Local democracy social media – comparing political parties in Cambridge post-2015 elections


Some thoughts following tweets & posts from Labour’s Cllr Carina O’Reilly & Lib Dem former councillor Daisy Benson

The Twitter post concerned is as below:

Ms Benson’s blogpost on old vs new party members (in the context of Liberal Democrats – but is worth reading by all parties) is at https://englandisthehomeoflostideas.wordpress.com/2015/08/01/how-libdemfightback-found-its-voice-and-is-teaching-us-oldies-a-lesson/

Longtime readers may be familiar with my ongoing persistent poking of local political parties to improve how they use social media to have conversations with local residents and activists in & around Cambridge. It was one of the main drivers of Puffles standing for election in 2014. (89 votes – beat UKIP :-) )

Political parties aren’t under any obligation to tell me anything as per Cllr O’Reilly’s post. What Labour or any other party chooses to tell people is entirely up to them. What I’m examining here is the impact, and a comparison of approaches. Let’s have a look at the four parties represented on Cambridge City Council.

Cambridge Conservatives:

Cambridge Green Party

Cambridge Labour Party

Cambridge Liberal Democrats

Now, compared to where we were a few years ago, nominally we now have full coverage on the three main social media platforms: A website, Twitter & Facebook. Progress.

“Here we go again. Crazy dragon dude saying Twitter will win elections. It’s door-to-door campaigning that matters!”

If anything, from where I was watching it was the sustained campaign by the print media that had a massive impact on the election campaign. 2015 wasn’t the social media election. It was the national newspapers’ election. My anecdotal take on the print media is that most people (thinking those that don’t follow day-to-day politics closely) don’t buy their newspaper of choice because of their political coverage – especially the tabloids. With some of my old housemates it was things like crosswords, sport, jubblies, celebrity gossip and the TV guide. Yet if that newspaper is the only insight into politics that you have on a daily basis…exactly. Then picture the doorstep conversation with a political activist:

Resident: “Yeah – wot is your party doing about asylum-seeking terrorists living in five-star hotels that we’re paying for?”

Party activist: “That’s simply not true!”

Resident: “Are you calling me a liar?!?!”

And thus the party activist is automatically on the back foot. This is even though we as a society have issues about how informed we are about things – on refugees in 2000, on just about everything in 2013, and on just about everything again in 2014. Hence various calls in 2015 to improve the teaching of politics & citizenship in schools in the run up to 2015.

“If it’s all mainstream media, why bother with social media?”

In the context of Cambridge, it matters because of the big changes that are happening here and some of the devolution of funding & powers looming with the City Deal (which far too few people know about). With local news outlets having a very limited capacity to cover politics, social media allows local journalists in particular to follow what’s going on without having to attend every single meeting. You only need to look at the number of videos Richard Taylor and I have had embedded in news articles for the Cambridge News. It’s also why I’m experimenting with ‘Introducing…’ videos such as the one below.

That video alone has had a total 4 hours of video footage viewed by over 70 people with almost zero publicity.

“Yeah – but why should our members-only society tell you stuff? You might leak it to opponents!”

From my perspective that would completely undermine everything I’m trying to do to get more people involved in local democracy. The reason why I’m doing this is I want to see decision-making improved in the city because I want my home town to be a better place, not an expanded finishing school for ‘crammers‘ or a safe haven for property speculators. The difference I can make is to get more people involved, and in order to do this I continue to persuade local political parties to make it easier for new people, members or not, to get involved with them. This is because they are the ones with the powers & influence. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read a reader’s letter in the local paper about how someone must do something about bad stuff happening in the city other than ‘clowncillors’. What if you are that ‘somebody’?

“We’re still not going to tell you what we’re doing!”

This is where we get into the comparison of approaches online. Let’s compare the Facebook pages of the parties.

  • Conservatives https://www.facebook.com/CambridgeTories – 605 ‘likes’
  • Greens https://www.facebook.com/Cambridgegreenparty – 997 ‘likes’
  • Labour https://www.facebook.com/CambridgeLabourParty – 404 ‘likes’
  • Liberal Democrats https://www.facebook.com/CambridgeLDs – 191 ‘likes’

Not a patch on the over 5,000 fans of the Disco Kenny Appreciation Society. What we don’t know is the geographical distribution of the fans. But given that all bar four of the councillors on Cambridge City Council are Labour or Liberal Democrat councillors, it’s interesting to see that both the Greens & Conservatives have more fans on Facebook. As far as content & activities are concerned, The Greens upload a greater volume of more diverse content more regularly. Video footage, party events, links to national party news, links to national party announcements. Even if I didn’t do what I do following local democracy, as a local resident I feel more informed about what’s going on in The Greens locally than what’s going on with other parties.

Leadership debates – a missed opportunity for both Labour and the Liberal Democrats?

Liberal Democrats’ leadership

The Lib Dems had a hustings in Cambridge in the contest between Tim Farron & Norman Lamb. The hustings was a members only affair – hence why I didn’t go along to it but had a number of friends – a few who are new members, who did. Given Mr Farron’s electrifying speech following his subsequent victory over Mr Lamb, I wonder what the impact would have been if a full hustings and Q&A session had been made open to anyone who wanted to go along. See below for Mr Farron’s speech

Ms Benson (https://twitter.com/_DaisyBenson on Twitter) has been persistent in calling for changes in her party – in particular on diversifying membership of, and candidates for her party.

The Newbies group is a public group, established groups tend to be secret…The main difference I’ve observed between the Newbies Facebook group and others that abound in the Lib Dems is in terms of tone –  posts and comments tend to be generally positive, hopeful, open and discursive.

In Cambridge, this autumn could have a significant impact on what happens to the Liberal Democrats. In the 12 months leading up to the general election, I attended a number of events hosted by Cambridge Student Liberal Democrats. I couldn’t help but notice how few women there were at those events. This was despite the visits of Lynne Featherstone (video https://vimeo.com/120850313 & Jo Swinson (video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jip3E3yI-Jc) and Baroness Sal Brinton (video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wsg8GqkBCJo) amongst others. I’ll be interested to see what the demographics of the new membership is locally, given that over 10,000 people have joined the Liberal Democrats nationally since the general election. (Anyone got the numbers for Cambridge & South Cambridgeshire?)

Labour leadership

Both Andy Burnham and Tom Watson have been in Cambridge recently to talk to Labour Party members and activists. A couple of friends who weren’t members went along to Mr Watson’s talk & found out it was open to everyone. I’ve met Mr Watson on a couple of occasions before – someone more than capable of holding his own in a debate. So why so little publicity whether online or offline of his visit? If you’ve got some of your most high profile politicians visiting the city, doesn’t it make sense to enable them to meet as many people as possible? Yet as Cllr O’Reilly tweeted just now:

This brings me back to the mindset & culture issue that Ms Benson raised in her blogpost.

Let’s stop shutting people and conduct our discussions in open forum – not exclusively or behind closed doors.

Compare it with the blogpost by Guardian Columnist and Labour Party member Alex Andreou – read from the sub-heading: Labour as a private members club at https://sturdyblog.wordpress.com/2015/08/02/on-labour-being-taken-over-by-lefties/

“But your not a member. Why would we want to publicise when and where our members meet and socialise?”

For me, that mindset is completely at odds with the builders of the Romsey Town Labour Club in Cambridge whose members not only raised the money for a party social club, but who also built it in their spare time too. Next door is the Conservative Club, a place now more well-known locally for its salsa classes than for its politics. Where are the informal places that the wider community can go to knowing that they might bump into one of their local politicians? Or am I imagining an age that no longer exists?

Making gatherings energised, interesting & exciting

Over the past year I have been to events hosted by The Greens, The Liberal Democrats & The Labour Party – and all have been able to host events that are as in the sub-heading. Hence (finally) coming to the purpose of this blogpost:

To encourage local political parties to make more of their events explicitly open to non-members, and to publicise them more widely in the run up to the autumn term


Because I’ve found that when people meet and have informal conversations with politicians local & national, it helps dispel some of the negative stereotypes about politicians and politics in general. It’s one of the reasons why in 2013-14 I was creating, printing & displaying posters (at my own expense) in community venues and local colleges where current & former ministers were speaking in Cambridge.

