The Greens may be surging, but the next bit could be tricky for them


The challenges of rapid expansion in a short space of time

At the end of my civil service career I went through the opposite – the largescale downsizing of an organisation numbered in the thousands. The Green Party judging by recent headlines now has more members than UKIP, and at the time of writing is not far off the Liberal Democrats, all three hovering just over 40,000 members across the UK.

“Hang on a minute, how did this happen?”

The Green Party’s membership has been steadily rising over recent years, and shot up in 2014.

(Above graph via @Jim_Jepps and @steve4319).

What then followed after the European elections (where The Greens missed out narrowly on doubling their MEPs with defeats in the North West & East Anglia by small margins) was the Scottish Independence referendum. On the side of a dynamic and radical ‘Yes’ campaign (from what my Twitter friends in Scotland from across the spectrum told me), The Scottish Greens experienced a surge in membership numbers shortly after the ‘No’ victory was announced. By ‘surge’ I mean they more than doubled their membership of just over 2,000 to well over 5,000…in three days.

“In three days?!? Crikey!”

It was even more for the Scottish National Party – who now look very likely to take control of a significant number of Scottish constituencies in the Westminster Parliament in the May 2015 general election. I’ll explain why this matters later on.

“Are they or aren’t they a major party?”

In October, the TV broadcasters got together to announce the planned format of the TV debates as they had in 2010. They included UKIP but excluded The Greens. The Greens, supporters, sympathisers & those that wanted a more plural TV debate started signing a petition. In their hundreds of thousands – nearly 300,000 at the time of writing this. Combined with the argument of Caroline Lucas’s presence in the Commons, representation in a number of councils, three MEPs and two MSPs in the Holyrood Parliament in Scotland has put pressure on the broadcasters.

Cameron steps in and puts The Greens on the front pages

At Prime Minister’s Questions on 14 January, Cameron put The Green Party on the front pages of the politics news (and of the evening news because they report PMQs as ‘real’ news) when attacking Miliband & Labour. (See here, from 5m30s). This meant that Wednesday’s evening news led with Cameron and Miliband clashing over whether The Greens should take part in the TV debates. Publicity gold dust given that many outside of politics may not have known about The Greens, or saw them as a tiny party not worth the attention because the news didn’t feature them. With a greater frequency of higher profile news coverage and a general desire for ‘something new’ in politics, at the moment The Greens are benefiting.

“What’s Cameron’s game? Why is he deliberately inflating The Greens given they stand for almost everything he does not?”

Good question. Note that George Osborne repeated Conservative backing for the Greens to take part in the TV debates a day earlier in Parliament. (See here). In a nutshell, it’s tactical. UKIP are likely to take more votes off the Tories than Labour or the Lib Dems. By having The Greens on the same platform, Labour and the Lib Dems will have to watch their left flanks. With little chance of either The Greens or UKIP winning power, they can afford to be more radical with their policies. From a disgruntled voters perspective, between the Greens & UKIP there is very clear political water between the two. Cambridge will be a microcosm of this throughout 2015 as the media-friendly duo of Patrick O’Flynn & Dr Rupert Read (of UKIP and The Greens respectively) go head to head at the fringes. Although both are unlikely to win Cambridge, the question is how much of the Lib Dem and Labour vote will go to either of those two parties. Note in 2014 at the Euro elections the two of them totalled over 12,000 votes in Cambridge.

Rapid growth brings risks – as Nigel found to his cost

Despite electoral success, the rise of UKIP was plagued with media stories of ‘politically incorrect’ (to downright offensive) outbursts from various activists, candidates and even elected councillors. As Farage commented at the time, UKIP simply did not have the administrative infrastructure in place to do basic background checks on all of its new members and candidates. As a result, Farage found himself having to fight off negative headlines on a regular basis.

Could the same happen to The Greens? Quite easily. With a rising profile comes greater scrutiny. Expect to see a number of media splashes where a tweet or a Facebook post is taken ‘out of context’, or where the direct action past of someone is plastered all over the media. My advice? Get your staff trained in crisis management communications. The Media Trust are particularly good at this – see their courses here. In fact, that goes for other parties and campaign groups too.

Not all membership fees are comparable across parties

This is the other thing to consider. In the case of The Greens, their fees are based on income, starting at £5 pa for students, under 18s & those earning less than £10k per year. (See this tweet). For UKIP it’s a flat £30 per year bar special offers for armed forces & under 22s. Labour fees are also income based (see here). For the Tories, it’s more simplified (see here) and for the Lib Dems, I couldn’t find publicly available numbers. I’ve seen some social media comments about the impact of varying fees, but I’d guess for many people – especially young people, the low annual starting rates are not a huge barrier to getting involved.

“What do you do with all of these new activists?”

Keep an eye on the various party political vacancies on W4MP. The vacancies there often tell stories behind the headlines of the organisations that advertise. The challenge any rapidly-expanding organisation has is inducting new members into its culture, systems and processes. There’s also the challenge of developing trust. What do you do as a party/campaign administrator if you suddenly get over 100 membership applications from a part of the country that you’ve never been active in before? Where do you start?

In the case of Cambridge, there has been rapid growth – the local party having over 200 members and climbing still. The difference with Cambridge is that there are long-established environmentalist groups such as Cambridge Carbon Footprint and Transition Cambridge with a very solid core of long standing community activists, some of whom inevitably are members of political parties. But what if you don’t have that local activist or community base to build from? Where do you start? How do you know who to trust? What do you do if the trust breaks down?

It might sound corporate and bland, but I wonder if The Greens have done a basic risk assessment on the back of the surge in numbers. What are all the good and bad things that could happen as a result of this huge increase in numbers? What are their plans to mitigate any risks that might occur (and thus become incidents)? The same goes for Labour and the SNP – especially in a social media age where every social media molehill will be turned into a mountain by a sensationalist media. Why feature complicated policies when you can have a short “10 social media fails by [insert name of party]”?

Who will become the voices and faces of The Greens with this raised profile?

Updated to add: Funnily enough, within minutes of me posting this blogpost, The Greens updated their website with a substantive list of policy spokespersons (and their social media contacts). See the list here.

