And…they’re off! The race to get elected begins!

Summary Let’s not forget that in Cambridgeshire, we have local council elections too! The candidates have been announced:

And….the lack of consistency across the election pages is farcical. As is the lack of online contact details. Looks like me & the Cambridge Twitteratti are going to have to sort this out by producing something ourselves. From a personal perspective, I’m interested mainly in Cambridge, plus a few of the South Cambridgeshire wards. For others of you, the other Cambridgeshire council elections may be of interest.

“So, who’s standing where?” The Conservatives, Greens, Labour and the Liberal Democrats are standing a full slate of candidates across Cambridge. (See here). UKIP are standing in eight of the 14 wards up for election – focusing mainly in the residential areas of the city.

“What are the candidates like?” Having stood for election as Puffles last year, my take generally is to welcome anyone who stands for election wanting to make a positive contribution to their neighbourhood and area. I can understand the concept of a ‘paper candidate’ and why people might choose to agree to be one. However, in the age of the internet & social media, I think it should become less & less acceptable to not have some of the online basics if your name is on the ballot paper. Such as:

  • Web page on your party’s website
  • Some sort of social media contact – whether email (yes, that counts!), Facebook page or Twitter handle
  • A short video clip introducing yourself

Things are slightly different at a local government level in general election year as turnout is inevitably higher. Thus people are more likely to vote on party brand rather than because they are familiar with the local candidates – especially if the candidate lives in a ward on the other side of town.

Students standing for election and campaigning actively There are a few of them looking at the addresses – a couple for the Conservatives and one for The Greens. The Liberal Democrats, Labour and The Greens all have active student societies, and have been heavily canvassing their target wards.

I had an interesting chat with Holly Higgins of Cambridge Universities Labour Club earlier about my documentary mentioned in my previous blogpost. (I’ve filmed her before – see here). Also anecdotal feedback from Millicent Scott, standing for the Lib Dems in Hammersmith, is that young women in particular want to see other women both out & about campaigning and standing as candidates. Hence my desire for the documentary is to focus on those activists that help break some of the negative stereotypes about who gets involved in local democracy. One of the reasons I wanted Holly to say a piece to camera earlier this year is because she’s far more likely to connect with people of her generation than me – someone carrying the scars of Whitehall!

The other thing I mentioned in a Twitter conversation is that ‘I know too much’ about public policy to be able to take the view of someone who doesn’t live, sleep & breathe politics 24/7. Take the recent leaders debate. The outcome didn’t surprise me. The attempts to spin who won didn’t surprise me either. The snap opinion polls were here today, gone tomorrow.

But what of those for whom the TV debate was the first time they had seen any of the party leaders talking reasonably extensively (in an age of soundbite TV) about a wide variety of issues? Or those tabloid newspaper readers who felt that Ed Miliband didn’t come across nearly as bad as they have been saying for the past four years? It’s ironic that politicians wax lyrical about connecting with ‘ordinary people’ and then allow their party managers and apparatchiks to do everything possible to shelter them from said people – see Marina Hyde in blistering form here. My take is that any senior politician worth their salt should not be afraid of such open and ‘unplanned’ exchanges. Note John Major in 1992 taking on far left protesters here, & how he remarked that ‘they were always there’ on his tour of the country. If John Major – who won in 1992 but got politically thumped in 1997 – could handle hecklers, why can’t today’s senior politicians? Or is it that they can but their party handlers are too nervous to let them try?

“Who’s been leafletting what?” As my ward is a safe Labour seat, I tend to get very little from the other parties – with the exception of the Liberal Democrats in this election. When it comes to campaigning, it’s as if there is this big sign on my door that says:

***Beware of the politically-aware dragon!!!***

The owners of this property will not be held responsible for the consequences of you being given a lecture on sustainable housing policy or local government finance should you disturb the creature that dwells within’

Cambridge, being the city that it is, has the high chance of someone being an expert in one policy area or another. Which is why it’s best not trying to argue the case unless you are on rock-solid ground. Otherwise things like this happen. More experienced canvassers & campaigners tend to take the community activist approach with door-to-door campaigning where they ask the residents what they think the key issues are. It may not be fun or glamorous to go door-to-door knocking on a cold November evening, but that approach can pay huge dividends come election time.

“What will become of the new party members after the election?”

My hope is that some of them will become first time candidates in 2015. Essentially Cambridge needs a bit of a refresh when it comes to candidates standing. I found this out last year when Puffles got a disproportionate amount of media coverage in the local elections. This was despite on paper being the least credible candidate who ultimately got the fewest votes in the city in 2014. Yet because I was accessible & available through social media, and was publishing things regularly online, I got featured.

I think there’s something to be said for Cambridge’s political parties & civic societies getting together to boost participation & make local democracy feel like a continuous activity rather than this one-off thing where party-political types knock on your door every spring to get you to tick a box for someone you don’t know/have never met. Hence my posters from 2014 encouraging people to contact the candidates & ask them questions.

“Why aren’t you standing?”

Because I have a very limited number of ****spoons**** – see here for an explanation.

I have enough spoons to film, edit & upload videos of the various election debates & events, or to run the bare bones of an election campaign. Not both. And there are lots and lots of debates taking place in Cambridge – I reckon over 30 will take place in this campaign. Hence my personal aim is to cover those on the big issues that matter in Cambridge:

  • Transport (rail and cycling)
  • Housing
  • The environment
  • Business
  • Health
  • Education

It also means I get to appear on panel discussions where they need informed non-party types to discuss the election – as in the video below:

I think I’ll have videos covering five of the six key issues in Cambridge. There are other smaller interest hustings, ranging from specialist policy areas such as a given strand of healthcare, to extremely wide issues such as human rights. My take is that if filming such a debate allows at least one extra person (who’s not a regular follower of local politics) to see/hear the candidates in their own voices, then it’ll have been worth it.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Making a film about the general election campaigns in Cambridge – want to get involved?

Summary

Can we crowd-source support for a documentary on the Cambridge election campaigns? 

I was discussing this idea earlier this week with Claire Meade, having pondered what to do with the increasing amounts of video footage I’m collecting during this campaign. Having just finished filming the Cambridge Cycling Campaign hustings, I’ve realised there is going to be a wealth of footage and lots of things going on – something far too great for any one person to manage.

Uploading short videos is relatively straight forward. Creating medley’s is more complicated. Making a documentary is something else – and requires a much more professional approach.

Outputs

Essentially I want to produce:

  • A 30-60 minute documentary about the 2015 general election in Cambridge
  • Extended linked video pieces of events, debates & hustings that happened in the run up to the vote
  • A launch event after the election

Outcomes

  • A group of participants who might become community reporters or activists who can help scrutinise what institutions do in and around Cambridge
  • Raising awareness of what happened during the campaign, with a view to inspiring people to get involved in local democracy & possibly stand in future elections
  • Further break some of the community & generational barriers in our city
  • Create a historical video record of the campaign for future generations at a time of significant change in our city

Learning from Be the change – Cambridge

To make sure we get both the best out of the footage, and that those taking part get as much experience and as many new skills as possible, I want to have a mix of passionate young people with huge potential, experienced wise minds & well-networked individuals, and older people who perhaps want to learn something new.