From the perspective of Labour, The Liberal Democrats & The Greens, they should consider that several thousand 16-17 year olds are going to be starting further education in Cambridge having previously attended village colleges & schools outside the city – in constituencies & council areas dominated by their Conservative opponents. (Both Heidi Allen MP & Lucy Frazer MP got over 50% of the vote in South Cambs & South East Cambs in 2015 respectively). Can your city parties help revitalise your rural parties? For the Conservatives, it’s the other way around – where in Cambridge the party was in the lowest 10% of constituency voter share despite it winning the general election.

In a nutshell though:

  • Make it easy for the general public to find out about what events & activities you are organising (& be far less secretive about it)
  • Host events in venues that are accessible for people – think public transport/car parking (I have made the mistake of organising events in places not accessible by wheelchair – a big issue for venues in Cambridge)
  • Go out of your way to make new faces feel welcome at such gatherings

After all, make us feel welcome at a buzzing event and we’re more likely to tell people about it. :-)

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Speculating on the Labour leadership contest


No, I don’t have a clue who’s going to win, but…

…longtime Puffles’ follower Jeremy Corbyn MP has got the Labour HQ Establishment rattled. Have a watch:

Compared to the 2010 contest where Diane Abbott MP was the candidate of ‘the left’, Mr Corbyn is being touted as a potential and unexpected winner. Perhaps what MPs were expecting of Mr Corbyn was similar to what Ms Abbott achieved – getting party leaders to discuss issues that they otherwise did not want to discuss, but without being a serious contender. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if Gordon Brown faced a proper contest against John McDonnell MP back in 2007. This is where for the Liberal Democrats, another of Puffles’ longtime followers, Daisy Benson got it spot on with their recent contest.

Listening to the above-linked LBC debate, Liz Kendall MP isn’t saying much beyond platitudes that could come from any of the main parties. Andy Burnham MP & Yvette Cooper MP are both being ultra-cautious, though the latter appears to be being swayed by the momentum behind Mr Corbyn. Social media reaction to the debate was that it was generally Mr Corbyn who was giving the clear, short answers on policy.

“Are any of the four potential future prime ministers?”

Not at the moment. What impressed me initially about Ms Kendall was that straight after the election, she was the only person who unequivocally stepped forward and said she wanted the leadership following Ed Miliband’s resignation.

“So…if none of them are potential future PMs…?”

I’ve tweeted before that the next Labour PM will come from somewhere else. My eye has been on Stella Creasy MP for some time because whenever I’ve met her, she’s had this ‘presence’ that few other Labour MPs have had. Her biggest weakness – the same as Mr Corbyn’s and Ms Kendall’s is that they haven’t got experience of running a large organisation. Whether Ms Cooper and Mr Burnham were effective in running ministries when Labour were last in office is debatable – especially under the iron fist of Gordon Brown.

“What if Jeremy wins?” 

There are a number of parallels with the Conservatives in 2001. Having just lost an election under a right-wing William Hague, they went further away from the centre with Iain Duncan Smith. The most cringe-worthy moment of his leadership was the staged standing ovations in his leader speech at the 2003 conference – have a watch. That’s not to say Mr Corbyn is the same as IDS – not at all. For a start Mr Corbyn has much more experience of public speaking given the number of protest rallies he’s spoken at over the decades.

If Mr Corbyn wins, the acid test for him will be first the European referendum, and then (if the UK votes to stay in), the Euro elections of 2018. Both those points could lead to a leadership challenge from the right of Labour.

Unleashing the activists

I got the sense in the 2015 general election that Labour never really let their activists off the leash policy-wise. The recent debacle over the welfare bill shows this is still an issue – one the SNP and The Greens, and to a lesser extent the Liberal Democrats are benefiting from. A simple, principled: “We are voting against this bill at 2nd reading because that’s what an official opposition does” would have sufficed. How many voters would have been lost for the 2020 election as a result of opposition vs supporters lost as a result of the smudged abstention?

As a result, those who are not joined at the hip to the Labour Party – particularly those new to political activism may well look to other parties who are now promoting themselves as taking a stronger stand against the Government. I get the sense from social media posts that Labour grassroots activists want to take a stronger stand against the Government, and are supporting Mr Corbyn because out of the candidates standing he is the one who is taking the strongest stand policy-wise.

It may well be that a Mr Corbyn victory will be enough to energise and mobilise grassroots activists to strengthen the party’s core vote, but perhaps at a cost with the wider electorate as the mainstream media go to war with him as they did with Mr Miliband. Should Mr Corbyn then be toppled in the face of such a media onslaught prior to the 2020 general election, that will be the point for a relatively new face free from the baggage of Blair & Brown to step in.

On why this campaign is different to previous campaigns

It’s not just ‘soshall-meejah!’

Society is in a very different place to 2005, and even 1995. This is where Gaby Hinsliff is spot on about Labour and new technology. From a policy perspective, can Labour (or any of the opposition parties) develop policies that demonstrate both technological and scientific literacy? That involves having activists and politicians inside the party who are technologically & scientifically literate, and who are in positions to influence & make policy.

For me, this is reflected locally too – with the local Greens ‘as a local political institution’ running away with using digital video and Facebook. Individual councillors from Cambridge Labour & Liberal Democrats are prolific tweeters, but that is as individuals rather than as a single political entity. In a nutshell it’s much easier for people to find out about Cambridge Green Party events than it is events run by Cambridge Labour Party or Cambridge Liberal Democrats.

“How should Labour members vote?”

It’s not for me to say – I’m not a member.

As with any vote for a politician, unless you are standing yourself you’ll have to make compromises on the weaknesses of the person you end up voting for. One interesting alternative that was put up was to have Harriet Harman MP as interim leader for a year or two, and have the big policy debates in the meantime to then enable a new leader to come through on the back of those debates. It’s a chicken and egg thing: Which comes first, the policies or the leader?

With only two candidates, the Liberal Democrats got their contest over with quickly – easier with only 8 eligible people who could stand given their annihilation at the ballot box last May. Here’s Tim Farron MP’s first speech as their leader.

Critics of Mr Farron from the right wing of the Liberal Democrats said their party risked going leftwards under him vs Norman Lamb MP. Mr Lamb gave Mr Farron a good run for his money given the lead that Mr Farron had. From watching both campaigns from afar, I got the sense that Mr Farron would fare better at mobilising his party’s membership and delivering the barnstorming speeches in the face of the new Government’s policies. I also expect to hear regularly how some of the new Government’s policies will be labelled as ones blocked by the Liberal Democrats when they were in coalition with the Conservatives. Whether it will be enough to win back lost votes remains to be seen.

An exposed left flank? A very exposed Scottish flank?

This is the challenge whoever wins for Labour. Having lost all-but-one of their Westminster seats in Scotland, they now have to deal with an SNP playing a very different game – not feeling bound historic past parliamentary conventions. For example the SNP seem to be better at ensuring its MPs are seen to be in the chamber for more debates – combining footage and snapshots of this with their social media campaigning. Remember that the Scottish Parliament has elections in 2016, so in that sense Labour and the Liberal Democrats have a huge challenge in turning around their fortunes in such a short space of time.

As far as The Greens are concerned, their 2015 autumn conference in Bournemouth will be the first since the Green Surge of late 2014. Their website states they’re expecting up to 2,000 people there. In mid-2014 their total membership was around 5,000. It’s now over 60,000. Aside from the media coverage, much will depend on what improvements The Greens can make to their internal systems & processes in order to organise those members into an effective campaigning machine that can breakout beyond the towns where it has core support such as Brighton, Norwich, Bristol and Cambridge.

“Isn’t this the early 1980s again? A split left allowing the Conservatives to take all?”

