Tabled question to the Greater Cambridge City Deal Board, for 03 November 2015


I’ve just tabled this for the meeting on 03 Nov 2015 at 2pm, Cambridge Guildhall

If you want to table your own question to the meeting click and send an email to Graham Watts at the email link. You need to submit it a week before the meeting. One contribution per person, 3 minutes speaking time max, no opportunity for a ‘conversation’.

Please can I table the following:

“South Cambridgeshire MP Heidi Allen tweeted to Puffles that she is concerned about the pace & direction of the City Deal.

I would like to voice my concern that the city deal assembly is not functioning nearly as well as it could do, and may not be value for money for the people that attend the meetings. Given the hourly rate equivalent of those that attend, are they, and are we getting their full benefit in a traditional meeting where only one person speaks at a time? Could Mr Hughes instead of giving presentations at meetings upload them to Youtube for attendees & the public to watch them (or have somewhere to watch them prior to the meeting at local council/community buildings) so that we can go into substantive debate straight away?

Since its inception, there have been no substantial open, safe spaces facilitated by the city deal structures for people to work collaboratively to develop and improve ideas for our city-region’s future. The publicity and engagement has been weak. I have tried and encouraged you to engage systematically with large educational organisations and employers in & around the city, taking advantage of existing state-funded programmes such as the NCS, and we’ve had nothing.

Despite my continued urging and prompting, you’ve not got in touch with organisations such as the Haverhill Rail Group. Despite your promises at the start of the year on communications, I have had nothing from your organisation on how best to use social and digital media.

What’s going to change and when?

Kind regards


We’ll find out their response on Tues 03 November. Come along to the Cambridge Guildhall to see what they say. It would be great if you could table your own questions too.

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Greens’ deputy leader Amelia Womack visits Cambridge as Women’s Equality Party hosts policy launch


On a day of politicians opening political fire, it’s the women that hit the targets

One of my favourite politicians, Amelia Womack of The Green Party came to visit Cambridge to deliver a talk on the party and its relationship with the trade union movement.

Puffles with Amelia Womack at Emmanuel College, Cambridge.

Puffles with Amelia Womack at Emmanuel College, Cambridge.

Following her talk, we had an extensive conversation on life inside a post-general-election Green Party.

For those of you not aware, my interview style isn’t one of hostile cross-examination. If I want to find out a party’s line to take, I’ll go to their website. It’s for qualified journalists to do the party political journalism. I see my role as introducing politicians as human beings to the general public, inviting them to get to a place where they feel they can have their own conversations with the interviewees concerned, and where they can send their own questions directly. In the case of Ms Womack she’s on Facebook at and on Twitter at @Amelia_Womack.

“What makes Amelia Womack interesting as a politician?”

With the decline in command-and-control media operations due to social media, we’re seeing the rise in the number and profiles of what I see as personable, passionate and principled politicians – in particular women – from across the political matrix. Ms Womack is one of them. She’s at the forefront of a group of young greens who, from my perspective are in tune with the mood of both their generation and our times.

I listened into the Young Green’s hustings for their committee positions the previous evening. Once they had gotten over the early technical problems, hearing a series of young people inside the party – in particular young women talking knowledgeably and passionately on a variety of issues and experiences was inspiring to hear. Furthermore, it was also very interesting to hear how young men are supporting women in their movement – breaking some of the negative stereotypes we often hear about male politicians.

Learning about a non-binary world

I was at my first CBT session before Ms Womack’s talk. One of the things I talked about was growing up in Cambridge, and how the impact of school & church in particular had left me as an 18 year old with a very very closed view of the world. A world of two genders, one sexuality, one type of marriage (that ideally involved your first romantic partner from school) and a definition of success in life defined by someone else. Since first moving out of Cambridge just before the Millennium – to Brighton, I started learning about the world. Through social media I’ve not just learnt about how much more diverse our world is, but that I’m comfortable with people who have self-defined in a way that doesn’t fit with what I can only describe as a ‘traditional’ view of the world. Remember in my early teens I became used to newspaper articles reporting the naming, shaming and discharging of personnel in the armed forces who were found not to be heterosexual. 20 years ago.

My point about the above-paragraph is that society has changed incredibly, and the teenagers and those in their early 20s, no longer having the shackles that crushed many in my generation are able to blossom. Or are they? When I look at the rising costs of housing, of education, of living – combined with fewer decent job opportunities that allow people to make their way in the world, I begin to wonder why we seem to have gone backwards on the provision of universal public services amongst other things.

A new generation of activists emerging – one acting according to different norms?

By ‘a new generation’ I’m not defining this by age. This became clear at the final event I was at – the policy launch of the Cambridge branch of the Women’s Equality Party (WEP). The national party’s announcement is here. I had been waiting for some time since their summer gathering in Cambridge (where over 50 women plus me turned up) to find out what their next steps would be. Even more people turned up to this October event in Cambridge.

Taking Cambridge as a microcosm of their branches, these definitely were not the ‘usual suspects’ you’d normally see at council or political meetings. Talking to one of the local journalists there, she said the same. Looking at the people involved, there are a number of incredibly high-calibre people from a variety of professions, experiences & backgrounds who have become involved in the WEP locally. They also have a critical mass of members too. Don’t think they don’t have a wealth of support and resources they can call upon. They have a huge amount of potential. But they face huge challenges too. For me, these include:

  • A hostile mainstream media who, whether by accident, ignorance or deliberate action undermine what the WEP is trying to achieve – in particular re-enforcing negative myths
  • Inevitable policy disagreements that come with publishing a policy platform (for example policies on sex workers and on stay-at-home-mums being just two criticisms I have seen)
  • Resistance from other political parties (as institutions) when and where the WEP stand candidates for election

The final point for me will be the acid test. I found out the hard way in 2014 that the only way you find out how passionate and principled you are about something is when those passions and principles are put under extreme pressure. In my case it was standing for election, facing hostile questions from other political parties and dealing with public cross-examination at hustings. It’ll also be an acid test for established political parties and politicians too. How will the vast ranks of mainly male councillors on Cambridgeshire County Council in the wards outside Cambridge respond? Emily Ashton was spot on here:

When faced with a critical mass of women political opponents – whether tabling questions at council meetings or standing for election, how will the other parties from across the spectrum respond? The challenge for the Cambridge branch of the WEP is to apply /convert their new national policies at a local level. How will these manifest themselves? Will new local policies be adopted by other political parties? As far as local council meetings go, I’d much rather other people asked questions of councillors and brought campaigns there. Strange as it may sound, I get tired of hearing my own voices on my pet issues of encouraging young people into democracy and encouraging people to use social media better. Not least because I’ve been put in my very own dragon-fairy-shaped box.

Tax credits furore erupts in Parliament

I was watching the debate both on TV and online around the time South Cambridgeshire MP Heidi Allen unleashed a political broadside on the implementation of the tax credits policy. For those who don’t know, my part of Cambridge borders both South Cambridgeshire and South East Cambridgeshire constituencies – South Cambs being very much in my neighbourhood.

Puffles with Heidi Allen before she was famous - at Homerton College by-election hustings in 2014 where she observed as a newly-selected PPC for the Conservatives.

Puffles with Heidi Allen before she was famous – at Homerton College by-election hustings in 2014 where she observed as a newly-selected PPC for the Conservatives.

The mainstream media had a field day and Twitter went into meltdown over her comments – perhaps reading a little too much into them without having read her speech in full. Have a listen to her with Iain Dale on LBC.

Her concern is about the sequencing of the cuts to tax credits – not the principle itself, which she sees as a subsidy for employers to pay low wages. Certainly for large firms such as supermarkets, I struggle to see why the taxpayer should subsidise their low wages. But as Ms Allen says, you can’t reduce the tax credits before people’s pay has gone up to compensate for it. In our part of the country, housing costs amongst other things are astronomical.

