Local Democracy is too important to leave to the politicians

That means civic society and the rest of us stepping forward to help facilitate some essential actions that all too often are missed.

The one huge gaping hole in our political system is with organised public debates between competing candidates: There is no recognised authority or organisation responsible for ensuring every contested election has a public debate – online or in person, where the voters can hear from the candidates in person, in their own voices (and also put their questions to them).

For the first time in ages, I didn’t sit down to watch any of the election hustings in the run up to these elections.

Mainly because of chronic illness/fatigue flaring up. Also the one that was of most interest to me ended up clashing with an online event I was asked to host by the Queen Edith’s Community Forum, interviewing Local Democracy Reporter Ben Hatton on local politics and the media.

Above – Ben Hatton with the Queen Edith’s Community Forum.

“So, who decides what?”

Essentially different communities and neighbourhoods muddle through as best as they can.

Sometimes it will be dependent on a community organiser who is used to doing the essential organising – such as booking the venue and publicising the event. Others might be dependent on a long-established community forum or group. Others might benefit from the presence of a long-standing or vibrant campaign group that regularly organises events anyway, so something like this is routine for them.

But it’s hit-and-miss as far as coverage across the city is concerned.

At the 2015 and 2017 general elections, the candidates almost got bored of each other because there were around 30 (thirty!) public debates and hustings in those elections. In neighbouring seats the candidates were shocked to hear of such demand – a handful was more than enough for some of them!

Dr Julian Huppert, the former MP for Cambridge who was unsuccessful in the above-two elections in Cambridge, mentioned to me at the time that someone had to get a hold of organising and co-ordinating the scheduling of the hustings and venues. Part of the challenge in Cambridge was that in both of those elections, most of the events had over 100 people in them and/or were standing room only. I filmed more than a few of them so you can see for yourself in the playlists how full they were – and that’s not mentioning the number of video views.

The problem I felt with both of those elections looking back was format and spread of venues. Fortunately now we are in a better position to respond to both of them by the time the next general election comes around – mainly due to the rapid expansion of video-conferencing as a result of Lockdown.

Too many events in the same part of town

In one sense this is inevitable as that’s where many of the larger venues are, and where the public transport links can get the most people to and from. But that does not mean that you’ll get the diversity of audiences that might be representative of the city. Such venues are more accessible to people who live close to the centre of town, and from the affluent University districts rather than the social housing neighbourhoods on the periphery.

It’s less of a risk now because groups and organisations are working together and self-organising as they did for the Mayoral elections, but having different campaign groups covering similar ground – especially at a general election – can get a bit tedious, not least for the candidates who by that time will have memorised what their opponents have said and vice-versa. Which inevitably takes some of the energy and dynamism out of the exchanges because they know what’s coming next.

Neighbourhoods with the least capacity, contacts, or resources to organise such debates end up missing out.

Earlier this evening I was observing that in my part of town – Coleridge/Cherry Hinton/Queen Edith’s, only the last of the three city council wards has a history of holding public debates – and that is only a relatively recent development. Yet once the annual local election hustings got going, they proved to be very popular with local residents if only judging by their numbers turning up.

I can’t recall any local election debates between candidates in Coleridge or Cherry Hinton…ever. Certainly not in the past decade or so. Even in more recent times I can’t recall many election debates involving local candidates for Trumpington, King’s Hedges, Abbey, Arbury, and East Chesterton. In the run up to the next general election, I think that campaign groups should seriously consider organising some election events in some of the residential wards in partnership with a neighbourhood or community group. Even if it is only providing logistical support with publicity and live social media reporting or streaming.

“Isn’t there a disincentive for political parties holding ‘safe’ wards to refrain from taking part?”

That depends on what viewpoint they take. On one hand some might feel that it will simply make more work for the small band of foot-soldiers that do the thankless tasks of leafletting and door-knocking. As an aside, the Cambridge branch of the ACORN Community Union runs public engagement training sessions for its members to get more people to join their organisation which is seeking to organise people in insecure and rental accommodation, and taking action against landlords that do not meet their legal responsibilities to their tenants.

At the same time, for every safe ward held that might be opened up, the same might be the case for a very-hard-to-win ward held by one of their opponents. So it depends how full or empty your glass is.

For me however, there is one huge incentive for everyone and that is such events are more likely to draw out potential supporters and volunteers than them not happening at all. Instead of having a bland leaflet with the familiar slogans, you get to hear a human voice and see a human face. One of the reasons why over the past five or so years I filmed so many introduction videos for as many candidates as I could get hold of was for that very reason. (See these examples from the 2017 playlist). My view is that having seen the intro videos of their candidates, voters will be able to form an instinctive view on whether they would want to vote for a candidate or not. For those who are already leaning towards a political party, I’d like to think that such videos provide a reassurance to the voter that is strong enough to convince them to turn out on polling day. For the undecided, I hope they provide an impetus to go and find out more about the candidates and parties.