Perhaps one of the surprises was that UKIP only got one seat. This will make their party conference interesting to watch this autumn. Now that the Conservatives have an unexpected majority in the Commons, in the short term at least I can’t see any Mark Reckless-style defections. From the Conservatives’ perspective, they’ve seen off UKIP, wiped out their coalition partners and left their main parliamentary opposition in complete disarray. The Chancellor’s recent post-election budget along with the Welfare Bill resulted in the media focus swinging towards Labour’s problems rather than the impact of the proposed legislation. With Mr Corbyn seemingly the only one of the four candidates opposing the forthcoming legislation on principle, you can understand why in grassroots social media circles at least, he’s getting support. It’s a message that’s much easier to communicate. ‘Tories will bring in £Xbillion in cuts, it will hurt the most vulnerable, we will oppose!’

‘Don’t blame us for you being rubbish!’

I can understand the frustrations of some Labour activists about the impact that both The Greens & the SNP have had on the election – in particular where the combined Green and Labour vote exceeds that in constituencies where a Conservative MP was returned. Even more so given the very small Conservative majority. Both Gower & Croydon spring to mind. Labour also lost ground to UKIP – in particular in their traditional northern heartlands where the Conservatives struggled to register. To what extent should Labour concentrate on shoring up their core vote, and to what extent should they chase the swing vote? Remember also that two of their four most senior politicians lost their seats in 2015 – Ed Balls (shadow chancellor) and Douglas Alexander (shadow foreign secretary). If you can’t inspire people in your own neighbourhood…exactly.

Mr Alexander himself was beaten by 20 year old politics student Mhairi Black MP – whose maiden speech clocked up 10million views. I didn’t rate Mr Alexander following a speech he made in Cambridge a few years ago, & didn’t rate his performances on BBC panel shows either. Hence why I wasn’t that surprised to hear he lost his seat in the 2015 elections. That’s not to say he was an ineffective politician – he may well have been very good in the backroom negotiating & influencing role. But on the podium and on camera – perhaps as with Mr Miliband as leader, neither could really inspire. Perhaps it’s a reminder to all political parties that there’s only so long you can take certain votes for granted?

“Inspiration…it’s a common theme, isn’t it?”

Gaby Hinsliff’s final two paragraphs are one of many examples that mention this. Labour activist Paul Bernal is another here. Ms Kendall was quoted in one of the leadership debates stating that Labour needed a new generation of politicians to come through when questioned on whether Ed Miliband would be invited into a shadow cabinet led by her. The advantage this has is the Conservatives cannot use the line: “Well when s/he was a minister…”. The disadvantage if you’ve got a career politician in post with no outside experience is…the lack of experience. This is where eye will be upon the few MPs with high-level experience outside party politics – such as Keir Starmer MP (former director of public prosecutions) & former soldier Dan Jarvis MP.

The reason why people such as Mr Jarvis & Mr Starmer are interesting is because in their previous jobs, they will have been under the sorts of pressure that gives them experience of whether to judge something as a storm on a Twitter-feed or something much more serious.

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…And the doctor said…


Following last Monday’s appointment…which felt all too rushed.

Blood tests first – which I managed to get done on the same rainy day in which most of the people down Mill Road seemed to be drunk. So much for the street drinking ban.

I’m back on the coming Monday to find out the results. If they come back with nothing, then I get the referrals to the sleep clinic & mental health services. There’s the possibility that my thyroid is up the creak. Hence doing the tests first as my symptoms seem to match this.

I’m on a different ‘crisis’ medication – one I’ve been on before but one I said didn’t work last time because I assumed all doses were the same. But 10mg of one is not the same as 25mg of another. This one seems to have fewer side effects. Increasing the dose of the last one set me up in a rash – something I get very rarely & made me go ****eeek!****

I’m taking the rest of the week ‘off’ so to speak. I’m behind on lots of things so apologies for everyone waiting for an email or a reply. My next ‘target’ is being in a fit state for Sunday’s Dowsing rehearsal. If I can’t cope with that, I won’t be fit for the gig.

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My mental health issues – an update


Following a difficult past week…

Small mercies for far fewer tweets from Puffles – and sleeping through George Osborne’s budget (which even the IFS said disproportionately impacted on the poor. Their full analysis is at http://www.ifs.org.uk/tools_and_resources/budget/505).

My parents have returned from holiday having spent 3 weeks away. The parallels with my 2012 mental health crisis are striking – in terms of impact on my mental health. In a nutshell, it’s like: “Fuck! I can’t cope with living on my own!”

The importance of sleep – and of peace of mind

In recent times I’ve become more aware of the impact that sleeplessness has on me – in particular something that makes it hard for me to a) get to sleep and b) wake up feeling rested. I can only describe it as where my body ‘forgets to breathe’. After about 30 seconds of ‘forgetting to breathe’ my brain sends what feels like an electric shock throughout my body which is its way of saying ‘You forgot to breathe.’ Now, that either makes me a New Labour MP circa 1998, or (as is more likely) a Central Sleep Apnea.

One of the things I struggled with living alone in the past is not having the peace of mind of someone else in the house while I was out. ie someone who could deal with any bad stuff from happening. In my case it was as simple as ‘Have I left the cooker on?’ or ‘Have I shut the front door properly?’ It’s one thing having what Ben Elton once described as an ‘invisible barstard’ sitting on your shoulder feeding your mind with undermining thoughts. It’s quite another when it’s there 24/7. During my 2012 mental health crisis I blogged a list of thoughts going through my mind in a 30 minute period. That’s the level of intensity I’m talking about. Hence why at times I need medication to act as a ‘mind off switch’.

Off to the doctor on Monday

In the grand scheme of things I’ve kept a distance from mental health provision locally, having not had the best experiences of it 10-12 years ago. Given how things have moved on – not least with the increased awareness & research done on all things mental health, there’s no time like now to find out what’s now available. Back in 2004 I did a number of interviews for the BBC on TV & radio about being a service user for Centre 33. I’m now too old to be a service user, but their service setup at the time was excellent for me.

Anyway, I’m off to find out if I can get a referral to a specialist sleep clinic to see if my conclusion on central sleep apnea is correct, and also to get a referral to our local mental health services team. If I can get both of those, I’ll be content.

“Why ‘content’ and not ‘happy’?”

Curse of the deep-thinker, one step at a time. There’s too much bad stuff going on in the world for me to be happy in the way I’d like to be. I wrote about this in a paper diary once, stating that such ‘happiness’ for me needed to cover four things:

  • Personal
  • Community
  • National
  • Global

At a personal level, this includes things like your own health, and a sense of both direction & stability. Some of you may have stumbled across something similar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Community covers relationships with other people – whether face-to-face or virtual. For the national and global, it’s not so much that we want bad stuff to stop happening, but more that we get the sense we’re working together to deal with the problems that we face – and are making sufficient progress in that. In 1997, I got a sense that we had this…and blew it.

Given where I currently am, I’m focussing on the first two. I’ve taken the view that I don’t have the spoons or the idealism to deal with big campaigns. Hence running with community film-making which has the effect of creating tools for other people to make use of. As I’ve mentioned to local party political activists, digital video is the sort of thing that can work for you ***while you are asleep***.

Having to put lots of things ‘on hold’ while my mind takes time out

My backlog of ‘stuff’ is huge – even though it’s unpaid ‘stuff’. Perhaps now’s the time for a time-out as everyone winds down for the summer. At the same time, I’m trying to use some of it as ‘learning time’ even though my attention span is even shorter than normal. Something linked to sleeplessness? ColeridgeSunriseSmall

Hence learning to take photos such as the above – though something should have told me getting up at 5:30am during a sleepless night isn’t normal. It just occurred to me that the sun was rising and the roads were going to be empty. As it turned out, Coleridge Rec was also open – hence the above photo.

Missing music

I was supposed to be singing with the Dowsing Sound Collective at Ickworth today, but there was no way I was going to be in a fit state for it today. Gutted as I was really looking forward to it. I’m hoping that what I’ve been through this week is a temporary blip – a once in a few years thing, and that I’ll be ready for the performances on 25 July – tickets here!

