Watching the party conferences from afar


Some thoughts on the party conferences from my electronic window into the world

This post focuses mainly on the Lib Dems, Greens & Labour as the Conservatives are yet to have their conference at the time of posting. Still unable to shake of this head cold, combined with quite an intense bout of depression & exhaustion has meant the the most convenient way to deal with it is to watch for who is saying what at the conferences.

Lack of publicised live-streams

Given the growing importance of social media – in particular from the new leaderships of Labour & the Liberal Democrats, I was disappointed that Labour and The Greens did not have a very public live-stream for people to watch online. Although numbers won’t necessarily be huge, I can imagine that live streams would be more than useful for those that could not make it to conferences. Ditto for some of the fringe events – some of which were standing room only. This reflects two tensions within political parties. The first is control, the second is ‘technophobia’ – which in part is linked to control.

Realigning of ‘the left’

Basically the 2015 general election picked up all of the pieces of the left of whatever the political centre is, threw them up in the air and watched them all drop all over the place. Who would have thought in the middle of last summer the memberships of Labour, the Liberal Democrats and The Greens would have shown such huge rises? (See fig 2 here). I’ve not seen any post-election membership figures for UKIP or the Conservatives.

Unfamiliar territory

All three parties find themselves in unfamiliar situations. The Greens had to pass a number of motions to ensure their party’s systems and processes could cope with the massive increase in membership – which is about five times what it was this time last year. For the Liberal Democrats, they too have taken on lots of new members since the general election – growing by a quarter. Conference old hands noted how different their party conference felt with new first time members.

With Labour, as well as the impact of a new and unexpected leadership, their growth both since the general election, and since Mr Corbyn’s election has been spectacular. The number of people joining Labour since Mr Corbyn’s election is over 60,000 – more than the total membership of the Liberal Democrats and more than the total membership of The Greens. Furthermore with Labour, there’s an expectation from Mr Corbyn’s loyalists that they will be rewarded with influential posts inside the party at the expense of those for example in the Progress wing of the party. Whether this turns out to be true remains to be seen.

Dissatisfaction with old ways of doing political conferences

Watching the footage on BBC Parliament, you could have been forgiven for thinking this was any other party conference from the post-1997 years. Debate chairs and a panel of party big-names at the front, along with various speakers to large but not entirely-packed main halls. There were a number of mentions about poor chairing of various debates, along with the inevitable rambling speakers. That said, there were a number of more impressive women speakers that caught my ear with content and delivery.

The problem with the ‘one to many’ setup of speakers is that everyone else is stuck in relative silence. You don’t get the energy that you get with more fluid open space systems where people can self-select and discuss issues that they share a passion about. That’s not to say these didn’t happen – they did, but not as centre pieces. Whether they could have worked as centre pieces is up for debate. Many open-space practitioners I’ve met over the years often say 200 people max. What better ways are there for organising large political conferences that encourage people to be active participants rather than passive listeners?

What will the impact be of all the connections made in this social media age?

It could either make the divisions within parties much more public, and/or make the storming/forming stages as they rebuild from the general election a much faster process. Probably a bit of both. One of the other overlooked things is the rise of party ‘social media stars’ (for want of another term). In one sense, Mr Corbyn was one of the biggest beneficiaries of this in terms of how his supporters and the wider media (myself included) shared photographs and video footage of his speeches and events. His social media community became a sort of decentralised ‘instant rebuttal unit’ mirroring what Mandelson & Campbell had 20 years previously, but with no central control.

One recent phenomenon is meeting people face-to-face for the first time who you’ve been corresponding with on social media for what feels like ages. I’ve seen a number of mutual Twitterfriends meeting up for the first time at party conferences. My experience of such things is that the conversations that happen are as if you’ve known each other for years, rather than awkward first dates. As far as communities of mutual interest go, this strengthens them.

Various feelers have been put out from the various parties on co-ordinating anti-Conservative actions. Can this work?

Far, far easier said than done. Much depends on the personalities rather than the institutions. For example in Cambridge, there is an incredible amount of bad blood between sections of Cambridge Labour and parts of Cambridge Liberal Democrats. Where the Conservatives have little presence, for example such as Cambridge, there’s little to be gained from working together at a local level. The picture in Cambridge is made more complex by the recent growth of Cambridge Greens – pulling in around 10,000 votes in the local elections in Cambridge that happened at the same time as the general elections. Note the Conservative-dominated seats of South Cambridgeshire and South East Cambridgeshire that surround the city. Will we see any of the Cambridge-based activists help their fellow campaigners in wards outside the city limits?

It’s slightly more straight-forward on issue-by-issue campaigning. In particular if an established organisation is recognised as being the lead on such a campaign – for example a charity that is a household name. That way, campaigners can pressure the Government to make specific concessions. At the same time though, there’s only so much campaigning charities can do – not least because of the recent Transparency of Lobbying Act (which seems to have reined in the charities but not the loopholes on party funding). At the same time, I feel uncomfortable with some at the top of the larger charities being overly political in their activities. The reason being it’s all very well being a well-paid outspoken charity executive, but they don’t have to stand for election and account to the general public. That said, you’ll find a number of MPs who used to work for charities before making the transition into party politics.

Aren’t party conferences safe bubbles for political activists?

There’s nothing wrong with having a safe bubble so long as you don’t stay inside it all the time. Having seen what the Whitehall policy bubble is like, I got to see all too often the results of this and the impact it had on public policy – in particular during the latter years of the last Labour government. I couldn’t help but wonder what the link between ministers and their party members was when it came to public policy. There were all of these organisations lobbying left, right and centre, but no solid link between grassroots party members and the ministers who were part of the same party. That though, was before the civil service started experimenting with open policy. Food for thought for Labour in particular: Who makes and influences your policies when you are in government?

Outward-looking parties going beyond leaflets and becoming ‘social’

This from The Fabians’ event at the Labour Party Conference:

This is something I discuss every so often with local Labour activists & councillors – note the blogpost here and the comments. There’s no right or wrong answer to this. It really depends on your worldview of politics. On one side you can say that invitations to events and debates are only available to party members who sign up to the terms & conditions of membership. Why share the benefits & perks with non-members who won’t commit time or money to the cause? On the other hand, you can take the view that political loyalties are not what they were, and things are much more fluid. Therefore given what we are facing, why wouldn’t you want to tap into a group of people who don’t want to be members of your party, but are likely to be sympathetic to your cause? For example trade unions for Labour or environmental charities for Greens, or civil liberties groups for the Liberal Democrats? Or traditionalist religious groups for the Conservatives – noting in times gone by the Church of England was sometimes called the Conservative Party at prayer.

Shared local events?

This for me is where there is big potential – in particular for somewhere like Cambridge but also anywhere where you have a critical mass of civically-minded people. The challenge is finding politically-independent local institutions to do the hosting and to help with publicity. In Cambridge we are lucky to have so many that can do this – we had over 30 hustings in the run up to the general election with over 3,000 people attending.

But what about places where the community networks are not as established? Is this where individuals activists or councillors within parties could issue a call to community groups to organise debates and workshops on specific issues that local politicians can be cross-examined on?

“Isn’t that what local councils are for?”

Councils are constrained by a mixture of the law, funding and institutionalised inertia – that last point meaning a mindset of ‘We do this because this is the way we’ve always done things.’ For example, it took a change in the law for Thanet Council to accept that filming of council meetings was fine for the general public. (See this video here – and the article here on a councillor being ejected by police for filming.) So I’m not expecting local councils to become buzzing energised hubs of mass-participatory community action anytime soon. Not least with the further cuts Mr Osborne has got lined up for them.

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Fighting fatigue


On the challenge of prioritising in the face of illness and a limited ‘window of activity’

It’s worth having a look at Black Dog Tribe at if you’re not familiar with this area. It’s been over 3 years that I had a mental health crisis that resulted in me not being able to work full-time hours. The past few months have been particularly tough healthwise too – not least my inability to shake off a head-cold that keeps me in a state of permanent sinus-congestion. As a result, I’ve not been able to be nearly as active as I would have liked, and am having to rethink and reprioritise what I do locally – especially now that my focus is job-hunting.

Your annual flu-jab reminder

I’ve been getting mine done at Boots for as long as I can remember ( because my community activity means meeting lots of people in enclosed spaces, and/or commuting back in the day meant being stuck in long metal tubes with wheels underneath. I remember the first time I had the flu – the full-blown version. It was back in 2001 and it completely knocked me out for a fortnight. It put every other cold virus I had before or since into perspective.