At a national level, The Greens have a number of experienced elected representatives – see here. But as with UKIP, how do/will they manage below that surface – especially at city/town/village level with local media? In Cambridge for The Greens this has been a real challenge over the past few years. What do you do if you’re in an area where none of your activists wants to be the point of contact for the local newspaper or radio station? Cambridge Greens have been fortunate with Rupert Read running a more proactive and disciplined media operation – not least reflected in his regular letters published in the Cambridge News reminding some 30,000 readers that the party is there. Whether that turns into votes or members remains to be seen.

How will the Greens cope when their opponents inevitably fire back?

Because party politics can be a very, very dirty business. The first exchanges in Cambridge between the five candidates together was on BBC Cambridgeshire with Chris Mann.

Obviously it won’t be the last.

Posted in Cambridge, Campaigning, protesting and demonstrating, Party politics, Social media | 3 Comments

Greater Cambridge Assembly meets for the first time…


…but do the people of Cambridge know it even exists, let alone know how to influence it?

Here’s a pano-pic I took at the start of the meeting


…having made my way via bus from Cambridge to Cambourne, a very new ‘newtown’ built in the last few years to help accommodate a growing county population. Here’s the WikiP entry, & here’s their parish council’s website.

Cambourne’s been much-maligned as an example of how not to build a newtown – a few of which this Guardian article touches on. In the grand scheme of things, the faults are with the planners and politicians, not the people that have chosen to move there to make the best of it. The big problem for me as a sometime visitor to the local council is poor public transport. Given the planned expansion and the scale of the place, for me there should have been some planning for rail – ideally as part of the East-West Rail plans.

“So…who’s on the Assembly?”

Here’s the list. I also picked up that people could ask public questions – but didn’t spot the bit about giving notice. That said, having seen the first couple of hours of the inaugural assembly, I’ve now got ***lots*** of follow-up questions for the assembly (as well as to the executive that the assembly scrutinises). Anyway, here’s what asking a question to the assembly looks like, courtesy of Jim Chisholm of the Cambridge Cycling Campaign, & Dr Julian Huppert MP.

“How did you find the meeting?”

Not exactly earth-shaking. To be fair, the setup we have is the result of successive failure by Whitehall to give Cambridge the local government structure it needs to deal with the problems it has. This assembly is the next best thing to a much needed unitary authority (in my opinion). Instead, we have three different councils with three different sets of political control (Cambridge (@CamCitCo) = Labour, South Cambridgeshire (@SouthCambs) = Conservative, Cambridgeshire County (@CambsCC) = No overall control) combined with representation from what Whitehall would call ‘key stakeholders’. Now that the assembly is up and running, @SouthCambs need to update the assembly web pages (see here) so everyone knows who is on the assembly, who they represent & why.

The thing is, it could have – and perhaps should have been something much more substantive and, dare I say it ‘exciting’. Part of the problem I think is with communications – something I touched on when I scrutinised the shadow city deal board in November 2014. (See my write-up here). In a nutshell, the papers for the 12 January meeting (see here) should have been the basis for some really exciting community activities to get people’s input into the proposed transport schemes.

“How many schemes were there?”

There were lots on the list and at various stages of planning. Yet all too often I find myself wondering where the ideas for transport schemes – especially the more expensive ones – come from. Given how transport infrastructure affects our daily lives, shouldn’t people have more of a chance to find out about how the system works & how to influence it? (Or at least be encouraged to?)

Sparking people’s imagination

I think there’s a huge opportunity with the general election coming up to get people involved. Lots of parties, activists & organisations are working to get people interested in the election, so why not do something that keeps people in touch once the votes have been counted? We found out today in Cambridge that one of the political parties is going to accuse the others of not being nearly radical enough on transport issues in Cambridge.

Given the number of local public debates there will be in Cambridge, it’ll be interesting to see what the exchanges are like – and what specifics the candidates are prepared to commit to in their local party manifestos.

The wider question on ‘how we communicate with each other as a city’ still needs addressing

The set up of the assembly in part acknowledges that we don’t communicate, let alone work together as a city. For a start the lack of diversity in the room was in striking contrast to the diversity of people that make up Cambridge. For example, the experiences of young people in local further or higher education (ie those that live at home & commute daily rather than those that leave home to go to university) is likely to be very different to those representing the business interests when it comes to cars vs cycles & busses. But they still face the same problem of congestion in Cambridge. But how are the views of young people being collected and systematically fed into the decision-making processes?

As far as media was concerned, Jon Vale of the Cambridge News was there for the meeting as well as myself filming various bits of it. I also counted just over a dozen people in the public seats at various points – though it wasn’t clear who was representing/reporting for someone else and who was there as an interested citizen. Given the amount of money being spent as part of the deal, my take is there needs to be more publicity and civic education about not just the city deal, but about our civic and democratic institutions generally. But that can’t be addressed without looking at how we the people of our city communicate with each other and our institutions. Because let’s face it, everyone’s got something to sell or a message to share. But does everyone want to listen? How do you make it easier for people to filter the things they don’t want to hear but be kept informed about the things they want to know about?

It’s not all doom & gloom though!

This is a 15 year process. There is still scope for people to influence the decisions the assembly takes. The most interesting bit for me is that we now have a very public forum to scrutinise Cambridge University – as they have a seat on the assembly.

Friday 16 Jan – debate on Cambridge Railsee here for details  – four of the five prospective parliamentary candidates will be taking part.

Posted in Business economics and finance, Cambridge, Charities and Big Society, Housing and transport, Party politics, Public administration & policy | 4 Comments

Five months of mainstream media election coverage


…and even the politics obsessives like me find this a depressing scenario

Matt Frei of Channel 4 News is spot on at 4m37s

…and then goes for the jugular at 5m00s

An utterly depressing political exchange which felt like both sides had been coached in how to get their ‘lines to take’ into the footage. In my opinion.

Labour and Conservatives retreating to their safe zones at a national level?

Monday’s ‘news’ was depressing in terms of how controlled and stage-managed it was. Labour going after the Tories on the NHS, and the Tories going after Labour on the economy. Lots of shouting across the airwaves, lots of talking about how ‘orrible the other lot were, little discussion & exposition of the policies they are standing on. None of the parties so far have been able to communicate a vision of what life might be like in 2020. A positive vision, a sound strategy and consistent, co-ordinated credible policies on how to make this happen. Too much to ask for?