This is where both Mhairi Black MP of the SNP and Stella Creasy MP of Labour were on top form with superb contributions. Ms Black in particular shot clean out of the water some weak interventions from backbench Conservative MPs. Labour’s new digital lead, Lou Haigh MP gave a short, powerful contribution. It was made even more stronger by a combination of both understated tones combined with a devastatingly deadly ‘death stare’ towards the Treasury benches (where the ministers sit) as she reminded them it was the banks that crashed the global economy.

“Did any male MPs stand out with particularly powerful speeches?”

None stand out from the ones I saw in terms of combining content, tone and delivery.

“Has the Government started too many battles in too short a space of time?”

Given the depth, breath and scale of concerns with tax credits, I can only assume there will be a climbdown by Treasury ministers. The question for them is on whose terms. It can either be on their own terms, persuaded by their own backbench MPs who are seeing some of the flaws in the policy, or they will be forced into doing so as the impact hits home. I had a short but interesting conversation with Asa Bennett of The Telegraph (who I also know socially outside of politics) on this.

Cuts to welfare are popular with the public when they hit other people who are seen to be ‘undeserving’. But with these cuts to tax credits hitting so many people, how many will change their minds when they find themselves out of pocket? Given how few people follow politics closely, how many people were aware that regulations laid before Parliament on 07 Sept were approved on 15 Sept? (See the transcript here). Most people were still getting back to school/work, while the political journalists were preparing for a very intense party conference season or waiting on the Labour leadership result. (That autumn fortnight just after a general election and just before conference season is an ideal time to bury a whole host of policy naughtiness – irrespective of party).

But in terms of battles, we saw the scale of the junior doctors contract – and if there’s one profession you really don’t want to incur the wrath of, it’s them. Especially if your incumbent cabinet minister is one as unpopular as Jeremy Hunt is given all things Leveson – over which I think he should have resigned as a minister. The Home Secretary is in a battle with The Police over cuts, IDS at DWP, continued opposition to academies at DfE, and in the midst of it all a renegotiation of the UK’s relationship with the EU.

“Isn’t this all a bit ‘Shock Doctrine’?”

A reference to Naomi Klein’s book but in a domestic context where all of these policies disorientate political opponents (at a time when Labour & Liberal Democrats are still reeling from general election losses). With the Chancellor’s autumn statement due soon, that other provider of essential public services – local government – finds out what sort of a hit it will take. A number of people have cautioned The Chancellor on over-reaching himself in the field of tax credits.

Does Mr Osborne risk undermining a future shot at the premiership in the same way Gordon Brown’s failure to properly regulate the banks holed Labour below the water line? Given the widely-reported network of supporters Mr Osborne is posting in key ministerial posts, it’d be ironic if the same structural weaknesses that undermined Mr Brown (ie having no one who could stand up to him) undermined Mr Osborne too, given the political animosity between the two.

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Was a new piece of parliamentary history made today?


On the live online fact-checking of statements made by select committee witnesses by Twitter-savvy parliamentary select committees

It turns out the Education Select Committee got there first (wingtip Laura McInerney) but today’s hearing at the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee was the most high-profile one I’ve heard to date.

I spent much of the morning listening to the evidence given by former Kids Company chairman & chief executives to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee. It was a good three hour grilling, the likes that show Parliament at its best. The details of the hearing are here. Further to this case is this ministerial direction sought by the then Permanent Secretary at Cabinet Office, Richard Heaton. Mr Heaton is one of the most highly regarded civil servants I’ve worked with, and he wouldn’t have sought such a ministerial direction lightly, as I stated in this earlier blogpost.

Twitter catches fire

It’s very rare that a select committee hearing will result in Twitter coverage that during the day has it trending as the top subject across the country – demonstrating at least within political and journalistic bubbles how serious the issues are. The first noticeable issue that made Twitter users go ***Eeek!*** was former chief executive Camila Batmanghelidjh’s disclosure that she had no professional qualifications nor membership of any professional bodies. (From 09h50m).

What qualifies a director or an executive to do their job?

That’s not to say she doesn’t have work experience or hasn’t had a positive impact on the lives of the people that used Kids Company’s services. The purpose of the hearing, as set out by the committee was as follows:

The session will examine the governance, financial management and reporting procedures at Kids Company, as well as the charity’s relationship with central government

On governance, I’d expect any select committee to be asking what qualifies a chief executive to be carrying out the job they do. Recall the Treasury Select Committee found with Northern Rock, RBS and HBOS that none of their chief executives were qualified bankers. In their final report, I expect Bernard Jenkin, the Select Committee Chair to make a recommendation on this.

The theme of exchanges: Questions about systems and processes given responses about individual (and heart-breaking) cases

The summary of the hearing is here in The Guardian. I got the sense of witnesses being evasive through persistent interruptions, rejecting premise of straight-forward questions, and responding to questions about systems and processes by talking about individual cases – the last of which MPs are inevitably cautious about lest any vulnerable member of the public is identified. MPs were incredibly patient, Mr Jenkin only raising his voice to stop Ms Batmanghelidjh’s persistent interrupting.

Bringing into the scope a number of statutory organisations & functions

Another consistent theme – in particular from former chairman Alan Yentob (a senior figure in the BBC) spoke of the responsibilities of other organisations – such as local council social services, along with auditors and inspectors. Just as with the banking crisis and with recent faith schools inspections, there are questions that need answering on the inspection regimes. At the same time, central government needs to take some responsibility for the lack of funding for social services as a result of cuts to central government grants.

On inspection, Mr Jenkin stated:

“I know of no other institution that works with children that is not regularly inspected”

What struck me in that part of the exchange was how neither of the witnesses seemed to be clear as to which inspection regimes they were subject to and on what frequency. Ms Batmanghelidjh tried to state research done by universities working with them, and Mr Yentob tried to bring in the example of the Centre for Social Justice. As Mr Jenkin (who otherwise likes the CSJ) stated they are ***not*** a statutory inspectorates. The CSJ is a think tank. This for me was one of the most alarming disclosures from the select committee hearing – one which I’m surprised the media hasn’t yet taken up. (10h12m).

Data protection issues

The charity’s records claimed to have 36,000 clients, but only 1,069 were handed over“. Several people picked up on this – why were so few handed over? What happened to the other records? Then a couple of people on Twitter picked this up in an article on time management:

Seven PAs keep me going around the clock. It starts at 8am, and finishes about 12am. I dictate everything while playing with toy helicopters, remote-controlled cars and plastic spoons. At night, I go home carrying a multicoloured laundry bag full of papers, filed in a manner incomprehensible to everyone – including myself. So I hold tight a little book full of lists, which I add to at 4am. My joy is to use a felt-tip and colour out completed tasks.

Safeguarding sensitive personal information? In the hearing, Ms Batmanghelidjh disclosed she still had a personal casework load – something that surprised me as I wouldn’t expect the chief executive of an organisation in receipt of so much money to be doing this on top of being an executive. Again, this leads to further questions to the trustees on oversight. How much did they know of what her duties & responsibilities were, and who was the one who could say ‘No!’ to her?

Fact-checking in real time by the committee

This was the pocket full of dynamite Newsnight journalist Christopher Cook tweeted during the hearing:

Followed by

The clerks of the committee who’ve been following Mr Cook (and Puffles) for quite some time picked up on this

…and tipped off the select committee chair Mr Jenkin – in real time.

When Mr Jenkin put the point in the tweets to the witnesses, they backed down.