Having nearly completed Be the change – Cambridge, I’ve learnt a huge amount about what I am and am not capable of. In particular I want to make sure that it’s not me looking after the details of:

  • Detailed project, people management & sequencing
  • Detailed financial management, budgeting & fundraising
  • Marketing & publicity

The above are all essential components that, on reflection I was weaker at than I would like to have been with Be the change – Cambridge events in late 2014/early 2015. Therefore, in the process of making this documentary I would like to have a small core team of talented, experienced & competent people managing those aspects of the project.

I want the project to be one that pays the participants

Hence the importance of fundraising, budgeting & financial management. In particular, I want to ensure that the young people taking part in this are paid – because all too often they are expected to work for nothing in the world of unpaid internships. I met someone over Easter who, for her degree has to spend a ‘year in industry’ working as an unpaid intern because of the nature of the industry that she’s in. (ie a highly competitive one where they can get away with such practices).

‘You have left this far far far too late!!!’

In one sense, I have. In another sense, I’m already halfway through the project having got a lot of the essentials. For example:

  • I have the kit with which to film video footage
  • I can do the basics with the kit – ie film, do basic editing & upload it to the internet
  • I have a means & ‘niche’ contacts for publicity both on and offline

On the other hand, yes I have left it far too late. But my original intention was simply to film as many of the debates & upload footage to my Youtube channel.

‘So, what do you need other people for?’

Two of the candidates, Julian Huppert here, and also Daniel Zeichner here, have helpfully listed the debates & hustings they will be taking part in. My well-documented mental health issues mean I simply do not have the capacity to attend all of the ones I’d like to, let alone all of the ones listed.

Having more participants means we can cover more of the campaigns, and it’s also a chance for people to get to know some of the politicians, activists and campaign groups in Cambridge. (And get paid for it!)

‘I’m interested! What do I need to do?’

First of all, I need to know what you’re interested in doing. This will depend on your circumstances. Are you:

  • ‘time poor but passionate about doing something positive for our city’?
  • ‘time-free but with very limited funds’ – ie cannot do much without financial support?
  • Someone who ‘has qualifications but not the experience’ that employers are looking for?
  • Specialists in areas that we need? (I’m not just talking about the professional skills listed above, but for example those of you who check your social media statuses before breakfast and who might not leave the house in the morning without having sent a snapchat message to one of your friends.)

…then this short project might be of interest to you.

If you are interested, please send an informal expression of interest to me at antonycarpen [at] gmail [dot] com, stating why you are interested, what you think you could contribute, & what you would like to get out of participating.

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One day like this a year…

Summary

The cost of a bus ticket: £4.10. Entrance to the Cambridge Corn Exchange. Free. Outselling some of the big-name bands from the mid-1990s that I saw at the Corn Exchange: Priceless. The Dowsing Sound Collective don’t make beers…

Oh, and we got to sing this number to over 1,000 people in a packed out Guildhall too. Not only that, just before the gig I handed over a cheque for £250 to The Dosoco Foundation from some of the sponsorship we raised for Be the change – Cambridge.

It was one I wanted to give a go myself a few months back, but when I read the music I realised it would be out of my vocal range. Which was why I was more than relieved for our Lungjam gig on 1st April 2015 we had Cambridge’s Trevor Jones to do the lead vocals for us – and a splendid job he did too!

Blown away by the audience. Again.

Funnily enough, it was a group of teenagers from my old sixth form college who had turned up to see one of their friends on guest-lead-vocals for us that helped electrify the rest of the audience. Being in & around Cambridge’s local music scene means I get to see & hear my fair share of up-&-coming talent. This time around it was Daisy Hill – who is in the same cohort/age bracket of students as Grace Sarah, Rachel Clark and Ellie Dixon. (What would a collaboration by the four of them be like?)

@Debsmoreyx and friends taking a selfie from the front row of the Corn Exchange.

@Debsmoreyx and friends taking a selfie from the front row of the Corn Exchange. (Pic – Dee Morey)

From where I was perched at the top of one of the chorus stands, most of the energy in the audience was coming from Daisy’s crew – Dee Morey and friends. Whenever they started singing or moving, most of the older adults around them started to do the same – even the new chairperson of the Cambridge Live Trust – who’s launch we were there to celebrate. (Some of you eagle-eyed watchers may remember my original idea for a ‘Cambridge L!VE’ back in 2012 – see here. My mental health crisis of April 2012 sort of put paid to running with that project in a big way. It was to be another three years before Be the change – Cambridge took its place.

Watching with pleasant astonishment fellow singers deliver commanding performances. Have a flick through the photographs by @KimberlyOhBrien here and you’ll get the feel. What our musical director Andrea Cockerton is really good at is rotating lead vocalists. Yes – even I had a go last summer in Bury St Edmunds!

Me at The Apex in Bury St Edmunds - Photo by Mike Oliver (http://photography.bymikeoliver.com/)

Me at The Apex in Bury St Edmunds in July 2014 – Photo by Mike Oliver (http://photography.bymikeoliver.com/)

Silence, a stunning performance and the loudest applause of the night

The photo below by Mike Oliver (who took the above one of myself) speaks more than a thousand words.

Daisy Hill at the Cambridge Corn Exchange, 1st April 2015. Photo, Mike Oliver

Daisy Hill at the Cambridge Corn Exchange, 1st April 2015. Photo, Mike Oliver

Daisy’s also got an album on iTunes here.

There was a big ‘hush’ before Daisy sang a cover of ‘Stay with me’ by Sam Smith. Andrea had auditioned about 15 incredibly talented local singers before selecting five to sing with us. As well as Daisy and Trevor, we had Shakila Karim, Steve Linford and Katey Grant, all of whom were brilliant too. All five guest vocalists stood out for different reasons – whether it was Steve for getting everyone going with ‘Let me entertain you’ by Robbie, Shakila covering Amy Winehouse or Katey with Paloma Faith. The three high-profile musicians with very distinct voices were not easy to cover by any means.

This meant that Daisy’s challenge was to deliver an alternative to the bright lights/high energy performances that the others gave. And she more than did that…along with the added pressure of friends and family in the audience too! (I still can’t cope with the idea of family being in the audience at music gigs I’m on stage for.)

Slaying a demon or two from the past

There were a few tracks we sung that gave me very mixed emotions – not that the organisers would have known. With quite a few numbers from the mid-late 1990s – ie my teenage years, I was a little nervous about how I’d react. But my place on the stage (ie not at the front) and with Erin McAlister next to me as this stabilising presence, I needn’t have worried. The most emotionally powerful performance of the night for me was by Rachel Hanna (below) covering ‘Don’t look back in anger’ by Oasis.