The thing is, tactically both Labour and Conservatives are content at a national level for this level of debate. Talk to activists on both sides and they’ll say compared to the Lib Dems, at least the other side are principled and as adversaries you know where they are. Thus they are easier to target. ‘Ideological shape-shifters’ was how one local Labour activist described their Lib Dem opponents to me. Harder now though for the Lib Dems because they’ve got the record of being in coalition tied to them. The Tories won’t want to let them get away with: “Well, things would have been even worse if it was the Tories alone in government!” while Labour understandably will be saying “All of this bad stuff happened because you went into coalition!”

Labour’s troubles north of the border

I was astonished to see this from the newly elected leader of Scottish Labour – calling for a mansion tax to pay for Scottish nurses and quote: ‘over and above anything the SNP promise.’

Two issues with this. The first is that they have framed a policy with a massive reference to their political opponents. Rather than having a ballpark figure of the number of medical personnel needed, they’ve said: SNP+1000. So if the SNP for a laugh say: “We’ll have infinity nurses!” …exactly.

The second issue is Murphy framing the funding for this as being one drawn from London. Tactically he can say that because the SNP want independence, they can’t campaign for this extra funding. But it doesn’t make things easier for Labour activists in London faced with a “You’d give our money to Scotland!” message that the London-based media will have a field day with. Even though policy-wise such a tax only hits those with properties valued at £2million.

The result? Policy-wise Labour looks disunited because of the public disagreements. It also gives the impression of a lack of co-ordination and a lack of strategy. Not what you want just before an election.

“What about the other parties?”

In the context of Cambridgeshire, me and Richard Taylor, a fellow community reporter discussed this with Chris Mann on BBC Cambridgeshire. Have a listen below.

There was much more that both of us wanted to say. In Cambridgeshire, any upsets I think will be at council seat level, with UKIP gaining more seats in the north of the county and possibly the Greens with one or two in Cambridge City and the south. The big unknown is where the Greens and UKIP will be taking votes from – assuming they do. Will voters that backed them at the European elections in Cambridge (over 12,000 in total for the Greens & UKIP, at roughly 7,000 & 5,000 each) return to the main three, or are they sufficiently weak vs-a-vs Greens & UKIP for them to stick with their 2014 voting pattern?

TV trying out new things in this election

Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis is trying out joining running clubs, asking members about politics in the process of joining them on their runs.

This I like because there’s a shared activity – one that you have to be passionate about to do it. Getting up early in the morning when it’s cold and wet takes a lot of motivation. Rather than approaching people in the awkward arena of a town centre, she’s embedding herself in community groups who happen to be doing something that she’s passionate about (outside journalism) as well.

Anglia TV are also trying out engaging with schools. (See here). This is something I’m going to see if Shape Your Place can help with too.

Sophy Ridge of Sky has also made a list of things politicians should avoid in this campaign – see here. This sort of links to David Dimbleby’s superb lecture on the future of the political interview. It’s a long lecture but worth watching in full.

So all of this along with the social media commentary I’ve observed is that even the mainstream media are getting sick of the current state of play. It remains to be seen whether something gives (and if so, what) with the way things are. My guess is that it won’t be something major, but rather something seemingly innocuous that sets things off.

We live in interesting times…

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

What impact can you have in the May 2015 elections?


Some thoughts on how you can take part in this year’s elections – even if you are not a supporter/member of a political party, do not have the vote or don’t rate the candidates standing in your area

The basics

The team at Democracy Club who I met in 2014 said they wanted to help make the 2015 general election less crap than it risks becoming. Although they have their own personal political opinions and biases – don’t we all? – one of their main aims is to help as many people as possible cast an informed vote. At a very basic level, this means ensuring the electorate know:

  • That there is an election on
  • What the election is about – ie for which institutions with what powers
  • How to register
  • Who is standing
  • Where, when and how to vote

An example of this in Cambridge is here, by Chris Rand for the Queen Edith’s ward by-election.

Action: Could you create a similar poster for your local area to share online or perhaps to print out and display in a shop window, coffee shop, library or community centre?

Why this might help: At a very basic level they help remind people when voting day is. You might be interested, informed and passionate about politics, but are others?

Let the candidates know you exist – and are interested

  • You can find out who is standing for Parliament in the 2015 general election at
  • You can find out from your council (see if you don’t know which council is responsible for elections in your area – it’ll be the district or borough council if you are in an area with county/district/parish councils) if there are local elections.

What I did in 2010 was to ask all candidates the same set of questions on the issues that were important to me. That way I got to frame the conversation rather than allowing the politicians to do it for me. If you have social media pages – Facebook, Twitter, blogs, tumblr or others, feel free to share the responses. Others may want to quote the responses in their follow-up questions.

Action: Could you find out who is standing in your area and share this information with your family, friends & contacts?

Why this might help: You may just catch someone at the right time who can then fire off an email about an issue on their mind. It could be a big picture international issue or it could be something very local or personal where a political advocate could help bring in proper support from a public service.

If you have a smartphone, learn how to use it to record audio and video

Websites such as have links on how to use them to record what politicians are saying. Follow the candidates on social media to find out when and where they are campaigning, and ask them questions face-to-face. You can upload the footage you capture onto Youtube or Vimeo for video, and Audioboom or Soundcloud if you are recording audio. Here is an example of where I recorded Cambridge MP Dr Julian Huppert at a recent event in Cambridge.

Given the huge range of issues you could ask questions about, you may want to focus either on your local area, and/or you may want to pick one or two important issues that you can research in depth so it’s harder for politicians to catch you out or bluff their way through your questions!

Action: Do you know how to use the video and audio functions of your phone? If not, how about learning how to use them for this specific purpose: local democracy

Why this might help: You are creating an evidence base that other people can then follow up in their own time. It also helps the candidates because people get to hear them in their own voices and as human beings. This sort of footage is more likely to be informal, therefore the candidates are shown as they are rather than as the polished products of central office. You can also tie down candidates to very clear commitments once it is recorded and shared.

Organise a debate or a hustings?

For those of you who are members of community groups, you can organise community gatherings to allow people to meet the candidates. It can be along the lines of a formal hustings – see the videos here for an example. Alternatively, you might want to set aside a regular gathering at a community centre for candidates and politicians to drop in and have informal conversations with people in your community.

Think about audiences that might be excluded by the political process – in particular those not allowed to vote whether by age or status. They are still part of your community, so how can you organise an event for those that might otherwise be and feel excluded?