Laura McInerney confirmed the Education Select Committee was the first – note it was former chair Graham Stuart MP, who used to be a councillor in Cambridge for the ward next door to me – Cherry Hinton, who pioneered Twitter with select committees.

A precedent set?

Perhaps – in this case the committee had a rock-solid source and a copy of the document. That said, I’m a little uncomfortable about the lack of potential safeguards if it allows anonymous people (or dragon fairies for that matter) to throw speculative allegations that can then be repeated under parliamentary privilege. In a nutshell, the bar needs to be incredibly high for select committee chairs to read pieces of evidence submitted over Twitter. This means there needs to be a filtering process (or even a break between evidence sessions) for clerks and MPs on the committee to assess anything that comes through via social media.

We live in interesting times.

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The case for Cambridge


On the challenges Cambridge faces – with three Cambridge MPs at Cambridge Ahead

Jon Vale’s write-up in the Cambridge News is here. Details of the event organised by Cambridge Ahead are here – including a list of speakers. They also organised professional filming too – I’ll link to it when it’s edited. The brochure handed out to everyone is here – do have a read.

The two most striking presentations for me were from Matthew Bullock of St Edmund’s College, Cambridge, and from Alex Plant, formerly of Cambridgeshire County Council, The Treasury and for about two weeks of my civil service career, my director at the old Government Office in Cambridge. I’ve known Mr Plant since 2006 and he’s one of the most highly-rated public servants I’ve worked with. The combination of his presentation on tax increment financing as a possible solution for Cambridgeshire’s problems on infrastructure were very interesting indeed – especially given his experience at The Treasury. Combined with Mr Bullock’s presentation on very long term investments (he’s a former banker) this gave me an insight into the sort of time horizons institutions such as pension funds and university colleges are looking at. Not for the likes of these are the micro-second trading run by powerful computers using complex algorithms. At least, I don’t think so!

At the same time, the worlds that Mr Plant and Mr Bullock were talking about seemed to me to be very different to the world of local council committees that I’m sometimes found at. It was one that felt very daunting, re-enforcing my sense that Cambridge is a city with the public administration infrastructure of a large market town trying to manage a global brand attracting international finance. And we’re not cut out for it.

Cambridge is growing, but not everyone is in favour of it

My thinking when I launched Be the change – Cambridge was that growth was inevitable, but that we the people that make up Cambridge can influence the nature of that growth. Here’s The Green Party’s transport spokesman Dr Rupert Read

Dr Read stood for the Green Party in Cambridge at the General Election, increasing the number of votes for the party from just under to just over 4,000. At the same time, nearly 10,000 people voted for the Green Party at the local council elections at the same time, giving Councillor Oscar Gillespie a seat on Cambridge City Council for The Greens. To what extent The Green vote will hold up with Jeremy Corbyn now leading Labour remains to be seen. However, looking at The Green Party vote in 2013 where they stood a slate of candidates at the local elections with zero campaigning, they still pulled in over 2,000 votes. That’s a solid core. At the same time, there are a number of active groups who oppose in principle the growth of Cambridge – as Dr Read’s tweet reflects.

MPs united

It was interesting to see Heidi Allen MP (South Cambridgeshire), Lucy Frazer QC MP (South East Cambridgeshire) (both Conservatives) and Daniel Zeichner MP (Labour) giving a pretty consistent message to everyone gathered in terms of their views on the challenges Cambridge faces. This was picked up in the presentations – despite the party political differences, the local councils and politicians work well with each other compared to other parts of the country.

Although Mr Zeichner is the MP for most of Cambridge (Ms Allen’s constituency covers the ward of Queen Edith’s which falls within Cambridge City Council’s boundary), there are significant challenges for Ms Allen and Ms Frazer given the predominantly rural nature of their constituencies. Both have villages in their constituencies that border Cambridge that want to maintain their rural character.

A united message from Cambridge to central government – but should that mean we don’t raise our internal disagreements?

The point that both myself and Sam Davies – a fellow community activist in South Cambridge disagreed with one of the speakers on was on keeping internal disagreements behind closed doors. This was a point made by Neil Darwin, chief executive of our Local Economic Partnership. Mr Darwin made the reasonable point that the councils in Greater Manchester put a united message to central government – even though the council leaders there have more than their fair share of disagreements. But given the dominance of the Labour Party in & around Manchester, the political dynamic is different compared to that of southern Cambridgeshire.

Keeping things behind closed doors also goes against moves by the civil service to open up policy making – see Cabinet Office’s open policy blog here. The presentation by Mr Bullock in particular demonstrated to me that Cambridgeshire’s talent needs to be brought into our local policy-making processes rather than having a limited number of politicians, council officials and ‘key stakeholders’ making decisions behind closed doors. Back in 2011/2012 I delivered a number of presentations to various audiences in Whitehall about why the closed model of policy-making was obsolete in a social media world. I stand by those conclusions. (See the slide show here).

The other issue is political legitimacy.

Who is conspicuous by their absence in the audience?

This has been a continual issue for me for years – getting more people involved in our local decision-making processes. We have a structural problem in & around Cambridge that is incredibly difficult to solve. Trying to solve them takes a huge amount of effort and patience – and in my case, spoons. My health hasn’t been great this year and it’s had a huge negative impact on what I’ve been able to achieve – in particular since the general election. Hence why I’ve been moving away from doing things to connecting people & institutions in the hope they can take the initiative and run with things.

Young people were conspicuous by their absence – despite attempts by Cambridge Ahead and others to reach out to schools & colleges

Discussing with Emma Fletcher of Smithson Hill, and Edward Leigh of Better City Deal about the challenges she faced with community engagement, the only way we found we could get schools to engage is if Greater Cambridge City Deal structures had a knowledge of the school curriculum and a ‘way in’ to have Cambridge’s future built into things like the geography curriculum, citizenship and so on. Teachers – who increasingly struggle to afford to live in Cambridge, inevitably find themselves less familiar with Cambridge as they have to commute further distances to get to work. At my former primary school, the former head teacher commuted in from St Neots every day. Last year, a house on the road the school is down went for over £1m.

A safe space for big picture problems solving

As far as I’m concerned, the Greater Cambridge City Deal Assembly isn’t working. It could be that much-needed safe space for big picture community problem-solving and ideas-scoping. Instead it feels all too much like the discussions at the Board are the same ones had at the Assembly, and it’s not clear how the discussions at the Assembly influence the Board.

This matters because the people who are on the Assembly include people who run large institutions. Their time doesn’t come cheaply. Unfortunately the space for multiple conversations is lost, as meetings involve only one person speaking at a time when we could break out into groups and have a go at practically solving particular problems. One particular issue came to light at the Cambridge Ahead event when specific infrastructure requirements were mentioned. Haverhill is specifically mentioned in The Case for Cambridge document here. Yet despite me raising the Haverhill Rail Campaign in at least three separate city deal meetings, city deal authorities have not even got in touch with the campaign to see how they could work together to deliver a much needed Cambridge-Haverhill-Sudbury-Colchester-Chelmsford rail link. (See Graham Hughes of Cambridgeshire County Council in response to my public question here) The link is one that would link up Anglia Ruskin University’s two campuses by rail. Conversations I have had with the current and past presidents of Anglia Ruskin Students Union indicate this would be popular with students – especially with sports competitions. See this very interesting paper by the Haverhill Rail Campaign.