Rachel Hanna singing 'Don't look back in anger' - photo by Catherine McDonnell

Rachel Hanna singing ‘Don’t look back in anger’ – photo by Catherine McDonnell

Funnily enough, it’s one of the Oasis tracks I like the least because commercial radio overplayed it in 1996. I was a massive Oasis fan at the time but by the time I got to sixth form college, they had ceased to be ‘trendy’ – to the extent that I got abuse for my troubles. It was also the beginning of the end of a number of childhood friendships as I both grew apart from people I had known for almost half my life (if not more), while struggling with as yet undiagnosed mental health problems in the final few years before the internet became mainstream.

So my emotional mindset was: “I can’t sing this song without someone absolutely belting the f–k out of this number on lead vocals!” Step forward Rachel who, in incredible alto tones went and did exactly that. Interestingly enough, I don’t think the song would have had the same emotional impact on me had it been a male vocal lead. So, even though Rachel hardly knows me, she somehow managed to slay a demon that had been around me for a very long time. ***Thank you!*** (It’s one of those strange things in life: you can never predict where or through whom you are going to find inspiration from – & to be grateful when you do).

By this time the audience applauses were getting louder & louder after each track – Daisy’s mates finding the energy from I have no idea where. Now that was music therapy!

In the audience for Dowsing Sound Collective’s London group

I made my way down to the first London performance of our Camden and Hammersmith collectives at the end of March at the Union Chapel up the road from where I used to live in central London. Click here for photos of the venue: It has a *****Wow!!!***** factor – not least because it’s over 100 years old and an octagonal church – part of the congregationalist tradition.

The last time I had been in an audience for such a Dowsing gig was in late 2013 – shortly before I joined them. At that gig the only familiar face I had for company was Puffles. No one else I knew was interested. For this gig, we had a ***party train***

There were more of us on this carriage than in this selfie

There were more of us on this carriage than in this selfie

Now, the last time I had been on a party train down to London was when Cambridge United went to Wembley at the end of the last decade…and lost. We hadn’t drunk enough to break out into a flashmob like we did in 2014 when we occupied two-thirds of a restaurant between performances.

A sizeable group – over 20 of us – made the journey down from Cambridge to see our new musical siblings take to the stage for the first time. Remember quite a few of them came to see our Christmas gig a few months earlier – see here. Given the emotional state I was in prior to that gig, and the emotional pick up I got from what I can only describe as this ‘wall of positive energy’ coming back, I sort of knew that repaying that favour would be in order for the London groups’ first gig. Being surrounded by so many familiar faces, along with more compliments than I’ve ever had in one night for choice of outfit (including being hit on by a very friendly camp waiter to add to the comedy value) lightened my mood immensely after an intense time with all things Be the change – which concluded only a couple of weeks prior.

We didn’t need to got nuts with applause for the hell of it. It was a superb performance – with noticeably different musical nuances compared to the Cambridge group that I am part of. For a start, having two extremely talented multi-percussionists rather than just one – Paul Richards for Cambridge, meant they were able to do more with the rhythms. On the other hand, they didn’t have a small brass or string section. There wasn’t enough space on the inevitably crowded stage in any case.

I filmed the above clip testing out a new app on my phone. Bear in mind a number of the people singing probably haven’t sung on stage in public ever, a gig with over 600 people in the audience is quite an achievement. The most important thing I felt was that those on stage proved to themselves that they could do it, and that those in the audience who were ‘curious but non-committal’ until that gig would have been firing off emails asking to join having experienced that performance.

And if you’re in London on Easter Monday…

The Dowsing Sound Collective’s London groups will be at the Royal Festival Hall – see here for details. Happy Easter!

Posted in Cambridge, Charities and Big Society, Music | 2 Comments

Apps ‘n’ gadgets for community reporting

Summary

Some ‘not just for boys toys’ that I’ve become lately obsessed with – useful in the run up to the general election

I’ve been meaning to write this post for ages, so here goes.

Modern smartphones – powerful things: but do we get the best out of them?

My old eye-fone (sorry to avoid the spambots) 3S for me is still by far the most comfortable smartphone I’ve had. It was what I used to film this timelapse (with phone clipped onto this gizmo)

But that was long after I had upgraded. It’s only been in recent times that I’ve started using smartphones for recording video & audio. An example of an audio recording is Julian Huppert in a Q&A session to Transition Cambridge activists from 2014. Again, this was on the 3S attached to a lapel microphone.

Hardware – how can you make your smartphone record more stable footage?

A mini tripod. I bought this one by Manfrotto which I use with this Joby Tightgrip. Not only are both light enough to carry, they are comfortable to hold and can be set up in under 30 seconds. Furthermore, the design of the clip means you avoid the risk of recording video footage while holding the camera vertically. The clip only works if the phone is horizontal!

A smartphone with a telephoto lens?

Apparently so – though it takes a bit of time to get used to. I got hold of this one quite recently. If anything, the nicest thing about it is the case, which feels well made. In itself, that alone makes the package almost worth buying. Add the tripod & the clip, which although less pleasing on the eye & hand is more stable, means even without the lenses it’s quite a nice purchase. I can’t pretend to have gotten much out of the mini lenses. The zoom lens doesn’t allow you to zoom in & out – something that I’ve gotten used to with my camcorder. But then for the price, what do you expect? It does however give you the option of a manual focus. This can sometimes cause problems if the smartphone is in auto-focus mode.

Third party camera apps being better than the ones the phones come with?

It’s counter-intuitive, but the FiLMiC Pro app (£6.99) is one that is far more powerful than what my phone came with. The most useful aspect for me is the ability to align footage filmed using this with the settings on my camcorder. At events this means I can set up a main tripod and camera, press record & leave them running, while I film other more interesting shots from around the room. I’ve still not got the best out of the app – nowhere near in fact. I tend to compare such things to high performance motors: You’ve got to be extremely skilled in order to get the best out of them. That requires knowledgeable delicate handling.

For still photos, I have the Pro Camera App. As with the above, I am nowhere near getting the best out of it. However, the quality of some of the images I’ve taken feels better than using the normal camera app.

Field reporting – one I want to experiment with

I’ve got the lite version of the Hindenburg Field Recorder, because when it comes to recording, my quality of audio hasn’t been great. But because I’m shooting so much video (& uploading them to my Youtube channel here, or to my Vimeo page here), I’ve not really done much podcasting. Finally, I also want to experiment with the iRig setup.

All that reporting – but is anyone watching?

As it turns out, quite a few of you!

YouTube Analytics March 2015

YouTube Analytics March 2015

Given that most of the footage I have on my channel of late has been from Cambridge election debates, the above statistics are pretty good. (I think so anyway!)

I’m putting the election debate videos into event playlists – see here. Local parties can then pick from the videos and promote the ones of their candidates to their audiences, while party-neutral organisations can share the entire playlist by subject being discussed.

“Is it worth it?”

Because none of this as yet pays the bills!

A number of locals have said to me & tweeted that we’ll only really know its true value after the election – ie when we can compare who said what with what they delivered. It’s also a safe environment to learn how the various bits of kit & the apps work best together.

