those women heroes of Cambridge again

One of the things that strikes me about the many women I’m writing about on Lost Cambridge is how even the most wealthiest of them interacted with people from across our towns social matrix on a regular basis. They got to see the whites of the eyes of even the poorest of society – in particular with their charity work. They’d give help to the poor through the Cambridge Charitable Organisation Society during the day, then during the evening ask very powerful and influential visitors over dinner at one of the colleges why the poor had no food and what the politicians were going to do about it – given that women were back then barred from politics (this was before the ban on votes for women was lifted). That within 50m of Florence Ada Keynes house on Harvey Road was the neighbourhood of another hero of Cambridge, working class wartime diarist Jack Overhill (whose home had been condemned by the council as unfit for human habitation) and not so much as even a front gate separating the stroll from one house to the other also speaks volumes. I can’t help but think that seeing this poverty on a day-to-day basis (and meeting the people living in it) was one of the things that drove those women to do something about it – and win. In fact we know it did – as Cambridge primary school teacher and later Labour parliamentarian Dame Leah Manning MP wrote so powerfully in her autobiography

Above – Dame Leah Manning writing in 1970 how early on in her teaching career in Cambridge just before World War I, one of the small children in her class died of malnutrition. The New Street School building is now home of Anglia Ruskin University’s Music Therapy Centre – and also where my music group rehearses some 100 years later.

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Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s tribute on hearing of Leah Manning’s defeat after 20 years as an MP in 1950.

I don’t get the sense that those at the top of big corporations have even that experience. The furore around former Chancellor George Osborne’s decision to take on the role of Editor of the Evening Standard (despite having no journalistic or editorial experience of training – but hey, privately educated Oxford graduate ex-Bullingdon boy in an industry where there are so few women at the top of the media…) is a reflection of the divide between the have yachts and have nots. Oh, and I’ve not even mentioned the conflicts of interest.

This separation and segregation bodes ill for our collective futures.

On recent public meetings in Cambridge

Summary

It takes courage to take the plunge and organise an event. Irrespective of success or failure, the learning and insights gained from organising such gatherings is incredibly useful.

Note: The embedded videos are the shorter ones, the hyperlinked ones are the more extended ones – ensuring it doesn’t take all day for the page to load!

I’ve been to a number of public events and talks over the past few weeks, filming some and being an undistracted (by filming stuff) listener in others. Interestingly, some had far more people attending and taking part, while others had far fewer. I take the view from the rules of the unConference on people turning up:

“The people who come are the best people who could have come”

If you beat yourself up over not getting enough people first time around, you risk missing out on the really interesting things that happened and the positive learning points. For example we had a couple of former ministers who came up to Cambridge to visit – Norman Lamb MP and Lynne Featherstone – now in the House of Lords. (I found out from former Cambridge councillor Sal Brinton (speaking in Cambridge recently here on the EU Referendum) that Lib Dem Peers tend not to like the formal titles of the Lords). Certainly for Lynne Featherstone’s talk I’d have liked to have seen far more students there – in particular women given the insights she had on working in the Home Office with now the Prime Minister. But for those that did turn up, they were able to have their questions answered in far more detail than perhaps a very full room would have allowed. For the students in the audience it would have been a fascinating insight into Whitehall & Westminster.

With Norman Lamb MP, and with any former Lib Dem MP of the coalition years, my two ‘general’ questions are what is life like now that the party is in a very different place post the general election of 2015 and the EU referendum, and what did they as individuals, and collectively as a party learn from the 5 years inside government. Norman Lamb responds below.

Former Health Minister Norman Lamb MP in Cambridge with Cambridge Student Liberal Democrats.

I also got to interview the outgoing president of Cambridge Student Lib Dems, Sophie Bell. Given how few women there are in local democracy, I tend to focus my interview requests on those who are under-represented in politics generally so that people can see and hear them in their own voices, and let the interviewee speak at length on whatever they want to talk about rather than going for a Paxman style interrogation. With online video you’re not restricted on length (other than my camera batteries – and the viewers’ attention span!)

Have people given up on politics?

In my previous blogpost following the #VibrantCambridge event, I got the sense that many in Cambridge’s business communities find politics to be so toxic that they will try to avoid engaging with it unless they really have to. I take the view of Cambridge Hero Eglantyne Jebb, who said in a public speech in Cambridge long before founding Save the Children, that anyone who is concerned about the welfare of humankind cannot remain disinterested in politics. What our business communities – along with those in local charities and campaign groups can’t do is to make our demands to local politicians then let them take all the abuse for difficult decisions that all too often (mainly because of laws passed by Parliament tabled by ministers) are out of their direct control. At some stage more of us are going to have to take a more active role in local democracy – and even giving some support to those that have to take the very tough decisions that will inevitably make one group or another very unhappy.