The gig on 25 July at St John’s College Chapel, Cambridge is going to be noticeably different to the ones at the Cambridge Corn Exchange and at The Apex in Bury St Edmunds last year. One of the reasons is when our music director Andrea Cockerton designs the set list, she has the venue in mind. So what might work in a Victorian 1,000 seat concert hall may not work in a 300 seat chapel or in a brand spanking new modern state of the art town theatre. I think the gigs (there are two performances on the day) will be great – but then I’ve got an inside view :-)

The importance of support

It’s not gone unnoticed, & I’m incredibly grateful for the messages I’ve received from many of you in what can often feel like a very lonely battle against something inside of me.

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A new political party arrives in Cambridge – Women’s Equality Party


Reporting from the first gathering in Cambridge of the Women’s Equality Party (WEP), and also from The Green Party’s summer gathering

I was with both the Cambridge branch of the WEP and with the Cambridge Green Party today – ***thank you*** to both for the warm welcomes!

Earlier this year, former Radio 4 presenter Sandi Toksvig quit the BBC to help set up the new Women’s Equality Party. They’ve had a number of gatherings in London. Recently I became aware of their presence in Cambridge on Twitter – shortly afterwards they started following Puffles. The early responses from Cambridge’s local democracy Twitteratti was from Phil Rodgers – now back in the Liberal Democrat fold.

I rocked up half-way through (mental health/messed up body clock) around 3pm to a room with over 50 people inside, all of them women. While I was expecting the vast majority of the people participating to be women, I didn’t expect there to be a) so many of them and b) no familiar faces from the local democracy scene in Cambridge. Funnily enough, being the only bloke in a crowded room hardly registered with me in the way it did with some of the regulars that accidentally stumbled into the meeting. In large part that’s down to training with the Rollerbillies where often there will only be one or two of us men in a hall of dozens of women skaters preparing for competitive roller-derby. (They don’t have a men’s team). In my case I’m learning in order to get some moving video footage, filming while skating alongside some of the skaters to make some videos for them.

(Here’s one I made earlier)

The comical moment of the afternoon was this:

Pete strolled in, looked like he’d just seen a ghost…and ran out. Fortunately I spotted him in deep but friendly conversation with two of the participants after the event.

“What did people taking part discuss?”

The organisers asked two very good questions for such a first meeting:

  1. What can @WEP_Cambridge do for Cambridgeshire?
  2. What can you do for @WEP_Cambridge?

In the case of Q1, there was a lot of crossover with Be the change – Cambridge‘s (BTCC) conversation cafe event last September: people in groups identifying local issues and then identifying how they might go about responding to them. In my past experience of such events both inside & outside the civil service, the issues people raise are inevitably a reflection of the backgrounds & life experiences of those taking part. Just as with BTCC, we were never going to be able to bring on board representation from every part of our city – much as we would have wanted to. This was also something the WEP participants discussed for their organisation: how do they make it diverse in terms of people and experiences? I am all ears on this because trying to achieve this is ***and*** sustain it is incredibly difficult.

On Q2, it was finding out who could offer what. In my case it was introducing myself as a community reporter & blogger who could do video interviews similar to what I did in around the general election, thus giving them video content for their website. Here’s one example with newly-elected MP for South Cambridgeshire, Heidi Allen.

“What does the WEP stand for?”

Their objectives are here – but as a newly-formed party, don’t expect to see an in-depth platform of detailed & thoroughly-researched policies (ie what, if in power they would do to achieve the objectives set out above) overnight. They’ve only just opened for membership for a start. This is not to say there are no policies being discussed or that no research has been done. Quite the opposite. The point is about the ***legal requirements*** that registered political parties (which the WEP is in the process of becoming) have to meet. See the Electoral Commission here. Until the party nationally has agreed what its policy-making processes are, and then put them into action, no one will be in a position to say what their specific policies are. As a comparison, here’s a summary of policy-making for Tories, Lib Dems & Labour.

“Why can’t someone just stand up and say: “This is our policy!”?”

Because someone else in the party might disagree. How many times in the general election did candidates forget their policies or had to be corrected? Hence needing a suitable process to agree & get consensus on policy.

In May 2014, I stood as Puffles in Coleridge Ward for the 2014 Cambridge City Council elections – mainly because I didn’t think councillors were listening to young people & because the lack of social media use by local public sector institutions compared to pioneers across the country. My manifesto is here. And the first question I was asked at the King’s College hustings was about fracking. I didn’t have a policy on it in my manifesto, so I made one up. On the spot. Fortunately I made it consistent with one of the manifesto themes on Green Cambridge, & said I was against it due to climate change. As a party with a fast-growing membership, you can’t get away with that.

“Will they be a force in the future?”

Too early to tell, but in terms of political plurality (ie having more challenges to the existing political parties) their presence is certainly a welcome one. Not least because the people taking part were people I had not seen at other meetings before. As Pete from the pub said to the participants outside, it’s all very well having meetings inside the pub, but they also need to be ‘out there’ talking to the people. Something far easier said than done. I’m rubbish at it.

Kathryn leading a feedback session for the Women's Equality Party in Cambridge

Kathryn leading a feedback session for the Women’s Equality Party in Cambridge

“Will we see their activists at local area committee meetings?”

I hope so. The contribution I made to the meeting was to invite people to get involved with their local area committees, and for those outside Cambridge City, in their parish councils – ie at neighbourhood level. I also mentioned the Cambridge Central Library campaign win as an example of how they can succeed on issues they are passionate about.

“What did The Greens make of this new political movement?”

Interestingly, at the same time as the WEP gathering, around the corner the Greens had a summer open space event for their activists – followed by a well-attended summer ceilidh that I popped into prior to a photographing the sunset from the edge of town. Given where the two groups are, it’ll be interesting to see what the relationship between the two will be like.

What’s really hitting home about Cambridge Greens vs their local political opponents is their advertising of social gatherings online – in particular to Cambridge’s very active environmental communities. It’s something I touched upon in this article ages ago, yet for whatever reason Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats seem to be much more cautious about who they advertise events to. I think it’s a shame because whenever Labour and Lib Dem activists have organised talks and events, I have found them to be incredibly interesting and of the type that many other members of the public would find interesting too.

Labour trialled a ‘Socialism on tap’ series of events a few years back, featuring current & former Labour MPs, which was excellent. The speakers talked openly about what got them into politics, their values & life experiences, and responded openly , substantively & positively to the difficult questions of the day. Gavin Shuker MP springs to mind as one speaker. It would be great to see the parties actively publicising a series of events this coming autumn term that goes far beyond their normal circles, to members of the public. (And if there’s someone who repeatedly interrupts & is generally anti-social, kick them out. Life’s too short!)

“What will the established local parties make of the WEP?”

It’s slightly more complicated for Cambridge Labour and Cambridge Liberal Democrats because in the grand scheme of things, they are the ones holding all bar four of the seats on Cambridge City Council. If anything, it’ll come down to whether they stand candidates for local elections and if so, how they campaign. (Labour praised The Greens in the recent Romsey by-election for fighting a ‘clean’ campaign). That said, the issues the WEP discussed in Cambridge were ones that went far beyond party politics. I can’t think of any of the issues raised that Labour, the Lib Dems & The Greens would have disagreed with.

The first question they all might want to ask is how was it that over 50 women interested in politics met up in Cambridge right under their noses (across the road from Cambridge Labour’s HQ!), and no one thought to ensure someone popped along to see what it was all about. A lovely hot sunny day and they still chose to spend the afternoon in the pub talking politics – while on the other side of the bridge a similar number of Green Party activists were doing similar, followed by food, music & dancing.

A cross-party ‘Women in Democracy – Cambridge’ event?

Given the inevitable rise in political party membership as a result of the general election, I wonder what such an event would look like. Perhaps one of the branches of the Cambridge WI to consider? (Bluebelles, Cam City WI, Cambridge Ladybirds). Why women in democracy? Look at the chart of councillors for Cambridgeshire County Council.

Food for thought?

Oh – and the photo from the top of Lime Kiln Hill.