At some stage Cambridgeshire will have to deliver – and Northstowe does not set a good example for Whitehall to look at

Here’s Cambridge entrepreneur Peter Dawe

And he’s right. Interestingly, Ms Allen’s predecessor Andrew Lansley spoke to make a very similar point about the lack of building on the site. (See Northstowe’s website here). The political creature in me noted that Mr Lansley was a cabinet minister in the last Conservative-led government with a Conservative-led district and county council for much of the past five years, so does part of the blame lie within his party? Actually, for this audience the political colours of who ran what didn’t matter – what mattered was getting the infrastructure agreed and built. To give them their due, Ms Frazer, Ms Allen and Mr Zeichner seem to be working together in a co-ordinated manner that I did not see with their predecessors in years gone by.

“What would you like to see happen now?”

I’d like to see The Assembly turned into a community-focused problem-solving forum where people and communities can develop ideas & solutions that can then be taken to The Board for deliberation & decision-making. At the moment there is too much duplication.

I’d also like to see our local MPs co-convening a gathering of local institutions that could get more people involved, to do so – perhaps under the sponsorship of one of the ministers at the Department for Communities and Local Government. In my experience as a former civil servant in that department, local organisations went out of their way to help with whatever it was I was working on. There are also enough Cambridge-dwelling civil servants that commute to London who could be brought in to help bring their expertise & networks to bear.

Finally, we need to have a conversation about how the people & institutions of Cambridgeshire communicate with each other. The city deal has a communications strategy – it’s here. I think we should go far beyond what’s in paragraph 3 listing ‘we shall use XYZ to communicate’. I’d like to see all those that do the broadcasting taking part in a problem-solving session along with community reporters, activists and anyone with an interest. Should we, for example invite the new cohort of Cambridge Regional College media students to cover what’s happening? Who are the groups on Meetup that might be interested? (Do a search for groups in Cambridge on Meetup – you’ll be surprised just how vibrant & active the groups are).

“Who’s going to pay for all of this? Because it’s not going to come from local government”

The lesson I learnt from Dr David Cleevely was to get a prospectus together to ‘sell’ to interested parties. I’d love to be part of a working group on this but the state of my health means I cannot drive or lead it. What I do know is that the desire from the wider community is there. We’ve just got to figure out how to tap into it and join up the various hard-working dots.

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How do think tanks access the media?


A wander through the messy world of partisan think tanks and campaign groups, & why Conservative-supporting ones run rings around Labour-supporting ones

Following on from the end of my last post where I listed excerpts from a communications job spec for an unnamed right wing think tank/campaign group, this blogpost looks at the structures and relationships between organisations, parties and the media.

It was at a talk in Cambridge I went to a few years ago that former adviser to Tony Blair, Geoff Mulgan said (and I paraphrase):

“In the distant past, if you wanted to influence policy you would publish a pamphlet or a book. Today you set up an institution”

On the telly news and on the radio, you’ll often hear of various grandly-titled people from important-sounding ‘institutes’ being asked for their opinions on various things. It’s got to the stage that the spoof news website The Daily Mash invented its own ‘Institute For Studies’ (headed by ‘Dr Henry Brubaker’) to provide spoof academic credentials on spoof research. (It doesn’t exist in reality of course!) There are some restrictions on who can set up an ‘institute’ – see pg 46 here.

“How do you get to be part of a grand-sounding organisation on the telly all the time?”

In a nutshell:

  1. Get a group of you together
  2. Decide on grand-sounding name
  3. Get some people to back you
  4. Share out grand-sounding job titles
  5. Hire some premises close to the organisations you want contact with regularly
  6. Get in touch with (junior) members of staff at said institutions & invite them to networking events
  7. Invite yourself to networking events
  8. Publish press releases & publications
  9. Make yourself available to the media
  10. Organise events yourself at nice places and invite people from organisations you want to influence
  11. Repeat 6-10.

“Aren’t there transparency issues? After all, who funds these organisations?”

Good question – one that have been onto for quite some time. One case came to prominence quite recently, where one organisation decided to relinquish its running of an all-party parliamentary group in order to protect the privacy of its backers.

Transparency is essential for me as far as the integrity of public policy is concerned. Enabling the public to properly scrutinise public policy contributes to its improvement. One of the reasons why I have issues with the way political parties are funded. Whether it’s sponsorship of stalls, tents & events at party conferences through to privileged access to senior party officials & politicians, wealthy organisations of whatever disposition don’t expend such sums for nothing. They want to influence policy.

“Lobbying” getting a bad name

Lobbying has been given a bad name in recent times with numerous scandals. Yet every time we send a tweet, a post or a piece of correspondence to a politician trying to bring them round to our way of thinking, we are lobbying. The environmentalists campaigning for cleaner air are lobbying when they get in touch with politicians just as a business person asking for a tax cut for their industry when sat next to a minister at a business dinner. Obviously the circumstances and perhaps the expense may differ! But what matters is transparency – especially if (for example in the case of the economy & a market) one side is looking for preferential treatment over another.

Professional lobbyists generally are members of the Association of Professional Political Consultants. Have a look through the firms and see how many former politicians, journalists & civil servants you can see. Understandable if you are a former MP or minister to go into this field because not many people experience life in high public office, often in the media spotlight. Yet the APPC and the recently passed act on lobbying did not cover all of the lobbyists. Here’s one look at how things are working. Again for me what matters is the transparency of the public policy process.

“What about these think tanks and the media?”

This is where I compare 2 academic institutions – the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol and Cambridge University’s Public Policy SRI, with The Taxpayers’ Alliance and the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Note how several of the job titles of the TPA and IEA sound quite similar to those you might expect at a corporation or a publicly funded research institute accredited with a public university with a royal charter.

You have your chief executive or director general, director of communications, director of policy, research fellows, various ‘heads of…’ and ‘…officers.’ As far as CV points go, a history of working such organisations looks impressive. If I were that way politically inclined and a holder of elected public office, I’d be snapping up someone with CV listing those organisations as one of my policy researchers.

“How does the political left fare in comparison?”


Let’s take a few examples:

The Centre for Labour and Social Studies – CLASS is an interesting one, not least because Owen Jones, author and campaigning journalist (who used to be their media adviser) and Ellie O’Hagan seem to be the only two prominent explicitly left-wing think-tank types who appear regularly in the media sparring with numerically superior political opponents. Yet when you look closer at CLASS and type their address into a search engine, you find that their office space is in the London HQ of the big trade union Unite. (When I lived in London I used to walk or catch a bus past the towers relatively frequently).

“Hang on – shouldn’t trade unions be able to support a much stronger public policy function? They donate millions to Labour, don’t they?”

But for how much longer? It may well be that successive legislation by the new Conservative Government pushes trade unions towards sponsoring or setting up public policy institutes to challenge an administration that is hostile to them.

That said, when you compare both the university public policy institutes and the left wing think tanks with their right wing counterparts, the last of the three are ruthlessly effective and efficient at getting their messages and publications out to the mainstream media. They are incredibly well-connected and understand the importance of being on positive first-name terms with the media researchers & bookers of high profile programmes. It’s not a case of sending speculative press releases out to generic email addresses, they will know who to contact in which media organisations at which time of the day in order for their comments to get maximum exposure.

“Why is academia and why are left wing organisations much weaker?”

Part of it I think is cultural. With academia, perhaps it’s because they have their own academic circles within which to discuss things in that not much gets out. Bear in mind how the mainstream media has a habit of distorting science research. You can understand why relationships between mainstream media and academia may not be brilliant. As for the left wing, this blogpost by journalist Laura McInernie is brilliant on shining a light on the distrust of the media and delegates at the Conservative Party Conference. This one by Ian Dunt also makes interesting reading.

Here we are talking about Chomsky but me and the young men know that if the pictures are printed they will simply say ‘yobs’.

As a general point, when you know that the print media’s response to your protest will be as above, why bother engaging with them? Just as when she said if all the delegates – even the non-party ones – were getting abuse from demonstrators heckling the route, why would they bother trying to listen?