Action: Ask your community group if there is interest in organising something that allows your community to meet and question the candidates

Why this might help: You never know, but there might be others in your community feeling similar. You might also have ideas on how to organise something more exciting than traditional hustings.

If you have children or friends who are under-18, invite them to suggest questions for the candidates.

If you are a very busy person with little time to research and find out about who is standing for what, why not mobilise the next generation? Drop an email to the candidates to say that you are going to vote based on the recommendation of your children/young friends, and that you expect the candidates to answer their questions factually and honestly. See what happens.

Action: If you can, try it – and suggest it to family friends. What would it look like if a group of parents got together and put their power of the vote into the hands of their children?

Why this might help: If more and more adults got together and told candidates their vote was going to be the direct result of recommendations from under 18s, would the issues young people and children face be taken more seriously?

And finally…

Whatever you do, follow it up! Let the candidates know whether you voted for them once the election is over, letting them know why you did or did not vote for them. The feedback for all might get some of them to change their policies, behaviours and actions over time. Keep tabs on them once the election is over. It might be that what happens in the 2015 election might inform future electorates in future elections.

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

My personas of the year for 2014


Foxy has hers below, 

…and here are mine

[My personal] Hero of 2014

Without doubt and by an effing country mile…

Andrea Cockerton of the Dowsing Sound Collective

Here’s a glimpse why… …and that’s just the fundraising.

Her arrangement of this Basement Jaxx number not only impressed me, it impressed Basement Jaxx who were also in the audience – so much so that they invited her to collaborate with them – the result being Dowsing’s version of ‘Power to the People’. This was quickly followed up by recording Reality Checkpoint for the Cycle of Songs/Tour de France in Cambridge – leading to a live performance on Parker’s Piece in the summer. Clashing with the World Cup Final were two performances at The Apex in Bury St Edmunds – where this video was recorded. Finally we had sellout gigs in December at the Cambridge Corn Exchange, and a smaller one at The Maltings in Ely.

Two professional recordings and four live performances with one of the most buzzing and supportive of groups of people I’ve worked with in years. That’s the difference Andrea made to me.

Taking a risk with me award

Goes to…

David Cleevely and Anne Bailey

Both invested not just their reputations but a huge amount of time in the Be the change – Cambridge project. What started out as a meeting over coffee led to our first event, our Conversation Cafe at Anglia Ruskin University in September – see here for a write-up and video footage.  My thanks also to all of the sponsors and supporters – especially as we prepare for our community action event on 14 March 2015.

Honourable mentions also go to the Cambridge Buskers Festival and to the Campaign for Better Transport for giving me my first paid digital video commissions, and to the ADC Theatre for my first panto film commission too!

Standing up to be counted in the face of hostility award 

Goes to…

Rahima Ahammed – Labour candidate for the Queen Edith’s by-election in November 2014

Given the amount of hostility generated by the media towards women and to Muslims, to put yourself forward for election and to campaign actively takes a huge amount of courage in the face of such a hostile environment. Having experienced what it’s like to campaign in Puffles’ campaign earlier this year, and having heard anecdotally some of the backlash she faced, Cambridge isn’t immune. To face this head on deserved commending.

The One Cambridge Award

Goes jointly to…

Anna Malan and Emily Dunning of the Cambridge Hub

This is for their work with the Cambridge Hub in trying to bridge the gap between Cambridge students and local residents. Emily is currently halfway around the world on her project. Here’s an interview I recorded with her just before she left.


Anna is now the manager of the Cambridge Hub and in the space of a few months has turned two ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if Cambridge did this?’ blogposts and turned them into actions & events. The first was one that brought many of Cambridge’s environmentalist groups & activists together for an open space session – which is being repeated in the New Year. The second is the Volunteer for Cambridge event on 28 February 2014. She’s creating the safe space for ‘town and gown’ to come together to solve our shared challenges.

The ‘I’ll stand by you’ award

Goes to…

Ceri Jones – a Cambridge community activist

Because she was the only person who campaigned with me publicly when I stood as Puffles for the Coleridge Ward in the Cambridge City Council elections in 2014. She was also at The Guildhall for the results count, staying up all night in the media gallery with journalists from national as well as local news.

Journalist of the year award

Goes to…

Chris Havergal, formerly of the Cambridge News, now of The Times Higher Education

A well-deserved move from local to national news earlier this year, Chris had more than earned this move with his local government reporting for the Cambridge News, attending local council committee meetings that hardly anyone else wanted to attend. Honourable mentions go to Jayne Secker of Sky News – conversing with me over Twitter between advert breaks while she was on air, and Julian Clover of Cambridge105 for broadcasting my first radio reports.

Unsung political activist of the year award

Goes to…

Ellisif Wasmuth of The Cambridge Green Party

Two years ago I criticised The Green Party for having such a small presence in the city following a fall from their 2010 high point. Ellisif came to Cambridge and from scratch and formed what is now a vibrant Cambridge Young Greens movement and was instrumental in supporting Rupert Read’s campaign in the Euro elections, where the Greens polled over 7,000 votes across Cambridge – a record.

Political innovation of the year award

Goes to…

Cambridge Regional College Media Students & Hilary Cox

For organising and delivering a broadcast standard version of Question Time – see here. This for me has set what I hope is an annual precedent: of Cambridgeshire County Councillors being cross-examined by college students while being live broadcast online.

Musician of the year award

Goes to:

Grace Sarah

Grace did her GCSEs this summer, yet still managed to record and perform some amazing music this year. I saw her at The Junction in Cambridge (see here) and in St Ives just outside the city, and filmed both performances. Honourable mentions also go to:

…all of whom played some tremendous sets this year.

The big theme that runs through many of the nominees and winners is that many of them tried out new things for the first time, or enabled me to do the same – eg allowing me to film them perform. This chimes with challenge I set in my last words of my final blogpost of 2013.

1) “What is the one action that you are going to undertake this year that you have not done before in your life?

2) What behaviour change will you make this year? What are you currently doing that you will stop doing or change, what are you currently not doing that you will start doing?”

The same challenges apply this year.

I’ve avoided having a villain of the year. If there was, it’d be the tabloid media. But giving them such an award would only give them more publicity and feed the demons of hatred that need vanquishing. So no award for them. For many, it’s been a difficult year. I hope we can make 2015 a vast improvement. I’m going to do my bit.

Happy New Year!


Posted in Cambridge | 2 Comments

Community conversations in the run up to the 2015 general election?


