Testing radical policy platforms at the local government ballot box

We saw headlines about a four day week today – but how to politicians and parties go beyond single headline-grabbing slogans and towards a set of co-ordinated policies in an interlinked manifesto? And what do community groups and civic society organisations need to start doing now to organise public debates & hustings, whether offline or online?

It was Sian Berry of The Green Party in London who started it!

It’s a long-standing Green Party policy, one that seems to have been championed by other organisations & groups that is now boiling down to an alliance of groups at the 4 Day Week Campaign. Interestingly, a separate organisation has set up a job-finding website for those who only want to work four days a week. It’s also worth noting that 4 Day Week campaigners are not calling for condensed hours – that is full time hours squished into four days instead of five. Some research on that indicates that the productivity gains per hour are not the same. The campaign assumes a cut in hours.

“Yeah – how’s that going to work with shop workers or bus drivers? If they work fewer hours, you have to pay them less or your employment costs go up!”

This – amongst other things is where the assumptions, the detail, and the links to other policies matter. For example the 4 Day Week Campaign clearly states that pay would not be reduced. But then at the same time what would the impact be if it was brought in at the same time as say Universal Basic Income (UBI) that covered at least the wage of one working day? Earlier this year, the Assistant Secretary General of the UN, Kanni Wignaraja made the case for bringing in UBI globally. The case for UBI has also been made by Anthony Painter, Chief Research & Impact Officer at the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) – or to give it the full name, The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce.

“It’s hardly encouraging the making of stuff when it’s telling people to work less!”

Not necessarily – proponents for the four day week make the case that a reduced and less stressful working week means an improved quality of output and a higher standard of productivity.

Weaving radical policies into a manifesto that makes sense to the electorate – is the general public part of this debate about what post-CV19 society will be like? Or are these cosy debates happening in closed left-liberal circles while the Tory ministers make a hash of the CV19 response – in the face of their self-inflicted farce of Brexit?

Where does that leave the overworked medics, health & care workers, teachers, parents and those on the front line struggle under the weight of the essential restrictions put in place to try and reduce the spread until a vaccine is available and being delivered?

Yes, I support the principle of a reduced working week *and* of a Universal Basic Income. As someone with a chronic illness that stops me from working full time, of course a UBI is in my interests. But. And it’s a big But. I need to be convinced that we can make both policies work for those already on very long hours – medical professionals, healthcare workers and support staff, teachers, cleaners – the list goes on.

The time lag to train the extra staff needed to make up the shortage caused by reduced working hours

This isn’t to say “Don’t bring in the policy” or to throw it in the ‘too complicated box’ – rather it indicates the level of planning that is needed to make it work. Will talking about either of those policies on the doorstep make any impact with a general public that is already highly-stressed & whose responses will cut through high-brow political ideals. It reminds me of a tale once told to me about a well known Labour activist in the 1930s – it may have been Leah Manning but can’t quite recall. The campaigners had reached the top of the tower block going door-to-door campaigning for the 1935 general election. The door opened and a woman opened the door.

Woman: “Oh, you’re from the Labour Party are you?

Activists: “Yes! Vote for us to stop the fascists!”

Woman: “Well what are you gonna do about those men pissin’ in the lifts then?

Activists: “Oh, that’s an issue for the local council. You’ll have to take the issue up with them.”

Woman: “Well you won’t be much good stopping the fascists if you can’t stop those men pissin’ in them lifts!”

Nail. Head.

I think it was the late Frank Dobson (Secretary of State for Health 1997, longtime MP for Holborn & St Pancras) who gave that anecdote at a public policy event several years ago.

Local elections in Cambridge – have you got as many as we are going to have in 2021?

In Cambridge we have a stack of voting papers including:

  • Cambridge City Council (lower tier council district/borough) – three votes as the whole council is up for election
  • Cambridgeshire County Council (upper tier council – shire) – one vote, the whole council is up for election
  • The Police and Crime Commissioner (no, I don’t know who the current one is or what he has achieved, nor have I registered the impact of the previous two)
  • The Executive/Metro Mayor for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough

Have I missed anyone?

It will be interesting to see if we end up with a default option for postal voting at these elections given the CV19 pandemic as I think a handful of US states did at their general election, one which the incumbent still has not conceded.

