The attempts to astroturf the anti-congestion charge protests won’t make the local issues go away – there’s a long road ahead.

Protests and marches on social justice issues are often the subject of astroturfing and hijacking by paper-selling far left groups, and have been for decades. The anti-congestion charge protests in Cambridge – backed by local Conservative politicians – found itself on the receiving end of the same tactics by different groups. That does not mean the local issues with congestion (and the concerns from local residents and businesses) will go away.

TL/DR: Now that the marches are over, local groups in both Cambridge and also East Cambridgeshire could organise local election debates/hustings (See Chris Rand’s guide here) – particularly in council wards that have had little competition in previous contests. Note the Tories tried to bring in Congestion Charging in 2007 so it will be possible to compare the consultation results published in summer 2023 with what an earlier generation told Cambridgeshire County Council – then under Conservative administration.

“So, who won what then at the protest?”

You can read about it in the Cambridge Independent here, and here.

It was almost inevitable that this would happen given the numbers that turned up to the previous demonstration. Several people who attended both protests on Parker’s Piece said they noticed this protest had a greater variety of speakers and was far less ‘party political’ than the previous one – which had the MP for South Cambridgeshire there. There was supposed to be a strong Conservative Party presence at this one to, until the Cambridge News announced that they had pulled out. The first I heard of it was on Twitter.

“You can hardly blame anyone in mainstream politics for running like the wind given that news!”

I have no idea what the actual security threat was – whether credible violent extremists or someone pretending to lead an autonomous collective of turnip-wielding militant vegans, but I completely understand why people would pull out on seeing who was planning to rock up. Over the past quarter of a century there have been more than a few protests that I might have gone to before finding out the people behind it were a ‘front group’ of this or that organisation. My first introduction to the tactics of this were from a housemate I lived with in Hove back in the very early 2000s, and also from this pamphlet by Schnews from 2001 which I picked up at the Brighton Peace and Environment Centre when it was next to The Komedia on Gardner Street.

Above – Monopolise Resistance, by Schnews in 2001 at the peak of the media coverage of the anti-globalisation protests.

I was having a very rough time at university on a host of fronts so spent much of my time hanging around with environmentalists, permaculture activists and a variety of autonomous collective types who didn’t like being told what to do by anyone, least of all the HQ of a political organisation. It was also the time when The Green Party was breaking through in Brighton – something that ultimately led to Caroline Lucas being elected MP for The Green Party in Brighton Pavilion – a seat she still holds to this day. (There’s a Ph.D thesis waiting to be researched and written about The Green movement in Brighton 2000-2020 if it hasn’t been done already).

The complaint in Brighton’s activist circles at the time was that the anti-globalisation movements in those days a left/autonomous movements concerned about social justice across the world in the face of people being pushed into poverty by the broken policies of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organisation, which had just rebranded itself from “GATT” – the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs”.

Today, the ‘anti-globalism’ movement is more associated with various conspiracy theories and activists from the political right, rather than the political left. In the grand scheme of things, being outside mainstream politics, and complaining about the government of the day are about the only things the two have in common with each other. The two illustrations below are from Monopolise Resistance in 2001.

In the early 2000s, there wasn’t really anywhere for those to the left of Labour to go, although the Liberal Democrats at the time repositioned themselves to the left of Tony Blair – especially with the Iraq War.

Above – a familiar sight where protest organisers don’t want to engage with the mainstream media. For example those campaigning to support a group of people in society that are targeted by the print press.

The risk that the anti-congestion charge organisers faced in Cambridge

What do you do if you are organising a demonstration and it picks up momentum to such an extent that people with other causes and campaigns to push announce they are turning up to your show? This was a point Fareid Atta of the Cambridge News put to one of the organisers, Shyanne Roeloffs:

“I have no issues with individuals showing solidarity, the issue is him gate-crashing. He [Corbyn – P] brought his own PA equipment to the Oxford rally, him showing up with a t-shirt and supporting us, what concerns me is him giving his own speech.

I don’t want elements from the outside coming to usurp the message, it’s about him co-opting the issue, we don’t want him to be taking over the show. If we have too many elements from the outside.”

Shyanne Roeloffs, co-chair of the Cambridgeshire Residents’ Group, to Fareid Atta of Cambridge News

“I thought the protest was about stopping the proposed congestion charge!”

Not according to these two marchers.

Above – what Shyanne Roeloffs was referring to about too many elements from the outside

And as announced, the controversial younger brother of the former leader of the opposition rocked up. To a city full of scientists.

with one chap who turned up to protest against him!

…although by that time many of the congestion charge protesters had headed off. (See the man in the background – I can’t recall a protest where someone rocked up with a placard calling someone a ‘Nitwit’. Nitwits, nincompoops and tomfoolery instigators…I don’t know!

