Analysis: Cambridge, a rebellious political maverick?

Image credit: Colm Murphy

It wasn’t that long ago that Cambridge had a pathological obsession with politics.

This is perhaps a reflection of the preoccupations of journalists. Still, the recent tight election victory of Labour MP Daniel Zeichner over popular incumbent Liberal Democrat Julian Huppert dominated our newspapers and Facebook feeds for weeks. But those who think that Cambridge politics stopped on 8 May are mistaken.

Consider the rapid rise of Jeremy Corbyn, whose summer campaign was impressive in Cambridge. Freshers will quickly realise that this city has a “relatively unusual” political culture, in the words of local blogger Phil Rodgers – one that, superficially, suits Zeichner. The city is unusually young, liberal, wealthy, and ‘Guardian-reading’, partly because it’s dominated by large universities.

There are pockets of Conservative and UKIP support, and the countryside is full of Tory strongholds. Moreover, Cambridge University certainly has its fair share of Tories.

Nevertheless, the city has had Lib Dem and Labour MPs since 1992 – and a Labour-controlled city council. It was one of the very few seats in the country to vote Yes to the 2011 AV referendum. It even has tripartite liberal-left dogfights, such as in the student-heavy council ward Market – recently won by the Green Party with 1,147 votes, only 7 ahead of Labour and 13 ahead of the Liberal Democrats.

Liberal bias manifested itself in the refugee crisis. Cambridge was one of the most outspokenly pro-refugee cities – a recent rally was attended by hundreds, addressed by Zeichner, and boasted representatives from Labour, the Lib Dems, and the Greens.

Consider also the upcoming EU referendum. For many, the EU’s name is mud; in Cambridge it almost seems the complete opposite. Zeichner is pro-membership – and the main parties at present are expected to be campaigning on the same side, even though these local politicians (some of whom are Cambridge academics) can be bitterly opposed to each other in the normal swing of things.

However, Euroscepticism does exist in Cambridge, especially after the recent Greek tragedy. Zeichner will have to deal with sceptics inside and outside his party.

This is all relevant to students as well as Zeichner, in two respects. Firstly, some are themselves intimately involved in the cut and thrust through volunteering. Labour benefits from the Cambridge Universities Labour Club, which has a reputation for having the “most tireless activists I’ve ever seen in my life”, in the words of Varsity’s ex-Political Editor Richard Nicholl.

However, the Lib Dems are claiming a fightback, and have their own dedicated group (Cambridge Student Liberal Democrats). The student Greens were rapidly building an activist base before May – although their future remains debatable post-Corbyn. We should not forget the student Conservative Association. It campaigns less, but runs many speaker and discussion events.

Secondly, as well as a looming EU referendum that will almost certainly interest students, there are council elections this academic year. The councils (city and county) have real power over student life, as can be seen in the streetlight controversy that recently returned to the spotlight. Traditionally, students have an extremely low turnout in local elections, although Rodgers hopes that “we’ll see more students getting engaged.” For the upcoming elections in May 2016, the impact of an incumbent Labour MP and council are unknown variables.

So too is Corbyn: he could play very well in Market seat but very badly in affluent Labour-Lib Dem swing seats. Rodgers, himself a Lib Dem member, predicts that Corbyn will be “bad for the Labour Party”, but doesn’t rule out a positive impact in the local elections. Still, he told TCS to watch for a potential Lib Dem “bounceback” from their coalition lows, like their dire 2011 council results.

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