James Palmer should make the case for CAM Metro to Cambridge voters – including the 8,000+ people who voted Conservative in 2019

…and his Labour and Liberal Democrat opponents, Dr Nik Johnson & Cllr Aidan van de Weyer respectively, need to make the case for an alternative mass transit having rejected Mr Palmer’s plan for the CAM Metro.

I was disappointed to read that Mr Palmer declined to take part in the Cambridge Cycling Campaign hustings. (Scheduled for Tues 06 April from 7pm).

There is a further hustings – on the Environment, on 15 April hosted by former BBC Radio Cambridgeshire presenter Paul Stainton. It is supported by a number of community groups and campaigns across Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. Given the very serious challenge laid down by Mr Palmer’s Independent Environment Commission, I think it’s essential that all of the candidates are there to discuss the findings in detail.

In fact, I think one of the debates should be hosted almost as a public policy debate rather than picking individual questions from an audience. Where a trained and skilled interviewer spends time cross-examining each of the candidates before they then follow up each other’s points later on. I think there’s only so far that adversarial-style hustings can go if the format is simply repeated elsewhere – as Cambridge’s general election candidates have found over the past decade with over 30 public debates in one election year.

I can understand why tactically and from a party-political perspective his party advisers might want to minimise the opportunities that potentially hostile audiences get to cross-examine him. After all, the media age we’re in is one where the game is to catch out a politician contradicting themselves. This has resulted in too many candidates playing it safe at a national level – giving us the politicians we deserve. Or “The wrong politicians” compared to what the public might think we should get.

Ever heard the phrase: “All politicians are the same!”? Political journalist Isabel Hardman (pictured here at the Cambridge Literary Festival with Puffles) unpicked some of the issues about how politicians become politicians in her book Why we get the wrong politicians. The hurdles and barriers that potential candidates face are particularly relevant.

Over 8,300 voters in Cambridge voted Conservative in 2019.

…which represents their lowest share of the vote in modern times – i.e. since the First World War, but is still a significant number of people despite a weak candidate with no significant local links that year. But there are still votes to be won for the city and county council elections. The Conservatives are still however to recover from their collapse in the 1980s & 1990s, their vote being scattered across the city. Interestingly, under Proportional Representation they would stand a much better chance of getting councillors elected than under the present system. My preference remains the system that the London Assembly has – with constituency seats and city-wide seats under PR to help rebalance any extremities with seat numbers that FTPT may deliver.

Defending a record against a new slate of candidates,

Mr Palmer is the only candidate re-standing in this election – the other parties having selected new candidates or none at all. As the 2017 elections were the first ones held, no one really knew what being a metro mayor for Cambridgeshire & Peterborough entailed. You can see what the candidates said in the well-run hustings at Sawston Free Church in April 2017 here, along with the full exchanges.

In the case of Cambridge, I think Mr Palmer should make the case for his CAM Metro proposal. He was the only candidate last time who made a clear, bold case in principle for a mass transit for Cambridge. Now he needs to explain his proposal in the presence of political opposition from his opponents.

At the same time, Dr Johnson & Cllr van de Weyer need to explain clearly what their alternative is to Mr Palmer’s CAM Metro. This includes whether they support or oppose the Cambridge Connect proposal that has the backing of a number of local people – including myself. (The essential difference between the two is the CAM Metro is rail-less, based on futuristic technology, and the Connect model is a light-rail-based system using existing technology).

Personally I think there’s a strong public interest for online public debates to be organised covering the whole county – not just the big population centres of Cambridge and Peterborough. Not least because there are different transport schemes that voters will want to question the candidates on that won’t be relevant to other parts of the county. Whether the A47 upgrade near Wisbech being irrelevant to the voters south of Cambridge City, to a Cambridge Mass Transit not being of much relevance to the rural areas at the northern end of the county – over 40 miles separating them.

I’m not going to use this blogpost to attack or defend any of the candidates. The professional news coverage is already covering this and they need the support and income. See in particular:

The last of the three covers the towns and villages in the north of the county – with its sister titles being the Ely Standard and Wisbech Standard. They have also been following closely the controversy with “Farm Gate” at Cambridgeshire County Council.

You can find the details of each of the candidates at https://whocanivotefor.co.uk/ with just your postcode, including videos, manifestos and social media accounts.

The broadcast media should be pulling out all of the stops…but are not

Just as with the European Parliament elections over the decades, the BBC in particular has utterly failed in its remit to promote the local elections to the level it could have done. What’s particularly sad with the European Parliament is that as it has become more accessible – many speeches are delivered in English by MEPs, and more relevant on international issues, the Conservatives and their pro-leave allies have pulled the UK away from co-ordinated responses to global issues. Ministers in the previous Labour government are also partly to blame for not standing up to the waves of lies, falsehoods, myths and untruths in the years leading up to the EU Referendum.

With so many restrictions still in place due to the pandemic, the broadcast media should be organising and hosting TV-broadcast debates on their regional outlets – so in this case ITV Anglia and BBC East. One of the two TV channels should be hosting a debate between the mayoral candidates for Cambridgeshire & Peterborough. Amongst other things it would remind the watching public that there are elections looming.

Will Labour and Liberal Democrat activists be able to support their candidates for Cambridgeshire County Council in the north of the county? And County Conservatives assisting in Cambridge?

They may not be able to do the door-to-door knocking, and movements may be restricted depending on what the regulations happen to be at the time (The next change is due on 12 April), but can they assist in things like making videos and social media content. Some of the more pro-active candidates are already putting out social media and vide content.

For the last Cambridgeshire County Council elections I filmed short introduction videos for candidates from four of the parties standing – 17 candidates in all. You can see the playlist here. The format is dead simple:

  • Name
  • Party you’re standing for
  • Ward/Division you are standing in
  • Election you are contesting
  • Date of the election

Followed by…

  • Up to three reasons *why* you are standing for election.

…and end with….

  • “So please vote for me, [Name] for the [Party] at the [Elections] on [Date].”

And That. Is. It.

For most of the voters who won’t get the chance to meet you face-to-face, that is enough for them to make the judgement call on whether they want to vote for you. It’s 2021, we’re in an era of councillors taking part in meetings using video conferencing. Speaking into a video camera is now an essential skill that is part of the role of being a councillor. I assumed it would become a competency, but I didn’t think it would happen so quickly and I had no idea that a global pandemic would be the cause of that culture change.

“Will any of the elections be won or lost over Twitter exchanges?”


It’s a distraction and most of the higher profile candidates only use it for broadcast these days anyway. Furthermore, people are sick of the abuse that happens online, and are worn down by it. On social media I think there’ll be a greater emphasis on using video effectively “to introduce candidates’ to an otherwise unfamiliar public. But that footage has to connect authentically to political party, to the candidate concerned, and also resonate with the experiences that the voters have experienced, in particular during lockdown. This is where those candidates that were able to volunteer regularly in the wards/divisions they are standing in will have the upper hand – a critical mass of local residents will be more than familiar with them. And this has been a real test of endurance to keep those things going for over a year.

Each of the three main parties has got city/county-based issues that have made them unpopular in some circles – inevitable as they each run a different council in the county. Running a local council on shoe string resources and an over-powerful central government means you inevitably make someone or one group upset in decisions you have to take. The candidates for the contests should be known by 11 April – Phil Rodgers is keeping a spreadsheet of candidates going here. Labour has announced their candidates – lots of new names in their line up. We await the rest.

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