Lime Kiln HillSmall

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On filming local democracy & local music – some interesting similarities


What I’m learning from featuring women in both local music and democracy – with some interesting questions too

In the run up to the 2015 general election I very deliberately focused my filming efforts on party activists who broke the negative stereotypes of politics. This was also my approach to interviewing the candidates. Rather than doing a series of ‘hatchet-style’ interviews I chose an approach where I challenged myself to make the interview subjects come across as presentable, interesting and the sort of person the viewing public could see themselves having a conversation with.

Hence the videos at https://adragonsbestfriend.wordpress.com/2015/05/09/encouraging-women-into-local-democracy-featured-examples/ featuring women in democracy.

The relative lack of women performers at this year’s AlexFest and also in part the Cambridge Buskers Festival was something that got me thinking further about widening participation in things generally. I’ve complained in the past about the lack of diversity in the line-ups of shows hosted by various venues in Cambridge. Take the Cambridge Comedy Festival as an example. In comedy, in music, in sport, in politics, the lack of diversity is something that I’m now much more aware of – in large part thanks to my Twitter following who have continued to discuss this over the years I’ve been on it. There is still this long-running diversity-sore in football too.

The local music scene – encouraging women who are musicians

I can’t recall having filmed an all-women band in recent times – in particular one that plays their own musical instruments live. Where I’ve seen women in a band, more often than not they are a lead vocalist supported by a team of male musicians. Other than that, it’s soloist singer/songwriters or friends/sisters performing duets.

“Why the difference between the genders?”

I don’t honestly know. It’s something I’ve invited the younger singer song-writers to ponder over when I’ve spoken to them post-performance. What is it that means we have soloist women singer-songwriters but not the all-women groups, while for the men there are both?

“We’ve tried booking more women for our venue but…”

A line I’ve heard before. Yet just as with local democracy, I’ve taken the line that if I want things to improve, I have to do something – something different that perhaps has not been done before. Ie doing more than just shouting/ranting/moaning/blogging about it. Because as I’ve found out the hard way, repeatedly complaining at ever louder and abrasive levels just ends up annoying people. Hence now being in a place where my approach evolves depending on what comes back.

Going out listening & filming…

I had a trawl back through my online video channels and can list the following:

So…there is local talent out there. Those are the ones I happen to have had a camcorder with me and/or planned to film having been invited. There are others out there that I’ve heard of but not seen live.

“What difference does filming make?”

You’ll have to ask the musicians themselves. From the conversations I’ve had – in particular with the younger musicians, seeing themselves from the audience’s perspective is a big learning point. In corporate communications training it is now standard practice to film the trainee speaking/presenting, and review video footage of that presentation. I went through it myself in my civil service days. Excruciating, but essential.

With the younger teenagers too, there’s also a self-awareness they as performers are still growing into – something that will come with more public performances under their belt. It was interesting to listen to the discussion Beth & Eleanor had when I played back some of the footage I had recorded only a few minutes earlier – picking up on things like expressions & mannerisms they were not aware of on stage. It was the same with me when I first saw video footage of me singing as part of Dowsing Sound Collective in 2014 – see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cIYIZyezDtk – and again when I reviewed footage of our winter gig later that year with me spending far too much time staring at my folder & not the audience!

Having video footage of women who are experienced musicians & performers helps too.

Take Ruby Florence here.

She’s one of the most assured & confident of women that I’ve met – I sing with her in the Dowsing Sound Collective. Having footage of more experienced local musicians such as Flaming June and Jo Ash can also spark off ideas as well as help build a stronger community of musicians. In particular this can help with new young musicians getting slots as support acts for more higher profile performers. Note the number of musicians in the list above that I discovered because they were supporting someone else.

“Is building that community one of the missing links?”

Building any community is an ongoing activity by its very nature. In my case I asked what I could do that supported what people are already doing, but without taking over anything. (I don’t want to be this guy, y’see?) As it turned out, it was filming and producing reasonably good video footage of the musicians playing at live venues. The two ideas that I’ve floated with a number of local singer-songwriters are:

  1. A concert with a variety of women singer-songwriters supported by a band of professional session musicians
  2. A music-storming day for women musicians to encourage collaboration

A session-musicians-supported concert

The concept is relatively straight-forward: Invite local women singer-songwriters to arrange two-three of their favourite self-written songs for a large group of session musicians to perform live. This could work at The Junction 2.

A music-storming day

Best suited for somewhere with lots of additional musical instruments that participants can use. This could work either as an open space event or a semi-structured event. The aim is to see if women can meet and ‘jam’ with as many other musicians as possible in a single day to find out which of the other musicians they would be happy making music/collaborating with on a regular basis. From this could spring the groups of women bands that our local music scene seems to be lacking.

The thing is, I don’t have what it takes to make either of the above happen. But I’m sure someone in Cambridge does. Are you out there?

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Going beyond ‘set up and record’ with community video – overcoming recurring problems


Some thoughts following several months of regular filming out and about – in particular overcoming recurring challenges

One of my favourite local artists, Melody Causton, headlined a relaxed evening of acoustic music alongside one of the first musicians I filmed – Rachel Clark. Still getting to grips with my kit at the time, I screwed up the audio recording of her set at AlexFest 2014. (Both Rachel & Melody performed there – see the playlist here).

I’m now at the stage where I’m moving on from simply setting up and pressing ‘record’ to considering a whole host of things that, in the past I’d have been unaware of. Have a look/listen to Melody’s final track:

I was reliant on the audio mixing desk of the venue and the young man operating it – something [operating a sound board] easier said than done. Although I had the correct cable to attach sound recorder to mixing desk, between us we couldn’t figure out how to get my recorder to pick up the signal once connected.

Furthermore, I had no control over the backdrop – in this case windows in bright daylight. From a filming perspective, this is a significant challenge – one that even a high-end ‘prosumer’ camcorder struggled with. In a nutshell, camcorders the next step up are not sold on the high street – you have to go to specialist retailers. Reviewing this video, backdrop is clearly a problem – but the windows had no curtains. Audiowise, I’d have rebalanced the sound to enhance Melody’s vocals.

“Sounds like you need to start planning these things!”

…Which isn’t really the way I have been operating. Normally I just rock up and film, giving a tweet/email/facebookpost notice in advance as opposed to doing a pre-event visits and the like.

Melody Causton

Melody Causton at The Architect Pub in Cambridge

Note the difference between this photo I took on a DSLR camera vs what you see with the camcorder. (Note – I’m more familiar now with improving photos than with video images – ie going beyond ‘auto-correct’ functions).

The thing is, being the one-man-and-his-dragon-fairy-operation, I can’t do everything I’d like to. At any one event I can find myself filming, recording audio (which I often do separately), photographing, live reporting and posting photos onto social media. With Melody’s performance above, I recorded the audio onto a separate specialist sound recorder. The difference it makes compared with onboard microphones or even external ones is huge. The reason for this is microphones are often attached to cameras rather than pointing towards the sound source or being close to the sound source.

It’s the same with local council meetings

In Cambridge, the plan for seating (similar to many other councils) is as below:

A traditional seating plan for council chambers

A traditional seating plan for council chambers

The problem for anyone trying to film a meeting here is that you’ll always end up filming the back of someone. Councillors also don’t always appreciate the need for using microphones – not helped by the very fiddly arrangement many councils have for them. Basically they have to press a button to switch their microphone on in order to speak – and if they forget to switch it off you get horrendous feedback.

The above seating plan, taken from Cambridge City Council’s AGM on 28 May 2015 shows the seating plan in the council chamber of Cambridge Guildhall – something that hasn’t changed in many years other than the people and parties in the seats. You have the mayor in the chair with deputy and senior council officials in a row at the front. You then have the councillors in a semi-circle forming a sunrise/sunset sort of shape. But what of the public? Their seats are either on the far left or the far right edges, or stuck up in a balcony which I would not recommend to anyone afraid of heights!

