Background reading for local elections in/around Cambridge scheduled for 2021*

*Subject to review from the Government.

The full statement from the Minister for the Cabinet Office Chloe Smith MP to the Commons is here.

Challenge: “What’s the one small behaviour change or one small one-off activity you can undertake to support local democracy in your area?”

It could be as small as buying and reading a local newspaper or news website once a week to get informed. It could be committing to read up about all of the candidates standing for election in your area – and emailing them with a question. It doesn’t have to be big or time-intensive. This post assumes the reader has very little practical knowledge of local democracy.

For the elections that residents in Cambridge will be eligible for in 2021, the details are here. These will cover:

  • Cambridge City Council (three votes for three council seats covering their ward)
  • Cambridgeshire County Council (One vote for one council seat covering their division)
  • The Police and Crime Commissioner for Cambs & Peterborough
  • The Mayor of the Combined Authority for Cambs & Peterborough

If you are not already a member of a political party and are interested in standing for election as one of their candidates, for most of them you are probably too late to apply. This is because many have minimum membership time limits before you can stand as a candidate unless the circumstances are exceptional – for example you were elected as a candidate for a different party but ‘crossed the floor’, or are a high profile candidate of an exceptional calibre.

If, however you would like to stand as an independent candidate – perhaps to raise the local profile of a specific issue, the Flatpack Democracy Campaign is supporting potential independent campaigns. There is also more guidance from the Local Government Association’s Independent Councillors Group. If you want to find out how closely your political views align with existing political parties, have a look at the Political Compass.

Making it your responsibility to cast informed votes

Democracy is not a spectator sport where we passively watch what’s happening and then ask “What’s for tea?” It needs a critical mass of people to make it function at a basic level, and needs even more to make it function effectively. We saw a frightening example of what happens where democracy is threatened by violent extremists earlier this year in the US. And don’t think it hasn’t happened in the UK – this was summer 2020, and this was summer 2019. So there’s a collective responsibility for the rest of us to do perhaps that little bit more (or different) to what we normally do.

In past elections, I assisted candidates from the main local political parties standing for election to make some short video clips for their campaigns. See the playlist here for the Cambridgeshire County Council elections for 2017. The format was very simple. Candidates were asked to:

  • State their name
  • State the political party they were standing for
  • State the election they were standing in
  • State the date of that election
  • State three reasons why they were standing
  • Recap on name, party, election, and date.

It is now 2021. Political parties should now either be familiar with making their own short campaign videos on smartphones and have members/activists who are able to produce such content.

Who can I vote for?

Every year when there are national and local elections, volunteers from the Democracy Club undertake the task of getting details of all of the candidates – including social media links, and put them up online. Voters and citizens can then go to the website Who Can I Vote For? and find out who is standing for election in their neighbourhood simply by typing in their postcode. And if you don’t know where your polling station is, they have Where Do I Vote? as well.

What are the issues? What are my local issues?

Look outside your front door. What do you see? What are the pavements like? When was the last time they were repaired/relaid? What is the traffic like? What is the air quality like? How much litter is there? What is the street scene like? What are the condition of shops and houses like? They may sound like straight-forward questions but when you are living a very busy and hectic life, and/or are under immense pressure and stress, it’s easy to walk past and not notice.

You can cast your vote based on international issues such as what a political party is doing to achieve peace in the Middle East. It’s just that there’d be little point because your local council doesn’t have the political competency to commence negotiations with the interested parties in order to achieve said aim. This is something that falls within the competency of Central Government in Westminster, for which your local MP is your means for holding it accountable.

You can write to your local MP via Write To Them – a tool that also enables you to email your local councillors as well. Nearly a hundred years ago, Labour councillor Clara Rackham spoke about how her local party needed to spend less time debating and passing motions on international issues that did not lead to any meaningful action, and focus on local issues. You can read what she said here.

