Refugees, rebellion, and cycling: new MP's first months

Image credit: sean_hickin

Five months ago Labour’s Daniel Zeichner defeated the Lib Dem incumbent, Julian Huppert, by a narrow 599 notes. Since then, Zeichner has opposed the Welfare Bill, supported Yvette Cooper in the Labour leadership campaign and been appointed Shadow Minister for Transport.

Zeichner laid down a clear marker in his maiden speech to the Commons, describing Cambridge as a “tale of two cities” in which 12,000 people are earning below the living wage and average rents are double the national average. A self-described “socialist”, Zeichner was one of 48 MPs who rebelled against the Labour whip and opposed the Welfare Bill.

This stance has not been welcomed by everyone. One third year historian, who wishes to remain anonymous told The Cambridge Student: “I think he’s a trade union slave and total arse”. Prior to his election, Zeichner served as a political officer at UNISON for 13 years. Zeichner has previously defended the Labour Party’s relationship with the unions, saying to Cambridge News it prevented politics’ domination by “an ever-shrinking circle of middle class people.”

However, this socialist attitude did not translate into support for Jeremy Corbyn, but rather Yvette Cooper. On a joint visit with Cooper to Microsoft Research, Zeichner highlighted her focus on “high skilled jobs, productivity growth and new opportunities for everyone”.

Yet when Corbyn was elected, Zeichner was appointed as Shadow Minister for Transport. The Cambridge University Conservative Association issued a statement arguing that such a position was bad for the city: “Zeichner has proven himself a poor advocate for Cambridge in his first few months. In accepting a junior role in Corbyn’s hard-left Opposition, he has set himself against the enterprise and business which is so vital to the economic success of this city.”

Zeichner’s new portfolio will allow him to focus on cycling and public transport, the former a major concern of his Lib Dem predecessor. Liberal Democrat leader on the City Council, Tim Bick spoke to TCS on what Huppert’s legacy means for Zeichner: "As a city councillor I am willing Daniel Zeichner to be an effective MP for the good of the whole city. Julian is a hard act to follow in terms of getting things done for Cambridge.” Bick cited the City Deal, transport and local education investment as Huppert’s achievements adding that “It’s certainly early days for Daniel, but the city does need more than anti-government rhetoric from its MP.”

Julian Huppert himself spoke to TCS about Zeichner’s first five months, saying: “It’s always going to be hard to judge a successor, and certainly it is frustrating to see many of the things I worked on and championed are now making slower progress.” He did praise Zeichner for “continuing my work supporting cycling” and for voting “with my Lib Dem colleagues against the Tory’s Welfare Reform and Work Bill - it was a disgrace that Labour as a whole abstained from this.”

Huppert added: “Opposition is important,” arguing that an opposition MP has to try and achieve things as well as simply oppose the government. “Daniel has to decide whether he wants to relax in the comfort of opposition or strive to put in the extra work needed to actually change things … I hope he will rise above lazy oppositionalism, and seek to make a real difference in the five years he has.”

Huppert’s supporters during the election celebrated the former MP’s constituency work: he apparently took on over 30,000 pieces of casework. Phil Rodgers, local blogger and Lib Dem member, told TCS that he thought Zeichner had “got his casework operation up and running” and had made a “fairly steady start.”

Lewis Herbert, leader of the city council and Labour councillor for Coleridge, was positive: “Daniel has made a real impact in the first few months as our new champion for Cambridge” and “It is of great benefit to Cambridge to have the Council leadership and our M|P working as a team.

“He has spoken regularly in the Commons, and asked searching questions for us all. He is focusing much more on bread and butter issues like local funding.”

Zeichner has also displayed a keen interest in changes to student finance and the plight of further education institutions. He used his first question at PMQ’s on the 9 September to question why “the average sixth former has lost almost 20 per cent of their funding over the last five years”, highlighting that the 16-19 years old education budget is unprotected. He also criticised the maintenance grant cut; almost 8,500 Cambridge constituents currently receive one.

These criticisms are supported by Rory Weal, Chair of CULC: “Just two months after becoming an MP, Daniel Zeichner defied the Labour whip to vote against the Tories’ punitive welfare bill which will push thousands of children into poverty. It showed that in Daniel, Cambridge has elected an MP who will always unequivocally put the needs of the most vulnerable first. Since then his stances on the refugee crisis and on nuclear weapons have shown him to be a parliamentarian of real conviction, whilst he’s also done a top job of holding Cameron to account- specifically when he grilled him on further education cuts at PMQs. Our Club is proud to have campaigned for him.” The Cambridge Student Liberal Democrats were unavailable for comment.

The refugee crisis has dominated Zeichner’s output as well as the headlines. As well as speaking at the Cambridge refugee rally on the 5 September, Zeichner tabled a motion in Parliament to discuss ideas such as the Voluntary Homes Register. Dreamt up by the Ten Thousand Homes campaign, the list would allow individual households to register an interest in housing refugees. Clear ties can be seen to Yvette Cooper’s own council-based policy. Herbert claimed his “early call” on the refugee crisis has “attracted wide support in the city.”

Given recent news of the convicted Libyan sex assault soldiers looking to seek asylum, Zeichner’s Parliamentary questioning of Armed Forces Minister Penny Mordaunt seems timely. He inquired as to why the full inquiry report of the incident has not been made available, why locals were not informed of changes to the walk-out policy at the time and pushed for a government apology for Cambridgeshire residents.  The soldiers, Khaled El Azibi, Ibrahim Naji El Maarfi and Mohammed Abdalsalam, committed the assaults in Cambridge city centre last year, while stationed at nearby Bassingbourn Barracks.

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