Reverse Canvassing in Arbury

Monday, April 30th, 2012. 1:19am

Having reached a few days before polling day and not had any contact from three of the four candidates standing in my ward of Arbury, Cambridge, I decided to try some “reverse canvassing” and knocked on the elusive candidates’ front doors.

While sitting Labour Councillor Mike Todd-Jones and his team have produced a number of leaflets and have been meeting electors on the doorstep in Arbury, there has been no sign of the Liberal Democrat, Green or Conservative candidates. There is even very little available online about them for those who are proactive about looking them up.

The Liberal Democrat Candidate, Rhodri James, was in when I called, and my first question to him, in light of the lack of activity, was if he was taking the election seriously. Surprisingly he pretty much agreed he wasn’t and spoke very positively about his opponent, Labour’s Mike Todd-Jones. Mr James said:

I have not been doing as much canvassing and campaigning around Arbury as usual that’s true; partly because I like [Labour Candidate] Mike Todd-Jones and winning against him would be a bit of a struggle so there’s sense in targeting the effort where it will make more of a difference.

[Shrugs shoulders]

Later Mr James added:

I know Mike, I like him a lot and we do get on very well.

Mr James let me know that when he had been out campaigning “it has tended not to be here, sorry”.

Mr James said his party’s targets were Romsey and King’s Hedges and noted that they also could not ignore “safe seats” this time round, perhaps alluding to activity in Newnham where the council leader Sian Reid is up for re-election.


I had a discussion with Mr James about his views and policies.

Area Committees

Mr James had talked about improving area committees in a statement to the Cambridge News, I asked him why he hadn’t attended any since he ceased to be a councillor and what his ideas for improvement were. He told me he wasn’t available on Thursday evenings so was unable to attend the meetings as that’s when they were invariably held. He said changing days just confused people. I asked if he would like to see them moved to Saturdays, he wasn’t too positive about that, and we discussed some of the ways they could be run differently, for example running some as councillor question times where the main focus is the public asking questions of councillors. Mr James suggested using residents associations to fulfill some of the role of the area committees.


Mr James has previously cast himself as a specialist councillor focusing on council housing tenants.

Mr James said he wanted to see more council houses being built, including on new developments and if elected he would push planning committees to require that, despite saying: “I’m not sure I’d get them”.

We discussed other ways of providing social housing, but Mr James suggested the legal means available to the council were limited.

Mr James blamed the state of the housing market, (which he appeared to think the council had little or no influence over), for people living in shared houses for longer periods of their lives.


Mr James agreed with me that there was a strong argument for representative democracy in setting local police priorities. We also agreed on the importance of operational independence for the police.

Less positively though Mr James said his support for the current system was based on the fact:

“It’s a fairly loose thing, and the police come to meetings with recommendations and we don’t mess around with them much”.

While this accurately reflects the approach the Liberal Democrats generally take in Cambridge, I think councillors ought not be afraid to speak up and express the views of those they represent even when they contradict the police, as that’s a key way of ensuring the police work for the public, and are doing what we want them to do.

We also spoke about the importance of clarity on what a police priority set by councillors actually means, and what can be expected as a result, and on the importance of quality, appropriate, evidence from the police to help councillors make decisions.


Mr James said he thought the views of those living on a street were the main consideration when making deciding if parking restrictions should be introduced. He said he would not support restrictions where they were not needed, for example on the road he lives on.

We talked inconclusively about if councillors ought have a role in addressing problems such as people trying to claim spaces outside their homes (eg. by putting bins in the road).


I had previously emailed Mr James urging him to answer the Cambridge Cycling Campaign’s candidate survey. He neither responded to me, nor (as yet) the survey.

Other Candidates

There was no answer when I knocked on the doors of the Green candidate Stephen Lawrence or Conservative Ali Meftah.

Further Thoughts

I am wondering if the major parties essentially giving up on all but a few wards and by doing so are to all intents and purposes agreeing among themselves who ought be elected in many parts of the city.

My candidates in Arbury have not been making it easy for electors to find out about them; the Labour, Conservative, and Liberal Democrat candidates all have as yet failed to answer the Cambridge Cycling Campaign’s candidate survey. The Green candidate didn’t even respond to The Cambridge News’ offer of a soap box which would have given him an opportunity to tell people what he was trying to achieve by standing.

9 comments/updates on “Reverse Canvassing in Arbury

  1. Carina O'Reilly

    Hi Richard,

    This is a very fair and democratic thing to do. In fairness to the opposition, we have to knock on doors five or six times to get to speak to a majority of residents, so it’s not surprising that the candidates for the Greens and the Tories might not have been in. And in fairness to Rhodri, he has been active in looking after the residents of the Kingsway Flats even though he doesn’t live there.

    In defence of Mike in turn, he is a traditional councillor in that he would much rather talk to constituents than learn to be more fluent in technology than he is. As councillors, we’re a team, and as you can see, we’re all reading this so the rest of us are more conscious of the existence of teh Interwebnet than Mike is. He remains a bit of a hero for me in terms of the sheer volume of casework and commitment he’s given to Arbury – and it was lovely last night to talk to a Lib Dem member who said she felt she was lucky to have councillors this active even if we weren’t from her own party.