“You’re not comparing protestors to think tanks are you?”

No – I’m looking at the relationships between institutions. My point being that political parties and movements that are anywhere left of this mythical utopia of ‘the political centre’ seems to get a particularly hard time in the mainstream media. It’s human nature to shy away from those people & organisations that would treat you as such.

It’s the constituted organisations that could probably make a better go of engaging with the broadcast media by adopting some of the tactics that their political opponents do. It doesn’t mean the objectives or strategies are the same – as Alistair Campbell points out:

“Do you think left-wing institutions could pull off such an approach?”

Actually, I think they could – but it won’t be easy for them.

Just as Labour found out the hard way that England is not a country full of left-wingers waiting to be rescued, neither is the mainstream media or the field of corporate lobbying full of dyed in the wool Conservatives. (Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have very different political cultures, but as I’ve not lived/worked there I’ll stick to what I’m more familiar with).

Essentially, the big trade unions need to get together and co-ordinate making regular, sustained grants to those organisations/think tanks they support in order to significantly strengthen their media presence. There are more than enough talented and passionate people in the world of public policy and corporate lobbying who would jump at the chance to work for a left-leaning or left-wing think tank to build a high media profile. Just like the rest of us though, they have bills to pay – hence why many of them end up in the field of working for private corporate interests.

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Do the scuffles between mainstream media & some protesters in Manchester reveal a deeper divide?


Some thoughts on the trust gap between parts of the media and parts of the public in a social media age

Polly Curtis of the Guardian tweeted:

This followed an incident where journalists Kate McCann and Owen Bennett were confronted by protesters.

At a human level a frightening experience if you’re not used to such situations – and I’m not. There’s a reason for Puffles’ house rules numbers 4 & 5.

I remember panicking when I went along to an anti-globalisation demo in London and got caught up in the ‘kettle’ – the legal fallout of which didn’t come to an end until over a decade later. I remember being fuming at the organisers because no one achieved anything from that demo. It also persuaded me to read up on who the participants were, opening up a world of permanent civil strife in circles left of the Labour Party. (Monopolise Resistance being an interesting read at the time on the use of ‘front’ organisations).

Accordingly, over the years I’ve stayed away from protests & demos that have been driven by such front organisations. With the rapid growth of social media use – in particular by activist groups, the old ways of ‘command and control’ became obsolete. I remember going to one meeting of trade union activists during the bitter end of my civil service days in late 2010 with middle-aged speaker after speaker saying it was the students that had taken the lead, and how wonderful it was to see them running rings around the politicians, the media and the authorities.

What grew remarkably quickly in those days were networks of trust. I was able to figure out very quickly who I could trust and who I could not in terms of who was out and about reporting from the front line – at a time when both the mainstream media and the authorities were really struggling to cope with this new medium.

Unpicking this trust issue

I’m not going to focus on the incidents themselves – people have been arrested and due process of law now must take its course. The bit that I want to look at is the trust issue between the public, journalists, institutions & politicians.

Broken feedback loops – all or nothing

The traditional response to not liking something in a newspaper is ‘Don’t read/buy it’. For a TV or radio broadcast, it’s a case of ‘There’s the ‘off’ switch’. There’s no halfway house. At the same time, there’s very little communities can do when publications publish deliberately inflammatory headlines that raise community tensions – something I became aware of in my civil service days. Frontline community development officers complained that the nature of some headlines had the effect of undermining work to bring together polarised communities. How could communities hold editors and journalists to account for their content without such systems becoming a form of censorship?

The old-skool response was a letter to the editor or a green-penned piece of correspondence to ‘Points of View’ at which Terry Wogan would read out a summary of the complaints about lewdness in a drama piece here and there. With social media, complaints and feedback can be seen by everyone else – thus making it harder to ignore.  (That doesn’t mean institutions have to take drastic action).

Journalists on Twitter becoming targets of online abuse

My experience of Twitter over the past five or so years has been one of multiple bubbles. What makes Twitter powerful is not its breadth, but the connections between different communities of interest and how they interact. Journalists generally need to be on Twitter because that’s where many news stories break. As the saying goes, Twitter is at its best within the first five minutes of a story breaking, then at its worst in the following 12 hours.

In recent months however, I’ve noticed a trend where journalists – in particular women journalists, have been on the receiving end of more and more abuse. You’ll have seen Twitter at its worst in the run up to the general election in 2015 – mistakenly labelled as the ‘social media election’ by some, but in reality was the print media’s election due to their ability to set the agenda with continuous aggressive headlines dragging the broadcast media with it.

From online to ‘in your face’ attacks

As a community reporter in & around Cambridge, with my filming I’m nervous about confrontation and putting up strong opinions from myself. Note on my Youtube channel I have turned off the comments – life’s too short to moderate the comments about remarks made by people I’ve filmed at public meetings.

So when journalists find themselves under threat, understandably it makes me a little nervous. The general public don’t (in my experience) differentiate between a qualified journalist and someone like me – a bloke and his dragon fairy armed with a camcorder. If it can happen to them it can happen to me.

Close proximity of multiple actors

What was unique about today was the close proximity of protesters, the police, journalists (lots of them) and politicians (again – lots of them). That’s not to say the Tories should not hold their conferences in a city where they have no councillors (Manchester) any more than Labour or the Lib Dems should not hold theirs in Bournemouth – where neither have councillors. Wherever you have a big gathering of politicians in power, there’s a chance there’ll be a protest. Over the years there have been so many in Trafalgar Square that it feels like the mainstream media treats them as no longer newsworthy. The only news outlets that seem to cover them are those owned by governments or regimes the UK government isn’t on the best terms with, or through independent media.

The messengers vs the controller of the message

This post raised more than a fair amount of comment

Given the history of Murdoch’s media businesses over the past nearly-half-century, and in particular post-Leveson, any appointment to the BBC that contains either a former government minister or a former Murdoch executive is going to raise interest in those critical of the mainstream media. Whether it’s the above-case, James Purnell (Ex-Labour Cabinet Minister) as director of strategy & digital, or ex-Chairman of the BBC Trust, Chris Patten (ex Conservative Party Chairman), you can see why questions are asked about those at the top of large institutions. Even more so the current Chair of the BBC Trust Rona Fairhead given this select committee hearing.

With decision-makers relatively hidden, do those frustrated about the mainstream media then take it out on those they see on their screens?

This is not to say “Why ain’t they spitting at the bosses instead?!” Rather, it’s the opposite of the big name chief executive such as Richard Branson: with no visible, accessible and accountable senior executive, the only visible ‘targets’ as far as social media is concerned is whoever is on the telly. With social media as I mentioned, the whole world can see who has said what in response. Thus the virtual whirlwind gathers speed.

It wasn’t just high profile journalists such as Michael Crick of Channel 4 targeted, it was less known ones too. Once it became known they were journalists, for a small minority it was open season. This makes me think that part of the problem is sector-wide for the media. Given the number of women journalists who have said (independently of each other) how more aggressive Twitter is becoming, combining this with some stepping over the line to face-to-face confrontations, it’s time to take stock.

Much more transparency needed – in particular on the criteria editors, directors and producers use to select which stories to lead with and how much content to include

One of the most frequent complaints about the mainstream media I see is why certain events & incidents are not reported in the mainstream media. What I’ve yet to see is anyone from the news institutions coming back with a response stating why such stories are not being covered. As a result, too many people are kept in the dark about how the media really works. Inside that vacuum, myths grow. It’s similar with the civil service – if Whitehall isn’t transparent, the public understandably leans towards believing the worst. I’ve lost count the number of times I’ve had to explain the difference between civil servants and politicians. They are not the same.