How do we get more young people involved? Cambridge Commons tried recently.

Although huge numbers didn’t turn out, the 15-20 people who turned out to their ‘your generation’ event got a lot more out of it – as A-level student Sam Polehill explains below.

What it meant was that the three facilitators in the room were able to engage in much more detailed conversation with the participants, and we get the sense from Sam (as well as from the other conversations I had with participants at the end) that the event was very worthwhile, not least because they now had a much more clear picture of which organisations in Cambridge could help them with their own campaigns.

The insights Frances Foley shows how her approach was tailored to her audience – which indicates (from my view anyway) that the format works. Given the other groups in Cambridge already active working with young people (but perhaps not on local politics), the huge potential I see is the Cambridge Commons pairing up with those groups to host shared events.

The Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations AGM

(Declaration of interest – I was commissioned by FeCRA to film this event)

Terry Macalister, the former Energy Editor at The Guardian, was one of the keynote speakers. He has also been critical of local authorities’ records on community engagement on very big local issues, as he made clear in his speech.

Terry Macalister speaking to members of Cambridge’s residents associations

This event had far more people attending than I had expected – you could feel the buzz in the room. What was interesting in an ‘observer’ mode was watching how people were introducing friends to each other. I’m not using the term ‘networking’ because for everyone in the room, Cambridge is where we all live and call ‘home’. We just happen to live in many different parts of it. This was one way of bursting our little bubbles that we sometimes find ourselves in. FeCRA chair Wendy Blythe’s speech gives a picture of how the same pressures affect different parts of our city in different ways. High house prices, speculative developers putting profit before anything else, and problems with the progress of the Greater Cambridge City Deal gave a very interesting, if somewhat depressing picture.

Is shared problem solving the way to bring people together?

The difference between council meetings I normally attend, and the events above, is that contributions from the audience are extremely limited in the former. I much prefer events where you have multiple conversations happening at the same time rather than lots of people passively snoozing to the sound of an ‘expert panel’. That’s one of the reasons why I’d like to see Cambridge City Council’s area committee system overhauled. But that’s for another day. What I think could get more young people involved – and more older people listening to, and working with them, is a form of annual event similar to the Cambridge University Model United Nations conferences. (October 2017 if you’re interested).

Model Town Hall Conference for students in years 10-13. (14-18 year olds).

On paper it’s relatively straight forward (though organising events never is!)

  • Held at The Guildhall in Cambridge
  • Funded by a combination of the local council, local businesses and charities/donations)
  • Run by university students under the Cambridge Hub‘s auspices
  • Participants/delegates from schools in and around Cambridge
  • Participants are invited to represent either:
    • Their local neighbourhood ward or village
    • A local political party
  • Organising students with local councillors (or any willing volunteers for that matter) draft themes for the participants to debate, and allocate an issue/theme for each committee
  • The participants have to debate with each other and work together to come up with a policy statement on how they would deal with the issue allocated to their committee.
  • At the end, each committee has to present their policy statement to a ‘general assembly’ / ‘full council’ where all of the participants have to decide whether to reject or accept the statement.
  • Throughout the two days, you have representatives from campaigning organisations who, as part of the role play can either be consulted upon, and/or who at given points in the proceedings enter to make a statement and/or take questions from the committees.

Outcomes? 

  • Students become familiar with one of the main buildings that local democracy takes place in
  • They become familiar with who is responsible for what issues
  • It breaks down barriers between schools (and helps create a sense of a united city collectively solving shared problems)
  • Students become familiar with local campaign groups – but the power remains with them rather than the campaign groups
  • There are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers. Rather the focus is on being able to formulate a coherent case, and ability to work as a team
  • Students can continue the debate long after the conference has ended through the councillors and campaign groups they have met in the process.

If such an event becomes annual – like the Volunteer for Cambridge event, it could transform the way Cambridge does local democracy, and bring in people and communities who otherwise miss out.

Is politics so toxic that we’re frightened to discuss it in public forums?

Summary

On our collective reluctance to deal with our democratic institutions – what can we do about it?

I was at an event last night hosted by former Cambridge MP Dr Julian Huppert – now the director of the Intellectual Forum at Jesus College, Cambridge – their new public policy institute.

The following morning, I went along to #VibrantCambridge along with several of the great and the good mainly from the business sector but with a few of us community activists dotted around the room too.

The common theme I noticed with both events was the reluctance of participants and speakers to address issues involving our democratic institutions. This felt like a double blow, because at both of the events, people had turned up to deal with very political issues. If debating the futures of our city, our county, or even our planet are not political, nothing is.

