“Local Democracy is not a spectator sport”

…and local elections are just one part of what constitutes local democracy. (A reminder that 89 is the target for this year’s candidates to beat – because no one wants to get fewer votes than Puffles the Dragon Fairy!) So how far can local activism and community action towards filling some of the voids?

Challenge to anyone unfamiliar with this blog: As a result of reading this, can you commit to one small one off action or one small behaviour change that involves community action? It can be as small as buying or subscribing to a local newspaper, or signing up to the mailing list of a campaign group active in a cause or area you’re interested in.

“Disillusioned with politics? Hope can be found in local activism”

Moya Lothian-McLean – The Guardian, 10 April 2022

But where do you start? That depends on what motivates you, where you live, and what the issues are – and what might be your pet issue won’t necessarily be the same for someone else. And vice-versa.

The Democracy Club Vision

Found online at https://democracyclub.org.uk/, Democracy Club are the people behind websites such as https://whocanivotefor.co.uk/, where voters can find out who is standing for election in their ward/division/constituency at election time using just their postcode.

“Democracy Club makes it easier to find information about local government and elections in the UK. From knowing where to vote, to finding out what is happening in your council. So everyone who wants to take part in public life can find the information they need.”


Can someone either in Democracy Club (or someone with far more artistic talent than me) produce some poster templates that councils, activists, campaigners, and groups can put up on neighbourhood notice boards that advertise the website and how people can use it in elections?

One of the earliest Cambridge ward-based election guides in the social media era was for the elections in Queen Edith’s ward, Cambridge way back in 2014. Such is the unnecessarily complicated nature of our fragmented system of public services that have the battle is explaining to voters what the system says they are actually voting for – rather than what they think they are voting for. Hence the inevitable disillusion following the election of someone new who comes in promising things that are way beyond the legal competency of the public office are standing for. Revolution, leaving the EU with zero negative consequences, corporal punishment are the sorts of things that sometimes crop up now and again in the newspaper archives.

Some wards have greater turnouts than others

“Some wards, including Queen Edith’s, achieved around 50% of registered voters taking part in last year’s election, compared to 33% in Kings Hedges”

Cllr Sam Davies MBE 10 April 2022

Furthermore, we no longer have a locally-based daily newspaper at the heart of the city – publications that should be the beating hearts of local democracies.

Above – the late Raymond Brown, formerly the Crime Reporter of the Cambridge News, whose death was announced earlier today.

I wrote about the impact of the loss of its once mighty premises on Newmarket Road – which I visited as a cub scout in the 1980s. I remember it being this hive of activity full of people and with massive printing presses.

“The necessary optimism that keeps the political self moving feels almost impossible if you are painfully, obsessively aware of every social ill that needs amending. You cannot care “too much”, but you can be rendered immobile by the sheer scale of the work that lies ahead.”

Moya Lothian-McLean – The Guardian, 10 April 2022

One of the mistakes I made when I was at university campaigning against the ills of globalisation before “9/11” – 11th September 2001 terrorist attacks in the US.

 “Find three causes you care about and focus on those.”

Moya Lothian-McLean quoting author Sarah Woolley. I’ve seen too many examples of activist burnout – both young and old. There is the old stereotype that a person’s university years (assuming they go there) was where middle class young people went to ‘live out a radical youth’ before heading into the corporate world. But to what extent do those stereotypes of the 1990s still hold water 30 years later? How many of the young activists are burning out in the face of such overwhelming crises? Because we already know that the demand for mental health services for children & young people is far greater than what ministers are willing to provide for.

There are a host of things I’ve had to pull back from in recent years in the face of declining health. I was filling out my UC form recently and it asked me to list how my various conditions affected my day-to-day life. Which crystallised just how limited my mobility is beyond Cambridge. Since the pandemic I’ve hardly been beyond the city’s boundaries. Which is utterly soul-destroying. So if I’m getting a bit annoying going on about local issues, there’s a reason.