    On that note, thanks for doing this. It keeps us all honest.

  2. Dan Ratcliffe

    Mike may not be your cup of tea when it comes to oniline campaigning but in 16 years of political activism there is no candidate I’ve been so proud to organise for.

    We’ve spoken to more than three quarters of the residents of the ward, and whether they fill in an online survey or not there is no way anyone can say they’ve not had chance to quiz him on his views on cycling or any other policy.

    From the Alexandra Garden trees in the south (he drove us mad on this) to anti-social behaviour in the north of the ward, Mike’s a delight to work for and by far the most dedicated local representative I have ever met. Perhaps this is why all of his opposition don’t want to campaign against him?

    Thanks for your article,


  3. Andrew Bower

    Richard, there’s a difference between not being naive about one’s chances in a particular election in a particular place at a particular time and not being a serious candidate. I’ve stood in elections in the past that I knew I could not win but if anyone had suggested I wasn’t a serious candidate I’d have been pretty annoyed about that.

  4. Edward

    “I am wondering if the major parties essentially giving up on all but a few wards and by doing so are to all intents and purposes agreeing among themselves who ought be elected in many parts of the city.”

    Were that the case, I don’t think the parties would bother nominating candidates or distributing leaflets. It seems more likely to be a case of distributing limited resources effectively.

    The average Cambridge ward probably takes around 50 hours to leaflet completely, assuming the leafletter knows the quickest way to complete their round. At a guess, I’d say it takes around 150 man-hours to knock on every door in a ward and collect voter ID, although that depends on the size of the ward and how many people are in. And if you want to win, you realistically need more than one leaflet and to knock on most doors several times.

    That’s an awful lot of time given up by a limited number of volunteers, and that leaves aside the administration required to run a campaign. Labour these days has the manpower to do so, because there’s a large and enthusiastic membership, but it was much harder to do a few years ago.

    The Lib Dems probably have a smaller membership base, but a relatively active and experienced one, so they can try to campaign in most places but not necessarily cover everywhere.

    Neither the Tories nor the Greens can plausibly run full campaigns in every ward.

    With this in mind, it does make sense to target resources where they’re most useful. There’s not much point in the Lib Dems targeting Cherry Hinton, because they’ve never been close in recent history, especially since that might takes resources away from somewhere more marginal like Romsey.

    Sometimes several parties may decide it’s not time-effective to target a ward, because of its political dynamics or because the incumbent is popular. That doesn’t mean they’re agreeing to let one party take the seat. It’s just that they don’t think they can persuade the electorate to vote for something else. I don’t think there’s anything sinister in knowing that some fights are never going to be successful.

  5. Richard Taylor Article author

    While I know Mike Todd-Jones cycles, I don’t know his views on cycling as well as I would if he answered the cycling campaign’s questionnaire.

    I’ve never seen him propose a pro-cycling “environmental improvement” at the North Area committee. I’d like to elect a councillor with a set of ideas for making the ward, and city, a safer place to cycle.

  6. cobweb

    I appreciate Edward’s point but it would still be good if all candidates offered something for voters to consider. The Cambridge News election coverage would have been a good start if door-knocking is too much. Or policy stuff on each party web site? Anything.

  7. Gerry Dorrian

    The first paragraph of your “further thoughts” is very thought-provoking. With complacency like this, I wonder if in the future, in council elections with a poor turnout, a new party with a lot of activists might sweep the board?

  8. Tim Ward

    “I am wondering if the major parties essentially giving up on all but a few wards and by doing so are to all intents and purposes agreeing among themselves who ought be elected in many parts of the city.”

    Once year the Greens did say to me “we deliberately put up a weak candidate in Arbury that nobody had ever heard of so as not to take too many votes away from you”.

    That’s the only time I’ve had any indication of anyone in Cambridge doing other than the obvious, of concentrating limited effort where they think they can get biggest bang for buck.

  9. Richard Taylor Article author

    Joining in with a sustained campaign of unsubstantiated slurs and attacks, largely from militant socialists, Emma Daniel, a Labour Councillor in Brighton, has commented, in reference to this article, mentioning “a male lib dem who you knocked up with a camera like the daily mail” alleging my actions were intimidating and harassing, and accusing me of “turning up to people’s houses and slamming a slamming a [camera]” (1, 2,3).

    It is clear from the video that I didn’t publish a video of me knocking on candidate Rhodri James’s door. I did not take my camera onto his property until I had obtained his permission to do so. I knocked on his door, explained what I was doing, and he willingly co-operated with me and was happy to have a discussion on camera. For the Liberal Democrat candidate to say part of the reason he wasn’t campaigning was that he liked the Labour candidate was in my view a quite astounding revelation and certainly one it was in the public interest to publish.

    I am very proud of this piece of activism and think it resulted in some very interesting insight into the way political parties put candidates up for election who don’t campaign and don’t appear particularly interested in winning, a practice my reporting has shown also explicitly happens within Cambridge’s UKIP branch.

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