On reprioritising my community action

In days gone by, I’d normally fight through colds, being ‘lemsipped up’ as I’d often say at work when I replaced coffees with ick-tasting concoctions. But the combination of my state of health and recent depression has hit me for six over the past few months. To the extent that simply getting out of the house is an achievement. Hence why it’s all the more frustrating when I go along to a public meeting where my contribution seems to have been a complete waste of time – as this recent clip from the Greater Cambridge City Deal Assembly shows:

It was a 2 hour round trip by bus to be given the answer to those questions above. Was it worth it?

Concern from others about Cambridge’s fragmented community action scene

I went along to a gathering of various activists from a variety of Cambridge’s left-wing campaign groups.

A number of people mentioned how it was difficult to find out what was going on because there were so many small groups not co-ordinating or communicating. I’ve seen similar mentioned not just in the realm of politics and community action, but elsewhere – such as business & leisure. Where is the ‘one stop’ place where we all know we’ll get a comprehensive snapshot of what’s going on that’s easy to read/filter & isn’t a wall of text?

Another interesting point was made at the gathering – the number of people turning up to recent public political gatherings in Cambridge was far higher than could have been expected even a few months ago, and that most of the ‘established’ groups were not familiar with who these people were. ie these are members of the public with an interest in politics/community action, but for whatever reason have been off the radar of existing groups (and vice versa?)

Online, my main focus is going to be connecting people, campaigns, organisations & sources of information. In terms of face-to-face meetings & gatherings, for now you’ll probably be seeing less of me. I simply cannot manage all that is being asked of me at present.

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Labour MPs lock horns with Conservatives in the Trade Union Bill


Jeremy Corbyn’s front bench and newly liberated Labour MPs head to the trenches in the fight over new trade union legislation

As far as the Commons is concerned, this is a classic Punch & Judy style debate, but in a strange way allows Mr Corbyn’s new front bench to hit the ground running – even though the Conservative majority in the Commons means this bill will ultimately succeed. The bill allows Labour moderates to criticise it on some of the technical points – such as no provision on electronic voting on ballots (which would increase turnout – important given the strike ballot minimum thresholds are being raised in the bill). The bill allows the Labour left to go after it in principle, stoking the fires for some red-hot speeches.

“What’s Labour’s new front bench like?”

31 new faces, 15 men, 16 women, six dragon fairy followers on Twitter.

The six following Puffles. (This is tongue-in-cheek as most follow lots & lots of others!)

The six following Puffles. (This is tongue-in-cheek as most follow lots & lots of others!)

Twitter exploded as news that the traditional ‘top four’ shadow posts were filled by men. The tradition is that the top four offices of state are:

  • Prime Minister
  • Chancellor of the Exchequer
  • Home Secretary
  • Foreign Secretary

These four posts are shadowed by Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, Andy Burnham and Hilary Benn (son of Tony Benn) respectively. For me, I can understand why this tradition continues – but given how policy responsibilities are now split, I can also understand Mr Corbyn’s response that the tradition of ‘great offices of state’ is now out of date. See here.

Shadow cabinet in the context of running a large organisation

Three years ago I wrote a blogpost stating that the Cabinet was too big – it still is. Have you ever been to a meeting with lots of people? A shadow cabinet meeting with 31 people – how long will it take for everyone to have their say? Even if it’s one person-one minute, you are there for over half an hour. Hence you inevitably get an ‘inner cabinet’ – one acknowledged by the Coalition when they had ‘The Quad’ of the top 2 Conservatives and the top 2 Liberal Democrats. The challenge any opposition party has is trying to ensure every policy area has a policy lead, and that every cabinet minister has a shadow minister. It remains to be seen if My Corbyn develops an inner circle of close advisers from his shadow cabinet team.

John McDonnell as Shadow Chancellor

The appointment of Mr McDonnell as Shadow Chancellor has generated miles and miles of media comment. To describe it as a ‘brave’ appointment is an understatement. Opponents of Mr Corbyn & Mr McDonnell are already going through the archives trying to find speeches and statements to use against them. As appointments of shadow ministers proceeded last night, people were already going through Twitter feeds to try and find embarrassing tweets – such as the new shadow education secretary Lucy Powell MP tweeting during the Labour leadership campaign that she had never spoken to Mr Corbyn before.

Consigned to the fringes of the Labour parliamentary party, both Mr Corbyn & Mr McDonnell now find themselves at the centre of the Labour Party machine. Politicians, staff and activists who might have previously ignored them now find they have to work with them – and vice-versa. Between Mr Corbyn & Mr McDonnell there is not only a sharing of political views but a strong bond of trust too. It’s almost a reflection of the working relationship between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor. Given the 24/7 media lens that will be on the former pairing, I can understand why Mr Corbyn would want to put a staunch political ally in such a post.

Jez and John versus the media

The approach to the mainstream media by Mr Corbyn & Mr McDonnell has already come in for some comment – see for an interesting summary. A bold, brave approach – and one that could only be taken by politicians who are not only rock solid on their political principles but who are also fearless in the face of print media firestorms.

At the same time – and as the Huffington Post link above states, the majority of young people get their news from social media, not the print media. Hence Mr Corbyn reducing the access he gives to a print media that’s only going to attack him, and giving more access to those media channels that are followed by his target audience. At some stage though, Mr Corbyn will need to come up with a media strategy (as mentions) if only to manage people’s expectations and nip the output of the Westminster rumour-mill in the bud. We saw the results of the rumour-mill in the appointment of shadow ministers last night, and it wasn’t the greatest sight.

Whatever the strategy is, the most important thing for Mr Corbyn is consistency. It’s his call on whether he boycotts one publication/media group or another on exclusive interviews. (Banning them from press conferences on the other hand raises freedom of the press / scrutinising politics issues). What matters is that he is consistent. If anything that might lead to an improvement in some of the questions journalists put to Mr Corbyn – more on policy and less on personalities and squabbles between politicians. eg. if a standard response is:

“I don’t care about squabbles between politicians – ask me a question about policy”

…then journalists will learn not to bother with those sorts of questions.

The great retreat of the Blairites

Given Mr Corbyn’s hostility to the mainstream media and his statements about involving far more people in policy-making, there is a much greater role for his shadow ministerial team. There are a whole host of new faces to become familiar with – helped in part by the mass retreat of the Progess wing of Labour. Progress is the movement within Labour that supports the ‘Blairite’ wing of the party. Their recent blogposts make for interesting reading.

When you look at Ed Miliband’s final shadow cabinet (See here) you’ll notice that between the dissolution of Parliament prior to the 2015 general election, and today, there has been a massive change at the top of the Labour Party. Let’s list some of the big names who have all but vanished from view:

  • Ed Miliband
  • Harriet Harman
  • Ed Balls
  • Douglas Alexander
  • Chuka Umunna
  • Tristram Hunt
  • Rachel Reeves
  • Chris Leslie

Yvette Cooper has moved to a role dealing with the refugee crisis, but from the back benches. That left nine very big policy gaps within Labour. For me, the brave and the bold were those Labour MPs who didn’t support Mr Corbyn in the leadership campaign, that stepped forward to take up shadow cabinet positions in the face of such political uncertainty.

I’ve often said before that the best time to make an impact in a political organisation is when it’s taken a massive blow and seems to be in disarray. This is because you get to shape the reconstruction process and have a say in the early important decisions. Whether rejected by the electorate, their constituents or through choice are stepping back from frontline politics, the above-mentioned former Labour front-benchers will find their influence much more limited from where they are now compared to where they were.

A chance for Labour’s women MPs to shine?

My first reaction to Lilian Greenwood and Kerry McCarthy being appointed to the front bench was *****Yeeeesssss!!!!!***** (They are shadowing Transport and Defra respectively). Both are two of the nicest, brightest and most passionate of people in politics that I have either met or communicated with. My general approach with politicians of all parties when I meet them is if they are nice to me and Puffles, we’ll be nice to them. Hence being fortunate to have interviewed politicians from across the political spectrum over the past year or so. (See my Youtube playlist from the 2015 election with interviews and speeches covering the five main parties standing in and around Cambridge).

Here’s my interview with Ms Greenwood when she was shadow rail minister in Jan 2015.

Ms Greenwood has been shadowing various different aspects of transport policy for the past few years – she has covered local transport, rail, and now takes over the full transport brief. She’s also a good friend of Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner, who also has a strong transport policy interest too.

