What lessons can Mayor Dr Nik Johnson take from his predecessor’s record?

New Mayor of Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Dr Nik Johnson, pictured with the Labour candidate for Police & Crime Commissioner 2021, Ms Nicky Massey. Photo: Keith Heppell

Editor John Elworthy of the Cambs Times reminded us of the first 100 days of Mr Palmer’s record.

As the first ‘Metro Mayor’ for Cambridgeshire & Peterborough, Mr Palmer published a list of actions he had undertaken in his first 100 days – originally published on 12 May 2017. Edward Leigh of Smarter Cambridge Transport and also Chair of the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Police & Crime Panel, in today’s Cambridge Independent (the paper edition – the column will be online at a later date) compared the different approaches of the two men.

Essentially Mr Leigh said that Mr Palmer was based around achieving a doubling of economic activity in the county – that target requiring a new mass transit for Cambridge and surrounding towns/villages enabling that target to be met. This was around the time Dr Colin Harris published his first proposals for a Cambridge Light Rail with underground in the centre – Cambridge Connect. It was his proposals that were one of the highlights of an event back in 2016 on rebooting the Greater Cambridge Partnership – then the City Deal.

Above – the latest iteration of the Cambridge Connect Light Rail proposals. The underground tunnel is proposed between Cambridge Railway Station/Mill Road, and emerging at Grange Road. This would serve a Cambourne-Cambridge-Haverhill line built first, and then a second line linking the science parks in the north with the biolmedical campus in the south – along with the two large housing developments in North East Cambridge, and east of Trumpington.

“Hasn’t Mayor Johnson / Dr Nik said he’s scrapping the CAM Metro?”

He has – which means in the very near future the website https://cam-metro.co.uk/ will need to be archived for future historians to pick through, and for consultants working on the project wondering what might have been.

“What might have been?”

Precisely. If we go back to the mayoral elections of 2017, no one really knew what to make of the role, let alone of the otherwise limited powers that ministers had granted to them. You can hear the individual pitches that Mr Palmer and his fellow candidates put to a hustings focused on The Environment, hosted by Anglia Ruskin University’s Global Sustainability Institute in my video playlist here. The only person who was interested in a Cambridge mass transit at the time was Mr Palmer.

The problem from my perspective occurred later on when he decided – perhaps on the back of heavy lobbying, to run with a futuristic model based on untested technologies rather than one based on familiar light rail technology that had been proven to work in other countries. Perhaps had he chosen the latter, the project might be further down the line and he would have had more to show for the spending on it during the election campaign.

As it is, the new Mayor has said that such a mass transit project is not a priority because his mandate is only for four years – which is understandable, if a little disappointing from my perspective as I want a light rail for Cambridge & district! But you can hardly blame the new Mayor given how much time, effort, and spending has already gone into the preparatory work, and the lack of a clear commitment from Ministers as to where the funding for such a significant piece of civic and transport infrastructure is going to come from.

“So, who has what priorities?”

The best place to start at county level is with the manifestos.

Did those decisions cost the Conservatives? After all, in 1945 the Cambridge Communist Party only stood one candidate and still produced a manifesto for the town (as was). And even Puffles the Dragon Fairy in 2014 had a manifesto for Cambridge. (Okay, I wrote it!). But none from the Conservatives? No vision? No Aims? No purpose? What did they want political power for?

The Conservatives, at the moment they are fighting a desperate rearguard action to try and rebuild some bridges with opposing councillors, as spotted by Ben Hatton, the Local Democracy Reporter for Greater Cambridge.

The problem with Cllr Count’s position is that the County Council elections took place at the same time as the Mayoral Elections and the Police & Crime Commissioner elections. The chart by Phil Rodgers demonstrates just how many Liberal Democrat voters in Cambridge were prepared to back a Labour candidate in the 2nd round, with Peterborough still to declare.