How can local political parties make themselves available for face-to-face conversations with voters, potential supporters and fellow activists beyond door-to-door canvassing and organised hustings?

This post stems from a number of conversations I’ve had with activists of various political colours (and those independent) locally in recent times. It comes at a time when – in Cambridge at least, all of the main political parties should be showing an increase in membership and volunteers given that we are less than six months away from a general election.

The five main parties in England – Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens and UKIP have all been out campaigning visibly in Cambridge in the past month or two. All of the parties here have selected their candidates:

My take remains that it’s too close to call between Julian and Daniel. There are many factors that make Cambridge a particularly volatile seat – and one more difficult when it comes to campaign tactics & messages. My analysis just after the May 2014 elections here remains broadly the same. Perhaps the only contextual change is that UKIP and The Greens have already started campaigning aggressively. Not a week goes by without a letter from Cambridge Greens being printed in the Cambridge News. UKIP are also targeting safe Labour wards where other parties in recent years have only stood paper candidates. With UKIP continuing to benefit from mainstream media amplification alongside the more quiet but steady growth of the Greens locally – membership in the city now having exceeded 200, how best could Labour go about campaigning against opponents on two opposing political fronts?

Any places to informally gather new activists & introduce them to each other?

Whether it’s the Lib Dems in Coleridge, the Greens in Queen Edith’s or the Conservatives in Abbey wards, it can’t be much fun being a lone activist for your party in your part of town. Nne thing that has struck me about all the local parties is the lack of publicity for organised informal gatherings to introduce new members or supporters to each other. I’m aware that Cambridge Greens have now started doing monthly pub gatherings (with about 12 attending this one that I popped into on the way back from filming another event).

With the canvassing & leafletting that they are already doing, where are the regular informal social gatherings from the other parties that allow potential supporters and new members to meet with seasoned activists, candidates and elected representatives? Could they be advertised on the next round of leaflets that they all distribute? Could you send personalised targeted correspondence (or a phone call) to members and supporters in your databases to come along? (Which is more likely to have an impact – a mass email/leaflet drop or a personalised invitation?)

In the conversations I’ve had regarding the above, the Greens have shown the most interest in the idea – in part because they have signed up dozens of new members locally in a very short space of time. The challenge remains for the Greens to turn these new members into trained and effective activists – ones that can sustain their campaigns long after the adrenalin of the general election has died down. For various reasons, they failed to do this post-2010, despite getting three councillors elected. In anycase, since then, two of their former elected councillors have since passed away and the third left Cambridge altogether.

Other formats for community conversations and campaigning?

I’ve always wondered what it would be like if activists from two different political parties teamed up together to go door-to-door campaigning, thus creating a three-way conversation on the doorstep. For example what would it be like if the Lib Dems and UKIP or The Greens and the Tories teamed up in pairs to go door-to-door? How would the dynamics of conversations be changed? I know it’s highly unlikely to happen – party hierarchies wouldn’t stand for it. But it’s a thought.

Another format – one we use for Be the change – Cambridge, is collective problem-solving. Rather than having a traditional ‘audience vs the panel’ set up, scatter the politicians into groups who have self-divided into groups according to the issue they would like to discuss. These gatherings are very difficult to organise – as I’ve found out. But local community groups & organisations – esp those with their own venues are in an ideal place to host such gatherings. Transition Cambridge demonstrated how to do this recently – see my videos here.

My role in the 2015 campaigns in Cambridge?

I’m not planning on standing this time around – although it remains an option if things stay quiet in South Cambridge! As far as my aim of increasing participation in local democracy is concerned, I’m probably better suited to filming & reporting from gatherings, meetings and events than participating directly. My experience from the Queen Edith’s hustings (see the videos here) and the number of plays the videos got shows that there is likely to be demand for such content in the run up to the elections.

As I’ve said to the three parties represented on Cambridge City Council, I’m happy to film ‘point and record’ pieces to the camera and upload or hand over the footage I capture free of charge. The reason being I want to use digital video to help dispel some of the negative myths around local democracy. Part of that means getting footage of local candidates introducing themselves in their own words. This is what I did in the November videos below:

My aim with these is to get people to the stage where they can relate to the candidates that are on camera and think: “Yes, I could have a reasonable conversation with them” and overcome the ‘All politicians are the same’ mindset. As far as digital video with local candidates go, that’s pretty much my limit – leaving it to the public to then ask any follow-up or policy-specific questions. I had my say by standing in the May elections – in which I learnt lots. Now it’s time for others not just to have their say, but to join in some wider conversations. Through community reporting & digital video I hope that more will be able to take part.

Posted in Cambridge, Campaigning, protesting and demonstrating, Party politics, Social media | Leave a comment

Community reporting in 2015 – could you give it a go?


…including new apps, new tools, and encouraging more people to try it out themselves

2014 was an eventful year for me as far as learning new things and doing things for the first time was concerned.

  • Standing for election
  • Singing on stage in a public performance
  • Submitting my first media reports
  • Carrying out my first media interviews
  • Taking part in my first studio interview
  • Creating my first digital videos and podcasts

For 2015, I’m thinking: “Can you do the above again, but better?”

Vimeo stats 22dec2014 copy

The above-stats are for video plays on my vimeo account – I also have a Youtube account here, where I’ll be putting some of the longer digital videos & final versions up at in future. Essentially my video stats are rising compared with blogpost reads, which are falling. Interestingly, despite continually rising Twitter follower numbers (hovering around 6,500), interaction has fallen. I have far fewer conversations on it these days. Hence it’s much harder to get a feel for what other people get out of the content I post.

Out, about and visible to the public

It’s been fun and eventful. It’s got me out of the house & doing something positive. I’ve also become more comfortable with a new way of learning – one that involves not getting things right first time every time. I look back at some of my early digital videos & cringe at some basic errors – whether it’s holding a smartphone portrait rather than landscape style, to really poor audio.

I took the above footage during Puffles’ election campaign – I’d just finished a stall outside The Guildhall and recorded Jack Man Friday – now Mr Shepherd. Basic error here is holding the camera portrait style. Fortunately I’m now at the stage where filming out and about feels ‘normal’, making fewer simple errors and having basic safeguards such as asking for consent to film as habitual.

Filming Dr Rupert Read of Cambridge Green Party just before Christmas 2014

Filming Dr Rupert Read of Cambridge Green Party just before Christmas 2014

“How can we get other people into community reporting like this?”