There are others that could command attention in their new roles to be aware of too. New shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has a hospital in her constituency on whose behalf she’s been campaigning. (Although the presence of Addenbrooke’s in Andrew Lansley’s constituency didn’t seem to do his health policies any favours!). The media-friendly Gloria De Piero’s role continues work she’s been doing for quite some time on trying to get more people involved in democracy.

Influential policy pairs of Labour women?

There are some very interesting policy-pairings that could become influential both inside Labour and beyond:

It’s now up to them to make an impact – and also at the same time demonstrate they (along with the rest of the shadow cabinet) are capable of independent thought. Because as a friend of mine recently said to me recently: ‘Scripted politics has had its day – whether you like Corbyn or not’.

This was in response to one of the most painfully ‘on message’ ministerial interviews I have ever heard – straight out of the Peter Mandelson textbook.

“What about the remaining MPs? Have some of the former shadow ministers set back their political careers?”

That depends on whether you see politics as a career or a vocation/calling.

Stella Creasy seems to have already carved out a very nice campaigning niche. Although on the back benches, the best thing Ms De Piero can do with her portfolio is to co-ordinate with Ms Creasy but without having the millstone of collective responsibility (that comes with being in the shadow cabinet) placed on Dr Creasy. Dr Creasy is a free thinker and an activist – we saw this in spadefuls during her deputy leadership campaign, and I saw this first hand on her visit to Cambridge last week.

What happens to Chukka Umunna and Tristram Hunt remains to be seen. Between 2010-15 I felt both were promoted far too quickly – and got found out both in the media and at the despatch box. Mr Umunna gained praise for his performances on the Treasury Select Committee in his cross-examination of the Chancellor. Unfortunately Mr Miliband removed him from that committee and put him as shadow business secretary, giving him only 2 questions per month to put directly to ministers. All too often I found his contributions in the media too scripted and wooden.

I felt similar with Dr Hunt. He wrote a brilliant history of local government which made me wonder why he wasn’t on the local government select committee and allowed to bring his considerable academic knowledge to bear on an otherwise (in comparison) intellectually/academically limited ministerial team (Greg Clark excluded) that was in the department at the time. Since then, his media appearances seem to have demonstrated the opposite of the intellectual talents & gifts that he clearly has.

“Are the Jez and John top two pairing a gift to the Conservatives & Liberal Democrats?”

Certainly the emergence of Mr Corbyn & Mr McDonnell has gone down well with Conservatives. This in part reflects the polarisation of politics and also a sense that both Conservatives and Labour activists now know where each other stands. At the same time there will inevitably be media appearances from anti-Corbyn former Labour ministers inside and outside of Parliament who will pass negative comment over the actions & policies of Mr Corbyn. It remains to be seen if anyone resigns and/or switches party. I’ve not seen any just yet.

There’s also a gap opening up that Liberal Democrats are trying to move into – portraying the Conservatives as extreme on one side by listing the policies they blocked in Coalition but that are now being brought in, and by portraying Labour as moving to the hard left of the early 1980s. However, with so few MPs in the Commons, their ability to take advantage of this inevitably remains limited – and will remain so unless they start showing signs of recovery at the ballot box at the local government elections in 2016. This is why for the Liberal Democrats their looming annual party conference later this month will be absolutely crucial.

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Politics just got interesting


A Jeremy Corbyn – Tom Watson win for the Labour leadership – and the ‘fun’ has already started.

This article on the Conservative Home blog gives some insight into how Mr Corbyn’s adversaries will respond over the period of his leadership. I expect the print media campaign to be relentless and exhausting. Yet despite the dire media and political warnings from across the Westminster political establishment, the results of the leadership contest were astonishing.

Ed Miliband’s legitimacy was always undermined by the fact that his brother won the vote in the Labour Party full membership, and that it was the trade union vote that saw the younger brother take the leadership. With Corbyn a whisker away from winning the vote from the full members alone in the first round, and winning by thumping margins the other eligible voters, Corbyn has the legitimacy of the grass roots that his predecessor perhaps didn’t have.

A thumping rejection of ‘Blairism’?

I can’t help but feel that parts of Labour’s grass roots never felt it had the opportunity to ‘cleanse’ itself of what it saw as the shortcomings of Tony Blair’s time in office – and what Blair’s done since. Because Liz Kendall MP was the candidate that had the backing of Mr Blair and his allies, Ms Kendall found herself in the eye of the storm of some utterly appalling hatred thrown at her online.

Yet Ms Kendall maintained her dignity and courage throughout. I can’t help feel that many of her higher profile supporters could have done much more to call out those that were throwing abuse at Ms Kendall – and that the Labour Party as an institution should have taken much more firm steps to rein in those party members behaving in such a manner.

There are many criticisms I can make of Ms Kendall’s campaign – not least the lack of serious policy detail on causes that she feels the most passionately about. Yet she had the courage to be the first to step forward at a time when Labour was flat on its face following the general election in 2015 with a series of interviews that actually put journalists on the back foot. Honest about some of the shortcomings of Labour’s campaign, what the party needed to examine and her initial thoughts. The problem was that she was unable to move on from what seemed like an energised start.

“What of Labour loyalists Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper?”

Ms Cooper only started landing political blows on the Corbyn campaign when she started analysing the policy detail of ‘Corbynomics’, and then being seen at the parliamentary forefront of efforts to change the Government’s policy on refugees from Syria. But by that time, many votes had already been cast.

Mr Burnham seemed to start off strong, perhaps staking out territory as the most ‘left-wing’ of the three ‘moderates’. A reasonable strategy in the absence of a candidate further to the left of him. But with Mr Corbyn scraping the number of parliamentary nominees required, this left Mr Burnham caught between two high profile women candidates on his right, and a solid left-winger on his left.

Exit Labour front-benchers – but how long before they move against Mr Corbyn? A look at the Conservatives in 2003.

Half a dozen front benchers resigned following the announcement of Mr Corbyn’s win. The mainstream media’s Twittersphere was full of rumour about a coup against Mr Corbyn until the scale of the latter’s victory became clear. It’s difficult to see a move against Mr Corbyn in the short-medium term of the rebellion Iain Duncan Smith faced in 2003. The latter won against former Chancellor Ken Clarke in 2001 with 60% of the vote of Conservative Party members.

So it’s not inconceivable that in 18months time that discontented Labour MPs might try and move against Mr Corbyn if he’s seen as a weak party leader. Obviously the problem Mr Corbyn has is that so few members of Labour’s parliamentary party backed him. On the other hand, the impact of new members joining the party on the back of Mr Corbyn’s campaign could persuade enough of those otherwise sceptical MPs to at least give Mr Corbyn a chance and work with him in a shadow cabinet.

Exit Labour front-benchers – what now for them?

They could sit there and sulk for a few years. They could do what a number of former senior Labour ministers did after 2010 and stay away from Westminster, finding solace in a company directorship, charity trusteeship or on the speaking-and-writing circuit. That for me would be a waste. A waste of their talents, a waste of Labour’s time, and a waste of taxpayers money spent paying them to represent constituents. Funnily enough, there are interesting examples set by both Mr Duncan Smith and Robert F Kennedy. In a nutshell, their example is to pick a cause they are most passionate about, learn about it, quietly but consistently campaign about it so that should a ministerial portfolio be offered in the distant future, you’ll be the best prepared to make an impact in that policy area.

That’s not to say such an approach always pays off. Mr Duncan Smith has, in my opinion been anything but a competent minister. The same goes for Andrew Lansley during his time at The Department of Health and as Leader of the House – in particular when you look at Mr Lansley’s record of taking two major pieces of legislation through Parliament. But that reflects the limited pool of people available to take ministerial posts in the House of Commons. The final years of Gordon Brown’s leadership were similar – MPs who were nowhere near cut out for ministerial office were appointed. Hence in party why I strongly favour the separation of executive and legislature. Let prime ministers select whoever they want as ministers, and subject them to confirmation hearings in Parliament, along with the monthly departmental questions to the Commons.

Who will Mr Corbyn and Mr Watson appoint to their front bench?

That’s what we’re waiting for. There’s also no rush either. Some of the younger MPs that backed Mr Corbyn from the start – such as Norwich’s Clive Lewis (who MC’d the Corbyn rally in Cambridge last week), and long-time Twitterfriend of Puffles, Cat Smith, have been mentioned in some publications as MPs likely to get portfolios. For any of the 2015 intake of MPs, taking on a shadow ministerial portfolio is a baptism of fire. The media will be expecting them to have a response to every single government announcement – and a coherent alternative that they can defend in the face of scrutiny from journalists.

