Preparing a city for a general election so that it’s less boring and more relevant to our lives?

Just in case we get a snap election this autumn – though going by the headlines on #SewageScandal this week (It was #CostOfLivingCrisis last week, and #Drought the week before) it would take a ‘brave’ Prime Minister to call one this soon.

For what it’s worth, I think the government that returns to Parliament following the summer recess will find itself being bounced into making decisions that it otherwise does not want to take. Why? Because ‘events dear boy’. As someone said ages ago. It’s similar to the response to the CV19 pandemic: The most right wing, pro-privatisation, pro-small-state/minimal free-at-point-of-use public services government since 1945 found itself in a situation where it had to use the tools of big state in response to a global crisis. And I think they will be forced to do the same again, even though their ministers would rather ‘leave things to the markets’ and/or their (weak) regulators. See both the energy crisis and the sewage scandals that people are now clobbering their MPs over.

In the meantime, lessons from 2019?

In the run up to the 2019 General Election I stated on my old blog that the failure of ministers to table new legislation to strengthen UK electoral laws and systems was an act of gross negligence. I didn’t cross the line to say it was a deliberate act of corruption, but given what we now know about Boris Johnson’s government. Not long before voting I also raised my concerns about the validity of any result again.

Would a more democratically-literate society have demanded better before any general election was forced through? Have a look at this from 1920 a warning from history? (It’s a long read, so feel free to skip it as I touch on it later).

The results in Cambridge stood out against the rest of the country – with the Conservative candidate (a councillor from Harlow) who polled the lowest percentage of the vote for the Conservatives in their long electoral history in the constituency. The only hustings with most of the candidates there was at St Paul’s in Cambridge – see the playlist here.

Above – Julian Clover of Cambridge105 hosting the Cambridge Stays hustings. 08 Dec 2019

There were no Conservative representatives at the Extinction Rebellion hustings at Anglia Ruskin University, chaired by The Guardian’s former Energy Correspondent, Terry Macalister. You can watch the video here.

“Are we going to have an uninspiring contest again where it feels a bit like a talking shop, or will the debates lead to actual changes and improvements?”

Ultimately that depends on who gets into Government. The system of government and governance we have for England is a highly centralised one that limits what anyone can do outside of it. Which is why very powerful interests target ministers along long-trodden paths of action. A study in the 1980s set out very clearly how to do this. (Legitimately).

Above – Lobbying Government by Charles Miller (1987) – have a browse here

Local parties must have a clear vision for the future of Cambridge – otherwise we risk going round in circles as our collective problems get even worse

Furthermore, this has to involve them working with their fellow candidates in the constituencies that surround Cambridge. The simple reason is because our governance structures are broken, and any new structures will have to involve compromising with people who work in our city but live outside of it.

Cambridge’s economic sphere of influence

I pulled this map out from one of the reports (The Stage 3 Strategic Study) on the now defunct Oxford-Cambridge Expressway. (You can read it here)


  • in light green what the Department for Transport says is Greater Cambridge
  • In darker green, what the same department says is Greater Cambridge’s catchment

In the grand scheme of things it’s almost the A14-A11-M11 triangle for the first…

Above – from G-Maps here

…and very similar to the unitary council area that Redcliffe Maud proposed in the Royal Commission on Local Government in England in 1969.

Above – from the maps here. – Greater Cambridge as a proposed unitary council

Although no one party has much chance of winning all seats in and around Cambridge – at this stage with the additional St Neots seat it’s likely to be 2x Cons, 1x LibDem, and 1xLabour, they are all going to have to grapple with the same issues that stem from Cambridge having become what it has become.

“How can candidates and parties give clear, informed answers that won’t make audiences at hustings get angry at non-responses?”

This is where they need to analyse where the blockages are to what they want to achieve. And it’s not simply about throwing money at something, or passing a new law banning something. One reason why we often hear about such solutions from politicians is because in Parliament those are the only two very blunt instruments that they have: allocating more money to deal with something, or passing a new piece of legislation. I’ve lost count of the number of bills titled ‘Criminal Justice, Crime and Disorder, or Policing.’

In the case of local government and local governance (i.e. the stuff that goes beyond local councils but is still about how public services are delivered), it will take more than a new piece of legislation and turning on the monetary taps to improve stuff in the medium-longer term. Furthermore, abolishing existing institutions and going back to what was there before (think Cambridgeshire without the Combined Authority or the Greater Cambridge Partnership) won’t actually solve the problem of Cambridge’s decades-long transport woes.

“Are we at a big turning point in history, and if so, in which direction will we go in?”

Because we were in a similar situation a century ago ***and our predecessors screwed things up. Big time.***

We know this because the so-called war to end all wars led to something even more destructive – for civilians in particular, and over far greater land masses, less than two decades after the 1918 armistice was agreed upon. For point of reference, I don’t take September 1939 as the starting point for what we call World Ward 2. Ask the people of Spain, Ethiopia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and China and they’ll tell you it started before then. The visions of a positive, progressive future that people had at the end of the First World War were clearly made even in town meetings in Cambridge, such as this one in December 1919 by the Women’s Citizens Association.

Mrs Keynes presided, and said this was not the first meeting in Cambridge for discussing and supporting the League of Nations, but so far as she knew it was the first meeting when women had come together specially to consider one particular aspect of the League, the work that they hoped women would do in it”

Cambridge women in plea for equality in international politics citing The Cambridge Daily News in the British Newspaper Archive of 11 December 1919

Above – yes, That Mrs Keynes.