“What ideas would you like explored?”

Two big ones really.

A regular public cross-examination of editors in the print, broadcast and online press over the articles they produce and publish. 

This would be post-publication/broadcast, so wouldn’t act as a censor. What and how this would be done I’m open to ideas. An independent commission appointed by and accountable to Parliament? A parliamentary select committee? Something that allows the general public to petition whoever is the ‘scrutineer’ (I don’t like the term ‘regulator’) and one where the public can attend and/or watch online live.

A series of nationwide public conversations/gatherings where those in the media regularly seek the views of the public on how to improve content & coverage

These for me would be just as much about educating the public on how the media works as well as shining the daylight of public scrutiny to incentivise broadcast media institutions to improve their systems & processes. The other thing to remember is the cohort of journalists we have needs to reflect the society it serves. It’d be interesting to see data on members of the Press Lobby that have regular access to Parliament – see the Twitterlist here.

Much more transparency over how panellists, guests & interviewees are booked

Every time a representative from a partisan think tank is interviewed on a prime time news programme, my Twitterfeed goes into meltdown. What many people are not aware of is that those think tanks are ruthlessly efficient and effective at getting their representatives in the media. Credit where it’s due – they know how the system works and they work it to their benefit. To take an anonymised job description for a full time communications officer for one, it is as described below:

  • Build and maintain relationships with national and regional media outlets. Ensuring [we are] featured regularly on media platforms on both [our] initiatives as well as general topics is critical to the organisation’s mission.
  • Create new and manage established contacts with journalists and policymakers through building relationships.
  • Raise the visibility of the organisation by scouring relevant news stories that can be used as entry points for the [us] to be involved in the news agenda.
  • Represent [us] at events and meetings and, where appropriate, as a spokesperson.
  • Draft and disseminate press releases, quotes and comments to the media.
  • Organise events such as media briefings and party conference events.
  • Maintain and improve an effective media monitoring system in order to maximise opportunities for [our] media exposure, and to track and log appearances.
  • Manage and increase the impact of [our] Twitter, Facebook and other new-media accounts.
  • Manage the maintenance and development of the media sections of [our] website.
  • Handle and respond to out of hours media calls.
  • Other duties and projects as assigned

The above approach is systematic, proactive, personal (a focus on 1-2-1 relationships with influencers inside institutions they want to influence) and devastatingly effective. As far as the Conservative Party goes, for think tanks that back their policies it allows ministers to decline interviews but suggest someone from said think tanks to defend their policies. With an unreformed media, I can’t help but think that opponents of the Conservatives need to adopt similar strategies, otherwise they will continually be playing catchup to a well-funded and well-oiled media machine.

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Cambridge’s street communities on complex local public services


Spending an evening listening & learning with homeless & vulnerably housed people in at Wintercomfort in Cambridge

I was commissioned to do a short workshop on democracy and registering to vote for the local charity for homeless people Winter Comfort. It was one of the toughest but at the same time one of the most worthwhile workshops I have run. I stuck around for an extra hour to listen to what people had to say about their experiences of local public services.

“Where do you start with something like this?”

Neither I nor Wintercomfort had run one of these. The aim was to get homeless & vulnerably housed people engaged in democratic processes as part of getting their voices heard. The challenge for me was figuring out how to persuade people to go to the laptop with Emily from Cambridge City Council ready to register them to vote.

“This sounds familiar”

A couple of years ago, I wrote how lots of things needed to be done before organisations and campaign groups went out to encourage people to vote – see The challenge for me was to put some of this into action. What did I need to do in order to persuade people to get to the stage where they might be vaguely interested in registering to vote? The first thing I realised was that I knew absolutely nothing about the experiences of Cambridge’s street communities. So I asked them to ‘map’ their communities – in particular the people, organisations and activities they had day-to-day interactions with.

IMG_1561 IMG_1562

The above-two photographs show just how complex and diverse their day-to-day lives are. This made me realise that if someone like me was unfamiliar with this, what was it like for the rest of the general public? It was also a wake-up call for things I took for granted when one of the participants asked me:

“How do you spell comfort?”

Yep – check my privilege.

Starting like this prevented me from walking straight into the elephant trap of coming across as over-patronising – even though a couple of the men there said that this exercise was a complete waste of time. It was only when I said this was just as much for my benefit and those of my social media followers in local politics as it was theirs. It also nipped in the bud any risk of ‘sugar-coating’ all things democracy.

A sceptical and unpredictable group of participants – with good reason

With some groups I’ve run workshops for, I’ve come across people whose view is very much the less ‘state interference’ they get, the better. The participants in this workshop are in a position where the state has a large impact on their lives – but is not delivering (for whatever reason) in terms of solving their problems of homelessness and the other problems often found linked to it. Everyone I listened to that evening had been failed by public services one way or another. The experience of that – which left them without a roof over their heads – understandably is going to influence how they viewed public services.

The personalities of people who were there were incredibly diverse. You had people who were very confident speakers with very strong opinions, and you had those who quietly huddled in the corner – unbeknown to me but who were taking in absolutely everything. There were also some people who were drinking too – though this did not disrupt the event.

Differing views about the role of central and local government

Interestingly, participants saw it as the role of central government to intervene and deliver services directly when local government failed. This is what happened in the early days of Tony Blair’s government, where new agencies were set up reporting directly to Whitehall and ministers because the view then was that local councils could not deliver the public services needed. It was only about a decade later that decentralisation became a theme, picking up speed under Hazel Blears when she was Communities & Local Government Secretary.

Strong views about governance and transparency

Participants were absolutely red-hot on failures of governance and transparency both in local government and on non-state providers such as charities. They questioned whether the staff at some state-funded providers were qualified to do the jobs they were commissioned to do, and asked why the costs of procuring some goods and services cost so much – asking where the money was really going. Given the information, I could imagine a few of them giving some senior managers at both a local and national level a really good grilling!

Services not joined up at a local level

The strongest message coming back was for Cambridge City Council to have a much more regular presence at Winter Comfort – in particular housing officers. The same goes for organisations that deliver health services. The most popular idea was having a ‘super social worker’ who would be part-employed by the police, health and local council so they could ‘sort things out’ as they said. What struck me was how similar this was to an idea I blogged about several years ago, but how they had come up with the suggestion independently. It’s more compelling coming from them because they are the ones that use the services more regularly than me. From my blogging perspective, it’s a piece of applied public administration. It’s one thing saying ‘Yes nice blogpost but…’. It’s quite another having to respond to a vulnerable member of the public who is dependent on those services and who is being failed by those services.

Their ideas for Cambridge’s politicians to consider

Emily from the council and I wrote down their questions, concerns and complaints on a big sheet of paper.


One of the things that chimed with me was when people said public services should go to where homeless people are, rather than expecting homeless people to have to shuttle from office to office. In public service social media circles we often talk about going to the social media platforms that people are using, rather than creating new ones and expecting people to come to us.

I asked Wintercomfort staff to invite local MP Daniel Zeichner to spend an afternoon/evening listening to the community, and asked them to invite a panel of councillors and political party representatives to allow people to put their party political questions to those at a local council level. Interestingly, the councillor who got the most praise from participants was Cllr Gerri Bird, Mayor of Cambridge for 2014/15. When I asked why, they said it was because she listened, visited regularly and spent time with them rather than rushing off after 15 minutes. This was my experience of Cllr Bird during her mayoralty. (We have ceremonial mayors in Cambridge rather than executive mayors – the Leader of the Council – currently Cllr Lewis Herbert, is primarily responsible for policy & strategy).

Assuming all goes well, I’ll be feeding all of this back in person to Cambridge City Council’s full council meeting on 22 October. (See for details).