Which reminds me, the UK’s voting systems still remain vulnerable because laws have not been tightened to safeguard our democratic systems since the EU Referendum. It’s almost as if Tory ministers don’t want to because they think they’ll be the primary beneficiaries from such a broken system. A bit like their reluctance to bring in a comprehensive system of education about democracy and our political and financial systems, long called for by successive generations of teenagers.

Wading through the treacle of local government structures in Cambridgeshire & Peterborough

One of the things that has struck me watching the above group on and off for the past decade is how the current system suits the incumbent Conservatives – and how anyone who wants to change things from whichever part of the political matrix, has got their work cut out. It’s not just this structure but also the further chains successive ministers have thrown on local councils such as through national planning policies allowing poor and mediocre planning applications to be waved through -or rather rubber stamped through, by planning committees with their hands tied. This is the Novotel Cambridge at North Cambridge Station.

The comments in response are hardly supportive. And why should anyone be surprised? When it was presented by the developer’s agent at planning committee, the latter could only state that the design was ‘acceptable’ according to an independent design panel in support of the application.

The councillors later in the video above tore into the design, but knew they had to approve it lest a national Planning Inspector overturn the refusal and award costs against he councils.

“What issues and themes should candidates standing for election campaign on?”

Whatever they like.

I learnt through Puffles that there’s a risk with keyboard warriors like myself who don’t go door-to-door canvassing telling those that do what they should and shouldn’t be campaigning on. With local transport-policy-related seats and public offices up for election, I’d like to think the public might be more pro-active in making their views known – assuming that enough progress has been made against the pandemic come April 2021.

That said, in Cambridge there are six different vacancies we’ll be voting on, so unlike previous elections there is a big opportunity for political parties to set out a future vision that encompasses several institutions. Can they compose & create that inspiring vision and then communicate that vision to the general public?

“What about that concert hall?”

This one?

“No – that’s the revamped guildhall idea.”

This one?

“No – that’s the old court house on Castle Hill that we want rebuilt to house an expanded Museum of Cambridge”

This one?

“No – that’s the upside-down flying saucer that was supposed to become a community arts venue at Elizabeth Way/Newmarket Rd roundabout in the 1980s before the county council vetoed it.”

Actually – the recent news of the permanent closure of the nightclub in the Lion Yard after 40 or so years under various different names (It was Fifth Avenue in my day) means there’s a big gap in the Cambridge night time economy, whatever you thought of it as one of the town’s main night clubs.

How about this one?

It’ll do for now – but it needs some tweaks given that Peck & Stephens submitted it to Big C back in 1860.

“Big C?”

Charles Henry Cooper – Coroner, Town Clerk, Local Historian, and probably the man that started the modernisation of Cambridge the town.

Above – Charles Henry Cooper, Lost Cambridge Legend. He compiled the Cambridge Annals, the comprehensive list of things that happened in Cambridge up until just before his death. This was rediscovered by Cambridge historian Mike Petty MBE here.

The point is that Cambridge’s population was just over 100,000 in 2001. In 2030 it will be 150,000. What will be our city’s collective leisure offer? Remember that Big C above proposed a magnificent guildhall and concert hall with the capacity of over 1,000 people – the large hall of which got built and is still there, and that was when Cambridge’s population was closer to 30,000 people.

“Anything else on the municipal shopping list?”

If only it were that simple. This is one of the reasons why one of the major publishers in my opinion needs to publish (or in the case of Pengiun/Pelican, refresh and republish) – and market a new series of books that educate the public about how the systems of state function.

And not just the basics of national and local government…but on things like public services, law enforcement, and decisions that change the look of where we live.

Organising hustings – online or offline.

Chris Rand wrote this guide for offline hustings, but for online ones assuming the elections go ahead but still under the pandemic restrictions, there’s a role for the better resourced civic organisations to start their planning now – and for local digital media firms to start quoting prices for providing tech support to such events. It might be one of the first elections where technology enables far more potential voters to hear the candidates in their own voices. And for those who want to help make the voting and publicity materials more accessible so voters can cast informed votes, see the Democracy Club’s annual operations here. These include sites such as “Who can I vote for?” (where you type in your post code and the candidates come up with links to their social media profiles & videos), and “Where do I vote” – where typing in your post code tells you where your polling station is.

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