To interpret the figures, the first percentage (yellow bars) are the percentage of the total votes cast for the Liberal Democrats in the mayoral elections that were transferred to other parties in the event of a 2nd round. I.e. each voter explicitly chose another candidate to be used in the event of the Liberal Democrat candidate (Cllr van de Weyer) being eliminated, which he was having polled fewer votes than Dr Nik Johnson. In Cambridge’s case, 87% of Liberal Democrat voters expressed a 2nd preference on the ballot paper. Of all of the votes that were cast by voters voting Liberal Democrats, 80% were transferred to Labour’s Dr Nik Johnson, the other 7% going to Mr Palmer, and the remaining 13% had no preference indicated. So the idea that the majority of people who cast their votes for the Liberal Democrats would be unhappy with either a Labour county mayor, or their party negotiating an agreement with Labour county councillors, is questionable at the very least given that the voters (myself included) had to fill out all four ballot papers together.

“Is Anti-Conservative sentiment strong in Cambridge?”

Depends who you speak to, but if you list the policies that have affected Cambridge negatively that have been implemented by Conservative-run tiers of government, you can understand why electorally they are not popular. For example:

Such is the economic success of places like Cambridge that the house price rises (and the failure of Conservative-led Governments over the past 11 years to deal with the housing crisis) have forced people working in the city to live outside of the city. Similar with Oxford, Similar with Brighton. As a result, the continued house-building and the manner in which it has been done has alienated normally loyal Conservative-voting villages and towns, while the people moving into these new developments working in the cities are not necessarily natural Conservative voters – especially EU citizens who are still eligible to vote in local elections.

The Ox-Cam Arc – driven forward by desperate ministers trying to undo some of the damage done by Brexit so as to have economic growth *somewhere*, has ended up alienating many of their own voters with the scale of their proposals. Such was the scale of the opposition to the proposed Oxford-Cambridge Motorway that it had to be abandoned. Not before spending £30million on a scheme that should never have gotten off the ground.

The Home Secretary attempts to reverse the mayoral losses by fixing the voting systems to give Conservatives the advantage.

The announcement is here. There is absolutely no merit in her statement that First Past The Post “…will create stronger and clearer local accountability, and reflect that transferable voting systems were rejected by the British people in the 2011 nationwide referendum”. The systems were *Not* rejected by the British People in the AV Referendum. We the voters were asked explicitly if they favoured changing the system for electing MPs from First Past The Post to the Alternative Vote. See the first sentence in the summary in the House of Commons Library research briefing on the Alternative Vote Referendum 2011, published published 19th May 2011. It is categorically untrue for a Minister of the Crown to state that the referendum was on transferable voting systems across the piece. It was about a specific voting system for a specific category of elections – general elections/elections of MPs to the UK Parliament.

Her proposals cover Police & Crime Commissioners and the Metro Mayors. FPTP would have given Mr Palmer victory. The problem with the Home Secretary’s proposals is that some of the mayoralties – such as Londons, were put to a referendum of the eligible voters. Therefore imposing FPTP on London would simply be undemocratic and also a dangerous authoritarian move undermining democratic processes and structures. If people did not want to express a second preference, that’s fine – they did not have to. Given the option, the majority of voters chose accordingly. As a result, the mayors elected had a greater political legitimacy with their voters than under FPTP.

The dangerous drift towards an over-powerful executive

The Queen’s Speech / The Government’s proposed legislative programme read out by The Queen in the Lord’s yesterday included proposals that dangerously undermine democratic institutions and processes, including thost that

  • undermine people’s right to protest,
  • people’s right to seek and secure judicial review of Government policies,
  • people’s right to take action in the High Court against specific decisions by institutions of the state
  • restrict the ability of charities and organisations to campaign on issues directly related to their charitable purposes
  • change the voting systems so as to improve or reduce the electoral chances of specific politicians or political parties from getting elected
  • restrict people’s ability to seek the release of information under access to information laws

At the same time, we have not seen any substantial proposals that

  • strengthen our democratic institutions
  • strengthen the rights of citizens to access information
  • strengthen the laws and enforcement processes & agencies protecting elections – including regulating online campaigning
  • strengthen structures, systems, processes and laws on propriety and anti-corruption
  • Improve the education of children & young people on democracy, politics, and the role of civic institutions
  • Improve the education of the electorate, ensuring they have the essential information and guides to elections and electoral processes so that far more voters are able to cast informed votes based on having read about how the elections will function, and having had the chance to read about and question the candidates standing for public office in their area.
“Mayor Dr Nik Johnson is hardly in a position to turn ***all that lot*** around, is he?”