Often when people say ‘We’re not political’ they mean ‘Party politics is so toxic that we want nothing to do with it when it comes to dealing with our issue.’ Politicians and political institutions don’t help themselves with things like this

Ditto going all party political on the same day when there is an election coming up. All of the party political representatives in this photograph are Conservative. If I was one of the other candidates I’d be complaining to the Permanent Secretary of the Department for Communities and Local Government over the use of civil service resources on something that appears party political.

Having stood for election before, it’s not a decision anyone takes lightly. For the Secretary of State to say only his party’s candidate cares about every part of our county, is insulting to everyone campaigning in the election campaign.

“Why is it important to talk about democracy and political institutions?”

For one simple reason:

Our society is underpinned by a powerful concept: The Rule of Law. The UK as a member of the Commonwealth is bound by it. The Attorney General in 2014 made a speech on the UK’s commitment to the concept over the centuries. (That doesn’t mean they always stuck to it in their actions, as history tells us!)

For The Rule of Law to function properly, democratic and political institutions need to function properly as well. Once those are undermined, so too is the rule of law. This includes the concept of trust between institutions and of the actions of individuals too.

“Why was an audience of people interested in taking action on climate change, and an audience full of civic-minded businesses in Cambridgeshire so reluctant to talk about democracy and political institutions?”

Other than the toxicity thing, that’s something I’m still struggling with.

Not only that, historically ***we have been here before***.

Cambridge Hero Eglantyne Jebb – founder of Save The Children made a speech in Cambridge in 1910 – at the peak of her social and political action in town.

She does not see how anyone who has the welfare of mankind at heart can fail to take an interest in politics”

“She drew an excellent picture of the “Superior Person,” who at the end of his life declares with fatuous satisfaction that he had kept himself pure from party politics, that the vulgar rivalry of Liberals and Tories had never touched him…and showed how such isolation and ‘superiority’ meant criminal neglect of opportunities [to make a difference]

This was from a speech about religion and politics, where she appealed to an audience of Christian men to take an interest in politics as a means of dealing with the poverty and multiple deprivation in Cambridge. Eglantyne’s research a few years before in Cambridge: a brief study in social questions (digitised here) revealed Cambridge’s infant mortality rate was 1:8. Today it’s closer to 3:1000.

“But you had halls full of people who wanted to take action to deal with big shared problems”

True – and that is a wonderful thing to see and hear.

In the case of #VibrantCambridge the main theme that came out was people either wanting to get involved in local charity work themselves, or wanting to deliver/work on a specific charitable project.

The quality of the ideas was mixed. Some were genuinely excellent and ground-breaking. Others demonstrated an ignorance of what others were already doing on the ground, or an arrogance of ‘business knows better’ than those already working on the front line who are constrained by existing Government policy, or the inertia of previous governments’ policies.

Therein lies the challenge – how do you bring in the excellent ideas into the mix in local democracy while leaving behind ‘Business attempts at doing public administration – and doing it badly’?

Embedding diversity in day-to-day work

It was a challenge I put to my table – which unfortunately ended up being an all-male one. Hence why I probably over-compensated by telling everyone how wonderful our first woman councillor, first woman magistrate and second woman mayor, Florence Ada Keynes was, and how we should build a big new conference/concert hall in Cambridge (my case is here) and name it after her. (It ended up in the news).

The first problem was venue: No public transport access.

The second – a problem on my table was lack of gender diversity. I also got the sense that the diversity of Cambridge’s business communities was also not reflected. It was more ‘suits’ rather than say Mill Road Traders. Hence Paul Smith of @CamCreatives was spot on challenging the prominent members  of Cambridge Ahead on our table to do more to engage with smaller and more informal business networks – rather than run the risk of being seen as an insular clique with eyes towards London, Whitehall and the City.

Business turning the mirror on themselves

It was Matthew Bullock of St Edmund’s who I thought gave some incredibly clear critiques – similar to Dr John Wells on the Greater Cambridge City Deal Assembly, that really impressed me. His challenge to the other business representatives on our table was whether they had enough information about things like travel patterns of their own staff, in order to influence decisions on public transport in and around Cambridge. This comes back to my own criticism of the Greater Cambridge City Deal not having had a ‘year zero’ to commission research and collect data/information in order to inform decisions taken later on down the line.

This brings me onto the other challenges those in business face if they want to influence public policy: Who holds you accountable for the views you put forward as an institution?

This brings me onto my final diversity point: What would the event have been like if it was held say at The Meadows Community Centre on the border of Arbury & King’s Hedges, with half of the people participating being people who live in those two wards? What sort of things would they be telling you, how would they be telling you, how would you respond?

The reason I ask this is all too often the people these sorts of gatherings say they want to help are often conspicuous by their absence.

What would this picture look like if half of the audience had been people on low incomes, young people and/or pensioners?