In our current situation, the climate emergency being clearly visible to the general public all over the world is going to force the issue on many things, whether local through to international. Do I think the senior politicians are prepared for this? Hell no!

People need to put their ideas to their local councillors, political parties and community forums

Not least because the complexity of so many of these issues go beyond the capacity of any one human being. There simply is not enough headspace or time for one person to consider all of the evidence needed in detail to make informed decisions on every different policy area. That’s why ministers have teams of civil servants around them to do that detailed thinking and consideration for them. In elections gone by, candidates have put together local manifestos on how their national manifestos will apply locally. In the case of Cambridge, I don’t think candidates should restrict themselves to constituency boundaries when trying to explain things like:

  • Public transport (whether buses or light rail)
  • Water supplies
  • Further education provision
  • Access to very large green spaces

The reason being that all of these issues spill over the boundaries of Cambridge constituency – even more so with the proposed transfer of Cherry Hinton into a reoriented South Cambridgeshire constituency. Therefore what we may want and need as residents of Cambridge constituency will be dependent on the co-operation of residents living outside of the city – and vice-versa. If we want a big country park or three on the edge of town, they will have to be outside of the city boundaries. If people living outside of Cambridge want/need access to our city, we are going to have to agree a new comprehensive public transport system more radical than anything ever considered before. This year’s heatwaves told us that re our consumption of fossil fuels for transport. That also goes for out-of-town freight exchanges too. And that also means we need to reconsider how we use technology and consumer goods made from unsustainable materials such as plastic.

“How do you educate people about democracy?”

The answer yet again comes from our history. In particular, one collection of essays published by the Cambridge University Press in 1920 all about Adult Education. The one I picked out from that collection was called Democracy and Adult Education

Above – Democracy and Adult Education – which I’ve transcribed here

Howard Masterman, three years after writing this would become Bishop of Plymouth, and was educated at St John’s College in Cambridge. Writing in 1920 his big concern was that having finally won the franchise for all adult men (only a limited number of women having had the ban on them voting removed), They needed to be educated in order to cast informed votes, and properly cross-examine candidates.

“An uneducated people is in constant danger of being deluded by false ideals. It will respond to the appeal of self-interest, and judge political questions from the standpoint of the present, rather than from their larger aspect. In a word, it will lack imagination, and will prefer the astuteness of the noisy demagogue to the far-sighted wisdom of the true statesman. 

Democracy for an Education – Masterman 1920

Does that remind you of anyone in the run-up to the EU Referendum? Furthermore, did we have any true statesmen and stateswomen who could have faced down the noisy demagogues who have since been proven wanting by events?

“As a political system, democracy is founded on the belief that every adult citizen has some contribution of thought and experience to make to the public life of the community. It can only become effective, if the whole body of electors bring to the service of the State a capacity for intelligent judgment and a strong sense of public duty.”

Masterman (2020)

Such views chime with that of one of Cambridge’s most radical councillors, Henry Thomas Hall.

“[Henry Thomas Hall believed] the people of the country were not intelligent or moral enough to understand the principles of a Republic, which was government of the people by the people and for the people, and it was necessary for that high standard of government that the intellect and moral power of the people should be developed.”

Cllr Henry Thomas Hall of the Cambridge Liberals gets into trouble with pro-Royalist councillors. 1871/72. Citing Cambridge Chronicle, Sat 24 Aug 1894, in British Newspaper Archive.

And Cllr Hall put his money where his mouth was.

Above – H.T. Hall’s long-forgotten portrait sitting hidden away in Cambridge’s Guildhall somewhere

Cllr Hall founded a discussion club in his ward – the slum that was Barnwell, in the early 1870s as a means of educating his constituents. He also regularly donated books to the recently-established municipal free library which could easily have collapsed without the political support of himself as well as the hard work of our first borough librarian John Pink.

“The essence of democracy being not passive but active participation in citizenship, education in a democratic country must aim at fitting each individual progressively not only for his personal, domestic, and vocational duties, but, above all, for those duties of citizenship

Ministry of Reconstruction – Adult Education Committee – Final Report 1919

I discovered the Ministry of Reconstruction’s Report on Adult Education from 1919 via Arthur Greenwood’s Education of the Citizen (digitised here) who wrote a response for the Worker’s Educational Association a year later – Greenwood later going onto become Deputy Leader of the Labour Party.

Have all three of the main national parties that were around in one form or another fulfilled the calling of those reports? I don’t think they have. Furthermore, there is a greater need than ever to ensure that educating our societies about citizenship and democracy are all the more important given the dangers of misinformation and disinformation we’ve had not just in this post-millennial era of ours, but from the time when we became aware of The Greenhouse Effect and the impact of pollution and climate change. Something that the fossil fuel industry has very serious questions to answer.

The importance of adult education in democracy was not lost in the centenary report

A century after the Ministry of Construction’s report, a Centenary Commission on Adult Education was established.

Once again, the promotion and development of adult education across our communities and society has become an urgent ‘national necessity’.  

The Centenary Commission on Adult Education

Above – the Centenary Commission on Adult Education – you can read its report here

Published in November 2019, it inevitably got lost in the General Election coverage and then inevitably was forgotten about due to the response to the Covid Pandemic (Which still has not gone away).

Maybe it’s time to refresh, republish, and republicise the Centenary Commission and its findings?

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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