Finally, it’s an historical record. The local historian in me quite likes the idea of people viewing this footage in decades to come to see what the 2015 general election campaign was like.

There are also stacks more debates to come – see the list here. I’m not going to get to many of them – I’ll have to pick & choose. Alongside the Cambridge Cycling Campaign, health & housing are the two issues I feel I need to cover as far as the city is concerned. On faith group-specific, or international campaigning organisation debates, I’m happy to leave that to those who are more passionate about those issues or who are part of those communities. After all, I cannot be (nor should I be) everywhere!

Easter & Summer filming projects – community action

Following Be the change – Cambridge, I’ve had a number of conversations with various people on what might be useful for me to do between now & the autumn. One idea came up in conversation with my friends Angela & Dave. They both came up with the concept of ‘the time poor, passion rich citizen’. This concept is very very different to ‘clicktivism’. Clicking a ‘like’ button ain’t gonna save an additional life. ‘You get what you give’ and all that.

Think of it like this: You have a resident who is extremely skilled in a niche area, and who has perhaps an hour a week at home that they can devote to ‘something’ that can help make an impact on the city. How do you make it easy for such people to:

  • Identify the issues they are most passionate about?
  • Identify the functions/actions that they have the right skills sets for?
  • Identify where their input will have the greatest impact?

…and in a way that means they do not have to read through hundreds of sheets of paper? The concept I often use is the filters used to book hotel rooms. How about using the concept for:

  • Booking community rooms
  • Finding regular activities
  • Finding one-off events
  • Finding charities or local causes to support

…but instead of having to go from one website to another working separately in silos, have them co-ordinated? Hence some have come up with the concept of the ‘City Dashboard’

Films to bust myths & explain who does what

There’s only so long you can pester people & organisations before you end up having to do it yourself. Hence not long after I got my camcorder, I stuck Councillor Richard Johnson (who had just been appointed executive councillor for communities at Cambridge City Council) and asked him some very basic questions about local area committees in Cambridge.

Jeremy Paxman I am not. (As this short clip with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury shows).

The reason for my approach is I’m of the view that the general public don’t see politicians as people like them. My experience of working with politicians at a local and national level has been somewhat different: I used to work for ministers (& in one or two policy areas, meeting them quite frequently) during my civil service days. Therefore if you want to see their human side, don’t talk to them about politics (or rather policy). Hence asking Danny Alexander (along with Jo Swinson, his ministerial colleague here, and their Labour shadow opponent Lilian Greenwood here) about what got them interested in politics originally. Notice their face & body language compared to what you normally see on telly.

Other than that, between now & the election, I hope to get a couple of mythbusting videos online.

 

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

Trying to prioritise in the constraints of not great mental health

Summary

Wanting to do everything, but not being able to.

The past few weeks have been incredibly intense from a personal perspective. Yet had I had sound mental & physical health, all of this wouldn’t have been out of the ordinary. A decade ago I was managing the equivalent of all of this hours-wise on top of a full-time job.

‘Someone has to film it because ****democracy****’

I’ve uploaded at least 10 videos in the past week from a number of different events – events that would not otherwise have been recorded or scrutinised at people’s leisure. (See videos here). I don’t ‘have to’ do this. I don’t get paid to do this. I do it because something inside of me tells me this is an important function of our (local) democracy that’s not being fulfilled. This isn’t just about organised debates between candidates at elections (noting this article), but about some of the important public policy debates that take place in Cambridge too.

On the future of Cambridge – there’s lots happening, but how do we bring the conversations together?

There were over 100 people at a Q&A session with Cambridge general election candidates and with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander MP. (See my video playlist here). There were also over 100 people (a noticeably different audience) at a Cambridge Science Festival event on the connections & flows of future cities – see my video playlist here. Then finally there were 200 people at the Cambridge Carbon Footprint/Transition Cambridge debate on Friday. See my video playlist here.

The analytics tell me that over the past seven days, people have watched over eight hours of my video footage. So…there’s clearly a demand for what I’m filming – even though this doesn’t pay the bills!

Filming, editing and uploading is exhausting. But so too is travelling to and from venues

Only by taking tranquilliser medication at a frequency I’ve not had to since my 2012 crisis did I manage to stave off another breakdown this weekend. Something eventually had to give – and in both cases it was skating this and last weekend. A school governors’ strategy workshop followed a sleepless night. (Eclipse to blame?!) It was only a parental lift to/from Anglia Ruskin that got me to the Friday night debate. The funniest part of the evening was one of the student volunteers being told by the host of the evening, Dr Aled Jones of the Global Sustainability Institute at ARU that the big cuddly creature I was carrying with me was not a llama or a kangeroo, but Puffles the Dragon Fairy.

When the dragon gets an invitation…

In 2014 it was recording a music video. In 2015 it was recording an EP

But such was Saturday’s brainfog that I could not haul myself out of bed in time for the morning recordings with Dowsing Sound Collective at Jesus College Chapel. But I managed to make it through for two of the three tracks we recorded – using some state-of-the-art kit courtesy of ARU’s music department.

The view from the back - Recording with the Dowsing Sound Collective

The view from the back – Recording with the Dowsing Sound Collective. Can you spot the floating grey head?

I wanted to join everyone for post-recording drinks. But I couldn’t. And not for the first time. This has been the first year I’ve really begun to notice that I cannot do things I want to do because…of my disability. While I’ve described on ‘official forms’ in years gone by as my mental health issues being a disability, 2015 is the first year where I’ve really ‘felt the disability in my heart.’ Even more so because it feels like there’s nothing I can do about it.

Trying to articulate this in a way that someone in better health could understand

Imagine that instead of 40 hours per week, you only had 14. Go over that limit and you’ll have even fewer hours the following day or week. Or ‘Spoon theory’ as articulated by Christina Miserandino here. In the case of ‘Be the change – Cambridge’ the week before last, and all of the events last week, I’ll need to recharge batteries for most of this week. Not least because I want to be in a state where I can enjoy Dowsing’s London gig at the Union Chapel.

Losing spoons at the Cambridge environment debate on Friday

The ‘Spoon theory’ link – and the idea of losing spoons (or energy/capacity) along the way also hit on Friday night after the hustings but before Saturday’s recording. The only point of fact I recall the chair, Dr Aled Jones of Anglia Ruskin, challenging any of the panellists on was on who came up with the policy of all new-build homes from 2016 having to be zero carbon. The Conservative candidate for Cambridge claimed it was the Coalition, Dr Jones said it wasn’t.

For those who don’t know, I used to be a policy adviser on sustainable new homes in DCLG’s climate change & sustainable buildings division in 2007-08. In what were 10 of the most intense months of my life living & working in one of the most pressured political & policy environments I’ve ever been in, I couldn’t let that point rest. See the Storify here. (In this case I’m stating that Ms Fernando was misinformed, not lying. No frontline campaigning politician is going to know the policy detail unless they were reasonably well-read in that field).

