Cambridge Elections – 261 votes with 9% of the total votes in Queen Edith’s

Not bad from a standing start – would have been nice to have gotten to 300 though!

First of all, thank yous to:

  1. Everyone who helped out in my campaign, from small donations covering DIY printing expenses to sharing social media posts to delivering leaflets to simply talking to friends and family about the existence of my campaign
  2. Deputy Returning Officer Vicky Jenner at Cambridge City Council and her team for overseeing what had the potential to become one of the most volatile contests in recent decades
  3. My fellow candidates not just in Queen Edith’s, but also across our city who had the courage to stand up and be counted and provide the people of our city with choices at the ballot box.
A reminder on why I agreed to have my name on the ballot paper

Above: At no point did my campaign literature say ***vote for me!***

The way our electoral system works is that you are only granted locally-prominent media coverage on political issues as a single-person outfit ***if you stand for election***. Otherwise you have to pay for adverts and publicity which are beyond the means and willpower of most people. When it became clear that the political parties were not interested in debating the structural roots of Cambridge’s and Cambridgeshire’s problems as part of their manifestos, there wasn’t really much alternative left.

“Will any local political parties talk about extending Cambridge City Council’s boundary &/or making it a unitary council?”

Cambridge Town Owl 15 Jan 2022

It’s not like I didn’t ask in the run up to the 2022 local elections. There was no way I could have stood as a candidate for that election as four weeks prior to posting the above article I suffered a heart attack and had only recently come out of both Addenbrooke’s and then Royal Papworth. Which is also why for 2023 ***I really didn’t want to have to be the person to stand for election to make the point*** Which is why during the Queen Edith’s hustings I put my health problems (and the limitations that go with chronic illnesses) on a plate for the voters to judge me on it.

Above – from a video of my responses to Qs at the Queen Edith’s hustings 25 Apr 2023

As I mentioned in a previous blogpost, back in early 2014 I went to a council briefing for anyone who wanted to find out about becoming a potential candidate for elections. They told us that to do the role well you needed to commit around 20 hours a week. Note city councillors at present don’t get much.

“Each [Cambridge City] Councillor will receive an annual allowance of £6093, and a one-off stationery allowance payment of £75 at the start of the year.”

Cambridge City Council allowances 2023/24

When you go into the detail (as I did here – scroll halfway down) our system effectively requires senior executive councillors to take on huge burdens for less than the average wage. For a backbench councillor doing the 20 hours a week in return for the £6k per year, that’s probably less than the minimum wage – again if you are assuming the councillor is putting in the hours.

The role of a councillor is emotionally and intellectually taxing – and requires having either the emotional resilience of of a metaphorical rhino hide, or a massive support network to help deal with the political knocks that inevitably come your way.

I have neither. And that is before considering things like my health.

The public is generally unaware of the electoral machines that political parties build and run during election campaigns

It’s one of the reasons why (CV-19 aside) I have been encouraging people to apply to go and see an election count for themselves. It’s only when you see a well-resourced and co-ordinated machine functioning do you begin to realise why so few independent candidates stand much of a chance of being elected. Furthermore, the decline of political party membership and activism irrespective of reasons inevitably puts more of a burden on fewer people when it comes to publicising candidates in a local area. For example:

  1. The cost of producing paper leaflets can be substantial – especially if you do not have the skilled volunteers to do the designing, content creation, and editing for you for free. Furthermore you either have to go to a commercial printers or if your local party is large enough, buy/rent a machine to do it all yourselves.
  2. The time involved in delivering leaflets is significant. In the case of my campaign, there were three of us and I think we covered about 10% of the ward in about two hours for each of us. That was one leaflet. Now multiply that by ten to cover an entire ward and you are looking at 30 people spending an evening each delivering leaflets, or three people spending ten evenings delivering leaflets, or some combination in between. And that’s just to get one leaflet delivered through every household’s door ***unless you pay for a professional delivery firm that delivers ‘junk mail’ (eg takeaway fliers, home improvements etc) to do it for you*** Which again costs money. Now multiply that total by the number of leaflet types you want to deliver across a campaign – say focusing on a policy area or introducing a candidate, or covering national policies. Again, not cheap and also people-intensive
  3. If you thought that was intense, try door-to-door knocking. That requires even more organisation, meeting data protection legal requirements when collecting info, and far more time per person at each address – assuming they are in. The ballpark number of times a door needs to be knocked on to ensure you have a conversation with the resident (because most of the time they are out) is around five – according to local party activists in conversations I’ve had over the years. How many people with how much training and guidance do you need in order to ensure a council ward is covered? Now extrapolate that for a general election. See?

For an independent candidate to succeed in a local election, the individual needs to spend a significant amount of time and effort embedding themselves in a local neighbourhood through local institutions and community groups to become well-known enough for voters to want to vote for them at an election.

As we are more than aware, the social institutions of old that used to bring hundreds of people together on a regular and routine basis – from places of worship to social clubs allied to large, labour-intensive employers, have become fewer and far-between – and far less populous. Furthermore, the places where people tend to socialise in recent decades have become ‘privatised public spaces’ (for example shopping centres or places like Cambridge Leisure Park with its own security staff) that can eject anyone they don’t want there. In effect they have become ‘politics-free zones’ because political parties and campaign groups are prevented from setting up stalls there.

“What about social media?”