Public policy and community action is messy – you have to be prepared to get your hands dirty and hear some uncomfortable things said about you and your sector. But then democracy isn’t a spectator sport either

This is also why sound feedback loops are ever so important. Given we were at the Imperial War Museum at Duxford in one of their huge aerodromes, the military metaphor of ‘No plan – however carefully prepared, survives the first contact with the enemy intact’ seems particularly apt. Hence I’d be interested to see what audiences of politicians, public sector staff, people from the voluntary sector, the elderly, and students and children make of the ideas that a predominantly business audience came up with.

Shall we have a ‘Cambridge history hack’?

Summary

Some ideas on what it might be like 

Before we start, if you are on Facebook please can you ‘Like’ the following pages:

Thank you.

After spending some time browsing through the microfiches of old newspapers in the Cambridge Central Library, as well as pondering over the problems and challenges local archivists had presented me with, something sparked in my mind on how to deal with them.

“What is the aim of such a hack?”

Aims include:

  • Making people aware of the existence of local history institutions such as the Museum of Cambridge
  • Making people aware of local historical services such as the county archives and the Cambridgeshire Collection
  • Bringing the staff and volunteers face-to-face with a new, wider audience of people less familiar with what they do
  • Inviting people to bring in their old photographs and objects to be scanned, properly recorded and archived in a digital archive
  • Bringing lots of people together to share ideas
  • Creating a shared timeline of Cambridge’s civic history – collectively recording the major events in our city’s history
  • Teasing out people from inside Cambridge’s large institutions (not just Cambridge University) to get them involved in local historical projects
  • Share our different experiences of ‘doing’ local history
  • Raising money for our local historical institutions
  • To encourage people to think about how our past can inform our future at a time of huge change and growth in our city.

“OK…so let’s go through ‘who, what, when, where, how and why?'”

Who

  • Anyone interested in the history of the city of Cambridge.
  • Top line hosts could include:
    • the Museum of Cambridge,
    • Cambridgeshire County Council at Shire Hall (where the county archive is) or in the Central Library (where the Cambridgeshire Collection is),
    • Cambridge City Council – The Guildhall
    • Cambridge University Library
    • Anglia Ruskin University
  • Spin off events could be hosted by local schools, colleges, local libraries and even Cambridge’s businesses – in particular those that have been in Cambridge for many years

What

A hack. Although this term is often used in digital terms, for me this is very much a paper hack as well as an online one. The reason being is that there are many old books (ones that are not yet old enough to be considered ‘antique’) that offer interesting insights on our history.

Here’s me with a couple of them in mid-2016

There’s also a chance for several of us to help update/refresh some of the web pages and databases held/maintained by our local historical institutions – all too often on a shoestring budget.

When

Whenever we can organise it – though ideally not at exam time. It doesn’t need to be a full 24 hour thing in the first instance. Baby steps first. Possibly a 10am-4pm event to start off with.

Where

As mentioned above.

How?

First of all with this post inviting people to express an interest. Then assuming we can persuade one of the institutions to be our host, approach the others to find out what both their needs are, and also what their aspirations are.

Why?

This is why:

That’s me asking Cambridgeshire County Council transport officers about historical reading in the context of future transport plans. If they don’t know what their institution got wrong in the past, how can they be sure they won’t make the same mistakes again? Given the scale of development in Cambridge this matters. Hence making more people aware of our local civic history (*Like my FB Page ‘Lost Cambridge’ please!) and of our local democracy (*Like my FB Page ‘Democracy Cambridge’ please!)

 

What would the hack event be like?

In part it depends where it took place. An event at The Central Library would enable the Cambridgeshire Collection to bring out and display a number of the old books and maps – while making use of the neighbouring conference rooms for people to use laptops from the wifi connection. Oh – and it has a cafe next to it too. At Shire Hall you have the county archives there (but not for much longer) – though no on site cafe. That said, you do have the lawn and Castle Hill there. Ideal for summer?

As well as the various aspects of data crunching, the two big things I’m looking for are:

  1. Populating a timeline of civic history – one that also covers the various Acts of Parliament and restructures of local government that had a marked impact on Cambridge.
  2. Scanning of photographs brought in by residents especially old ones from families that have lived in the city for generations.

An annual event?

Possibly – with the chance of other local institutions (such as schools, colleges, community groups and longstanding voluntary organisations) hosting their own and adding to the civic timeline and photographic archive.

The need for expert help

Creating and expanding a digital archive is not easy – and also requires resources. (Hence the fundraising bit). Hence before we even start we’d need the guidance of expert archivists and those who are pioneering the digitisation of history in the professional sphere.

So…anyone interested?