They will also be expected to land political blows when the ministers appear for their monthly scrutiny sessions in the Commons – something that is very difficult to do when each shadow minister has a very limited number of questions they can put directly to ministers. Maybe Mr Corbyn’s idea of crowd-sourcing for Prime Minister’s Questions could also be extended to departmental questions? That would mean every day of parliamentary business that had a departmental questions session would involve public participation. How would ministers respond if shadow ministers prefaced each question with:

“I’m asking this question on behalf of X from Y, and the question is…”

Unless the question is along the lines of ‘When is the minister going to resign over…’ or ‘Doesn’t the minister agree that our policy is better than his?’, any party-political style answer or one that doesn’t properly answer the question is likely to reflect badly on the minister concerned.

“Doesn’t the lack of women in the top two reflect badly on Labour?”

A number of people have commented on this. Part of the problem was with the election rules and sequencing. If they said they would announce the winner of the party leadership first, with the deputy leader being the candidate of a different gender with the most votes winning, we would have had Stella Creasy as deputy leader instead of Tom Watson. So in principle the current outcome of two men winning could have been avoided.

But Labour is where it is. The challenge for Mr Corbyn is how to compensate for this – in particular with the number of higher profile women MPs who have already said they won’t serve in Mr Corbyn’s shadow ministerial team. My hunch is that Mr Corbyn & Mr Watson will want to appoint women to the ‘policy heavy’ shadow portfolios to get that balance. I wouldn’t be surprised to see women MPs shadowing The Chancellor, Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary. The traditional ‘big’ departments of state are Chancellor of the Exchequer (money), Home Secretary (internal) and Foreign Secretary (external). At the same time, the political passions of Labour activists generally are more towards policy areas such as health, education and infrastructure.

“What have the Liberal Democrats and The Greens made of Mr Corbyn’s victory?”

It seems like they have welcomed it but for different reasons. For the Liberal Democrats, they seem to be happy in that Mr Corbyn’s victory allows them to brand themselves as ‘moderates’ between the Conservatives and Labour. The risk with this strategy is that it allows them to sit comfortably in a ‘safe’ zone and not address some of the big challenges they face following the hammering they got at the general election. Their up-and-coming party conference will be one of the most interesting for years.

The Greens have welcomed Mr Corbyn’s victory because many of the Greens’ policies that Mr Corbyn personally spoke in favour of will suddenly get a huge amount of publicity. Issues that Mr Blair, Mr Brown and Mr Miliband either seldom mentioned or never spoke about at all may well find themselves getting broadcast time because of the way the TV news is obliged to report on parliament. Because of the compromises they see Mr Corbyn will inevitably have to make with a sceptical parliamentary party, they will be able to market themselves as a party that can offer those policies in full. It’s a bit like UKIP vs anti-EU Tories. Why vote for the Conservatives if you want to exit the EU when they only offer a referendum, not leadership on an exit?

“What of UKIP? Nigel’s been quiet of late, hasn’t he?”

The past month has been all Labour. How much of the Labour membership increase has been due to the wall-to-wall coverage during a traditionally quiet time for the media? The campaign certainly gave journalists something to sink their teeth into. That’s another unknown. Mr Corbyn has been seen to connect with people because as journalists have commented, he gives straight answers to questions. One of the challenges Mr Corbyn faces is whether he will be able to communicate his ideas and policies through to the wider electorate in the face of print press hostility.

Digital overhaul promised by Tom Watson

In one of my old policy areas, the team I worked in supported Mr Watson with one of his ideas when he was appointed minister for digital engagement in 2008. It was this scheme. I don’t know what happened to it because in those days there was a huge churn of ministers and policy officials. But basically Mr Watson is more than familiar with this field. Mr Watson’s challenge is persuading digital-lite constituency parties to step up to the plate. I’m going to keep on mentioning Cambridge in this regard until they start getting some of the basics right – such as posting links of website news items to their currently under-used Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Poor show: An under-used local party corporate account. Note the few posts in the run up to the general election.

Poor show: An under-used local party corporate account. Note the few posts in the run up to the general election.

“Hang on – didn’t local MP Daniel Zeichner back Yvette Cooper for leader?”

He did – but note Mr Zeichner’s comments in the Cambridge News. A pragmatist and a party loyalist by nature, I wouldn’t be surprised if Mr Zeichner accepted an offer of a shadow ministerial post in an area he is passionate about. As someone with a vast experience inside Labour and politics in general, Mr Corbyn & Mr Watson may need Mr Zeichner to step forward.

“Wasn’t Cambridge Labour split on who they backed?”

Certainly as a local party they did not collectively endorse a specific candidate. Personally I think that’s a strength because it shows a diversity of views that reflect a diverse city. Also, given that Labour control Cambridge City Council and given the things that are happening with the Greater Cambridge City Deal, I’d be surprised if any of Labour’s councillors in Cambridge resigned in principle over Mr Corbyn’s victory.

What I’ll be on the lookout for locally is what impact Mr Corbyn and Mr Watson will have on the party locally – in particular on how it functions as a local political institution. I’ll also be on the lookout for new activists, candidates and the impact they have too.

We live in interesting times.

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Reminding ourselves of the impact of politicians & famous people from the past


On the spoken words of Robert F Kennedy (Former Attorney General of the USA and JFK’s brother), and on the importance of making the video & audio clips widely available

If you don’t read the rest of this blogpost, please take 30mins of your time to listen to RFK below:

(And just in case you don’t get to the end of this blogpost, if you’ve not contacted your local MP or local councillor about a local issue you care about, start with

Make no mistake – the questions that he got certainly weren’t easy. The tone was set by the first two questions on whether he was using New York State as a springboard to a presidential bid or whether he’d serve the state as a good ‘constituency senator’ (for want of another term). It chimes here in the towns and villages surrounding Cambridge because they are safe-as-houses Conservative constituencies. (So much so that one of them was seen as a possible seat for Boris Johnson for his expected bid for the Conservative leadership and as a possible prime minister). Kennedy dealt with the questions head on.

“I could have retired…”

It’s worth remembering he made the speech not long after the assassination of his brother, and shortly after his resignation as attorney general. This part of his speech sort of reminds me of the position Zac Goldsmith MP is in as Conservative candidate for Mayor of London. Doesn’t need the title, doesn’t need the money, doesn’t need the office space. With that in mind, the similarities of situations for both of them is having to convince doubters that they want to do something positive with elected public office, rather than seeing it as some sort of ‘entitlement’. What makes Mr Goldsmith a strong potential adversary for newly-announced Labour candidate Sadiq Khan MP is that Mr Goldsmith has a reputation for having an independent mind. Remember Mr Goldsmith is on the green side of the Conservative Party, and is vehemently opposed to the expansion of Heathrow airport.

An extremely talented politician – but human like the rest of us?

This video biography of RFK highlights some of the decisions that, with the hindsight of history we might see as questionable. From backing the Bay of Pigs Invasion & repeated failed attempts to overthrow Castro, to authorising the wiretapping of Martin Luther King, there are a number of decisions he took that remain controversial to this day. As someone with a passion for history, I always try to picture what the situation was like at the time – and what information decision makers had at hand when they made those difficult judgement calls.

‘Big democracy’ in action – the powerful scrutinising the powerful

This piece of video is electric – RFK with JFK in the background on the McClellan Committee about corruption & organised crime in trade unions. The WikiP page is here for the Committee. This clip alone illustrates how electric some of our parliamentary select committees could become if we had counsel attached to them and able to cross-examine witnesses. For me, this reflects the role Parliament should have, but doesn’t. In the UK, Parliament is still too much under the thumb of the executive – reaching its low point under Gordon Brown in the ‘duckhouse parliament.’

This piece from the civil rights movement is particularly striking

Note the comments by Charles Evers, a civil rights activist whose brother was murdered. Note how he said that RFK as a politician changed because he listened, and was consistent in what he spoke out about. ie not changing his principles to suit the audience or people he was in conversation with. Note Nelson Mandela in this clip:

“He who changes his principles depending on who he is dealing with, is not a man who can lead a nation”

(Listen through to 56-59mins where Mandela leaves the hostile host speechless!) The whole of the above-linked clip is fascinating from an historical perspective. At around 22 mins Mandela also talks about the support the ANC received from countries considered international pariahs in the 1960s-80s.

