'Vote for the Beard': an afternoon with Julian Huppert MP

Huppert speaking at a Policy Exchange event.
Image credit: Flickr: Policy Exchange
...to another.
Image credit: Instagram: jackomay

What is immediately noteworthy about the MP for Cambridge, Julian Huppert, is the extent to which he is an incredibly nice man. Instead of snatching an interview in a loud room after a speech, or rapidly taking notes after five minutes on the phone, I was invited to Westminster to spend the day with him. Having trundled behind him, gawping, as he got on with his day in both the multi-million-pound office-building-cum-five-star-hotel that is Portcullis House and the undeniably awesome complex that is the Palace of Westminster, we sat down to a cup of coffee to get serious.

Or at least, we would have done if I hadn’t been so distracted by the view of the river Thames out of the vast, Gothic-revival, floor-to-ceiling bay window in which we were sitting, not to mention some of the nicest fresh coffee I’ve ever tasted. It would be the easiest thing in the world to get lost in this world of wood-panelled corridors, carpets thick enough to trampoline on and doormen in white tie and tails.

That’s what makes his answer to one of my question of what he finds most frustrating about the job of being an MP so heartening. With almost no hesitation he says: “This place. Westminster is a beautiful building, a great tradition but it’s also a frustrating place to work in. It takes a lot of effort to get things to change.

“Sometimes it feels like you’re banging your head against a brick wall. Sometimes the bricks will fly off and you’ll get the bricks moving, and sometimes you’ll just keep banging. So you spend a lot of time working on things here, and some things you win, and that’s fantastic, but you don’t win everything. It takes a lot of effort, even if you don’t get anywhere.”

It was whilst he was an undergraduate at Cambridge, setting up the Cambridge University Model United Nations Society, that his interest in politics was born. “I grew up under Thatcher, and I knew I was not a Thatcherite, I was very much on the other side, [but] it wasn’t until I was I was seventeen or so that I realised I was a liberal. I became a county councillor just before I started my PhD, and was juggling my PhD with being a councillor, and then became an MP.”

With his rare scientific background, I mention the Cambridge Union’s final motion of the term: ‘This House Believes Scientists Should Run The Country’. He said, “I think the idea of doing things based on evidence should have a much stronger role in what we do. Starting by looking at facts, and the evidence for things is absolutely the right thing to do. It shouldn’t trump everything else, because science can’t tell you the correct answer to a lot of policy problems. It can tell you what’s possible and what’s not possible, but it doesn’t tell you what matters more than what else.”

As a scientist, he admits that he’s “never been very good at ‘the quick soundbite’. People spend ages thinking of them, but it does lead to the trivialisation of politics, that ‘this thing is good; that thing is bad’, which is not what it should be about.” On the subject, I tell him that I’ve heard of people considering not voting for him in next year’s election because of his slightly alarming beard. He laughs quite loudly at this point, and the Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries turns around from a nearby table in surprise. “I think discrimination against beards is absolutely outrageous. I think they should vote for the beard. I was awarded the prize of Parliamentary Beard of the Year [in 2013], against some stiff competition. That’s not an easy contest to win.”

Bringing conversation back to more serious matters, the blatantly dominant, and rather thorny, issue on the election agenda in Cambridge is that of tuition fees. It’s worth mentioning at this point that Huppert chose to rebel on the party line by voting against tuition fees – a fact that often intrigues voters who immediately conflate ‘Liberal Democrats’ with ‘Student-Backstabbocrats’. Huppert, too, is very keen to remind me of this, as you might imagine. “Firstly, as you say, I voted against it. I’m the first MP for Cambridge ever to oppose tuition fees, [and] to vote against them.

“When I was an undergrad at Cambridge I was in one of the last years not to have fees. In that 1997 General Election, Labour promised no fees. The Labour MP who was re-elected for Cambridge [used the] big headline ‘no fees here’ and then she went and voted for tuition fees. Then I was a PhD student when they tripled them, when they promised they would never do that either. Labour’s record has been abysmal.”

He worries that the Liberal Democrats didn’t let people see enough of the conflict that went on surrounding the issue. “We tried to fight that and didn’t win, but I think we didn’t show those rows, and I think people would have more sympathy if they’d seen us fight and lose, than what they saw which was that it looked like they just didn’t fight. Which isn’t quite true. The position was that the Tories wanted to see unlimited fees, Labour had set up the Brown Review, which also called for unlimited fees, and Peter Mandelson, who was the Secretary of State in charge of it, has said that had Labour won the last election they would have substantially increased fees. I think fees are the wrong way to pay for higher education.”

In personal terms, he hopes students will have the good sense to look at individuals, rather than party mistakes. “It would seem perverse to vote against me having done what you wanted me to do, seems like a very odd way to say that, and I wish we’d managed to get a better outcome overall.” Sadly, he notes, political reality made it an impossibility.

It’s undeniable that the Coalition has been toxic for the Liberal Democrats, and most polls put current support at around 8%, down from 22% in the 2010 election, and from a high in post-debate polls of around 30%. As such, most forecasters are expecting Labour’s candidate Daniel Zeichner to take the seat from Huppert next May. Without wanting to seem callous, I ask him what he thinks he’ll do if he ends up without a job on the morning of 8 May 2015. “I have no idea. I suspect the first thing I would do would be sleep. Be a bit miserable for a bit. Catching up on sleep would be a good thing to start with. I don’t really know. I could possibly go back to academia. I really don’t know; I haven’t thought about it.”