Email me – antonycarpen [at] gmail [dot] com

 

 

How Newnham College helped politicise women in Cambridge

Summary

How 40 years of debates and discussions focused the minds of the well-connected families in Cambridge to deal with poverty and multiple deprivation the towns slums

Some of you may have read about my recent findings from the Cambridgeshire County Archives. (If not, please read as this blogpost will make more sense that way). Some of you may have notice that former Equalities Minister Baroness Lynne Featherstone was in Cambridge very recently. I asked her about encouraging more women into local democracy given that there was only one other woman in the room that evening. Her response was unequivocal.

Public speaking.

It was something I raised with a meeting the following night with the Cambridge Women’s Equality Party – who agreed with Lynne above.

Opportunities in Cambridge to improve public speaking skills.

Cambridge already has an active public speakers club – Cambridge Toastmasters. If you want to improve your public speaking skills, they are a very good starting point.

For students & young people, Cambridge University runs its own Model United Nations club – something I used to take part in during my student days many years ago. (I’m getting old!) The next Model UN Conference in Cambridge is in late October 2017.

“What would a local government equivalent of Model UN look like?”

Personally I’d love to help organise one. The template is almost identical to the Model UN one. Organisers pick themes for different committees to debate and formulate resolutions on, and then at the end of the event the resolutions are put to a vote by ‘the full council’ – ie all of the participants.

For somewhere like Cambridge, I’d set it up for schools and further education colleges, where participants can represent the village or neighbourhood they live in, or represent a political party. Either way, they have to undertake research to find out what the concerns and issues are on the theme their committee is debating. That way, participants not only find out about what local government does, they get to do role plays too. I’d also have The Guildhall as the host venue. The reason being that once you’ve stood up in the council chamber to ask a public question in a role play, doing it for real at a full city council meeting at a later date is a doddle.

“What’s this got to do with Newnham?”

It was at Newnham College that the first meeting of the Cambridge Ladies Discussion Society took place – way back in 1886. When Anne Jemima Clough, Newnham’s first principal, along with Cambridge heroes Eleanor Sidgwick and Mary Paley took part in that first meeting, I don’t think they had any idea what they were about to unleash on Cambridge.

“What did they unleash?”

A local political revolution – or rather ‘evolution’ because it was very much one step at a time, but certainly from that point onwards, there was movement. Had the local male establishment not dragged their feet (and ditto Parliament & Whitehall), the group would have achieved so much more than they did. The problem as I see it was that the law at the time would not let them.

“What did they talk about?”

In a nutshell, ‘how to change the world’. Starting with the most difficult issue of the day.

IMG_0400

Courtesy of the Cambridgeshire County Archives

Poverty and multiple deprivation hit the children the hardest. Two of our town’s most brilliant minds – Eglantyne Jebb (who would later go on to found Save the Children) and Leah Manning – later Dame Leah Manning MP, would sharpen their political and campaigning teeth on this issue from their early 20s in Cambridge. I’ve written about both of them here. Interestingly, it was a 30 year old Eglantyne Jebb who would take the place of her mother (also called Eglantyne but known as Tye) on the committee of the Cambridge Ladies Discussion Society.

Note too that this was a time of huge change in Cambridge as far as our built environment was concerned.

img_0403.jpg

Courtesy of the Cambridgeshire County Archives

A number of buildings that we think of as being centuries old are actually Victorian. The Waterhouse buildings of Gonville and Caius at the northern end of King’s Parade by Senate House (The ‘Harry Potter Tower’ I call it) and the Catholic Church of Our Lad7 & English Martyrs are two examples. People’s palaces – as featured in this BBC documentary were a big thing in those days. In stark contrast to today where too many developers and their financiers do everything in their powers to weasel out of any commitment to provide public and civic buildings beyond the bare minimum they can get away with. And even then, too many game the system.

“Stop ranting – what else did Newnham do?”

It was the early Newnham women that first of all kept the series of termly discussions going in those early years. Florence Ada Keynes – another early Newnham graduate would become one of the pillars not only of the discussion society, but also of the National Union of Women Workers (to whom the society affiliated to in 1913) – later the National Council of Women of which she became president in the early 1930s.

“What’s that got to do with today?”

Everything.

Courtesy of the Cambridgeshire County Archives

Two of the debates on women in local democracy in 1898 and 1908 respectively show that getting more women active was clearly an issue. When the ban on unmarried women standing for election to district councils was removed, Florence Ada Keynes and Maud Darwin – the American daughter in law of Charles Darwin and a Cambridge Hero in her own right (we got women police officers largely because of her) called on unmarried women to put themselves forward for election – as the Cambridge Independent Press below reveals.

081016-women-candidates-camcitco-ej-signs-flo-ada-keynes-letter

The co-signatories to that letter contain some very influential names – including a number of men. Don’t believe me? Have a read below.