The links here with contemporary UK for me are comparing a driven attorney general ensuring that the constitutional rights of citizens and the rule of law are both upheld – in the face of extreme intimidation, with our current set of secretaries of state (thinking DWP’s Iain Duncan Smith & Home Secretary Theresa May) who have been accused in their policy areas of undermining UK citizens’ human rights – even when the High Court rules against them. Readers with a legal background, I’d be interested in your thoughts on the differences in roles & duties between RFK as attorney general vs the relatively low profile their UK counterparts have.

Both Mandela’s comments & Evers’ comments about RFK make me think about the recent Labour leadership contest. (Writing this a few hours before the result is announced). Irrespective of policy merit, many a journalist has commented that they know where they stand with Corbyn, & that he hasn’t changed his principles to suit different audiences. That said, he’s got his work cut out to convince the doubters – as Fleet Street Fox explains here. There’s some truth in Foxy’s comment that Corbyn’s success is in part down to the utter failure of Blair and Brown to nurture a cohesive and talented group of politicians and future ministers to succeed them. Although Liz Kendall has on mainstream and social media shown herself to personable and likeable – especially in the face of online hate, her big name supporters could come up with little more than platitudes. Her campaign website is astonishingly policy-lite – as is her rival Yvette Cooper’s website here.

The historical context of the 1960s – it wasn’t that so long ago

Here’s a clip of John Lennon making the point about educating young people regarding substance abuse. Listen further to hear his point about his & Yoko Ono’s fight with immigration – and his detailed explanation of legal processes they faced.

What fascinates me about the video footage that people are uploading is that it is the historical figures talking about their experiences as they lived them, in their own voices. It’s all too easy to forget just how big some of the institutional barriers they faced at the time. What’s also striking is how persistent problems don’t seem to go away. Take the short clip below:

The opening remarks by RFK could easily be applied to the world of today.

“Where are the great, titanic political figures of today?”

I’ve been looking around for quite some time and I’m not seeing many of them in mainstream politics. Our institutions still concentrate too much power into the hands of too few people. When we look at the scale of the problems we face today, both the ministers in power and the institutions that they are heads of continue to demonstrate a feebleness in the face of catastrophe. On one side of the Commons we have a Government whose ministers talk about fences and security guards as a means to solving a huge refugee crisis, and on the other a political establishment absolutely blind-sided by the scale of what’s going on inside its own institution – something that won’t be resolved overnight whoever wins the Labour leadership election.

This brings me back to RFK here – his final remarks.

“It’s going to rest with those who are educated, those people who are trained, on whether they are going to participate or whether they are going to say this is the problem or the responsibility of somebody else.”

I never studied the ancient greeks or the great philosophers – RFK above citing his brother quoting Dante. Yet RFK was able to make the link between the ancient Greeks & the problems in our democracies not just of the 1960s but of today. The above quotation about participation was spoken by RFK over 50 years ago – but remains relevant today. I’ve chosen to apply it to my home town of Cambridge – making the future of my city my responsibility. Converting that responsibility into actions in my case is about getting others involved.

With that in mind, next week I have three tabled questions that the Greater Cambridge City Deal Assembly have to respond publicly to. They are:

“What assessment have Assembly members made of the Board’s communication strategy for the city deal, with specific focus on social media and community outreach?

“What views do Assembly members have for improving how the people of Cambridge & its institutions communicate with each other?”

“Following my question on 28 Jan 2015 to the City Deal Board re: the Haverhill Rail Campaign (see, what assessment have Assembly members made on the follow-up made by the Board, and their own scrutiny of the plans and work the Rail Campaign has done?

There’s only so far one individual can go. But given we’re now at a stage where several people & campaign groups are now talking about the future of Cambridge, (see, isn’t it time the institutions with the money & power took responsibility for involving us, the people of the city? Isn’t it now time that we did something far more exciting & dynamic than the current set up of staid meetings? Some of them have been so dull & weakly chaired that I’ve refrained from uploading them, instead only uploading questions from the public and the responses back.

On a wider scale, as we’ve seen from the grassroots response to the refugees crisis, people have become so frustrated at the response from governments that they’ve taken action directly – which has helped force the hand of ministers in the face of tabloid hostility. But I can’t help but think that the likes of RFK would be appalled at the weakness of the international response. Laudable as the collections & fundraising actions are, the problems are political.

My end-of-blogpost recommendation? Pick a local issue close to your heart and ask one of your elected representatives some questions about it. Start with and just as importantly, continue the dialogue/conversation with them. You might be surprised how quickly some of them (but by no means all) will start listening to you – especially if it’s a small group of you raising similar issues.

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Dr Stella Creasy MP & Jeremy Corbyn MP visit Cambridge on the same weekend.


Two of Labour’s rising stars visit the city that sits on an island surrounded by a sea of Conservatism. 

Dr Creasy (her Ph.D thesis is here) is one of the candidates for the Labour deputy leadership – one of three candidates I’ve either met and/or have worked with. The other two being Tom Watson MP & Caroline Flint MP – the latter who I worked with during my housing policy days when she was Minister for Housing.

Open space with Labour activists

Dr Creasy’s standing for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party. Like her opponents, she’s been going around the country to various events. Unlike her opponents, she’s been running a series of open space sessions to tap into the ideas that grassroots activists have. You can almost imagine the Malcolm Tucker (from The Thick Of It) characters in the party being apoplectic with rage.

“Listening to the opinions of the grass roots – well that’s a recipe for anarchy! They’ll be nationalising the trains, the buses, the taxis, the planes – who knows where it’ll end?!?”

Dr Stella Creasy MP (standing) invites participants to list and prioritise the issues they want to discuss.

Dr Stella Creasy MP (standing) invites participants to list and prioritise the issues they want to discuss.

There were just under two dozen people taking part – slightly lower than I had expected but this was due to the short notice of the event. For these workshops Dr Creasy doesn’t have the institutional backing of the Labour Party lest it be seen to be favouring one candidate over the others. With this being the first of three workshops she hosted that day – the others being in Nottingham & York, she had her hands full bringing in the equipment needed to run the event.

Not the usual suspects

I only recognised a couple of people in the room, one of whom only joined Labour just after the election. There was also a good mix of people and backgrounds, yet it was at a scale that made for productive conversations. One of the things I’ve noticed over the years at large left-wing or left-of-centre political gatherings is the lack of substantive conversations between people taking part. I remember one education rally at the University Arms Hotel a few years ago where the entrance had lots of middle-aged blokes in their 50s waving red flags, with an event full of speeches but no opportunity for people to get to know each other. (Something I’ll touch on later).

At this one, everyone was having productive conversations and interacting with people they otherwise wouldn’t normally converse with. The reason why this is important is perspective. Everyone in the room had different perspectives. There were a couple of people who had stood for election, including Cambridge Labour’s young activist Tim Sykes who stood in the local elections in 2014 in Cambridge in Trumpington – a safe Lib Dem seat. Putting your name forward for election and going out to the public asking them to vote for you is one of the hardest things to do – perhaps a reason why so few of us do it.

It’s probably no surprise after reading the above that I’m a big fan of Dr Creasy. Having seen her both on demonstrations and addressing large corporate conferences, she is passionate, personable and articulate. Being a fan of ‘open space’ events, I wanted to get a feel for what Dr Creasy would be like hosting such an event. Would it be ‘going through the motions’ or would there be a genuine interest in the views and experiences of participants? Fortunately it was the latter.

Stella and Jeremy singing from the same hymn sheet?

The consistent message from both Dr Creasy’s and Mr Corbyn’s events in Cambridge is that Labour – locally & nationally, cannot afford to run roughshod over the views, experiences & opinions of their members. Both were critical of past behaviours of the party where members and activists were expected to do as party HQ told them, while having their views ignored when it came to party policy. As Dr Creasy said, 600,000 people with identical views is not a political party, it’s a cult. As a social-media-savvy MP, she’s not afraid of making her opinions public, leading from the front (think payday loans) or being at ease with the idea of fellow party members having different views – views expressed publicly.

Mr Corbyn said similar – saying that members had to have much more of an influence on party policy, and consign the days of a small elite setting party policy to the history books.

Corbynmania comes to Cambridge

See the full speech below – including the fun & games at the start on where Mr Corbyn needed to stand to ensure as many people could actually see him!

Here’s Jon Vale’s report from the Cambridge News – another one here. Great St Mary’s was full to capacity, with another 100+ outside hearing short speeches by Mr Corbyn & his economics adviser Richard Murphy. See Mr Murphy’s speech below, which I filmed.