Because I can’t cover the city alone! Also, far better to have a number of people covering things and bringing their different perspectives.

For people in Cambridgeshire, the offer of support & training is with Shape Your Place. Also, this website iphonereporting came recommended by Cambridge 105.

In spring 2014, Cambridge Regional College produced a BBC Question-Time-style programme where students cross-examined a panel of Cambridgeshire County Council councillors – see here for the 1 hour episode. For me, the next step is to make this programme an annual event (if not more frequent), and so something around building community reporting into either extra-curricular programs or the curricula of media studies and politics courses for post-16 students.

The ‘soft’ learning in what can be a solitary activity

Being a lone ranger means having to cover everything yourself. You’re not this outside broadcast machine that BBC Question Time is, where you have multiple people on cameras and microphones alone. Far more thought goes into creating solid digital content than the detractors of media studies might care to acknowledge. At the same time, operating some of the kit requires an incredibly sensitive touch – something that takes a huge amount of time to perfect. Think of operating your piece of kit to that of playing a musical instrument. It’s a little bit like that. You can’t give someone a text book & expect them to take to it. It takes time to get used to the piece of equipment and become ‘as one’ with it.

For me, some of the soft learning has included:

  • Getting used to the zoom controls on a camcorder
  • Getting used to the controls on a tripod
  • Becoming sensitive to the natural light and sounds around me – in particular prior to and during filming
  • Becoming aware of what might make good pieces of digital video – and setting up quickly my kit to record.

Making it easy to record with smartphones

For videos, I often carry a small smartphone clip and a mini tripod with me just in case I happen to be somewhere where there’s something that’s worth filming. The advantage of these two attachments is you can have the phone standing on something solid, avoiding the dreaded camera-shake! The clip also works for normal tripods too – which I used when filming for the Cambridge Buskers Festival.

Most recently-made smartphones do a reasonable job recording face-to-face spoken-word video and audio. My own footage has been used by local radio this year. Audio for music is much harder – especially trying to get a decent bassline and/or if the music and vocals are not amplified.

Creating that safe space for people to learn together

This is what I want to explore in 2015 – perhaps in the form of a few evening workshops in a community venue somewhere. In two sessions you could take people through the basics, put in people’s diaries who would be filming what events, and have a second session reviewing what people had filmed. Ideally I’d like to get something like this done before the election campaigns really kick off – that way there might be a few more people around to cover what happens.

Posted in Campaigning, protesting and demonstrating, Education, training and exams, Social media | 2 Comments

Turning up the volume for Cambridge’s community of singer/songwriters


What would some of their songs sound like if they had a big band behind them?

I was having a chilled-out chat with Andrea, Jules and George of the Dowsing Sound Collective on a late winter’s Sunday evening in town recently. Amongst the varied topics of conversation were some of the things I touched upon in my last blogpost about concert venues in Cambridge – with the three of them having a far greater knowledge of the challenges our city faces than perhaps I ever will. After all, I’m either just the bloke behind the camera or one of a big chorus. They organise events.

Learning from filming for the Cambridge Buskers Festival 2014

Of all the videos that I made in 2014, this one was the one I had the most fun with and got the most satisfaction from.

The above is the result of what was my first paid commission – which followed shortly after completing Rex Elston’s introduction to digital video evening class in Cambridge. (Linked because he’s running it again in January 2015).

Having learnt lots more about digital video in the four or so months that have passed, I started talking with some of the organisers of the festival – which is back on 12-14 June 2015. (You heard it here first, kids!) The big learning point for me is on how to improve the audio – especially when filming outdoors. Have a listen to some of the performers in the 2014 Cambridge Buskers Festival Album here – in particular Rachel Clark who had to deal with a fair breeze throughout her set. A properly-produced version of Rachel’s above-linked track is here.

Going beyond one person and one instrument

In a sense I’m trying to work out how to encourage the many singer/songwriters to go beyond their normal solo performances – splendid as they are. Some – such as incredibly soothing Melody Causton here, and stupendously talented Grace Sarah here have already demonstrated they can go beyond writing for a single instrument. I’ve not, however, seen them perform live with wider musical/instrumental backing. What would that look like and sound like? What are the things stopping something like this from happening – other than cost? Could we create an event where local singer/songwriters arranged a couple of their favourite tracks for other vocal and instrumental parts for a bigger band to support them?

What sort of track might be suitable for such a big band?

Here’s 15 year old Ellie Dixon at The Junction in autumn 2014

Ellie’s talent, creativity and imagination with music is out of this world – this cover version of ‘I need a dollar’ being one such example. “Going Places” is one track that I think would fit very nicely with a big band and backing vocals behind her.

Essentially, I’d like to see The Junction host such an event. While I can think of a few bands that might be interested, for something like this you’d need a sort of ‘musical director’ who could select suitable backing musicians who could provide both the support and constructive feedback for the main performers. The backing musicians would also need a wide enough repertoire to cover the variety of musicians taking part. For example Dave Holmes here focuses mainly on bossa nova. As the Dowsing Sound Collective demonstrate, it works to have that variety in a line-up, but one that has not just been randomly thrown together. In Dave’s case, what would the track he plays on the video clip sound like if they were commissioned to take that number and ‘give it some attitude’?

And the audio?

In a nutshell, the external mic I got for my camcorder doesn’t cut the mustard. Useful for 1-2-1 interviews but little else. This means getting into some very complicated territory around digital audio – something that I never anticipated would be an issue when I first started out earlier this year. The first time I really noticed this as an issue was with this recording of ‘Car Wash’ performed by Makossa just outside Cambridge. You can hear the bass but you can’t feel it – if that makes sense. A shame because in the room it was thumping.

A problem I have though is I pride myself on being ***mobile***. Ie I can get set up and filming in under 60 seconds, and am able to produce footage that goes beyond what current smartphones can. How do you improve your audio without ending up with a van full of expensive equipment? It’s why I’ve started looking at small pieces of kit like this mini sound desk. But that inevitably means more wires & mics. One of the things I need to learn about local venues is who uses which sound desks, and which ones when in use enable the audio to be recorded separately. That way the audio quality will be a significant step up from what I’m currently able to produce.