Hellllllllllllll No!

The risk from campaigning groups, organisations and even opinionated bloggers like me is that on the first time we meet the new Mayor we present him with a list of demands/requirements.

“Hello Doctor Nik-Mayor! Congratulations on your glorious victory over the Conservatives! Now! Here are a list of our demands for you to deliver!”

Don’t expect me to go asking the New Mayor for a concert hall that he does not have the legal powers or competence to deliver. (You can, however still sign the petition here!) What actually matters are the Mayor’s priorities – more details of which will be forthcoming in the near future. Don’t ask me for a specific date – I don’t know. In the meantime you can read Mayor Dr Nik Johnson’s statement here.

What will happen is that senior officers at the Combined Authority will be listening to the Mayor and working up the details of his manifesto commitments and turning them into more detailed policies and proposals. The big lobbyists will inevitably be onto him (and his advisers) like a flash, trying to secure face-to-face meetings with wealthy organisations and institutions. When I worked for ministers during my civil service days, I found out the hard way just how laser-like the focus of lobbyists can be, knowing that it’s the people who have access to the main decision-maker that they tend to go for as much as the main decision-maker themselves. So whoever ended up in the roles of policy advisers may find their phones ringing non-stop. Either way, I strongly recommend that the Mayor creates a public record of those meetings and publishes that list, with regular updates – and makes transparency and propriety of decision-making a theme that the business community in particular are familiar with: i.e. access and policies cannot be bought.

As far as grassroots campaigning groups are concerned, my recommendation is to see where the Mayors priorities align with yours – and tailor aims towards his, as he is the one with the mandate. Not you.

Note his focus on improving public health and on buses. What roles can you play as grassroots organisations to help him deliver on those priorities? Democracy is not a spectator sport where the voters are there to be spoon-fed everything by politicians. It requires our active participation – especially if we are to achieve longer term improvements collectively.

“How should the New Mayor and councillors for Labour & Liberal Democrats deal with the Tories? Because there must be a huge temptation to kick sand in their faces!”

Actually, one of their earliest tasks is to appoint an agreed independent professional mediator and put them on a retainer so that when the inevitable disagreements happen – and they will (I was a civil servant in the early Coalition days), you have someone at a high level trusted by both who can help resolve them.

Furthermore, county councillors from both parties need to work together to develop a code of conduct and a process for resolving their own disputes so that they don’t end up compromising their own administration (assuming the opposition parties come to an agreement on running the county council for the next four years) and making it dysfunctional. Because the electorate will punish them heavily if that’s what happens.

How to deal with the Conservatives? By not kicking sand in their faces at the outset. Tempting as it might be. Actually they’d be better off trying to get as many of their councillors to accept the new political reality and also the direction of travel at a county level. i.e. it is with the New Mayor. Then see which ones are willing to find some common ground vs those that are unwilling in principle. Inevitably votes will be whipped, and as Julian Clover of Cambridge 105 said on the radio at the weekend, a couple of councillors down with the flu or an illness could mean a major vote on a policy does not go through – or has to be postponed as an unmoved agenda item.

Future local elections in Cambridgeshire with the District Councils

There is a big opportunity for Labour and Liberal Democrats (and perhaps The Greens too) to expand into the safe-as-military-fortresses Tory North Cambridgeshire. But they are starting from a very very low base if you look at the election results for the county – especially in the Fenland divisions.

At the same time, the political parties on the Combined Authority mean that even with control of Cambridgeshire County Council, the Conservatives still have the votes of four councils (Peterborough, Fenland, East Cambs, and Huntingdonshire) against the coalition of Labour/Liberal in the County Council, with Labour-held Cambridge and Liberal-Democrat-held South Cambridgeshire. Furthermore, South Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire are up for election (the whole council for both) in 2022, and East Cambridgeshire & Fenland in 2023. So the political balance could tip further towards the Conservatives.

Food for thought.

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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