IMG_1560 IMG_1559


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Are Conservative ministers playing ‘party politics’ with national security over Jeremy Corbyn?


On how comments made in a party political capacity has led to repeated breaches of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 by Whitehall.

I don’t normally throw accusations around like this lightly. If it were any other political party saying such things, my response would be the same: you cannot use ‘national security’ as a party political weapon. It’s too important an issue.

Hear the Defence Secretary in his own words here.

The Prime Minister’s political Twitter account repeated that claim here, and Conservative politicians followed this through repeating the claims. The really stupid thing is that a few days later, the Prime Minister was shaking hands with said threat to national security.

It’s one thing to say: “Mr Corbyn’s policies would weaken our national security” but it is quite another to say that he is ‘a threat to national security’. Do you see the difference? So naturally, people went onto the Freedom of Information website What Do They Know? and threw one information request after another at Whitehall.

As Mark Thomas said in his talk in Cambridge yesterday, if politicians are going to say stupid & silly things, they are going to get stupid & silly responses that clog up the system. Which is what happened. Whitehall’s response was a standard communications response – the comments were made in a party political context, therefore all enquiries should be sent to Conservative Party Headquarters. The problem with this is that most members of the public neither know nor care about the constitutional difference between David Cameron as Prime Minister and David Cameron as Leader of the Conservative Party. Unfortunately for Whitehall, the Freedom of Information Act 2000 also does not make the distinction between requests for information made following statements made by ministers in a party political capacity vs a ministerial capacity. It is here that Whitehall (in this context, any Government department that has received FoI requests about Corbyn & national security comments by ministers) has potentially broken the law – specifically Section 1(1) of the Freedom of Information Act.

“In what way have they broken the law? This is a very serious allegation!”

Absolutely – one I do not make lightly.

I won an appeal against the Home Office over the release of social media guidance – and in that appeal persuaded the appeals officer to conclude that the Home Office had broken the law in how it handled my original request. Note my appeal for a review here.

“What should Cabinet Office/Number 10 have done?”

It doesn’t matter what the context of ministerial remarks/comments were, what matters is the request for information. The law requires authorities receiving the request ***must*** state whether they hold the information requested (subject to S24 – which I explain below). The copied & pasted text from Number 10 is as follows:

“Thank you for your email of 13 September about a tweet issued by Mr Cameron
in his capacity as Leader of the Conservative Party following the election of Mr
Jeremy Corbyn MP as Leader of the Labour Party.

This is a matter for the Conservative Party and you should therefore contact it
about this issue.”

By not stating whether they hold the information or not, and by not mentioning any exemptions where the duty to confirm or deny does not apply, I conclude that Number 10 is in breach of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

Therefore, for each request for information about Mr Corbyn and ministerial comments on national security, departments need to respond properly and check their files to confirm that no information as requested by people sending in requests actually exists.

“What if it does exist?”

Then civil servants have to go through the process of assessing the information to see if any of the exemptions apply – in particular Section 24 on national security.

S24 is an interesting exemption because if the release of information held would compromise national security, civil servants can use that exemption and not have to state whether specific pieces of information are held or not. (S24(2)). But as I mentioned above, Number 10 has not done this. They’ve simply pointed people to Conservative Party HQ rather than applying a Section 24 exemption. Note too that a Section 24 exemption also requires a ministerial sign off to confirm that the information concerned would, if released compromise national security. (S24(3)).

“What if no information exists?”

Then we have no evidence that Mr Corbyn is a threat to national security as the Prime Minister and the Defence Secretary state, and accordingly they are playing politics with a very serious issue. Ministers of the Crown of any political party should know better.

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Mark Thomas visits Cambridge, talking about the privatisation of public spaces


A timely issue given what’s happening in Cambridge

Given what happened to Allan Brigham in my neighbourhood recently, it’s ironic that the venue for Mark’s energised performance at The Cambridge Junction on 29 Sept took place on the same privatised bit of land. I’ve blogged about the privatisation of public spaces before – see from 2011.

Mark Thomas, comedian, writer, broadcaster has been campaigning on a whole host of issues for quite some time. Here he is with a brilliant and unique expose on the arms industry – showing how school children were able to set themselves up as arms dealers and procure weapons.

Scroll to the end of this page from the Commons Export Controls Committee to see the transcript of exchanges between Mark and MPs on the committee. In particular from Q67 here.

Minor acts of dissent

Mark’s show was about his new book (See which featured a humorous wander through a number of events and actions in London that featured some familiar faces from the world of Puffles. First off was Vanessa Furey and the campaign to stop the Royal Parks from charging people to play organised games in Hyde Park. They won. The threat of judicial review was too much.

The importance of upholding our legal rights

One of the common themes in Mark’s show was the upholding of our legal rights – and forcing the hand of institutions to either justify the legal grounds they have in which to act, or withdraw. I recall a line from one of Mark’s earlier shows when a police officer said to Mark, paraphrasing as:

“We can do this the easy way, or we can do this the hard way, it’s your choice.”

To which Mark replies:

“Um, no. We have this abstract theoretical concept called the rule of law. You may have heard of it in your training. We’ll do it that way if you don’t mind.”

To which responses from police or security guards all too often is:

“Stay there! I’ll call my boss!”

Institutions behave differently when you start quoting bits of law at them – in particular when you tell them they are not complying with a piece of legislation that particularly applies to them. For example when the Home Office didn’t release the information I had asked for in a Freedom of Information request, rather than forget about it, I threw some bits of law at them and suddenly lots of information came out. See here.

“Minor acts of dissent?!? That sounds like anarchic vandalism if you ask me!”

There are numerous examples on the Twitter account @100acts of mainly mischief-making. Things such as tabloid-free-zones on trains to Nigel stickers on wheelie bins. It’s not the revolution by any means. A theme that runs through is that stupid rules and laws will breed stupid responses. Such as London’s Sky Park which brands itself as a public park but for which you have to bring ID in which to enter.

Dissent also means playing with the minds of institutions – as Puffles did in 2014

What started out as a spat between me and local councillors back in January 2014 (see & subsequent posts) led to some councillors saying ‘If you feel so strongly about it, why don’t you stand for election?’ Which is a very fair response. One of the things that slightly irritates me with some figures in campaigning charities (esp if they are well-paid) is that they don’t stand for election but expect someone else to take the flack for difficult decisions. How often do you see news reporting charity figures praising politicians in the face of genuinely difficult decisions in a media storm?

Councillors called my bluff – so I called theirs back, standing for election not as me, but as Puffles. We ran a campaign publicising all of the other parties, encouraging locals to get in touch with all the candidates and to ask them questions. We said only think about voting for Puffles if you are unimpressed by the other candidates. Because having a dragon fairy as a councillor would be stupid…wouldn’t it?

Coleridge Results 2014

As it turned out, eighty-nine people in the ward of Coleridge, Cambridge voted for the dragon fairy in May 2014. As they had no candidate, despite a massively expensive campaign backed by newspaper headlines, Puffles beat UKIP. At the ballot box. And in 2015 in the by-election next door in Romsey just over a year later, UKIP managed 46 votes and the Conservatives 100.

“Anything missing from Mark’s show?”

A challenge to the audience really – ‘What one off small action or behaviour change are you going to undertake to make your area/the world a better place?” After all, The Junction was packed out that evening. It’s one of those things where I wonder if local councils should send their community development officers along to engage with audiences at these sorts of events. The reason being that the audiences are self-selecting. You have a group of civically-minded and educated people at these things. How about doing something for local democracy, even if it’s as simple as sending an email to a councillor or an MP? Other than that, a splendid show!

Mark, Puffles & me at The Junction in Cambridge.