As for finding those causes, it’s easy to say “Look online!” But that doesn’t deal with the social nature of campaigning – important that the social media component and content production functions inevitably are. During my university years in Brighton, the old Brighton Peace and Environment Centre, then on Gardner Street next to The Komedia, was the sort of one stop shop for all your activism needs, selling the sorts of sustainably sourced things that ironically you can now find in supermarkets. Most importantly, it functioned as a social centre as much as a shop and information centre. It was my refuge from a university where I never settled and where I got the sense the institution had grown too quickly in too short a space of time. Similar to the further education colleges in Cambridge over that same period of time in the 1990s.

Rebuilding old offline social networks and creating new ones is one of the fundamental pillars of local democracy.

Yet in Cambridge town at least, we are nowhere near where we need to be in order for such networks to generate an informed electorate that supports a vibrant local democracy. In fact, we’re going in the other direction – one where loneliness is now a public policy issue.

There are a whole host of reasons why – ranging from hyper-local to international. I was talking about this with one of my in-laws not so long ago, about how some wards are blessed with people whose commitment to their neighbourhood is total, and without whom a whole host of things simply would not function. Over the decades as such people have either moved away or passed away, a number of groups and institutions have ceased functioning as no one has been willing or able to step up and take their place. At the same time I’m reminded that many of those who are both willing *and* able to carry out those functions have support networks (often but not always familial) that enables them to commit the time for such work. Work that in my view should be paid – not least because it would help diversify the backgrounds of people working in such functions *and* have a positive impact on both employment and local activities. I’ve lost count the number of times various community and campaign groups were short of administrative support that might otherwise have enabled them to carry out interesting projects.

“Who is missing and why?”

I asked this question to a packed audience of over 200 people at Cambridge RUFC on Grantchester Road when they hosted a gathering about this new Greater Cambridge City Deal that had been signed. Below, from November 2015.

Fast-forward near seven years later and has it been a success given the amount of hours people have put into it over that time? I can’t pretend that it has been. They’ve got eight years to turn it around.

How do you engage people who on paper should be more than able to get involved, but who are so busy with more important commitments (eg employment and family care) that they have neither the time nor what I call the headspace to deal with what can be brutally complex issues? When I look at Cambridge and the calibre and career records of some of the people who live here and have moved here of late, why are they not more prominent in bringing their reputations and expertise to bear. It might be similar to the experience that the former Postmaster General Prof Henry Fawcett (husband of Suffragist Millicent Garrett Fawcett) had when the former stood for Parliament in Cambridge Borough in 1863. So broken were the local political institutions and so toxic was the local political culture that he wanted nothing to do with it after that experience. So he stood – successfully, in (of all places)… Brighton!

I really hope that this election is fought on local issues, because this is the one space we have where those debates should be front and centre.”

Cllr Sam Davies MBE 10 April 2022

Above – one persistent local issue – VOI Tech ebikes & escooters left about the place – even though they have racks installed in other cities such as Stockholm, Sweden.

“What is your candidate’s vision for the future of this city, and how do they propose we should get there?

The three parties represented on the city council have manifestoes written within the past year or so:

The Cambridge Conservatives don’t appear to have a manifesto for the city, nor have I seen one that focuses on the powers and responsibilities that the city council has.

Limiting a manifesto to city council powers has its own pitfalls because as I’ve mentioned on numerous occasions, the city council does not have the legal powers or financial resources to deliver much more than a ‘treading water’ vision in the face of central government austerity and what for me is maladministration from the Prime Minister.

Any positive vision for the future is hampered by the fragmentation of local public services by successive governments, combined with the need for new primary legislation to create the new 21stC institutions needed to deliver on a vision that can meet the urgent and important challenges our city faces. When it comes to the climate emergency, it’s existential.

“Are there lessons from local history?”

For societies that have only ever known car-based economies, it’s hard to imagine anything different. But many of the issues that we debate today sound very familiar to previous generations. Many of these old Penguin Specials you can get for under a fiver on ABE Bookes second hand. (The full original list is here should you want to see the titles not on ABE.)

Happy reading!

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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