I’ve wanted to get Mr Murphy on film for quite some time ever since I heard him speak back in 2011. An economist who is not without his critics, one of the challenges for both Mr Murphy & Mr Corbyn is to bring in more people with expertise on tax, economics and finance to develop their ideas further. The reason being is that the scope of the subject is so great that it’s beyond the comprehension of any human being – there are simply not enough hours in the day. This was what paralysed Labour in their final years of government: they had become so over-centralised that decision-making froze as ministers waited for clearance on things that they should have had the confidence to have gone ahead with. The publicity the two of them are now receiving is also an ideal opportunity for them to publicise the work of new thinkers, bringing them & their ideas in the public eye for the debate and scrutiny to then happen. Just by being there, they are forcing news and media organisations to discuss policies rather than personalities.

“What did the audience make of it?”

I got the sense of the sheer ‘relief’ that there was now a safe space to talk about the policies Mr Corbyn was espousing. As Mr Corbyn said, many a demo people go on seem to be about opposing something rather than proposing something. The difference with the movement that has grown around Mr Corbyn is one of hope, one of proposing new ideas & alternative policies, he said.

There were certainly lots of Labour Party members and supporters in the audience judging by the number of people responding to one of the speakers asking for a show of hands on who had and who had not voted in the leadership election. There were still lots of people who had not voted. For those who had never been to such an event before, the experience will have been electrifying – simply because of the number of people who were there.

Mr Corbyn vs his rivals in Cambridge

At least ten times as many people turned out to see Mr Corbyn as his rival Yvette Cooper (See here on CambridgeTV). The visits of Ms Cooper and Andy Burnham were hosted at Cambridge Labour Party’s HQ at Alex Wood Hall. What strikes me about Dr Creasy and Mr Corbyn is that their events had little visible involvement of the local Labour Party at an official level. This for me reflects a cultural difference between the approaches of Dr Creasy & Mr Corbyn vs their rivals. Dr Creasy & Mr Corbyn have made their focus about building a movement – going far beyond party membership. The other candidates seem to have focussed on the party membership with a view to reaching out afterwards. In that regard, Dr Creasy & Mr Corbyn have stolen a lead on their rivals by ignoring any restrictions that could have been put on them. Such an approach is refreshing to see – and for me is essential in a social media age.

The lesson learnt: make it easy, enjoyable and exciting for people to get involved

Dr Creasy’s approach in Walthamstow is one for the rest of her party to learn from at a constituency level. When constituents approach her on campaigning issues, her approach is to get those constituents involved in the campaign. Rather than having an approach where constituents write to her and say “Why don’t you do something about it – you’re my MP?!?”, her response is: “Yes, this needs somebody to do something about it, but what if that somebody is ‘you’? I’ll help you, but I’ll need you to get involved!”

An interesting autumn ahead in & around Cambridge?

This goes out to all political parties active in Cambridge:

Publish a calendar of events and publicise them as being open to the public

The student societies are normally very good at this, but those outside political parties and/or on the ‘town’ side of the city all too often feel that such events are not for us. I’ll list & link the societies for you:

Oh, and if anyone can persuade Cambridge Labour Party that they can do so much more with their facebook page (see please get onto them. Because compared to what Dr Creasy has for her constituency here and for her deputy leadership campaign here…exactly.

“What if Stella and Jeremy win? Could they work together?”

They would certainly make a very formidable partnership. Age and genders aside, they compensate for each other’s weaknesses while complement each other’s approaches. As Tony Blair had with John Prescott, such a partnership would ensure Mr Corbyn as party leader would have a deputy from another part of the party rather than a carbon-copy clone. It would also alleviate the concerns some have that under Mr Corbyn the party could turn into an intolerant far-left sect.

I think Mr Corbyn is a lot more pragmatic than many think he is. I don’t buy the doom-and-gloom warnings we’ve seen in the media. The biggest unknown is with the team around him. Who are they and how will they cope with a 24/7 media spotlight? Because while Mr Corbyn & Dr Creasy are more than competent at handling the media, those who might otherwise be currently on the fringes may find themselves facing a baptism of fire. A Conservative Party fresh off an unexpected election victory won’t be doing them any favours – in particular Chancellor George Osborne who is now showing himself to be a sharp and ruthless political operator.

Puffles meets Jeremy Corbyn. Photo by David Cleevely

Puffles meets Jeremy Corbyn. Photo by David Cleevely

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Well, thank f–k that horrible month is over


…because emotionally it crushed me.

Augusts have a habit of doing this, whether I’m in work or out of work. But this one was on a level the likes I’ve not seen in ages.

The biggest blows were probably not getting shortlisted for jobs I had applied for that I & those around me felt I should have done. (In particular those who had flagged up the vacancies with ‘this has got your name written on it). But then I have to remind myself of the people who have sent off dozens if not hundreds of applications only to get no responses or just rejections.

I’m more held back by my health – not being able to work full time. It’s heartbreaking to see vacancies I’m qualified for but can’t manage full time hours for. Even yesterday I lost an entire day to sleep – yet am still not sure what it was that drove me to stay in bed asleep for all of that time. Hence waiting impatiently for this sleep clinic referral.

“So…what’s this autumn going to be like?”

Whatever we make of it.

Finding some part-time regular work to pay for the next stages of my community action work is my main priority at the moment. A mix of equipment upgrades and, if all goes well, producing some new community action videos with a variety of people in front of camera. One of the jobs I went for could have involved making these as part of the role. But hey – never mind. We’ll have to do it the hard way.

Accordingly, I went back through my 2014 manifesto of which I can’t think many people read through. (I blame my rubbish presentation – who has time to read all that?!) Hence putting it into a single PDF at 2014 Manifesto Full – all twenty-something pages of it. I still think there’s lots of good ideas hidden in there – perhaps too many for its own good? One of the few original ideas I’ve had that’s built up a life of its own is Volunteer for Cambridge – something that Anna Malan has made a reality. (Moving from ideas into delivery stage is something I’ve struggled with, so welcome her work in delivering the first fair & continuing with it on an annual basis).

The continual fight with depression

Underneath all of this, of course, is the bubbling narrative of failure. I failed. I let every one down. I was supposed to be kicking ass and instead I was quietly dying, all the systems going off line, giving up, giving in, all the fight sucked out of me by cognitive absence.

The above is by Louise Kidney, who I first met not long after I left the civil service. Post-election, I’ve felt similar. I still am. There have been days where I have simply lost the will to fight – to even get out of the house. The repeated Fridays with another failed job application. Yet, just like those refugees, I just have to keep trying – their plight being much more fraught with danger & uncertainty than mine.

One of the tricky bits is doing the jigsaw of picking courses & classes that don’t at the same time shut off opportunities further down the line…while at the same time not paralysing myself & choosing nothing. For example this course on public services looks interesting but I’m not in a position to do a full-time anything, whether course or employment. A far cry from a decade ago when I was doing a full-time job and up to 15 hours of volunteering a week.

Fighting the same community action battles over & over again

One of the big themes of my community action is changing the systems, processes & actions of local institutions. For example, it’s one thing persuading councillors to visit a local secondary school (see but quite another to persuade the council to incorporate such visits into their annual calendar of events.

Is social media in & around Cambridge reaching a plateau?

I ask because I’ve not seen a significant change in how our city uses social media for social action over the past two years. For example I’ve not seen a significant increase in the number of people engaging with local councillors on Twitter. I’m not seeing any improvement in how local public institutions are using Facebook. I’m not seeing much in terms of meetup groups making the link between a desire for an improved city and events/actions that reach out beyond their community groups to make it so. What we do know is that in some sectors we have a cultural challenge.

See the August 2015 newsletter at on P5 which was an emotional body blow given the number of hours I have given for free to Cambridge Online/Net-squared to help local groups learn about social media.

In which direction is my approach going to evolve into?

This I don’t know. It depends on who I meet and the impact they have on me. The glimmer of hope is that the general election result has got more people interested in local democracy to the extent we’ll see new, fresh faces in campaigns, in parties and in slates of candidates for the 2016 local council elections. As I found out in 2014, simply by being different & new you can get a fair amount of coverage for whatever issues you want to talk about. Will parties and candidates have the confidence to try new approaches to extend the profiles of those standing for election?

At the same time, there’s also a responsibility on us as citizens. Democracy isn’t baby food – it’s not something you get spoon-fed. It’s a participatory activity which involves us as individuals taking actions – and responsibility for those actions. As local Conservative activists often tell me, the people get the democracy they deserve. Four in ten people in Cambridge didn’t vote in the 2015 local elections. How we change this for 2020…starts now.