Local government in Cambridge had definitely been informed about this policy by 2007. How do I know this? Because it I was the one who told them about it. Here are the slides from my talk at Newnham College attended by developers too. ***It’s got my name on them***

“Hang on – I thought you were only going to be the cameraman in this election campaign?”

That’s my intention, but where there is an issue of fact on a policy area I worked in, & where candidates continue to argue an incorrect point, I reserve the right to step in. On this occasion, it was a shame about the timing given the state of my health.

There are lots of debates between four of the five candidates between now & election day – helpfully collated by Cambridge Conservatives. See their calendar here – scroll down. I’ll try and get to the larger ones that cover a range of issues too.

Posted in Cambridge, Events I have been to, Mental health, Party politics, Social media | 4 Comments

On campaigning charities and political parties

Summary

Why the rise of large non-party-political campaigning charities vis-a-vis the shrinking of mainstream political parties leaves me a little uncomfortable

Seven environmental-related charities and organisations have got together to organise a London-based hustings. (See here). You’ll be hearing of various campaign groups from across the political matrix making their case. Earlier today on telly they had a whisky trade federation calling for the Chancellor to cut tax on their products in the run up to next week’s Budget – the last before the election. Conservative-leaning bodies tend to call for targeted tax cuts in their area of business, while Labour-leaning groups tend to call for more spending in their area of interest. It’s then left to a shrinking group of people from what feels like increasingly narrow backgrounds to decide how to balance the two.

Campaigning for something is one thing. Standing for election & being cross-examined by the public is quite another.

I stood as Puffles at the Cambridge City Council elections in 2014. And the dragon beat UKIP -> 89 votes to 0. They didn’t stand so lost be default. It’ll be different in 2015 as both The Greens and UKIP in Cambridge will be contesting most if not all of the wards at the local elections in Cambridge, which are happening on the same day as the general election. It’s one thing being a paper candidate, but quite another putting yourself out in public to face scrutiny & cross-examination.

Puffles gatecrashing Cambridge Labour Party's stall in our neighbourhood

Puffles gatecrashing Cambridge Labour Party’s stall in our neighbourhood

The glamorous side of ‘charity campaigning’ is when you get invited to posh receptions and visits to Parliament. You get the kudos of being the informed, passionate expert – but don’t necessarily have to worry about other issues far removed from your areas of passion or expertise because that’s not in the job description. (That’s not to criticise – this is to compare it to standing for election). When you’re standing for election – as I found out – you’re expected to have an opinion on everything. Should that opinion be found to be uninformed, a potential firestorm awaits. Whether it’s someone fact-checking in real time to an opponent creating a straw man to knock down (taking you down in the process), you find yourself in a situation where you’re expected to be knowledgable & informed where few others are.

But how many of us get to be in that position of being that reasonably well-paid full time campaigner where we’re attending all of these ‘Whitehall-and-Parliament-facing’ events? One of the criticisms of such charities and campaign groups made by Big Issue founder John Bird was that too many highly paid executives of such charities and groups had no experience of being dependent on the work of the charities they ran. (See here).

“Aren’t campaigning charities & groups popular because they are successful at achieving policy change?”

To an extent yes. At the same time it reveals a relative failure of political party members to secure policy changes & impose them on their party leaders. The stereotype is that Conservative grassroots is more politically right wing than its leadership, and Labour’s grassroots more leftwing than its leadership. However, if a party has ambitions for government, it’s got to reach out beyond that core vote. Hence having to make compromises there. Furthermore, given outsourcing & privatisation of the past 30 years – along with globalisation too, the power that parties in government used to have no longer exists. Take house building. The state is entirely dependent on the private sector to build homes. So if achieving policy change isn’t going to come from political leaders that ignore their members, what’s the alternative?

Hence why some have set up organisations

The well-trodden path is this:

  1. set up an organisation
  2. hire some offices in Westminster within easy reach of the institutions you want to influence
  3. find out who works where – ie map the people inside the institutions
  4. organise an event at somewhere nice
  5. invite people from the institutions you want to influence to said event
  6. be very nice to invitees at said event
  7. organise informal coffee/meetings
  8. become an independent stakeholder on a policy group

…and then you are inside the system. Repeat, only this time with the media. Friends in politics, friends in the media…this in part is how corporate lobbyists work. Charities and campaign groups picked up on this and have copied such tactics. Whether this will remain successful in years to come in social media world (& in the context of growing wealth inequalities) remains to be seen. Not least with nominally public events inside ‘the bubble’ now accessible to a much wider audience – whether through eventbrite/meetup or through people live-tweeting on a hashtag.

A big advantage of party backing

It’s all too easy to forget this, but other than having fellow party members campaigning for you, you also have the benefit of someone else with similar values to you having done the research. When it comes to manifesto time, it’s reasonable to expect that the policy experts in your party have done the research to withstand detailed scrutiny.

The route to Parliament – via campaigning charities.

A number of social justice charities, campaign groups and think tanks are fairly well known as being on the path that politicians tread during their rise up the political ladder. Lisa Nandy MP at Centrepoint (homelessness), Dr Stella Creasy at the Scout Association, Jack Straw’s son Will (who is standing for Parliament at this election) at the IPPR Think Tank are a few examples from Labour. This inevitably raises criticisms from party political opponents that this sort of activity is a subsidy. They think that charities should be restricted to providing relief to those in need rather than campaigning on the issues that create that need in the first place. Recall the quotation:

“When I give food to the poor they call me a saint, but when I ask why the poor have no food they call me a communist”

It’s not as simple as saying “You’re all cowards for not standing for election!”

As has been raised by a number of people, the barrage of hatred that women in particular have to put up with for even expressing an opinion is more than enough to put too many good people off from politics altogether. It’s only fortunate that more people feel confident enough to call such behaviour out – most recently a national newspaper super-imposing the head of Scotland’s first minister (Nicola Sturgeon) onto a bikini-clad model recreating an image from a pop video of a couple of years ago. Some might say ‘grow a thicker skin’, but if such behaviour is putting off talented people from engaging in politics & policy – to the detriment of our democracy, how can that be in the public interest?

Barriers to standing for election

That’s before you’ve considered the sacrifices you have to make with campaigning. At the Women of the World – Cambridge festival at the weekend I discussed this with a number of women, including one – Anna Smith, who is standing in the neighbouring Romsey ward in Cambridge. Campaigning becomes a full time job in the run up to an election. But how many people can afford to take the time off work to campaign? How many have sympathetic employers who will allow this?

Should we have a maternity/paternity leave style system for people who stand for election?

I don’t know how this might work in detail, but the principle is that the state would pay a set rate for people standing for election for the time when nominations close to when the results are announced. (Normally about six weeks). Additionally, Parliament could legislate for employers to give staff additional paid time off (or banks to provide mortgage holidays) for those standing for elections. It’s about removing some of the barriers to people standing for election.

Posted in Campaigning, protesting and demonstrating, Charities and Big Society, Party politics | 1 Comment

Natalie Bennett struggles in the media again – a problem of style or substance – or both?