So the choice for the public – and film crew like me is to be close to the people we want to film – but have them with their backs to us, or sit on the other side facing them but from a long distance away. Whenever school children come along to the Guildhall to see a debate, they often can’t see, let alone hear what is going on. It’s so sad.

“Why does this matter?”

Because people want to see the faces of those speaking, not their backs. Take the locally significant decision on Cambridge Central Library where local people supported by councillors forced Cambridgeshire County Council to think again. The significant moment in the meeting was the concession by the Conservatives group on the county council. Have a watch:

Note the comment from the chair asking Cllr Criswell to speak into the microphone – not for my benefit but for the 50+ members of the public in the room but out of shot. Had I known of the significance of what Cllr Criswell was about to say I would have set up my camera position from the opposite side of the room. As it was, I wanted to be as close as possible to a mains socket to keep my camera going. Again, lack of mains sockets means for extended meetings our filming positions are even more limited.

“What would work better for everyone?”

Split the semi-circle in half and put the mayor/panel in between the two quarters, and have all of them facing the public where the mayor/panel used to be. That way it is much easier to film the councillors and much easier to avoid filming watching members of the public that may not want to be on camera.

“Why would someone not want to be on camera?”

Many reasons – but I don’t see it as my place to argue with a member of the public who is simply there watching but doesn’t want to be on camera. For elected representatives and senior council officials, I take a very different view – but again don’t force it down the throats of people. For public meetings, it’s far better than people know but don’t notice that you are there: ie you have their consent, but you’re not a distraction. I can’t help but think that the way we do public meetings currently helps no one.

“So…how do we improve things?”

On my side, I’ve got to get better at planning filming sessions – including giving organisations reasonable notice of what my needs are and what they need to consider if they want decent video footage.

I also need to help organisations help themselves. This may involve creating a guide on why some seemingly innocuous things like microphones, or what a background is, are actually really important.

Food for thought.

Anyway, after Rachel & Melody’s performances, I raced up to the top of Castle Hill & photographed this sunset.


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Democracy in action – Cambridge style


A by-election in the People’s Republic of Romsey (it says so on the t-shirts) along with a citizens’ revolt over library business plans

Told you.

I was the only independent face (ie outside of any political party and not council staff) at the by-election count – one of the most hotly-contested by-elections in recent times.

The results were:

The turn-out was 32.5 per cent.

Romsey was blessed with three strong women candidates. I had threatened to stand myself to help raise the profile of the contest, but in the end I didn’t need to. Labour, the Liberal Democrats & The Greens campaigned the living daylights out of the ward to the extent some of the residents put notices on their doors telling campaigners not to knock!

Too close to call?

The Liberal Democrats party-wise were the incumbent party. They were, however always going to be under huge pressure following their general election losses and a Cambridge Labour Party still buzzing from their success in Cambridge. Had Julian Huppert held his seat in Cambridge, the result may well have been different. The simple reason being that as local MP, Julian was in the media regularly. The profile alone may have been enough to strengthen the resolve of Liberal Democrat-leaning voters and/or demoralise Labour-leaning voters.

Three talented women – I hope all three of them will be holding local public office soon as paper candidates these were not.

I met all of them either during this campaign or during the general election campaign. Zoe I have known for longer as she’s a former Cambridge City Council councillor who stood down in the recent local elections – her replacement being Anna Smith -> @Anna4Labour.

To throw yourself into the frontline as a candidate is a very brave thing to do. Even more so to go door-to-door campaigning. All three parties had well-organised teams campaigning throughout the ward. All three candidates came across as bright, passionate and in their different ways, experienced. Identical they were most definitely not.

The historical context is in Phil Rodgers’ graph below

In a nutshell:

  • The Liberal Democrat vote did not fall further following the general election – could they hold Cllr Catherine Smart’s seat in the 2016 elections?
  • Labour have an additional councillor at Shire Hall
  • The Greens’ share of the vote held up in the face of strong competition from two strong opponents
  • The Tories got only 11 more votes than Puffles got in the neighbouring ward of Coleridge in 2014
  • UKIP hardly registered

“Was this a social media election?”

Not really. As far as local politics in Cambridge goes, only The Greens seem to be going beyond the Cambridge Twitter bubble and making greater use of both Facebook and digital video. The Liberal Democrats and Labour are still very much in broadcast mode. Perhaps it’s all the more stark with the Lib Dems with the loss of Julian Huppert as MP – he was a pioneer for using social media conversationally. While the party has councillors and activists who use social media regularly, inevitably they do not have the influence that Julian had as an MP. Furthermore, being in opposition means there is even less news coverage for them – something compounded by a miniscule Westminster presence – down from the mid-50s to just eight.

The Greens leaving their opponents behind with digital video

Green Party activist Michael Abberton has done a great job for the local party and is now making short local politics videos for fun. This is something that will stand them in good stead throughout the year – in particular throughout the colder winter months. For whatever reason, the other candidates declined offers to feature in videos in the run up to polling day – as is their right. Personally I leave it up to the voters to contact the candidates directly and ask any questions about this should they have any issues with it. I see my role as a community reporter and democracy activist as giving candidates the chance to introduce themselves in their own words & in their own voices. It’s up to the voters to then decide if they want to have a further conversation with the candidates, and on what issues.

“What’s the point of digital video if it didn’t affect the election?”

Two points:

  1. No one has done any research locally on what impact these sorts of videos are making
  2. The data I have from the general election shows there is demand for such videos
  3. It’s too early to tell what the long term impact will be.

Most of us are just making it up as we go along, learning as we go. I’m now at the stage where I’m recording audio separately to video because of the problems I’ve been having with on-camera microphones & the poor acoustics of buildings.

What we’ve not seen locally is the effective integration of social media and video with offline and paper-based campaigning. The Romsey by-election would have been ideal for the commuter traffic to London. People stationed at the Eastern end of the cycle bridge with cards taking potential voters to local party social media pages could have swayed it one way or another.

I managed to get one video from Cllr Zoe Moghadas just after the result was announced – see below

The acoustics in the small hall are not great – hence using a separate microphone for this.

Citizens force council library U-turn

In other news, discontent over Cambridgeshire County Council plans to turn the top floor of Cambridge’s popular central library turned into open revolt as campaigners assailed Shire Hall from all sides. Paul Lythgoe threw Freedom of Information requests over council meetings with the Kora group (which then encouraged more from Phil Rodgers & Richard Taylor – see the list here). An active group on Facebook with over 200 members kept lots of people in touch (see here) and email campaigns targeting county councillors got underway.

The ongoing campaign involving political activists from Labour, Liberal Democrats and The Greens, along with non-aligned activists and the Cambridge People’s Assembly were all involved. The culmination of all of this was Phil Rodger’s speech at Shire Hall on 26 June 2015 after councillors were persuaded to reconsider their decision – the original plans being approved by a narrow vote in the face of protests.

The deeper story for me beyond the library itself is that the campaign uncovered a host of unsatisfactory systems and processes inside Shire Hall – one that left Conservative councillors in particular feeling very angry over the conduct of this issue. What will happen in the very near future is a full council debate on how the county council is run – and in particular the relationship between council officers and elected council committees. In the extended exchanges (which I’ll put more up), county council officials came under close, detailed, forensic and hostile scrutiny the likes of which I had not seen before. In particular, the general public did not accept the assurances that officials were giving them.

Given the number of people (over 50 from the general public alone sticking around for over 2 hours) there, councillors expressed concern that the public did not have confidence – in particular that the issues arising were not around just around the principle of private sector involvement, but over issues of competency, transparency and propriety. In particular, councillors were disturbed over not being provided with all the information they felt they needed in order to make an informed decision, and that there was unnecessary secrecy in preventing the public from scrutinising plans too.

Officers not reading the mood of councillors in the room?

The intensity of questioning from the public (Dr Alison Power here, Phil Rodgers & Hilary Goy here, and on behalf of local town centre residents, Cllr Ed Cearns here) was strong. I hadn’t seen council officials struggling in the face of such forensic and multi-pronged scrutiny before. The bit that made me think: “Hang on, they’ve conceded!” was when Conservative group spokesman Cllr Steve Criswell announced the largest political group on the county council could no longer back the proposals. See the video below from 3 mins 45 seconds in.