Ultimately your local issues are whatever you say they are based on your lived experiences. The Covid19 pandemic has put into a very sharp perspective how interdependent we are on each other and on our local public services. Think about the conversations you’ve had with others about your experiences, and then consider that old adage “If you don’t tell them, how will they know?”

What do other people, groups, societies, and organisations say are local issues?

Any local councillor past or present will tell you that there is hell to pay if you make a mess of bin collections. It’s the one local public service that voters are very quick to punish incumbent political parties over.

On local issues, both the Cambridge Independent (weekly) and the Cambridge News (daily) cover local issues and local council meetings – the latter of which have moved online so people can now watch live. The print editions of both papers is more comprehensive than their online coverage.

There are so many groups, organisations, and societies that if I tried to list them the list would be obsolete by the time I had finished. In times gone by the local council used to publish a civic directory which would include a list and contact details for those based in Cambridge.

With so many things to campaign on, it is very easy to become overwhelmed. Even more so when you have several different organisations in the same theme overlapping each other. There is room for consolidation. For most people, my advice is to pick one or two themes/issues to focus on and do them well. We’re lucky in Cambridge in that there are nearly always other people to cover the essentials of the other issues. Don’t know where to start? Try the Cambridge Council for Voluntary Services, who have paid, knowledgeable staff on hand who can advise you.

These are just some of the basics!

With so many votes being cast *at the same time* this is also a huge opportunity to discuss longer term aspirations for our city and county. There are a whole host of in-depth topics you can familiarise yourself with should you desire, such as:

Local health servicesHealthwatch Cambridgeshire is the organisation that has the legal responsibility for championing the interests of patients and service users of health & social care services in Cambridgeshire. You can share your views & experiences with them here.

Local residential issuesFederation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations is the umbrella organisation that covers nearly all of the constituted residents associations in Cambridge.

Local bus servicesThe Cambridge Area Bus Users Group was only established a couple of years ago but provides a much-needed voice for people (including myself) who in normal times use buses regularly.

Local history and heritageCambridge Past, Present and Future was originally founded in the late 1920s when people from town and gown got together to campaign for the preservation of Cambridge as a university town, and to stop the spread of urban sprawl. They own and run Coton Country Park and Wandlebury.

Local cycling & sustainable transport planningCambridge Cycling Campaign has grown in membership numbers and influence in recent years. Until recently run by volunteers, their large membership increase along with donations has enabled them to employ full-time officers to scrutinise transport planning casework and the local planning process.

“What about sports & leisure? Or young people? Or old people?”

The above are some of the ones I’ve had some sort of working/volunteering/membership relationship with over the past decade or so. As mentioned before, there are potentially hundreds more that I could list, including sports and leisure societies that might be interested in scrutinising Cambridge & South Cambridgeshire’s Playing Pitch Strategy 2015-31. Or the Cambridge & South Cambridgeshire Indoor Sports Facilities Strategy.

Really big picture issues that go far beyond the call of duty

You have to be a real local government geek to get into the level of detail where you’re asking about the structure and financing of local councils, or perhaps the responsibilities and geographical boundaries.

Local council boundaries – have they always been like this?

Cambridgeshire’s local council boundaries have shifted and changed over the decades. This map below from this post-war history of local government boundaries in Cambridgeshire shows the historical boundary of Cambridge with four shire-level councils (Soke of Peterborough, Isle of Ely, Huntingdonshire, Cambridge County) and a number of much smaller borough/district level councils within each.

Above – from 1945, could these boundaries form the baseline proposals for new unitary councils in Cambridgeshire?

“Have local council duties remained the same?”

Again, the answer is no. Compare your local councils today with what was there in 1959 in Mr Jackson’s book on Local Government, digitised on the Internet Archive here. We used to have a tradition from Penguin of publishing cheap and widely accessible books on the functioning of different parts of the state and civic society. Many of these are still relevant to today, even though the earliest of them were published from the mid-1930s. The problems they wrestled with are ones still with us.

I’ve featured more in this blogpost, including where to get cheap second hand copies. If you’re lucky you might find some are cheaper than the postage!

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