“I’ve not seen or heard anything from any of the candidates, so why should I bother?”

Does that sound familiar?

The number of times I’ve wanted to shout: ***Democracy is not a spectator sport! It requires your active participation!*** …exactly. Hence trying to inform people about https://whocanivotefor.co.uk/ where you can find out the names and social media pages of the candidates in your neighbourhood who want your vote and whose names will be on your ballot papers. If candidates have not been in touch yet, get in touch with them! Also, be nice to them. It takes a hell of a lot of courage to put yourself out there to be judged by the general public, who can ask you any question they like.

One of the post-CV19 cultural changes I’d like to see us make as a city if not nationwide & beyond, is taking responsibility as citizens and adults. That comes with both human rights and civic responsibilities. One of those civic responsibilities is taking part in democracy. That’s not the same as mandatory voting. A voter might have very good reason not to want to vote for any of them. (Which is why I think spoiling ballot papers should be made more clear as an option, or alternatively have a box that says ‘none of the above’).

I remember at my first local election in the late 1990s me and my old school mate Raymond made our way to Coleridge School to vote in the year after Tony Blair’s landslide. I didn’t know the first thing about any of the candidates other than Ruth Bagnall was the Labour candidate who I had seen on the odd leaflet, and that she was the only woman out of the three names on the ballot paper.

Being from a longtime Labour-voting household (both my parents were nurses in the 1970s & 1980s), the prospect of voting for the Tories was never going to happen, and I didn’t know anything about the Lib Dem candidate. Also I was vaguely aware that politics generally needed far more women in it – something that was hammered home in the coverage of the 1997 general election which I hadn’t forgotten. Ruth later became the leader of the Labour group on the city council, and a senior figure in the Local Government Association on housing. Tragically, Cambridge was robbed of Ruth who died of breast cancer in 2004 at the very young age of just 38. Had she survived, she may well have gone onto contest the Cambridge seat at a future general election, with a very strong chance of becoming an MP.

On how fragile the lives of local politicians with huge potential have been over the years

I’m sure I’ll find even more as I continue my research.

Major Symonds (above) returned to the council benches as a councillor for Romsey Ward. Even his Conservative opponents said of him that local government could not afford to lose men of his calibre.

“What should the approach be if we are to bring through future candidates of Major Symonds’ calibre?”

It’s one of the reasons why I’ve been doing the Lost Cambridge local history research project for so long. I’m hoping that the examples of our past local politicians and campaigners – in particular those of the women who made modern Cambridge, can help inspire a new generation. Hence being interested to note the manifesto commitment from Cambridge Labour below:

I hope such a project will be able to bring in a large number of people and organisations from across the city & universities. (Some of the women such as Labour’s Clara Rackham (who actually started out life as a liberal) and the Independent Lilian Mellish Clark – both of whom served on Cambridgeshire County Council) were instrumental in founding the Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology – today’s Anglia Ruskin Union). This is how Cambridge celebrated the first Votes for Women Centenary in 2018.

(If you want to read the full party manifestos for Cambridge City Council that have been published, see:

And there’s Sam Davies MBE standing as an Independent in Queen Edith’s. You can read her Q&A leaflet here. The Cambridge Conservatives don’t appear to have a manifesto despite an almost full slate of candidates, but you can look at their website here.

“What should the new council do to support people and institutions that help facilitate our democratic processes but who are not active in party politics?”

This is something the the civic Mayor of Cambridge (as opposed to the political/executive one for the county) could oversee and chair. Even if it’s simply a case of getting agreement from the voluntary sector and interested organisations that the Cambridge Council for Voluntary Services could be the co-ordinating point for putting together a programme of future election debates. It need not be an onerous task – having a list of organisations and groups willing in principle to organise events, and having a map that displays where in the city events are taking place so that the whole city can be covered.

“Can we do better than BBC-Question Time-style debates?”

We can because a number of groups have pioneered alternative approaches which have been shown to work. One example is instead of having a ‘theatre style’ event, break the audiences up into groups and have the candidates circulating between them for 15 or so minutes each. That was rather than having over 100 people in a hall where only one person gets to speak at a time, you have multiple conversations where those that need to get something off their chest can, and no one goes away having felt they didn’t have their chance to put their point to whichever candidate.

For campaign groups, I think there’s also an opportunity to put up large display boards for audiences to read and get the essentials on before questioning the candidates. (I also think that candidates should see them in advance so they can prepare informed answers rather than just making things up off-the-cuff in the hope that it’s consistent with their party manifestos). Anything to get people talking and having serious and informed conversations in the run up to voting.

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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