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Cambridge – we need to talk about community & concert venues


Some thoughts following a year of going to lots of venues in and around Cambridge

Being a self-styled ‘community cameraman’ means I get to go out and about filming in lots of community venues. This year I’ve been to places in my home town that I had never been to before – such as the Corpus Playroom. These have often been venues that I have heard of but never got round to going to. This week it was the CB2 Basement – which is exactly as described. You can get about 30 people inside theatre style. Suitable for short performances and sketch shows, or for singer-songwriters starting out. Here’s a sketch from Paul & Izzy’s funky panto on 18 December 2014

“Is there lots of bad news for Cambridge on this front?”

On the venue front, yes – but…

“But what?”

But…the problem isn’t one that can be solved by the venue owners or operators themselves. It’s something that goes far beyond a level that institutions currently consider. It also requires a level of co-ordination & co-operation at undreamt of levels.

“OK – list the problems”

  • Transport accessibility to venues
  • Knowledge of existence of venues & their availability
  • Affordability of venues to people & groups that want to use them
  • An anecdotal but as yet unquantified excess demand over supply

…to name but a few.


Let’s take two very separate case studies: Cambridge United Football Club and the West Road Concert Hall.

Cambridge United

Car traffic on match day is always huge, making it difficult to run a decent Citi-3 bus service because Newmarket Road gets clogged up very quickly. Just as we did during my season-ticket-holding days, the roads of the local industrial estate and residential roads become places where fans try to find any space reasonably close to the stadium to park. During the 1991-92 season, there were games I attended where Cambridge would get double the attendances they get today – in the days when United had Dion Dublin & Steve Claridge up front. Had United got promoted that season, they’d have been in the Premier League for 1992-93. As it was, they lost to Leicester City, who subsequently lost to Blackburn Rovers & the rest is history. My point is that even with a high-flying team, Cambridge United will struggle to get more than 7,000 into the stadium for a match simply because the local transport infrastructure is not up to scratch. Why the local councils have not been able to agree transport improvements or an alternative venue is beyond me.

West Road Concert Hall

With Cambridge University’s main concert hall, as a child we used to go to the classical music concerts here. I remember them being excruciatingly ‘Keeping up appearances’-style events – ones where I felt embarrassed to be there. They didn’t have popcorn during the intervals – they had apples instead! Big shiny red ones! These were the days when my understanding of ‘cool’ was all things Stevenage – where they had a multilplex cinema, a bowling alley, an ice rink and most importantly, a McDonalds. Cambridgeshire remained stubbornly free of the last until 1992/93!

Just as it was then, it’s notoriously difficult to find a parking space nearby. The only bus route that serves the hall is the Uni4 bus service – aimed at students rather than residents. For those students living/studying close by, rocking up to a concert is relatively easy. If you are a resident in Cambridge suburbs, going to a concert requires military precision planning. Again, it doesn’t matter how wonderful the musicians or composers are, you’ll struggle to get people from outside classical music circles going along.

Where are our venues?

I discussed this here – part of the problem is we don’t have all of the information we need in an easy-to-access-and-analyse format. There are many hidden venues in Cambridge’s community silos – such as Save our Space through to under-used school and church halls. My existing challenge to the city is: How can we make the process of searching for suitable venues much less frustrating and time-consuming?

‘We can’t find suitable venues – they are all booked up/they are too expensive!’

I’ve heard these points made too many times for us not to do something about it. What we don’t have is hard data on the number of enquiries made that do not lead to confirmed bookings – and the reasons why. From anecdotes from people across the city I believe there is huge untapped demand for community venues. See the second half of the video below.

But without a more solid evidence base it’s difficult to make the case for greater investment in new or expanded existing ones.


The above was my view from the stage of the Cambridge Corn Exchange – before people filled it for the Dowsing Sound Collective Christmas Cocktail that sold out. What you’re looking at in this picture is 1,000 soon-to-be-filled seats. This was the first time I had seen the Corn Exchange from the stage. My first impression was that it was smaller than I had anticipated. The transport infrastructure around the trio of Cambridge venues – The Guildhall halls, the Cambridge Arts Theatre and the Corn Exchange isn’t great for pedestrians. The reason being they are strangled by the car routes into and out of the main city centre car park. (Will we get a metro?)

Even students are finding it hard to find venues – their colleges putting corporate interests first

This was one of the complaints by the recently-founded Whose University? campaign. With continued funding pressures, and with the international brand Cambridge has, you can see why conferencing is big business. But how do you balance the demands of conferencing with the needs of students?

If we want to find out what sort of venues Cambridge needs, and then go about building them, where do we start?

My first reaction to looking at the Corn Exchange was that Cambridge needed a venue with double the capacity. The Corn Exchange itself needs a big refurb backstage too – as do many of the other venues I have been to. If anything, the architecture backstage in the older venues feels a bit ‘Downton Abbey’ – splendid at the front where the customers are, but a maze of warrens at the back. Not good if you’ve got over 100 singers or large props on stage! Hopefully with the new Cambridge Live Trust they’ll be able to get some investment into the building.

‘Get me the data, get me the proposals from the community groups’

This for me is where we’re at now. Hopefully the coming together of the Cambridge arts’ communities can be the catalyst that drives the change. Gathering the evidence base is an essential part of that process.

Posted in Business economics and finance, Cambridge, Charities and Big Society, Events I have been to, Housing and transport, Music, Public administration & policy, Sport | 1 Comment

The Dowsing Sound Collective’s Christmas Cocktail – a cracker!


A view from the stage

Click here for the official video of the gig.

This time last year Puffles got an invitation to see the Dowsing Sound Collective at the Cambridge Corn Exchange.

Jenny, it’s all your fault!

So…where dragon gets an invitation, dragon tends to go!

…and then we were hit by this wave of musical energy

Spotting the wonderfully talented Jennie Debenham in the collective, my first reaction after that track was:

“Yep – I wanna be where they are!”

My thoughts following last year’s concert – and on the launch of the Dosoco Foundation are in this blogpost. That launch as it turned out was the start of something that is already changing lives across Cambridgeshire.

Fast forward a few days short of a year, and that’s where I found myself – with my camcorder recording the concert from the other side of the hall. It was just before the interval where Andrea Cockerton, our musical wizard who unleashed the power within us all on stage, made a series of announcements on £4,000 of grants. Have a watch.