Mark, Puffles & me at The Junction in Cambridge.

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Was I watching the same John McDonnell speech as the mainstream media?


Watching the watchers watching the Shadow Chancellor’s speech to the Labour Party Conference 2015

The transcript of the speech is at, with a video on The Mirror’s site here.

Given that Mr McDonnell had less than 15 days in which to put the speech together, it was a clear, confident, well-delivered speech. He didn’t show any signs of nerves or awkwardness that often plagued Mr Miliband, and sometimes Mr Balls – the latter having to overcome a stammer to speak in public. Evan Davis of the BBC described the speech as the most radical departure from mainstream politics at a conference in recent years.

What struck me was the tone of Mr McDonnell’s speech compared to other front bench speeches. With other Labour MPs, many had to backtrack following previous opposition to Mr Corbyn. With Mr McDonnell, this was not the case. The same I felt was true of Diane Abbott, who I thought gave a well delivered and reasoned speech as the new shadow international development secretary. For Ms Abbott she is on familiar policy ground having spent four years on the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee. One particular high point for her was when she roasted alive Tim Spicer, a former army colonel over arms exports. (The transcript of that hearing starts at the end of this page, and subsequent).

Mainstream politics underestimating John McDonnell and Diane Abbott?

Perhaps it was because Mr McDonnell and Ms Abbott did not feel the need to look over their shoulders politics-wise in their speeches that aided their spoken delivery. In the case of Mr McDonnell, he is one of the few MPs who has regularly spoken up for rank-and-file civil servants on the floor of the House of Commons. When you are in a politically-restricted role and cannot speak out, having politicians speaking out on your behalf counts for lots.

The same goes for Ms Abbott. I only found out about her popularity within London’s Black communities through the civil servants I worked with day-in-day-out. They were the ones that helped educated me about the day-to-day struggles they and their children faced growing up in London during the times of clashes such as Brixton in 1981. All too easy to forget/overlook having grown up in Cambridge – which during my childhood I was one of the few non-white children in my year group as I went through school.

Basically my point is that there’s more to both Mr McDonnell and Ms Abbott than what we see in the media. The test for the two of them now is a huge one: They are no longer isolated figures on the fringes of the Labour Party. Instead they are now policy leads for the economy/finance, and for international development respectively. It won’t just be a test of their politics, but of their personalities too – in particular how they work with others to formulate policy in the direct sunlight of the mainstream media.

Compelling the broadcast media to publicise radical political ideas

The laws on party political neutrality means that the UK broadcast media cannot explicitly back any specific party. With the larger parties, they have to broadcast who said what ‘as delivered’ in the news. Mr McDonnell mentioned a tax on foreign currency transactions – known as the Financial Transactions Tax (FTT) or the Robin Hood Tax. That meant TV news presenters having to explain to viewers less familiar with politics about these new ideas. What is too early to say is what the general public think of those ideas. What does matter is that by simply talking about them on public platforms, Mr McDonnell is giving little-heard policies some daylight.

“Will those policies stand up to scrutiny?”

Interestingly Mr McDonnell has welcomed the scrutiny of those ideas – announcing a number of policy reviews and the creation of a new economics advisory board with a number of well-known economists who have been critical of neo-liberal economics. Again, the reason why this matters is that those economists now become target guests to be interviewed on a regular basis because their profile has been raised further as policy advisers to nominally a potential government in waiting – irrespective of what you think those odds are.

The media doing itself no favours with clear bias

There are more than a few criticisms that can be thrown at Mr McDonnell’s policies – whether from a point of principle or whether from the practicalities. The problem with the media’s response is their approach has kept up the same level of aggression against Mr Miliband that they are forgetting some of the very basics of detailed scrutiny – leaving themselves exposed.

With The BBC’s Daily Politics Show, Jo Coburn spent much of the show talking to Labour Party member and strong Corbyn critic John McTernan without any other guests. As a result, the only panellist the BBC had was completely dismissive of Mr McDonnell’s speech. Far better to have a panel of three with a range of opinions rather than a single figure who inevitably will be against.

Pro-business vs pro-market

Take John Cridland of the Confederation of British Industry. His reported quotation in The Guardian criticises Mr McDonnell for not providing enough policy detail. (See here). Mr McDonnell has only been in post for 15 days. There is no way he would expect that sort of detail from the chief executives of the firms his organisation represents after such a short time. I also disagree with Mr Cridland on the concept of ‘pro-business’. My take is that the state’s responsibility is to ensure competitive markets – which is ‘pro-market’. Being pro-market and pro-business are not necessarily the same things.

For example look at the outsourcing industry. The policy of outsourcing may well be ‘pro-business’ for the businesses involved, but without breaking up the oligopoly that has built up, it certainly isn’t ‘pro-market’. A ‘pro-business’ government could be in favour of mergers of large companies. A pro-market government in my opinion would be far less likely to be in favour, because such mergers inevitably reduce competition. When faced with huge pre-existing companies, the barriers to entering such dominated markets are huge. If they were not, we’d have far more phone companies, high street banking firms, food shop companies and beyond. But we don’t. Mr McDonnell very much made a pitch towards small and micro-businesses, and away from large multinationals of the like that Mr Cridland represents.

Are we seeing a new John McDonnell?

Richard Murphy on Newsnight made the point that becoming shadow chancellor brings with it responsibilities – which means that tone and content of past speeches of Mr McDonnell have to change. The reason for this is that as an MP, Mr McDonnell could say what he likes. It’s his constituents who back him or sack him. As the holder of a shadow ministerial post, Mr McDonnell is bound by the convention of collective responsibility. That means he has to make compromises. Anyone in ministerial office has to do the same. You have your disagreements behind closed doors, then present a united front once you’ve had the debate. Mr Murphy commented that this was a positive change, and that Mr McDonnell is growing into the post.

“How are the print media reacting?”

As you’d expect. Again, the problem is that the more hysterical their coverage, the more they forget to do actual policy scrutiny – leaving it up to specialist bloggers to fill that vacuum. (Keep tabs on Frances Coppola – in particular on all things quantitative easing). The inevitable challenge for Mr Corbyn’s Labour is how to operate in the face of this – something Mr Miliband struggled with.

“What about the old Blairite faction in Labour? The ‘Progress’ wing? And Brown’s allies?”

In terms of avoiding the echo chamber, it’s worth having a look at their website to see who is saying what. Personally I don’t buy the ‘Red Tory’ insults. The abuse thrown at Liz Kendall disturbed me. As far as policy, strategy and tactics go, everything is fair game as far as scrutiny goes. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown failed to nurture the next generation of Labour politicians during their time in office, which in part explains why Mr Miliband floundered during his time as Labour leader. The political elimination of Mr Balls at the general election as well as Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary by the impressive Mhairi Black, created a huge hole for the Labour ‘moderate’ establishment.

Although still politically shellshocked by the scale of Mr Corbyn’s win, it was standing room only at the Progress rally at the Labour Party Conference. See Emily Ashton’s write up at See also Progess’ Storify here. Despite the scale of Mr Corbyn’s win, they remain an influential force. What remains to be seen is which members of the Progress faction choose to work with Mr Corbyn and his team, which remain quiet on the back benches and which plot for Mr Corbyn’s downfall. As Tristram Hunt said, Mr Corbyn had earned the right to implement his ideas. Note too Dr Hunt’s article in The Guardian here.

Over the next few days we’ll here from Chancellor George Osborne. It’ll be interesting to see how he and his party react to this ‘new look and new way of working’ Labour. Mr Osborne is growing into a sharp and ruthless political operator with a growing band of loyal politicians with him. The first clashes begin in mid October.

We live in interesting times.

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