Summary

Thoughts on Green Party Leader Natalie Bennett’s recent interviews, and a recent piece by Liberal Democrats’ president Baroness Sal Brinton on a visit to Cambridge recently.

The detail via The Spectator’s Isabel Hardman (who in the grand scheme of things I rate quite highly as a journalist/political commentator even though she operates in a different part of the political matrix) is here. Social media has also noticed that this wasn’t the first interview she’s struggled with – the BBC’s Andrew Neil making mincemeat of the citizen’s income policy.

Some damage to their brand and the standing of the party has been done. But is it the end of their campaign and prospects? Unlikely. One of the reasons for this is that in the minds of the electorate that is aware of them, The Greens are the opposite ‘brand wise’ of UKIP. Given the lack of mainstream media coverage until of late, it’s unlikely that Bennett’s past media appearances were a major reason for people joining the party – unlike Farage’s extended & ongoing media coverage in the face of seemingly increasingly bland & anonymous politicians from the mainstream parties. As Natalie Bennett was only elected party leader a couple of years ago – succeeding Caroline Lucas MP who had served her constitutional maximum 2 terms, (See p7 here) Bennett won the leadership election succeeding Lucas who until then had been their highest profile politician as both leader and only MP.

Are the problems one of media style or policy substance? Or was it just another bad day?

There’s a mix of all. Could Natalie Bennett (given how ill she was with a cold – as you can hear in her voice) have said: “I am ill – Caroline Lucas/Jenny Jones will be available for interview instead”. I’m surprised more ministers and politicians choose to plough on than take time to recover and put a substitute spokesperson in their place.

On both style and substance, The Greens have not had to face intense policy scrutiny from the mainstream media and their political opponents. Just before their recent problems, I posted this blogpost. Since then, they have faced scrutiny over social media posts – here in Cambridge with candidate Dr Rupert Read, followed by the challenges over policy from Andrew Neil and on Newsnight just now from Evan Davis over style & on how media-savvy they are. (He was interviewing Baroness Jones, the only Green Party peer in the House of Lords – who also was elected to the London Assembly).

You can’t solve a policy problem with media training and you can’t solve a style problem by overhauling your policies 

If I were on the inside track with The Greens, I’d be investing not just in some short-term intensive media training from someone who really knows their stuff, but also in some longer term mentoring. (Ideally also from someone who has been through something similar or worse & bears the scars from the experience!) In particular, how to prepare for media interviews – both in the run up & on the day. This blogpost by Janet Murray covers the essentials if you are appearing in the media for any political party. (Or organisation for that matter).

How much policy detail should a political party know at this stage?

Former Labour Party special adviser Damian McBride is spot on here. He posted that post shortly after Ed Miliband and Ed Balls got into a bit of bother over their proposed mansion tax. No political party in the UK has the resources to give the level of policy detail being asked on some of the policies. That’s why we have a civil service in this country to do the detailed policy work for whoever gets elected. Take for example Labour’s flagship minimum wage policy. It was in their 1997 manifesto, and lots of people understandably asked: “What will the new minimum wage be?” To which their response was to set out a process for how the wage level would be set (so as not to frighten off the business lobby whose vote Blair courted heavily). Even when the National Minimum Wage Act 1998 was passed into law, the new minimum wage was not on the face of the legislation. It simply gave powers to the Secretary of State to set the minimum wage subject to the due processes set out in the legislation.

The point being that for the citizen’s income policy, Natalie Bennett did not need to go anywhere near giving away any numbers or ballpark figures. The policy itself is far too complex with too many factors & variables in it for such a small organisation to come up with a robust policy on it. What she should have said – in particular to Andrew Neil is to have argued the principle of the policy on its merit and said that the detailed policy analysis would come from the civil service assuming the Greens (or another party supporting the policy) got elected. Remember Natalie Bennett has gone on record saying what matters – in particular environment-wise, is that their policies are adopted, rather than getting ministerial seats.

Managing expectations

As I’ve mentioned before, The Greens have a significant number of published policies – click here. Ever since the Green Surge the mainstream media has been pouring over these in detail. Because there is so much there, it’s ever so easy to get caught out by an interviewer saying: “Your website says…”. No party leader is going to know that level of policy detail. This is where Bennett might have gotten away with: “Our policy spokesperson who knows far more about the detail you’re asking for, is [click here for the list of spokespeople]…I can put you in touch with them because you’re asking me about a level of policy detail that you wouldn’t expect from any other party leader.” This is a media cultural problem of wanting to go to the party leader for any and every question under the sun, rather than going to the party policy specialist.

“Isn’t the risk with ‘media style training’ that you turn ordinary political activists into political media clones so derided by so many people?”

Yes – and it’s a significant risk. But that doesn’t mean you have to turn into a political drone pre-programmed by party HQ incapable of independent thought. Whether it’s the ‘straw man’ question (“You’ve said that you want to increase green taxes on businesses to help deal with climate change, why is it that you want to put lots of hard working small business owners out of a job, with the knock-on impact on their hard-working families and…won’t someone think of the children??!?!?!”) or any other trap (there are a few here), you can see why simply repeating the ‘line to take’ becomes easy to fall back on. Funnily enough, the only person I’ve ever heard openly ‘rejecting the premise of a question’ (see last point here) posed by an interviewer on mainstream TV is Laurie Penny.

Being your own media

I’m still surprised more politicians and parties don’t do far more on this. In The Green Party’s case, one of the things they could do is create some short digital videos setting out detailed and informed responses to all of the questions put to them in the difficult media interviews of recent days. Not ‘soundbite responses’ but ones that demonstrate just how complex and difficult public policy is to develop and deliver – and how trying to reduce these to soundbites or even short political exchanges does no one any favours. Let’s take another example – but from a different political party: The Liberal Democrats.

If the Greens are taking heat now, that’s nothing compared to the 5 year roasting the Liberal Democrats have taken for choosing to go into the Coalition

Given the huge number of controversial decisions Liberal Democrat MPs, peers & ministers have taken, they have often found themselves on the back foot. At times it’s as if the mood from some sections has been: “We expect these sorts of policies from the Tories, but not from you!”

The structural & existential challenge the Liberal Democrats have is that proportional representation is in their political DNA – understandably so. Look at the difference in seats vs total votes in the 1983 & 1987 elections from their predecessor Liberal/SDP alliance (1983 here, and 1987 here). Imagine if the House of Lords took the general election results & allocated seats to members of an elected upper chamber via proportional representation & gave that chamber far stronger powers to vote down and/or delay/change legislation. History could have been very different.

How do the Liberal Democrats defend the decision to go into the Coalition given the 4+ years we’ve had since?

Lib Dem President Sal Brinton, now in the House of Lords but a former county councillor here in Cambridge gave it a go on a visit to Cambridge recently. I filmed it. It’s almost 20 minutes long but is worth a listen irrespective of your political affiliation.