The names that stand out include:

  • Dr Neville Keynes – a prominent economist in & at Cambridge – husband of Florence & father of John Maynard Keynes.
  • Lady Caroline Jebb – married to the classicist Sir Richard Claverhouse Jebb (& noting that Eglantyne and her mother, listed as Mrs Arthur Jebb both signed too)
  • Mary Allan – Principal of Homerton College
  • Henry and Eleanor Sidgwick, the latter being the second principal of Newnham (and also the sister of the former Prime Minister Arthur Balfour and niece of former Prime Minister Lord Salisbury
  • Dr Venn – The Venn diagram? Him – but he was a lot more than a diagram.

Historians of Cambridge (town and gown) will be familiar with far more names than I am – note how many couples signed as well. This wasn’t the men tolerating something for their wives and daughters to make themselves useful with, rather this was them supporting them and publicly identifying themselves with the cause. My point here being historical learning point for today’s generation of men who want to campaign against the injustices that women – and many other people across our societies still face. (This is where the protected characteristics list in the Equalities Act 2010 is useful).

“So…what happened to it?”

As Florence Ada Keynes describes, many of the original founders grew old and passed away. The final record in the papers she deposited in the county archives made me smile. Scroll to the end of this blogpost.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone reconstituted the society?”

Yes.

Recall too the founding principle of the society’s founding back in 1886.

That a society be formed in Cambridge with the object of bringing together ladies who are interested in the discussion of social questions

There’s nothing to stop anyone from reforming the above – with exactly the same remit, organising and hosting termly gatherings. One of the things that strikes me is that the regular frequency in which the meetings were held, the large halls they were held in, and the organisers’ abilities to bring in eminent speakers to speak – and more importantly be cross-examined by the audience of women must have been persuasive for the men that spoke before them.

Dare I say it, the changes that Cambridge is currently going through, and the disproportionate impact that austerity is having on women means that if there is a time to reconstitute such a group with a similar, local remit, now is the time to do it.

 

Mayoral candidate loses faith in county transport officers

Summary

How will Cambridgeshire County Council respond if the current bookies’ favourite, Cllr James Palmer (also on the County Council) gets elected mayor?

Before I start, ***Look at all these events and meetings on my Democracy Cambridge Page***

If the local councils won’t give us a one-stop place for interesting and important local council meetings, me and Puffles will have to do it for them.

Mayoral candidate tweet slams county transport officers

Cllr Palmer, who also leads East Cambridgeshire District Council for the Conservatives, sent this response to Chris Rand, editor of the Queen Edith’s newsletter here in Cambridge.

To say that the performance of county planning officers with the Greater Cambridge City Deal has been controversial is an understatement. Out of all of the party political candidates, Cllr Palmer has been the most prominent on social media, posting pictures of himself with a number of cabinet ministers.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Chancellor look so happy.

Cllr Rod Cantrill for the Liberal Democrats hit back, blaming the political leadership of both county council & the Greater Cambridge City Deal for the problems.

None of the other candidates have as yet commented.

The reason why this matters is that this further reflects the complications of a rushed policy which I’ve gone on record as opposing in principle – ie having a county mayor for such a wide and diverse geographical area. (Why are we wedded to the idea of political administration using historic counties anyway?)

Losing faith in senior officials

I can understand why Cllr Palmer has taken the position he has. Having watched the evolution of the city deal and the recommendations that have come forward from officers over the past couple of years – and the growing frustrations of those who wanted to work constructively with them, Cllr Palmer has made his position clear from the start. It remains to be seen what the other candidates say.

Don’t think that local Conservative councillors in South Cambridgeshire have been getting an easy ride over the City Deal issues to the west of Cambridge; they haven’t. The jam-packed local meetings at parish councils and also at Shire Hall that I have attended and filmed on behalf of and commissioned by local communities, is testament to that. Councillors and candidates are also acutely aware that with county council elections coming up, several seats that perhaps previously were not up for grabs might well be. Especially with demographic changes and the impact of the EU Referendum.

The problem for all sides is that this is not a situation that is going to go away. The situation we find ourselves in has its roots in the decisions made by both officials and by elected politicians.

 

The party political mess

The original city deal was negotiated during the Coalition years at a time when Cambridge City Council was under Liberal Democrat control. Less than a year later, after the 2015 general election, the city council was under Labour control and Central Government under Conservative outright, heading straight into their self-imposed EU referendum. This meant that the first politician in the chair of the City Deal Board was my local councillor Lewis Herbert, Labour’s leader of Cambridge City Council. Thus he has responsibility for delivering on a deal he had no say in negotiating.