Part of what makes the privilege of being Cambridge’s MP so particular for Huppert is the fact that he grew up here. “A lot of people will be parachuted in to a seat which they think they can win, and then claim that they have some sort of tenuous connection to it: ‘I spent a year or two there 25 years ago’, you know, whatever it might be. I came to Cambridge when I was three months old, I was there as an undergraduate, as a postgrad, I’ve worked there in science, out of science. It makes a huge difference when you go round and you see a playground and you think ‘Yes, of course, I know this playground, because I was *that* high when I was there.’ It makes a massive difference.”

As for the Coalition itself, Huppert tells me that people’s perceptions aren’t always 100% accurate. “One of the big secrets of this place [Westminster] is that across parties we tend to get on quite well when you turn the cameras off, whether it’s with Conservative MPs, Labour MPs, [or] Caroline Lucas for the Greens. We get on fairly well.” Having said that, there having been difficulties. “What’s been galling for many of us [Liberal Democrat MPs] is when the Tories have claimed things which we know they resisted. That’s one of the big frustrations.”

Under the previous Government, people earning £10,000 would end up paying £700 a year in income tax, an injustice that the Liberal Democrats fought against, fiercely. “I’m really proud that we’ve lifted the point at which you start paying income tax up to £10,000, going up to £10,500. We’d like to make it £12,500. Getting by on £10k a year is really tough, and that’s why I support a living wage, that’s why I want to boost the minimum wage, because that’s really tough. Cameron and the Tories fought very, very hard against that.”

Since my meeting with Huppert, Cambridge City Council has become an accredited Living Wage Employer, a sign of good relations and collaboration between the city’s Lib Dem MP and newly-elected Labour-led Council. He admits, however, that it “was easier when we ran the City Council. I could get things done, and that’s how we were very effectively able to pull in lots of money for all sorts of things by working with the City and County Councils.

“I managed to pull in extra money for cycling facilities, all sorts of things, by operating here in conjunction with [them]. The City Deal was a very good example of that.” Things are harder now, though. “I’m very happy to work with them to continue to push things, but I suspect that they’d be quite wary of anything that looked like a success for me. Which is a shame because actually it’s for people. We can work together [on issues like Cambridge lighting] but the question is actually making it happen.”

The key balance to strike in the run-up to the election will be ensuring that parties in the Coalition, and in the Cambridge locality, claim ‘credit’ for successful ideas where it’s due. “I’m certainly only going to claim things where I know that we fought really hard for them against their resistance for them as our things. There are some things where we worked together too, where we should both share the credit, there are some things where we fought very hard and we should get it, and there are some things that they did which we weren’t keen on and they can have the credit or the criticism, depending which way you want to interpret it.”

“Things like International Development Aid, putting that into legislation – it’s a Lib Dem bill, and I think we’ll get there. They can have the credit for agreeing to back it, but we should get the credit for actually doing it. [As for] same-sex marriage, I don’t think anybody believes David Cameron would have done that without us pushing. That’s a huge issue, and they should be proud of having done it, but we’ll definitely take the credit for having [led] that.”

As the dregs of my delicious cup of coffee sit in the bottom of my cup, cold and a little sad, I raise the notion of the ‘Great White Male’ that has recently gained so much currency after Grayson Perry’s guest edit of the New Statesman. Huppert knows what I’m getting at. “There is a huge problem that we have far too many people who are sort of ‘insiders’. And that’s insiders whether it’s by gender, ethnicity, socio-economic background. You know if you look at the number of MPs from any party who’ve ever had a manual job, for example, it is incredibly low.

“If you look at the Labour front bench [now and in recent years] you have the brothers Miliband, the husband and wife couple, sisters, you have people whose parents were involved. We now have lots of ‘the Red Princes’: there’s young Blair, there’s young Straw. That to me is not how politics should be. You have this on the Conservative side as well; you know, ‘yes my father was an MP’.”

For many people, this is what drives them away from considering politics as something they might want to ‘do’, in the Westminster sense. “We have to get more people in from all sorts of backgrounds, so yes gender is a big one, but it’s also socioeconomics. Part of the problem is that the cost of standing for Parliament can be very high. I’ve seen various figures, and I think it depends. That’s great if you’re rich, if you’re lucky enough to have a job where they’ll say ‘that’s fine, you can have the time off [to campaign]’. Otherwise, it’s a huge commitment.”

I can see Huppert light up when he talks about what is clearly a pet project of his – the Access to Elected Office Fund. “[It’s] a scheme that I don’t think enough people know about. It will pay for anybody with a disability to bring them up to a ‘par’ of someone without that disability. [That means that] if one of our parliamentary candidates is deaf, it pays for him to have sign language interpreters with him so he can campaign. For another person I’ve been mentoring who’s in a wheelchair, it will pay for the cost of him getting out to places.”

I can feel our time running out, and the coffee is now well and truly cold to the point of being undrinkable, so I figure it’s probably good idea to leave things on a less serious note. I ask him which politician he would least like to be stuck in an elevator with, but in a quick-witted (and, in this building, socially wise) move he skirts the question, only going as far as to say “I’d hate to meet someone as odious as Nick Griffin in person.” With Cambridge students’ new-found reputation for no-platform protests, I’m sure he’s preaching to the choir in this newspaper at least.

With a somewhat unsatisfying answer there, I turn to ties, and to the colours of politicians’ ties, a field in which Huppert has a convenient advantage. “I suspect ages ago I was told that yellow ties suited me, I think in a completely non-party context. Part of the problem with ties is that if you wear a tie of your own party, say if you wear a yellow tie, everyone says ‘oh well you’re wearing a yellow tie, that’s because you’re a Lib Dem’, and if you don’t they say ‘oh, I see, you’re not proud of being a Lib Dem’.”

Huppert laughs again in his characteristically good-humoured way, and continues in only half-mock exasperation. “No, I’m just wearing a tie! Leave me alone.”

I can’t help but notice that today’s tie is a particularly attractive yellow with faintly visible blue spots. Take from that what you will.

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