The point of the above being: ‘Yes, there are difficult questions to answer, so here are my answers in my own words in my own time.’ The risk with this is that if you don’t answer those difficult questions, you run the risk of any positive content being ignored as people focus on what you refuse to answer.

Food for thought?

 

Posted in Events I have been to, Party politics, Social media | 3 Comments

Love with a ‘broken mind’

Summary

This ‘bah humbug’ style post follows from another article by Fleetstreetfox and from half a dozen conversations I’ve had with friends around the Mill Road part of town, as well as online.

Foxy’s article is here. You may also be interested in this article about dating & mental health

“Be part of red heart day, and show the one you love how much you love them by buying lots of stuff at inflated prices putting you into even more debt!”

“But if there’s one thing that means romance more than anything else in the modern era, it’s this:

When you’re with them, you want to put your phone down.

And if you can’t manage that, people, then I’ve no hope for you”

Well that’s me doomed then!

This is the first blogpost I’ve written about this topic because it’s something that historically has filled me with sad emotions. Thus my way of dealing with it has been to pretend publicly that I don’t have such emotions or to keep them hidden out of sight & out of mind of everyone else.

During my teens, I was crushed by the fear of rejection and humiliation along with an austere religious doctrine when it came to sex and relationship education. Without anyone to make the serious case for alternative viewpoints – remember Section 28 was still around throughout my school & college years. It was ‘family values or nothing.’

What really strikes me now (in a positive way) is how I now know lots of people in a variety of different relationships, and also how comfortable I am with this given my upbringing. Part of this was the impact of spending three years in Brighton at a time when I both wanted and needed to rebel against so many of the values that with hindsight crushed my soul & spirit. But at the same time it meant I had to spend most of my early 20s getting things out of my system that I should have dealt with in my teens. No, I’m still not over everything yet. Every time I think of organised religion and its impact on my emotional health – not to say every Sunday morning wasted being indoctrinated, I get really angry and have to use CBT-techniques to calm down.

Struggling with the emotional side of exploring my own sexuality

I remember about 15 years ago at an international student conference in my first year at uni, one of the women there offered sex on a plate. I froze, not really knowing how to deal with it & the moment was gone. This was after a few months at university not really having connected with anyone whether dating-wise or friendship-wise. That said, the conference was great fun and those of us that went came away wondering why university wasn’t like this. Fast-forward to graduation & I remember the contempt too many graduands felt towards the university – something several of us talked about at the graduation ceremony. Mine was the second generation of ‘up front fees’ and felt we were treated like cash cows rather than an integral inclusive part of university life. That’s why I tend to shout down the phone at any unfortunate soul from the university trying to get more money off me.

Dashed hopes and expectations?

I wasn’t the only one. Ever since, a number of people I’ve met over the years who went to university (and came out disappointed) felt they were sold a lie by the institution, or were told by their elders about a university lifestyle that no longer existed. I still remember being told that going to university meant you were in the top 1-2% of the brightest people in the country, as well as being told that I was likely to meet my future wife there. I guess one of the hardest things about growing up is learning that what the older generation tells you about life isn’t always true. In my case it’s meant I no longer trust the opinions or advice of an entire cohort of people in my parents generation that knew me as a child. What they told me as a child/teenager turned out not to be true and it hurt me. Badly.

Living like a teen in my ‘roaring 20s’

When I returned to Cambridge after university – six months after my first major mental health crisis, I got involved in a number of societies at Cambridge & Anglia Ruskin as a post-graduate student of the latter. Having dated/had short relationships with a number of students from the former, one of the things that struck me was how intense their workloads & lifestyles were – to the extent that in your formative years I could understand how lifelong friendships & relationships were struck up. When a group of you are faced with the same intense pressures, it sort of brings you together in a way the more lethargic lifestyles of other universities (mainly in arts/humanities) at the time could not. To put it in perspective, I had 2-3 assessed essays per term, where as at Cambridge my partners had 2-3 assess essays per week.

It was only after I transferred down to London that I found myself in a reasonably stable relationship – what I call my first proper relationship. But being so single-minded & selfish at the time, I wasn’t nearly the loving, caring boyfriend that I should have been. Obviously the commute didn’t help – we could only see each other at weekends or when I took time off work during university holidays. Shortly after we broke up, I moved to London and lived the work hard-play hard lifestyle, going on various dates, having short flings but never finding the stable loving relationship that I so desperately wanted. Again, dashed expectations of not having found my life partner in the furnace of graduate professional London living.

Where I am now

In early 2012 I had a mental health breakdown which meant I was no longer able to work full time hours. I still cannot to this day. Only earlier this week there were three events I wanted to film but could not get out of bed. I was utterly exhausted.

It seems like years since I was last with someone who made me really feel the emotion of love – my definition of giving and receiving of ‘intimate love’ between people. (The English language is incredibly limited, hence liking the deconstruction of the term ‘love’ here using Greek).

Since 2012, I’ve effectively stopped dating completely. Part of it was due to my breakdown being related to rejection that in my rational mind actually made perfect sense but one that my emotional mind could not switch off. The rest is due to me feeling that while I’m not working full time & having had to move back in with my family, I won’t be good enough for everyone. Not in a ‘woe is me!’ sense but in a: ‘Let’s be realistic here and spend our time doing something more constructive than searching for a forlorn hope, getting continually rejected even more’ sense.

‘But you’re always doing fun stuff!’

I’m still struggling to connect emotionally with people. In part because I have an emotion intensity that can be off-putting. It’s something that when I see it in other people, I back away from them too. Almost as if ‘it’s bad enough being me!’ At the same time, others see me as this confident & outgoing guy who is active in the community. I on the other hand see myself as doing some of the things that ‘need to be done and have a strong public interest to have them done,’ but hardly anyone else will do or is able to do. Some of the decision-making at a very basic level is emotionally exhausting – even deciding to catch a bus into town. It uses up my supply of spoons.

No one to help recharge my emotional batteries

Over the past year it’s something I’ve started feeling more acutely. Whether it’s wanting to work as part of a bigger team on a regular, stable basis to having the loving arms and warm embrace to come back to after a hectic day, the void is becoming more and more noticeable. And all too often it feels like there’s nothing I can do about it. Essentially I’m fighting a war on four fronts:

  • Health
  • Friendships & relationships
  • Employment & financial
  • Living arrangements

The problem for me is that all of these are so closely intertwined. The other is the huge level of uncertainty both with my health (ie ‘will I ever recover to a point where I can work full time hours again? It’s been three years remember) and also what I see as the general economic/political outlook. Will I ever be in a situation where I’ll be able to afford my own place in the not-to-distant future?

“Stop sulking!”

A couple of years ago – not long after my 2012 breakdown I wrote a blogpost titled: “I’d like to teach the world to sing”This reflects my mindset today: Physically I’m past my peak of my mid-20s. Therefore if there are life experiences that I want to have before it’s too late, now’s the time to do them. So. Let’s look at that list & see what actions I’ve taken.