Then there’s the instability of his Conservative partners. Cllrs Ray Manning and Steve Count, as leaders of South Cambridgeshire District Council and Cambridgeshire County Council respectively, did not remain in post on the City Deal Board for long. They have since been replaced by Cllr Francis Burkitt and Cllr Ian Bates.

Cambridge-City-Deal-1024x680

These chaps signed off the Greater Cambridge City Deal – Cllr Lewis Herbert having less than six weeks to get his head around the whole thing following his party’s victory at the City Council elections that previous month – when Puffles the Dragon Fairy snatched 89 votes off him and the other parties.

A failure by senior Conservatives in Cambridgeshire local government?

It does make me wonder why Cllrs Manning and Count agreed to be on the City Deal Board with Cllr Herbert only to resign later on. Far better from my perspective to have councillors that really want to be on there and make a real good go of it – knowing that the decisions that they will take will be controversial. With that in mind, Cllr Francis Burkitt was the first of any of the senior elected councillors on the City Deal Board and Assembly I saw to publicly reject a paper from officers and tell them to go back and do a better job with stronger recommendations. Since then, and under the chairmanship of Cllr Roger Hickford (Cons – Linton), we’ve also seen a lot more ‘push back’ from elected councillors to county council transport officials presenting to the City Deal Assembly.

A failure by elected politicians of all parties to hold transport officers to account?

In the grand scheme of things, I believe there has been a collective failure of the politicians on the City Deal forums to hold officers to account – particularly in the early days. In those very early days, the only person I can recall being vocal about these things was Cllr Bridget Smith.

A failure to see local residents and community groups as a shared resource to help solve difficult problems – instead they (we) became the difficult problem

This is the thing that makes me particularly frustrated. There was a ***huge opportunity*** for politicians and officers to bring the whole city and surrounding towns and villages to be part of this big problem-solving phenomenon. We could have brought together town and gown, built in the real life problems into school and college coursework so that students and young people could try and solve real life problems and present them rather than hypothetical ones. We could have opened up Cambridge University’s colleges and Anglia Ruskin University to shared events for the whole community. We could have brought the executives of those institutions whose functions cause some of our traffic problems – whether the private schools off Trumpington Road, Addenbrooke’s and the biomedical campus, the estate agents that sell properties, the big developers who don’t engage with communities at design stage – something now required by law in Wales.

“Assuming Cllr Palmer wins, then what?”

The question for him is how he’ll co-ordinate his staff with county council staff who he has effectively declared he has no confidence in.

The question for the county council is how they will work with a potential new mayor who has declared that he has no confidence in them.

This could become all the more awkward if the Conservatives win an absolute majority at the county council elections in two months time. Compared to pre-EU-Ref, I don’t really know how the county council elections will turn out. Much will depend on whether the Prime Minister has triggered Article 50, and on the strength of the Liberal Democrat resurgence especially in South Cambridgeshire where there is much disquiet over the stance of the Conservative Members of Parliament Heidi Allen and Lucy Frazer to back the Prime Minister over supporting leaving the EU. With a higher public profile and a stronger ‘Remain’ vote, Ms Allen has come in for stronger criticism. Note though that the border of Ms Frazer’s constituency is only two wards down the road from me, just as Ms Allen’s is over the road (though not for much longer due to boundary changes).

Jeremy Corbyn calls on Cllr Kevin Price

Mr Corbyn was in Cambridge very recently to give his support to Cllr Price, Labour’s candidate for the mayoral elections. It was Cllr Price who negotiated the concession on council housing for Cambridge.

The event was written up by the Cambridge News here.

As I wasn’t notified of the visit, I have no video footage of the speeches. As the Lib Dems informed me that former Health Minister Norman Lamb MP was visiting, I filmed an interview with him instead.

Ditto with their party’s president (and former councillor in Cambridge) Baroness Sal Brinton) who along with Cllr Cantrill spoke at an event at Hills Road Sixth Form College the previous evening.

The moral of the story for political parties is that if you want video footage of your meetings from me, please give me advanced notice and ensure your venues are easy to get to by public transport. Otherwise you might find that it’s your political rivals that get the video footage. Unlike previous years, I’m not going out of my way to chase after you.

Reasserting the dragon’s independence

Summary

On why everything is political – and why lots of institutions (and people too) seem to be saying they are not ‘political’, when they mean ‘party political’.

Who remembers the old Electoral Commission advert?

Politics – my ‘off the top of my head definition’ – The way people collectively resolve their issues through debate and dialogue without resorting to threats, violence, death and war.

Which means pretty much everything is political if you choose to accept that definition.

The WikiP page on the Home Office – and its history – is one I find fascinating. Look at the number of functions stripped away from it, and added to it over the years.