What surprised me even more was how officers seemed to plough on defending the scheme as if nothing had happened. From that point onwards it was clear that the proposal to turn the top floor of the Cambridge Central Library into an enterprise centre run by Kora was dead in the water. It was at that point council directors could have conceded that without the backing of elected councillors, all that was needed was a vote to rescind and a decision on what alternative path to take. The longer the debate went on, the more confidence officials seemed to lose from the watching public who were there in numbers.

Lessons learned?

In the near future there will be a full council meeting which I anticipate will become very heated – not least when the working relationship between senior council officials and elected councillors comes under scrutiny. Watch this space…

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Weak political and media responses in the face of very serious global problems


Some thoughts on global and historical perspectives all too often overlooked in mainstream news reporting – and also in UK policy making.

I awoke from my slumber to find Defra minister George Eustice MP being cross examined by Andrew Neil over the latest migration crisis. (See http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b060kn9g/daily-politics-24062015 – the first item).

I found the minister’s response around 5 minutes in to be laughable.

“We’ve got HMS Bulwark and three Merlin helicopters”

Yeah…like that’s going to solve the problem.

The way I was trained in the civil service with policy making was to try and go to the root of the problem by continually asking: ‘Why?’ and ‘Then what happens?’

For example, if you’ve got thousands of people risking their lives to make the crossing from the shores of North Africa, the question of ‘Why?’ follows, just as for those that (understandably) say we should increase the number of rescue ships, the question that follows is: ‘Then what happens?”

“How do you deal with this arc of instability from the north-western shores of Africa to the Middle East to the Ukraine, through to increased military tensions in the eastern Baltic?”

Personally I don’t think we have the institutions with the capacity & competency to deal with this. I believe part of the reason has been the hollowing out of state institutions and their ability to deal with problems they face. This ranges from local councils dealing with the poor state of roads, to the often reported shortage of equipment and personnel UK armed forces faced given the tasks Tony Blair and Gordon Brown charged them with undertaking. This also covers international issues including the continued leadership vacuum in Europe in the face of some of the biggest crises the EU has faced.

The large-scale movement of people globally.

Why are people moving? I found this article about the lack of media attention given to people and governments in Africa to be interesting. In The Guardian this article mentions the impact of the collapse of Libya as being a factor. Did the presence of ‘strong national leaders’ (AKA dictators) mean that it was easier for wealthier countries to ignore pressures that were building up in those countries? Why did those pressures build up in the first place? Why are so many people moving from their homes to make perilous journeys by land and sea?

Does data on the flow of wealth help explain?

One of the first things I stumbled across when I went to university to study economics in the later 1990s was the debt crisis in developing countries. I remember reading some of the figures thrown around about the level of debt owed by developing countries to the International Monetary Fund & the World Bank – £100billion was one figure thrown around at the time. I remember how sobering that felt at the time…then fast forward to 2008 finding out that the UK banks had been bailed out by over ten times that amount. Ever since that point my view of mainstream finance and economic policy has been very dim indeed. Can’t drop the debt? Can’t fund the housing program needed but can bail out Fred Goodwin and friends? What’s the point…

And who remembers Live8 in 2005 with all of those celebrities desperate to be on stage or in the VIP pit? Tony Blair was there telling us how important it was that the G8 summit made a difference. (Has it? (*Looks around*))

Net flows of wealth from poorer countries to richer countries, and richer countries to tax havens. 

There are numerous articles about the net flow of wealth from poorer countries to richer countries (eg here and here – 2010 figure approx $557bn) and ultimately into offshore tax havens (eg here). It doesn’t surprise me that in an era of neo-liberal governments, people are following the wealth. The economic theory says that to make markets more free, you enact policies that free up the movement of capital, of knowledge…and of people. Then sit back and watch supposedly pro-free market politicians and their newspaper cheerleaders tie themselves up in knots over immigration.

“So…how do you deal with it?”

Funnily enough, Ed Miliband was onto something with his concept of ‘predistribution’. But having picked a rubbish word to describe it and having been subsequently lampooned over it, it died a quick death. But the point was that more of the people that made the goods or carried out the services  got a greater amount of the price received so that they would not need to rely on things like tax credits or other state support – and would be able to pay taxes too. Furthermore, they would more likely to be able to work fewer hours and have time to do other things with their lives – perhaps even live healthier, happier lives.

Now, extend this concept globally and apply basic workers rights worldwide. What would happen if people had:

  • rights to paid holiday, weekends, maximum working weeks,
  • minimum wages that reflected a living wage/realistic cost of living in decent accommodation with access to public services (not just health & education, but public transport & more)
  • the right to working conditions that meant death & injury were not regular occurrences

Yes – costs of cheap goods would go up. But why should we have access to cheap goods at the expense of the health and livelihoods of our fellow human beings who happen to be in a worse situation than us? I discussed this here.

What would the situation be like if wealth flows between poorer countries and richer countries were more balanced? By ‘poorer’ countries I’m talking about people and countries being impoverished by such unfair economic systems. This isn’t about who works harder or smarter. It’s about social and economic justice. What would it look like if the people that made the goods or delivered the services got more for their work than the employer or shareholding firm with their headquarters artificially registered in a tax haven?

Colonialism and after

The above was the title of the first module that I studied at university – probably the only one in my time at university that really got me thinking. (Yes – I still have a ****big chip**** that gets bigger every time they phone me up for money I don’t have. No! Feck off!)

What’s going on in Iraq and Syria is soul-destroying. The most appalling violence being inflicted on civilians as a weapon of war, the destruction of antiquities…all in the shadow of Tony Blair & George Bush’s misadventures in the Middle East. What I don’t understand is why there is no UN mission to deal with this – one not led or driven by NATO members. I don’t understand why there is no global attempt to bring about reconciliation between Iran and the Gulf states.

Forgetting the historical picture

I had a conversation with a longtime family friend who died recently, who lived and worked in East Africa and in Iran during the 1950s-1970s. She told me she could not believe how the UK & US went into Iraq with no postwar plan – not least one that recognised and planned for the complexities of the mixes of groups, cultures & religions there. The same struck me about what happened in the Ukraine which has far deeper and more complex roots than the mainstream media reported. (This example, when viewed in the context of the Second World War was a piece of analysis I thought was missing in the news reports of the time).

International policy paralysis?

Whether it’s migration in the Mediterranean, ongoing war & horrific violence in the Middle East to sabre-rattling on the EU’s eastern borders, the one thing that strikes me is that no one seems to be in control of the EU’s response. Furthermore, it’s not clear how the UK is playing a constructive part & a positive impact in solving the problems.

Given how interconnected the world is, I can’t see how retreating from international institutions EU-exit style is going to help things. With each of the three cases I’ve touched upon – and I’ve not even mentioned climate change yet, I don’t see any solution in sight. I also don’t see any individuals or groups of individuals in mainstream politics as having what it takes to solve them either.

More questions than answers

In the 2015 election campaign we never had the in-depth debates and discussions of the type they had in Scotland’s independence referendum. Other than UKIP or no-UKIP we didn’t get the chance to thrash out the UK’s future place in the world, the EU or the sort of EU within which we’d be comfortable in.

I don’t know what the answers or solutions to those mega problems are. But from my TV-shaped window into the world, the way the mainstream media is presenting, analysing & contextualising the issues doesn’t seem to be helping.

“Why does the media matter?”

Because media influences policy. If broadcast media can get to grips with the complex roots, bring them to the surface where they can be properly analysed, maybe we might get some better policy-making. This is why projects such as The Women’s Room are ever so important – bringing in new, more diverse voices with a greater range of experiences and expertise to bear.

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Ballots, protest marches and ‘doing democracy’


Unpicking who is saying what on protest marches and elections – and why democracy encompasses far more

A number of friends and social media followers went on the march in London earlier. Poor health (in particular hay fever & mental exhaustion) plus lack of money put paid to any desire by me to go. I had the idea of doing a time-lapse scene in Trafalgar Square but the forecast & subsequent rain also put paid to that idea: my kit ain’t waterproof.