Of the charities mentioned, The Romsey Mill in my neighbourhood does amazing work with teenage parents. I am featuring them in my film for the Mill Road Winter Fair 2014 – a first draft of which is here. The other, Centre33 (based in Cambridge & Ely in Cambs) may be familiar to many longer-term readers. Over a decade ago they provided me with much-needed and empathetic free counselling,  something I had really struggled with at university. It was here that I had one of the very few counsellors that I connected with and who was able to analyse the ‘noise’ in my head & distill issues down to a handful of ‘hinge’ moments in my personal history. Hence in 2004 I did a TV interview as a service user for BBC’s Look East, followed by a radio interview in the same role for BBC Cambridgeshire. In 2013, Centre 33 was adopted as on of two official charities for Mayor Paul Saunders’ term of office. Here’s the story behind his choice. So to hear that Centre33 are benefiting at a time of continued grant funding cuts from elsewhere is great to hear.

A very tough run up

As far as my health was concerned, it was an awful run-in to a massive performance. Sleeping patterns all over the place (which inevitably plays havoc with my mental health), and strikingly persistent head cold that I’ve still not shaken didn’t do me any favours. It screws up your concentration, and voice-wise means you cannot get any volume. I wasn’t the only one taken out by the cold bug – we lost a number of very talented people to it on the evening of the performance. Despite our numbers, it makes a difference. Well, to me it does. Many of the people that sing with us are in their 30s-60s. Thus their presence – especially the altos – tends to have a calming effect on me.

Finding musical anchors in a sea of talented musicians.

I mentioned this to Angela Jameson-Potts earlier this year at my first concert hall performance with the Dowsing Sound Collective. In the video below, she’s on my right-hand-side.

In that performance, she was my musical anchor – as well as being that little bit older and wiser than me. I hadn’t really appreciated how used to having the second altos behind me in rehearsals until the full dress rehearsal and the performance. With so many of us singers in the collective, Andrea’s able to run wild with the number of different vocal parts she can write into pieces – the result being some incredibly powerful crescendos of chords. With vocalists rehearsing on two separate days, the traditional ‘soprano-alto-tenor-bass’ parts can be broken into upper and lower parts for each, with one for each day. 4 x 2 x 2 means Andrea can write up to 16 different parts if she wants to. And that’s before she’s even looked at the drums, bass, rhythm & lead guitars, string quartet, brass/sax trio and any other instruments she can throw in. Last night we had bagpipes, eigenharp (see here for a demo) and a steel pan player!

It was at this performance that I got a sense of which musical parts I need & where. For example I’m more comfortable when us tenors are clustered rather than spread out. I also prefer not being in the front row – it somehow feels less exposed that way.

The energy of an audience – crowd dynamics at play?

Being in an enclosed space with over 1,000 people in the same hall applauding you is something that would move even the most stone-hearted of people. At the final pre-show run-through, a combination of sheer exhaustion along with internal angst over various pieces of news coming together at the same time was something I found incredibly challenging to deal with. Not least because you don’t want to let anyone down or cause problems over issues that in the grand scheme of things are either personal or minor. You want to keep that focus. In part, that’s where any professional training in any field in the workplace comes in. You grit your teeth & get on and do it because you’re a professional. OK, it wasn’t quite true. It was more a case of having to go through these moments to experience the emotional highs on the other side.

Because of the above, when we marched onto the stage, my mindset was on getting through it as fast as possible. Fortunately the audience had other ideas. The applause here was noticeably different to what we had both for the summer performance on Parker’s Piece for the Cambridge leg of the Tour de France, (which was open-air), and at The Apex in Bury St Edmunds (which was a smaller venue, smaller crowd & a modern hall with a much sharper acoustic). Hence my mood for the second half was more this:

About two decades ago, Oasis played that very track on that very stage in that same venue.

The audience didn’t dance last year, but they conga’d down the aisles this year!

By the time we got to our final track, I was roasting underneath the stage lights despite the very cold temperatures outside. Hence ditching the dinner jacket for that famous Scottish anthem ‘500 miles’. Spontaneously, most of the other men did the same at the same time – as they did the previous year but to a different number. That I didn’t see coming – but having spotted Becky Chambers of one of Dowsing’s new London collectives leading it, we were even more smiles. Straight after, a group of teenage girls raced towards the stage, gesturing and waving with huge grins on the faces. At one point it looked like the were going to invade the stage – until one of them eyeballed me asking me to get the attention of one of my fellow singers (Tom) next to me. Turns out it was his daughter & her friends.

Post-gig parties – they are always fun, aren’t they?

I ended up at two, some even more. The first was at St Catherine College’s incredibly trendy-London-style bar and function room – which was buzzing. My friends Penny & Chris had come up from London for the gig. The Dowsing crowd took them under their wings. We then ended up at The Fountain Inn – where Fay Roberts runs the Hammer & Tongue poetry slam events. (Here’s a clip). The taxi driver on the way back told us they had a licence to stay open till 3am. On a Sunday night/Monday morning. It was surprisingly busy even at 2am when we called it a night.

“What was it like being on stage?”


Actually, I take that back. It was inspiring.

We had an audience that ***wanted us to do well***. When there are over 100 of you on stage, you inevitably have a room teeming with family & friends. As soon as we got on stage the number of people waving at us from the audience was incredible. That was when I got the first sense that the audience would be far more energised than the previous year. Makes a change from some of the policy audiences I’ve spoken at where there are people in the room that want you to screw up big time because they don’t like the government’s policy of the day that as a civil servant you’re presenting & defending.

It wasn’t ‘mindless noisy applause’ either. The mood of the applause matched the tone of the songs we performed. So for the more mellow-but-moving tracks, the applause matched the mood of the song. The songs that ended on really intense and extended crescendos got applauses that matched that intensity. It was this response that got me through that evening.

“Good night had by all?”

Yep – and the footage I filmed came out better than I had expected. Obviously the audio was always going to struggle, but I’ve got it at a level where I can replace it with the recorded version on the professional sound equipment used by the venue. Before the gig I set up my camcorder and ran a series of test-recordings during the sound checking to zoom in enough to get visual expressions of individuals while trying to get as many faces into the shot. Just before the performance started, I pressed record & left the camcorder to do its magic. Over Christmas I’ll be working on the footage – and lots of other digital video things.

***Thank you & well done*** to everyone involved in what was a wonderful experience.

For more info on the Dowsing Sound Collective – including spaces at the new London collectives, and on the Dosoco Foundation, please see


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