“So, what have we learnt?”

That it’s not just lefty social justice causes that can get astroturfed? That as with Blair in the early 2000s in the face of a weak mainstream opposition (in Parliament at least), protesters from beyond the other wing of a party in government will emerge to fill a vacuum. Think of the rise of UKIP in the mid-2000s.

That even a place like Cambridge needs to be vigilant about who turns up to our city for which demonstrations. Earlier today we had the news about the hotel in Bar Hill as having been selected to host asylum seekers – though in this case it’s women and families. To their credit, South Cambridgeshire District Council has produced a comprehensive set of myth-busting answers here. Furthermore, the general disposition of our city (as well as our civic history – one former refugee who settled in Cambridge having fled the nazis being the late Olivia Newton-John’s mother, Irene) is one more likely to provide support for, than a hostile reception to a group of people that are in need and have been placed in that hotel by the Home Office.

Also, when it comes to people fleeing conflicts, few ever ask about the big picture – such as UK foreign policy (before, during, and post-EU membership), terms of trade (which way is the wealth flowing?), diplomatic relations (past and present) with states and parts of the world where many people are forced to leave, through to the actions of UK-owned or UK-based multinationals that create problems through their business activities – whether Shell the Anglo-Dutch Oil Company, to arms sales that end up being used in existing wars and conflicts. Should such firms be subject to levies/taxes to pay for the social, environmental and human costs of their activities?

Back to congestion – what happens next?

First of all, the problem raised by many local residents inside and in the villages/towns just outside our city have not gone away. Much as it can be fun lampooning the non-mainstream types that turn up to these things with very different agendas, the proposals from the Greater Cambridge Partnership have still polarised our city. Furthermore, and as I’ve stated in previous blogposts I do not think they solve the problem of motor traffic congestion. (Nor do I think 1-4-1 replacements with electric cars will either). Hence why I want a unitary council to be debated in the 2023 local elections alongside the Connect Cambridge Light Rail proposals.

There will have to be some significant changes to the GCP’s plan because the powers to bring in road user charging rest with the county council and additionally require the approval of the Secretary of State for Transport.

As things stand, there are too many county councillors on the Joint Administration who are unhappy with the present proposals to the extent they are both willing and able to block the proposals before anything goes near the Transport Secretary.

The results of the GCP consultation are announced after the local elections – tactically smart but something that does little to build confidence in local democracy. It’s a bit like the tuition fees announcements after the 2001 and 2010 general elections: get the difficult stuff out of the way first so that by the time the next election comes along the decision is too difficult for a different party in government to remove.

Organise some public debates in your local area!

Former Cambridge City Councillor Clare King spoke out about the lack of face-to-face events about the proposals, as well as the lack of visible political leadership.

…which is why it is ever so important for sitting councillors to ask senior officers to summarise “how we got to here”. I made a video on this back in January 2023 – see what you think.

With local elections for Cambridge City Council (a third of council seats), East Cambridgeshire District Council, and Fenland District Council (full councils for both) in May 2023, there is the chance to organise local hustings involving all candidates. Back in 2016, Chris Rand wrote a guide on how to organise one based on the experiences in Queen Edith’s of what, pre-lockdown had become an annual event, and had the result of helping raise turnout and getting people more familiar with the people and policies of the candidates. Furthermore, we’re in an online video age so there should now be no more excuses for any candidates not having a basic introduction video. See these examples I recorded for candidates of four political parties (including the Conservatives) in 2017. The template is simple:

  1. State your a) name, b) political party you are standing for, c) the ward you are standing for election in, d) the council for which you hope to be elected, and e) the date of the election/polling day
  2. Give up to three different reasons why you are standing for election, keeping them positive and not mentioning any of your opponents or any of the other political parties whatsoever
  3. Finish with restating a shortened version of 1. “So please vote for me, [name] the [party] candidate for [ward] on [date of the election].”

That’s easily done in under 60 seconds, and is just enough for any unfamiliar voter to make a judgement on whether you are worth finding more about, or even voting for. Once done, let the electorate make up its mind.

“Will there be any single-issue candidates?”

There could well be – although I don’t know of any at the time of posting. Whilst it’s all good and well to stand for a cause you believe in passionately, there will be voters who will expect you to have informed opinions of whatever they are really passionate about – issues that are not even on your radar. At the King’s College Politics Society Hustings, me and Puffles got a question about whether we were for or against fracking in Cambridge. The concept of anyone trying to frack in Cambridge may sound ludicrous but the person asking the question still wanted an answer from all of us – and in front of an audience of about a hundred people. Basically, don’t go unprepared into a hustings or public debate on what the local ward or city-level issues are if you are standing on a single-issue ticket/campaign.

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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