“Hang on – your side lost the election! Sit down, shut up and accept the will of the people you anti-democracy freed0m-h8ting communist!”

Chances are people would still have been protesting had Ed Miliband been returned with a majority given their messages on spending plans & ‘tough decisions’. Also, note the 2002 Countryside Alliance march which was just over a year after the 2001 general election. Marching & protesting is just as much a feature of a healthy democracy as is a sound & transparent public policy process that involves those with an interest & expertise in a range of different areas shaping public policy. (To what extent those taking part in the ‘non-voting’ aspects of democracy are successful in their endeavours, is a different question).

One of my earliest but least-read blogposts asked what impacts on people’s voting preferences. In the run up to the recent general and local elections I asked:

Do you want to vote for:

  • The person you think will best represent the place you live in?
  • The party whose values you most associate with?
  • The party whose policies/manifesto you like the most?
  • The individual who you think will make the best prime minister?
  • The individual who has the best chance of keeping out the party/candidate you dislike the most?

There’s a lot that people can extrapolate from a cross in a box – especially when it comes to the convention of manifestos. The convention is that Parliament (in particular the House of Lords) will not oppose legislation implementing policies listed in a winning party’s manifesto because this is ‘the will of the people’. But how many people at general elections read through all of the manifestos and pick the one they like the best? How many even get through a summary of each one?

Were the 2015 manifestos written as programmes for government or written with an eye on possible coalition negotiations?

This is something we the general public may never find out – or not until the memoirs of those around at the time are written. Which of the policies were included to be dropped as a means of persuading another potential coalition partner to drop one of theirs? Which policies were included in the different party manifestos with the authors knowing that there were serious problems with them? With the Conservatives, the top few include:

  • Scrapping the Human Rights Act
  • Extending the ‘Right to buy’ to housing associations
  • Uncosted cuts to social security budgets

Similar unpicking of Labour & Liberal Democrats’ manifestos could be done, but as they did not win the election, such an exercise is academic. The Liberal Democrats – facing the next five years with MPs totalling single figures don’t have enough to cover the ministerial portfolios.

“So…what did the march achieve?”

I didn’t go on it so don’t feel qualified to comment.

The bit I’m interested in are the experiences of those taking part in a large demonstration for the first time – as a handful of people from Cambridge did. My first experience of a large London protest march was in 2001. My reasons for being there were to protest against exploitation by multinational corporations, and about the debt crisis, and for the environment. It was a miserable rainy day and me and lots of inexperienced new activists found ourselves led by the established far-left and their front organisations straight into a police kettle in Oxford Circus where we stood for 9 hours getting drenched & bored before they let us out. The context was the year 2000 demo the previous year. Hence lots of riot cops in 2001. Being alone having lost my flatmates in the crowds, with no familiar faces around me and being face-to-face with fully-tooled-up riot cops in the days before smartphones was not a fun place to be – and I’ve kept my distance from the organised far left ever since.

“Have there been better marches?”

One of the things easily overlooked on marches is the social side. Lots of experienced activists questioned (again) the merit of A-to-B marches, with speeches by speakers regularly found at such demonstrations – see the list on Urban 75 here. One I went on a few years ago that I got more out of was where I had Puffles with me and was able to chill out afterwards with a mixture of Puffles’ followers and Young Green Party activists in a pub off the beaten track. In a social media age, bringing people together to meet face-to-face who might only have corresponded online is one of the positive things about such gatherings. Personally I tend not to go on marches directly because I don’t feel like I’m making a difference. In recent times I’ve started reporting from, & filming/interviewing because it’s creating new content and giving a voice to those who might otherwise not get the chance to speak out on video.

“How do you ‘improve’ an A-to-B march?”

Putting on such a large demonstration requires the mobilisation of huge resources – the like of which very few organisations have. In 2001 no trade unions backed the May Day demonstration, and as a result a few thousand of us got locked in a kettle for ages and achieved very little. But then some might say A-to-B marches don’t really achieve much more.

Given the diversity of interests & organisations taking part, I’d be interested to see organisers trying the People and Planet methods -> see their summer camp in July here. Rather than having tens of thousands of people watching one stage, why not have say Hyde Park as the end point where you have a massive mix of open space conversations, freshers-fair-style stalls, ‘big speech’ stages for those that want it, & art, music & spoken word alternative stages elsewhere?

“That sounds dangerously autonomous!”

This is the culture shift Labour & those to the left of it have struggled with ever since the development of the Internet. Which of the established institutions – whether political parties, trade unions or campaign groups are prepared to put their resources into something that they don’t have complete control over? With Labour’s affiliated trade unions, would they be prepared to finance something that other political parties such as The Greens, the SNP or Plaid Cymru benefit from? This is already an issue Unite the Union is grappling with in Scotland following the general election. (ie ‘What do you do if the majority of your members voted for a party other than the one your union is affiliated to?’)

“From marchers to locally-active citizens?”

I’m thinking of younger and/or recently politically active people here. There still feels like we have a huge gap between what happens at demonstrations and the day-to-day life of local government and what council & councillors do. The number of ‘uncontested elections’ at a local government level reflects this. Hence one of my starting points for lots of people is to invite them to send an email to their elected representatives simply to let them know they are there, as well as the issues they care about. (See https://www.writetothem.com/)

My take is that there’s far more to democracy than either the ballot box or marching alone. Not everyone will be comfortable marching just as not everyone will be comfortable joining a political party or campaigning at election time. But how do you go about creating the spaces where people (who all too often have very little time) can find out what activity suits their lifestyles & dispositions? Hence the thought about demonstrations, protest marches and gatherings being much more than A-to-B marches sandwiched between speakers.

“Your lot still lost the election!”

Just as with Labour in 2001 & 2005, election victories can hide a multitude of problems. Tony Blair was faced with an astonishingly weak Conservative Party as an opposition just as David Cameron faced a Labour front bench that never looked like a government in waiting. Internally, the Conservatives still have to deal with historically low membership numbers along with the 4million people who voted UKIP. (Just as Labour & the Liberal Democrats have to face up to the 1million people who voted for The Greens).

With the EU in-out referendum due in the next two years, UKIP are unlikely to go away despite their documented internal troubles and the disappointment at the number of seats (one – Douglas Carswell MP) they won at the general elections. The political fault line along the Conservative-UKIP boundary will remain in the news for the foreseeable future.

Democracy and devolution

One of the things the London-based media don’t seem to understand with Scotland is the concept of Scotland being a country in the mindset of the people of Scotland. Those opposed to the Conservatives can understandably say that Scotland comprehensively rejected the Conservatives. And Labour. And the Liberal Democrats. Watching a debate on The Scotland Bill in Parliament (in part implementing the Smith Commission recommendations post-independence referendum), it was interesting to see Conservative MPs saying that the people of Scotland had comprehensively rejected the commission’s proposals 2 months after they were published by voting SNP MPs in 56 of the 59 constituencies. (See the SNP response to the commission at the time here).

Thus you have the largest political grouping in Scotland saying ‘We did not vote for the Conservatives’ policy agenda’ in a similar way that Euro-sceptics say ‘We did not vote for the EU’ – but with the Euro-sceptics in the Commons being predominantly from parties backing the union of Great Britain & Northern Ireland.

Devolution in England too?

Since the middle of the last decade, slow progress towards devolving powers to local government has been made. But old Treasury habits die hard. To what extent will The Treasury allow local councils to raise their own fund through taxation, or borrow to invest in essential infrastructure such as housing? In places like Cambridge where housing demand is huge, it feels like a no-brainer.

Yet irrespective of party political persuasion, in order for democracy to work at a local level it requires active citizens. But then this means people doing more than putting a cross in a box once every few years, or going on a march every so often. Hence messages such as this one do no favours – unless an elected dictatorship where you vote once every five years for someone to take all the power to do whatever they like without any checks & balances is what you want.

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