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Diversifying the Liberal Democrats – a once in a generation opportunity?


Will we finally start seeing more women taking more prominent and influential roles for the Liberal Democrats?

I’ll start with this video of Jo Swinson, which I filmed in Cambridge when she was a minister at the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills.

She’s also written a post-election article at as has former Lib Dem councillor Daisy Benson at

Wiped out at the polls

All of the women MPs the Liberal Democrats had in the previous parliament lost their seats in May 2015. Even Julian Huppert lost his seat in Cambridge on what was a very depressing night for the Liberal Democrats. The scale of their defeat as a party was far bigger than I thought it would be – even though many expected them to take a hammering at the polls. As a result, their new policy spokespeople have had to draw on the House of Lords and beyond Parliament – see

Party conference season – make or break for the opposition parties?

The Liberal Democrats are in Bournemouth for their conference, having experienced a significant jump in the number of members since the general election. What will the impact of all of those members – in particular those new to politics be? What’s the breakdown of new vs returning members? How will the party respond to the rise of the Labour left under Corbyn? The Lib Dem conference takes place a couple of weeks after Labour announces its new leader. Where the former position themselves relative to Labour depends as much on who the latter elect as it does on the decisions of Tim Farron, Nick Clegg’s successor.

An opportunity to showcase some new faces?

In part it depends on how much media coverage the party gets. While the smaller number of MPs may justify a reduced outlay from TV news, the increase in the number of people attending – in particular first time and/or new members may make this one more interesting than previous ones.

Given the news reports and pictures of empty seats from their 2014 conference, the boost in numbers and new faces could be just what the party needs to revitalise battle-weary members while galvanising and bringing together new members into co-ordinated campaigning units. With a backdrop of such an electoral low point, there might be something liberating about not having to worry about things getting any worse. This feels familiar in the pro vs anti-Corbyn debates inside Labour. For the pro-Corbyn, having lost 2 elections in a row is as bad as things can get towing a moderate line – now is the time to try something radical. For those against Corbyn, it’s the opposite – Corbyn could take Labour even lower. Hence the splits and the risk of even more paralysis should the infighting continue after Labour decides who should be its leader.

The Liberal Democrats as the primary opposition party in Cambridgeshire

They oppose a Labour-led council in Cambridge, a Conservative-led South Cambridgeshire District Council, and are the second-largest party on Cambridgeshire County Council (no overall control) and also the second-largest party on East Cambs District Council…with two councillors to over 30 for the Conservatives. Where and how do local activists position themselves?

In Cambridge, the party got crushed by the Cambridge University Labour Club steamroller that saw Daniel Zeichner MP take the seat from Dr Julian Huppert. The previous year I saw first hand an exhausted council deposed by Labour in an election me & Puffles stood in. As a result, previously high-profile councillors have had a much lower profile, or have moved on completely. I’m interested to see who for the county’s Lib Dems will step forward to take their places. Anecdotally, local activists have spoken positively about the local rise in membership, but I’ve not seen that reflected in local news coverage.

Cambridge Student Liberal Democrats – a lack of women activists?

They’ve lost a couple of high-profile & hard-working women due to graduation, which is inevitable in any student movement in a town with stupendously high house prices. Yet even with those activists, in the run up to the 2015 general election the number of women campaigning was tiny compared to the numbers of men. As with any student political party, how do you encourage people from under-represented backgrounds, communities to get involved without frightening them off or over-burdening them?

There’s also the ‘intellectual bubble’ of Cambridge – something that social media is fortunately helping to break. This is with the organising of events. To their credit, both Cambridge Student Liberal Democrats & Cambridge Young Greens were very good in making nearly all of their events open to the public – inviting me to go along and film/live tweet. While Cambridge Labour were fine with me coming along when I put in a request, the difference in approaches in terms of political culture was that the other two parties seemed that bit more pro-active to non-members than Labour was.

My point is that there are a number of places far beyond university colleges where interested young people are. If only you’d invite them to your events. Not in terms of a tweet or a Facebook link, but going to where they are.

The suggestion I have for Cambridgeshire is a series of ‘campaigns at bus stops’. Look at the Cambridgeshire Guided Bus route: Pick a school day, pick a stop that lots of further education students use – eg Long Road Sixth Form College on the Addenbrooke’s route, Cambridge Railway Station, Cambridge Regional College and Huntingdonshire Regional College, schedule a stall at both stops from 2-5pm when students are waiting for buses (& will have time to talk to you/have no time to rush off (captive audience), have a specific event to invite them to, and repeat. The reason why CRC & HRC matter is because you get a very different demographic of students to those who might otherwise go onto university to study academic subjects. As students at those institutions tend to stay in their locality after completing their courses, could this help get a greater number of young activists campaigning locally in the long term?

And finally…will the men who have dominated the Liberal Democrats for years let go of the reins?

This is easier said than done – although Tim Farron set out his stall early on with a 50-50 split on gender with his list of party policy leads. The reason is that they only have eight all male MPs. This means that their presence in the Commons can be easily overlooked – especially with voting unless they co-ordinate with the other parties. This leaves their large presence in the increasingly discredited House of Lords – see Being a party of democrats doesn’t sit easily with such a large presence of appointed legislators. Yet it is in the Lords that they can make the biggest difference in terms of scrutinising, amending & blocking the Government’s plans.

Fast forward five years to a 2020 general election

This for me will be the acid test for the Liberal Democrats: Will they select a critical mass of women MPs in winnable seats given the turfing out of incumbents in 2015, or will they allow former long-standing MPs another shot at Parliament? How many of the former MPs who still have political ambitions will stand aside and instead support and nurture women activists in the party who have the potential to become good MPs? In fact, that goes for all parties while there is still an imbalance in Parliament.

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Why is the UK government not pushing for a substantial co-ordinated response to refugees crisis?


It’s like there is an international politics vacuum in the face of a big crisis. So what are our institutions doing?

Frances Coppola posted in which I feel similar. So what are international governments doing in the face of it? By the responses on the news today, very little.

The thing is, we’ve been here before. During my teens, the news was regularly filled with the horrors of the wars of the breakup of Yugoslavia. Vukovar, Mostar, Dubrovnik, Srebrenica, Zagreb, Sarajevo – the names trip off my head as if it were yesterday. And the EU froze in the face of it. President Mitterand, Chancellor Kohl and Prime Minister John Major failed to come up with a common EU response. At the same time, the UN peacekeeping missions were regularly humiliated with repeated incidents of peacekeepers being taken hostage (as happened to British forces in 1995) or forced to back off in the face of fighters more heavily armed than they were. I can’t help but feel that ever since then, the UN has been sidelined, and ultimately made redundant on the big international stage following the Iraq War of 2003.

“Yeah – where is the UN in this?”

Good question. Because if the UN Security Council cannot respond to what’s happening in Iraq & Syria, what’s the point of it? Has the UK given up on the UN as an international policy-making institution? The UN has been conspicuous by its absence as a place where decisions are made and things happen as far as mainstream news is concerned.

Trying to deal with international issues while placating domestic audiences at the same time

Both Chancellor Merkel and Prime Minister Cameron seem to be caught in the headlights on this. Chancellor Merkel has to keep domestic critics in line with all things Greece, while Mr Cameron has his own self-tied hands with the EU referendum coming up. In the latter’s case, it was something completely self-inflicted as he panicked in the face of the 2014 UKIP threat – one that failed to materialise in the 2015 general election. EU institutions are paralysed at source. They have no separate source of funding (for example through a financial transactions tax, a multinational corporations’/’we’re based on an offshore tax haven’ tax or through duties on imports into the EU) for European institutions. EU commissioners are tied by patronage to member states that nominate them. Hence little appetite to take on powerful national leaders. What do they do in the face of the refugees crisis?

What about the refugees?

The UK government’s response is the policy equivalent of putting some plasticine into the channel tunnel. Hearing ministers and the Prime Minister talk of fences, sniffer dogs and more private security guards has been quite frankly embarrassing. Everyone knows that the highest walls in the world around Calais are not going to solve the problem. People will simply switch to another port. Even then, the numbers being mentioned of those heading to the UK are a fraction of those heading say to Germany.