“I’d like to sing or perform as part of a large group of people to a big audience in splendid surroundings.” Done – and still doing. See here with Dowsing Sound Collective

“I’d like to learn how to ice skate and roller-blade properly. So please can we have that long-muted permanent ice rink in Cambridge please, given that lots of building is happening anyway?” Doing – now skating with Romsey Rollerbillies, and nearly 1,000 FB likes on the Cambridge Ice Rink campaign page I created.

“I’d like to make a positive difference to my home town – making it realise (and ultimately deal with) its own flaws so that it can meet the expectations that come with a growing ‘brand’. (Yes, I hate the term too).” Doing with Be the change – Cambridge -> Join us on 14 March to have your say too! (See here)

“I’d like to overcome my mental blocks on all things creative – especially with art, music and creative media. I have a number of tools but struggle to pick them up, let alone use them in the way I’d like to.” Done and Doing with video – kicked off in summer 2014.

There’s still a lot more to do, but adopting a ‘do stuff’ rather than ‘wait for someone else to do stuff’ seems to be that little bit more constructive. Happy red heart day!

Posted in Mental health | 2 Comments

Stopping on rollerskates

Summary

Week 2 of training with the brilliant Romsey Rollerbillies

If you scroll to the last five seconds of the video below, you’ll see an expert’s example of how to stop on rollerskates in style

I signed up for the Rollerbillies’ Fresh Meat program having filmed them last year (see above). Having gotten into the filming swing of things, I’m now experimenting with a variety of non-conventional camera shots – in particular where me & the camcorder are moving. But I don’t think I’ll be getting anywhere near the standards of this clip below.

Joining a club run by and made up of mainly women members

[For those of you interested in sport & feminism, the paper Sport, Gender and Power : The rise of roller derby may be of interest.]

I’m really grateful for being given the chance to learn how to skate with them. The only lessons I’ve been able to find for skating have been in London. Not living in a single place for long enough – and thus not settling meant I never took up the option while I was living there in the late 2000s. Despite turning up in week 1 with the wrong kit – blades rather than skates, a cycle helmet rather than a more substantial crash helmet, and leisure pads rather than rollerderby pads, the welcome I got put me at ease. Quite something for someone with an anxiety disorder!

Safety first – and in more ways than one

The focus on safety was at the heart of everything they taught. A ‘tick-box’ culture this was not. What struck me was how similar their focus on health and safety was to the teacher training I did at Cambridge Regional College in late 2011. Straight from the textbook and communicated very well. I knew I was in good hands.

Furthermore, Shona the lead instructor on the first week and Rachel in the second reinforced the concept of the hall being a ‘safe space’ – and in two ways.

A safe space to make mistakes

The first was that it was safe to make mistakes, get things wrong, fall over and take time to learn things. For me this was like the opposite of school and church as a child. Do badly in an exam at school and all hell breaks loose with family and family friends. Make a mistake in life and you have to go to church and confess your sins and feel guilt and shame. Here was the opposite. What I also noticed was how some of the more experienced skaters read my body-language on skates like a book: I was incredibly tense – fearing the pain I might suffer if I fell over and having everyone pointing & laughing at me. The only time I saw people laughing at someone falling over was when one of the very experienced skaters did so.

A safe space for everyone – irrespective of your size or shape

The week I started skating with the Rollerbillies seemed to coincide with the #ThisGirlCan campaign to get more women into sport. I picked this up from Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson (who I met in Parliament a couple of years ago) tweeting about it.

I knew I was throwing myself into this while being very out of shape. What I didn’t realise until the end of the second week was just how much of a workout I had got. Having bought some new upgraded pads, I was astonished to find how soaked in sweat my wrist pads were. We were on our wheels for a good couple of hours. The exercise you get isn’t so much a sprint or a distance run, but more related to the pressure your muscles are put under – or so it felt. Being in ‘derby stance’ where you are effectively standing in a squatting position while skating around the track is something that requires an incredible amount of stamina – something that I’ve seldom had!

Just as with my days dancing in the 2000s, people of all shapes and sizes demonstrated incredible skill, talent, stamina and co-ordination. For all the body-shaming in the media, here were a large group of people in my home town comprehensively busting those negative messages.

At the same time given the nature of the activity & the level I’m at, I’m in listening & concentrating mode. Break that concentration & you fall over. Hard. I’m in listening mode because the people giving me advice have all been where I have been skating-wise. Their advice without exception has been constructive, friendly, reassuring & encouraging. With all of us newbies they have taken several of us slower learners aside for 1-2-1 short sessions to work on specific pieces of technique. For people who might be low on confidence and/or have an anxious disposition, the impact this approach has is huge.

Quite a commitment just to get a few seconds of dynamic film footage?

It sounds like it, doesn’t it? But remember back in 2012 I blogged how I wanted to learn how to stop on rollerblades? (With a view to skating regularly – somewhere). My mindset as in that linked blogpost is that I’m past my physical peak. (I’m in my mid-30s now). Therefore if I want to avoid middle-aged and elderly years full of regrets about not doing more physical activities, it really is now or never. That I can combine it with filming is even better. Even if I’m not able to capture the sort of footage I have in mind, I’ve still learnt a new skill, met some nice new people and improved my fitness.

Personal styles of learning – alone or in a group? One off or repeated over time?

An alternative style of learning to this could be looking online at some digital videos and going out somewhere to try things out myself. Another might be a one-day crash course. The former I find procrastination a huge barrier. With the latter I find I need to have been a practitioner and know the basics before going along somewhere to break through a glass ceiling. I found this out when I was a Freedom of Information Officer in the civil service during my early/mid 20s. The Act had been in force for just under a year and we had got a few things wrong – as you inevitably do with interpreting a new piece of legislation. Having booked myself into a seminar that I thought would have dozens of people with a senior barrister (I think it was Sue Cullen) on FoI & data protection – the latter of which I couldn’t get my head round on its application. In the end, only four of us turned up. Thus we had a whole day with a senior barrister to go through all of the issues at work we had with the two pieces of legislation. Following that session, I re-wrote the guidance on FoI & data protection for our office to make it fit for purpose.

In a nutshell, learning in a group over time is what works for me. Not just with skating but with music too. Which was why I was pleasantly surprised to see one of the experienced skaters, Meg, at our first Sunday music rehearsal for the Dowsing Sound Collective this year – having joined us a couple of weeks prior. Which reminds me, we have a musical year that looks like it’ll be just as exciting as 2014. And if you’re in London, get yourselves down to the Union Chapel on 28 March. The London collectives are up and running…

 

Posted in Cambridge, Charities and Big Society, Events I have been to, Music, Sport | 1 Comment

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

Summary

The challenges of rapid expansion in a short space of time

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

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

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

(Above graph via @Jim_Jepps and @steve4319).

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

“In three days?!? Crikey!”

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

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

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

Cameron steps in and puts The Greens on the front pages

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

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

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

Rapid growth brings risks – as Nigel found to his cost

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

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

Not all membership fees are comparable across parties

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obviously it won’t be the last.

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