Democracy in action

I’ve been having a number of conversations with various community groups about running some ‘democracy in action’ workshops in and around Cambridge. The reason being is that there’s this gap between people becoming interested in a particular issue, and throwing their lot in with a political party. When it comes to introducing politics to people, the approaches I’ve often seen are based around:

  • The institution that the teacher/facilitator works for
  • The political party the teacher/facilitator is a member of
  • The organisation the teacher/facilitator is a member of
  • The history of the country where the workshop is taking place

My approach here in Cambridge is different – and starts from the perspective of the people taking part in the workshop. Essentially I start with their relationship with this entity we know of as ‘The State’.

We experimented with this in 2016 and people commented that much of what we covered filled in lots of the little gaps that they had in their knowledge, and also equipped them with the knowledge of how to approach institutions, parties, politicians and candidates.

“What’s this got to do with Puffles?”

It’s election time, and I’ve already started seeing various Twitter squabbles breaking out, and hearing accusations by people in one party about actions by people in another. Then there’s the accusations about partiality and neutrality. Hence using this blogpost to explain my motivation and method, and to reassert my independence from party political institutions.

Independence, neutrality, impartiality – and tone.

Independence: No one in a political party can compel me what to do without lawful authority.

It’s that simple.

Neutrality and impartiality: I’ve tried to start using those terms less, because some imply that this means I don’t have opinions. I can’t not have opinions while having posted hundreds of blogposts and hundreds of thousands of social media posts. Having an opinion – a strong opinion on something is also where our passion for something comes from. Take today. I saw social media posts from lots of you taking part in political actions today. Whether it was the NHS march in London, meeting senior elected politicians, to canvassing and campaigning for local elections, there were lots of you ‘doing democracy’ today. ***This is wonderful!***

When it comes to elections, I’m a floating voter and focus primarily on the calibre and competencies of the people on the ballot paper. For others, their criteria will be different. Others may not even have criteria – they may vote and campaign for a political party because of things like a family tradition.

Tone – especially with video footage

Unlike much of the mainstream media, I take the view that everyone who goes into local democracy does so because they want to make a positive difference to their local community. That view remains with all participants until I’m proven otherwise. (No, I won’t give examples of the people who have proven me otherwise – I don’t want to give them the publicity).

Therefore with video footage I take the view that *I want the speaker to do well*. I want them to get across the message that they want to get across to the viewer, and be happy with how they have appeared on video. I try my best to apply that principle across the political matrix.

Does it mean that I interview and film everyone? Helllllllll……no!!!

I do this primarily because I enjoy it and because feedback from many people is that it makes a positive difference to our local democracy.

Reporting like a responsible journalist (even though I’m not qualified as one), but thinking as an historian (which I am).

Spending much time in the archives and surrounded by old books on the history of the borough of Cambridge, I’m very much thinking about the historical record – which is why the cuts to libraries and archives budgets concern me greatly. I’m also very concerned about the inability (for whatever reason) of our local archives to become digitised – and thus being unable to bring in new generations of local historians into our community, and also missing out on potential revenue streams because people simply do no know about the historical treasures (and I’m not talking about bling) that are hidden in the archives. Recently I was speaking to one local archivist who said they have hundreds of old nitrate negatives, lantern slides and photographic negatives that they would love to get developed but can’t afford the tens of thousands of pounds it costs to get them processed. As a result, no one will ever know what is on them.

The other issue I have is that we have no way of systematically depositing digital records to our county archives. I’ve got over 7TB of data waiting to be received, but our archives have been starved of resources due to the cuts from Central Government, and the city has no mechanism to tap into the wealth we’re told Cambridge has, in order not just to preserve our past, but make it far more accessible to much wider audiences.

Back to impartiality

This is where I need to deposit the video archives as they are, not as individual parties or groups would like them to be. Eg not publishing that bad bit or zapping that mistake from the speech they made in a council meeting. For me this is important because I am benefiting from the work of journalists over 100 years ago who wrote transcripts of debates, public meetings and of important speeches. Compare and contrast:

I’ll finish with the wise words of Mayor Florence Ada Keynes:

“The basis of all social life is co-operation, and it is certainly the basis of our local government. In the council itself, it calls for co-operation between voluntary committees and expert officers…

“It calls also for co-operation between the electors and those whom they return to their local parliament. This can be best exercised by a vigilance that is not mere fault-finding but supplies constructive criticism and occasionally goes so far as to mark its appreciation of honest effort for the good of the community.”

Even in ‘the olden days’ the media and electorate would throw abuse at elected representatives. In the days before TV and radio, I get the sense from the archives that things felt a lot more confrontational and intense, despite the nominal politeness. It’s easy to moan and be cynical about politicians and politics. We see it every day. I’ve chosen the harder route of being positive about politics. It has more than a few challenges…but that’s part of the fun of it too!