A little bit of history

On the difference between Germany and the UK, having spent several months in both Germany and Austria in the middle of the last decade, one thing that struck me culturally was the impact of land borders with the rest of Europe vs the UK. In a post-1945 and a post-1989 world, I could understand the desire to remove what seemed like unnecessary land border controls. Compare this to a history of at one time having the world’s most powerful navy. In the run-up to the First World War, the UK maintained a ‘two-power standard’ – that’s to say government policy was that the Royal Navy would be bigger and more powerful than the next two most powerful navies in the world combined. Up until 1900 this was always thought to be France and Russia. So our historical mindset is that we’ve always been able to control our sea borders.

Yet being a sea-trading nation and a former imperial power, we also find that a number of these refugees speak English pretty well. You only have to watch the news reports of the UK journalists interviewing refugees – sometimes in pretty distressing circumstances. I recall clips of some being interviewed on crowded trains, or having just stepped off death-trap boats having survived hazardous crossings.

“So…what is the solution?”

You know what? I don’t know. Haven’t a scoobie doo. Not the foggiest.

All I know is that what’s currently happening isn’t working, and that no one single policy response will work. The problem is too big in scale and too complex in its makeup for something like ‘remove all border controls’ to work without creating its own problems elsewhere.

“Has the hollowing out of nation states contributed to the crisis?”

I think it has. Having been in a policy team where I felt we did not have the staff or expertise to face down very powerful industry lobbyists in pre-austerity days, I can’t imagine what it must be like for those in policy teams who have to advise ministers and politicians whose world view seems ever so narrow. If you’re a minister and the main public comments you make are about fences in Calais rather than a co-ordinated EU-wide policy response, your world view is narrow. In my opinion anyway.

Looking at by Amnesty International, it’s interesting to note the lack of solidarity from other Gulf nations. Given the UK’s close diplomatic links with countries in that part of the world, shouldn’t ministers and royals be pushing for those states to do far more regarding a crisis that is on their doorstep? That’s an example of an action that could form part of a co-ordinated policy response. So why won’t ministers make more of a big deal of this given the wealth from those parts of the world we see in our media and sometimes on our streets in the form of expensive cars?

People taking their own actions inspite of the UK government…

Cambridge politicians and activists have formed a refugee support group – there are also numerous other examples of civic society putting ministerial inaction to shame. Inevitably what small groups can do will never be enough to match the powers that the state has, but while the state does next to nothing, it’s understandable that people will want to take their own positive action.

As we found out with the Tsunami of just under a decade ago, it’s one thing raising money & aid, but quite another thing effectively distributing & delivering it. Hence needing competent (in more ways than one) authorities to at least do the co-ordinating. Whether it’s reception centres for refugees to having a unified response to those oppressive governments in those countries that are the source of refugees – both numbers and as a percentage of population.

The issues and problems are linked, and that means the policy response must be linked & co-ordinated too. Unfortunately we’re seeing perilously little of this. As a result, the end to the refugee crisis seems to be a very long way away.

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On life’s great equaliser


On life after Mog – and on dealing with one of life’s final taboos.

A sombre day today as we took Mog to the vet to be put to sleep following a short illness. A large stomach tumour and failing kidneys meant she’d lost a huge amount of weight and was drinking continuously. This despite struggling to do so, getting water up her nose each time. With her decline she inevitably looked worse for wear – having stopped grooming as well.

How are you supposed to feel about the passing of a creature who had been there for half of your life?

Mog, shortly before she died.

Mog, shortly before she died.

She arrived one spring morning just before the 1997 general election. This six-week-old bundle of fun looked far too small to be away from her mum, but having been a cat-less house since the disappearance of Mog’s predecessor some 18 months earlier (who had been in the house since before I was born), was glad to have a four-legged friend to scare off rodents. I’m not good with meeces.

She’s been one of the few constants over the years. Always loud, always sociable…and always hungry. She pre-dated the house having internet access, & bridged the gap between four generations of our family – from my late grandparents through to my young niece & nephew. She saw me leave to go to university, & saw me return from London exhausted as I exited the civil service during the big post-2010 cuts. She was even around to see the arrival of that Twitter phenomenon known as Puffles the Dragon Fairy – even being there for our election campaign.

Puffles, Mog & Michelle working on a digital video project with Dana & Ceri in the background.

Puffles, Mog & Michelle working on a digital video project with Dana & Ceri in the background.

People have drifted in & drifted out of my life, women have come and gone, I have joined institutions and have left disappointed – sometimes heartbroken as with relationships & flings aforementioned. But Mog was always there – that constant in the background (or the foreground, depending on her mood). After a while, I guess I assumed she’d always keep on going.

Her final few weeks were a struggle for her

It’s never easy to see a living being in such a state. Struggling to eat, losing weight considerably and struggling to drink properly despite an increased thirst linked to failing kidneys. Hence the vet’s recommendation to put her to sleep – which the vet did this afternoon.

I could have gone along, but chose not to – leaving it to my Dad & sister-in-law to take her to the vet. When she returned, she was finally at peace. I spent part of the previous night sat down on the floor by the fridge with her, watching helplessly as she struggled to drink without getting water up her nose & sneezing. Health aside, nothing had changed. She was still the same cat with the same personality & the same ‘miaow’. Perhaps we both knew what was coming.

Digging her grave

I’d never done this before. I can’t pretend to have done the greatest job, going as far down as the stoney chalk layer below the topsoil would let me. I guess this was ‘my bit for her’. There was something therapeutic about doing so – something that was missing in the funerals of past deceased relatives. My sister-in-law and I laid Mog to rest in the ground before I covered her with the topsoil I had dug out earlier, placing several very heavy pot plants on top to as to keep out scavenging creatures.

A poignant reminder of my own mortality

Mog joined our family half my lifetime ago. At that time, I was struggling emotionally at college, disappointed as my hopes & dreams seemed to vanish & with no support from friends or institutions. Fast forward to now, and a number of my younger Twitter followers are preparing to make that step to college or university for the first time. How I wish I could recapture those days & not make the mistakes that I did – which amongst other things were not having the courage to follow my heart & fight for what I wanted. I was already conditioned to follow, not rebel against authority & established conventions – irrespective of whether they were working for or against me. All the more harder now as I struggle with sleep, a lack of energy and a state of health that means I cannot work full-time hours. At the same time, the fight hasn’t gone out of me.

Comparing experiences – Mog vs human family

This article appeared in my FB feed during the day. It got me thinking about how our family’s ‘human’ funerals were handed over to other institutions that had their pre-set procedures & rituals. In the ones that have involved close relatives, I’ve always felt like I was a bystander. A group of strangers in mourning/morning suits would move the coffins while clerics from the churches that our family went to during my childhood would run the services. Where the deceased were regular attendees of services, you can understand why a religious institution would take the lead at a time when the family of the deceased is going through emotional turmoil. Less so perhaps where there is little or no relationship between the family and the institution. Hence the comments on the Facebook article.

What are the alternatives for dealing with what’s left of us after we’re gone?

For example, we have a city cemetery that a handful of my family members are buried in, but has anyone thought of having a city woodland where people can choose to be buried in an ecopod with a tree planted over them as at Given the relative lack of trees in these parts vs more forested areas, I think that would be quite nice. We also have a county crematorium. During my civil service days I was taken on a tour of one in Norfolk or Suffolk – one of the two. People forget that this too is a public service.

The first time I came across alternatives to church funerals – or mainstream religious ceremonies generally, was with former Hove Green Party Parliamentary Candidate Anthea Ballam ( who I got to know when she stood in 2001 at the time I was living in Hove on the south coast. Over the years, I became more familiar with alternatives as people threw out the rule book and as laws changed. My cousin chose to ditch formalities for her wedding several years ago, going for readings & performances by those close to her, & treating the legalities as a simple formality required by law. (The best bit for me was the big ‘dressing up box’ idea for the children – who quickly changed out of formalwear to dress up as superheroes).

I can understand why some people get angry with religious institutions in particular when funerals & weddings seem ending up being more about the faith than the family concerned. Even more so when it seems like an attempt to get money from or control over people by whatever means. Is this the result of us not talking enough about something that is a constant for all of us – something that we will all experience? Is it in part the result of only giving serious thought to this at a time when entire families are going through emotional distress at the loss of a loved one?

Mog as a marker of time

I tweeted that her passing was the end of an era for me –  a chance to reflect on the changes in the world we live in over the course of her life. Yes, the house will be more quiet without her. No longer: “I have to get home – got a cat & a dragon to feed” as I sometimes joke. Sleep well Mog, will miss you.

Making posters for 'Be the change - Cambridge'

Making posters for ‘Be the change – Cambridge’

Puffles & Mog - bestest friends forreva!

Puffles & Mog – bestest friends forreva!

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