In a week when a former Liberal Democrat councillor John Doran announced to Nick Clegg on live radio that he was tearing up his party membership card as he was “ashamed” of the Coalition government’s policies, it has been a rather testing time for those in Westminster. When speaking to self-proclaimed “gut Liberal” Julian Huppert, I was bracing myself for a marathon question-and-answer session in an attempt to find out how he is trying to prevent others from becoming as disillusioned as Doran.
Huppert is open and affable, sporting the requisite yellow tie and clearly well-rehearsed in the slick soundbites frequently demanded of politicians nowadays. When asked why he decided to join the party, he confirms that they encourage a “free, fair and open society, where nobody should be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.” Beneath the practised business patter, he seems genuinely enthusiastic about ensuring wider access schemes for universities. The Trinity graduate believes that Cambridge does a “better job than is often portrayed”, voicing his belief that there is a lot less bias now than in previous decades, and that during his time as an interviewer for Natural Sciences candidates at Clare College, there was a “huge effort to get people in on merit, rather than based on the school they were at.”
When asked about the fall in UCAS applications for the applications cycle of 2012 and 2013, he considers this “very interesting”, suggesting smaller size of year groups as one of the reasons for the decrease.
“This accounts for a little bit of the drop in applications, but I think part of it is to do with fees. I thought that Labour bringing in tuition fees would reduce applications, and it didn’t, or when they tripled them either. In Wales, when they don’t have the same tuition fee system, have gone down even more than in England, which I was quite surprised at.”
Huppert remains unsure about the causes of the fall in applications, proposing that it may be due to the state of economy or due to the government’s promotion of apprenticeships and the “excellent” training offered by establishments such as Cambridge Regional College. Although he acknowledges that Cambridge applications have risen, he admits to worrying that the reasons for the national application decrease are still unknown. Huppert makes it clear that he voted against the rise in tuition fees to £9000, adding that it was “very upsetting” when the motion to increase the fees was passed and that his colleague Nick Clegg initially requested an “unlimited” increase to fees after the publication of the Browne Review. Although he believes the new fees system to be fairer than its predecessor, he reiterates several times that the vote was “so upsetting”: he speaks about the psychological implications of the fees, acknowledging that it is a “huge amount of money” for a young student.
Despite his political compass pointing towards a free and fair society, the realities and restrictions of the Coalition government are challenging. He regrets the lack of transparency within the parties when debating tuition fees, believing that people would have been “a lot more understanding if they had seen us, as a political party, trying to vote against it and losing. It looked like we just said that we’re going to raise the fees anyway.” His next project is to recruit more mature students: while universities have attracted more applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds, the reducing numbers of mature undergraduates are “worrying”.
After the struggle to reach a compromise on tuition fees, Huppert is expansive when discussing the challenges of sharing power with a party who have a very different ideology: “some Conservative MPs are perfectly decent people who I can work with, but some are so extreme that I couldn’t imagine having a good relationship with them. We work together with Labour MPs on a cross-party basis more often than people think, but then there are Labour MPs whose aims and values are so different from mine.” He is surprised that compromise is often seen as a dirty word in politics, while being regarded favourably in other situations, such as in friendships and relationships: “In politics, we still have the same values, even though we have to work with the Tories. You have to work with people.”
He is proudest of his involvement in the decision to get rid of ID cards in the current government, as well as being part of the “first British government ever to spend 0.7% of GDP on international aid”, since the original and unfulfilled pledge to do so under Heath’s government in 1970. The Liberal Democrats also vetoed a new Trident policy, despite its support from Labour and the Conservatives, preferring the “80 to 100 billion pounds that would go towards it to be spent on something better.”
Although he speaks confidently of the successes enjoyed by his party, he is more reticent when questioned on the provision of a basic living wage to Cambridge’s inhabitants. He professes to be in favour of the wage, yet evades a query on the reasons why some staff at Microsoft’s new offices in the city are not being paid a full living wage: “I’m hoping we can get the university and colleges to pay the living wage, as they are the most symbolic and important employer in Cambridge. While they’re not the biggest employer, they are what Cambridge is famous for.” He also sidesteps a question on whether his own staff are paid a living wage, amending his initial response to clarify that some of them are “about to “.
As a life-long resident of Cambridge, a local issue close to his heart is bicycle safety. He is keen to underline that Cambridge has been voted the “best place in the country” for cycling, with over half of all adults in Cambridge travelling by bike at least once a month. Huppert is positive about the provision of sports facilities in the city, evidently pleased that the university is finally pushing ahead with plans to open a new sports centre, with the first of four planned construction phases expected to finish by summer this year.
Speaking only days after the publication of a mid-term review, Huppert is determined to capitalise on the achievements of the Coalition so far at the same time as addressing more divisive areas such as climate change. He credits the philosopher John Rawls for inspiring his choice to focus towards the future, where along with continuing to promote Cambridge, he is beginning to turn his thoughts towards the 2015 election.