In one sense my campaign was an interesting case study on the growing limitations (feels like a contradiction there!) of social-media-led campaigns. Even more so given the fragmentation and tech/commercial barriers the big giants are putting up between each other, making indirectly sharing content on social media feeds much harder because the social media firms want to chase the advertising budgets and clog up your feeds with things you don’t want to see or prioritise. Again, parties can pay for social media adverts but this costs more money and also requires the skills and confidence to produce good enough content that does not look too slick and corporate – a very fine line.

Looking at the data from my own social media feeds, I knew very early on there was no chance of a social-media-led campaign having a hope of challenging for the vacancy against a resourced party candidate – of which there were two in this ward. With CFS inevitably I had to rely on social media, hence producing video content monologues and uploading them before CFS and post-exertional malaise (where you need to spend time asleep or not doing anything to sort-of-recover) kicked in. How best to explain it? In a video.

Above – being a candidate with chronic illnesses. (Which got about 40 views before polling day)

Sometimes I would film a short video if something vaguely topical came up – such as potholes

Above – who is responsible for potholes? Which got 19 views before polling day.

“Why not upload directly to Twitter & Facebook?”

Both are very niche audiences – and even though the potholes video uploaded directly to the former says it had nearly 500 views, how many of those viewers actually took notice of the video’s content, and how many of those people taking notice were actually eligible voters in the ward concerned? The same goes for Facebook videos below.

One’s a video on house prices in Cambridge, and the other is an intro video in, of all places ‘Joy’s Garden’ (one that those of you who watched Part 1 of the Hustings will get!) Again, the number of views involved is miniscule.

“So…what happens now”

I could go to the next meeting of the Greater Cambridge Partnership Assembly (08 June 2023 at the Cambridge Guildhall – starting at 10am) and table a public question that says:

“261 residents in the #QueenEdiths ward in the City of Cambridge, granted such status by His Late Majesty King George VI, have requested, required, & commanded me to demand that you commence arrangements to dissolve your partnership forthwith. How do you respond?”

I put it in a tweet

And then flounce off in a huff when they reply with the bureaucratic equivalent of “Talk to the hand!”

Realistically, I’ve made my point on the GCP / CPCA. There are columns in the Cambridge Independent, podcasts on local radio stations, and social media posts with others now making the case for the overhaul of local government. Finally there’s the petition which applies nationally, not just to Cambridgeshire. It’s still early days but others have plans to publicise it much more widely. I only ever intended on providing a local political spark. It’s up to others to provide the metaphorical fuel & oxygen, & decide what to do with the political light and heat created. If anything, the past few months felt like everyone in non-Tory ranks were waiting for someone else to make the first high profile public move in response to the Conservatives’ campaign against the GCP’s congestion charging proposals.

I’m more interested in grassroots democracy and civic education than I am in party politics and campaigning in elections

In one sense it’s a decision that circumstances have made for me: I’m not mobile enough to be out and about doing active campaigning. My life situation means for the foreseeable future – possibly the rest of my life, this is the part of the world I’ll be restricted to. Therefore I have to work with it. Anything I’d like to see done has to involve me co-operating with others and sharing knowledge/experiences, rather than ‘leadership’ or ‘command and control’.

Democracy workshops – what I wrote five years ago: is it relevant to today?

This is what I wrote in April 2018 – some four months after coming out of hospital in my first heart scare.

“Shall we put on some ‘how to scrutinise your council’ style events in/around Cambridge?”

ADBF 03 Apr 2018

Some of it is hopelessly out of date – which shows how quickly our age is evolving on so many fronts.

I’ve got the blueprints for the workshop delivery, but as I’ve mentioned before I cannot do the organising and advertising that goes with it. Also, I cannot do it for free either. DWP/UC rules. (Also, why should people on very low incomes subsidise things that are of benefit to our city (I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been told this by politicians of all political parties about how ‘essential’ my activities are for Cambridge) that should be paid for through general taxation? i.e. not reliant on charity or crowdfunding?)

Is there an organisation that could take a lead on something like this? Or do we have to invent one?

I’ll need to take a little time out. In the grand scheme of things, the next steps are for yourselves and others to take.

What those steps are? Well that’s up to you. Get some friends, acquaintances, and connected persons together and start talking amongst yourselves, then branch out.

Have a look at the Cambridge Resilience Web to see who is already doing what in and around our city.

Or sign up to and have a browse of the events listings from Transition Cambridge here

Alternatively, have a browse of the methods and case studies archived by InvolveUK that other towns and cities have tried.

At a city level, could Cambridge aspire to something similar to the Wigan Deal? Or would this be best piloted by surrounding towns and villages? What Wigan has done looks very similar to what Oldham pioneered in the Mid-2000s with their Neighbourhood Agreements. Politicians, councillors, and council officers/civil servants may be interested in the 2012 evaluation of the Home Office pilot here.

For those of you who did not take an active part in the local elections as either candidates or supporting activists & campaigners, what’s the one small behaviour change or one small one off action you are willing and able to commit to as a result of the election results?

It doesn’t have to be massive – it could be subscribing to a local newspaper, or to join a local branch of a national campaign group. It could be joining a local institution as a supporting member. Alternatively you might go for something that makes you feel that ‘little bit uncomfortable’, something you’ve not done before or for a long time, and somewhere where someone might disagree with you on something and where you have to stand your ground in a discussion or debate. (Where are the places where we the general public can learn how to debate about local issues *and* learn about them at the same time? Because I’m not sure council meetings and GCP meetings fulfil those requirements!)

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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