"It's social justice. Absolutely social justice," Daniel Zeichner on ideals and idealism

Image credit: sean_hickin via Flickr

The first thing I notice about Zeichner as he saunters into the Waterstone's café is his casual amicability. He first suggests we move to another table, away from an elderly lady I had been sitting with, saying "let's not annoy her." We head to a high table, which he proclaims "a table fit for giants." Despite a day packed with meetings, Zeichner seems to take his time as he ambles around, asking how I'm finding Cambridge and such. When his assistant returns bearing coins and a cappuccino, he exclaims, "some change as well! That's good." Then he turns to me, smiles, and says, "Fire away."

Notably, Zeichner voted consistently for the UK to remain in the EU. When I probe for the root of this consistent stance, he begins, "I’m absolutely European through and through." On the one hand, the issue is personal for him: "You can tell from my name, it’s not a very English-sounding name. My father was originally from Vienna in Austria, and my English side of the family – my mother’s side – is from Cambridge. So in a way, I kind of feel that through my lifetime, Britain’s relationship with Europe has been at the heart of politics, and I feel my life has embodied that, really." On the other hand, he appears deeply touched by his encounters with his constituents, and recounts EU nationals and UK citizens alike coming into his surgery, asking, "what's our future?" It's the injustice of it all, he seems to say, that people who had expected to live their lives in this country no longer feel welcome here. "I find that very, very…", and he is silent for a moment, "very, very sad."

Equally, he doesn't think it makes sense to leave the EU, with last year's referendum vote being based on what he believes to be a concoction of vapid, hateful misinformation, for which David Cameron and George Osborne are responsible. The benefits which EU nationals bring to Cambridge, especially to the prominent research sector, are immeasurable, he claims, pointing to the Sanger Institute, in which thousands and thousands of people come from around the world to conduct world-leading research on genomics and genetics. "People talk about the money coming from Europe, but it’s the collaborations that really matter, particularly from researchers." Once the Labour government, if elected, delivers on various measures, such as keeping in place the EU Erasmus student exchange and European Medicines Agency, then, "if you’ve covered all that, why wouldn’t you stay in the European Union?"

When asked about his opinion on Labour's public impression as an idealistic, "Corbyn's-fantasy-land"-esque party, Zeichner concedes that "perceptions are always hard to shift, especially when your message is being relayed through a national media that’s never supported Labour." The fact seems only to make him more determined to change it, as he proceeds to explain with great conviction that with regards to Labour's pledge to renationalise the railways, the evidence is there for all to see. He gives the example of the success when the east coast rail came back into the public sector, which generated greater revenue and happier customers; "why the government then chose to ignore something that succeeded is extraordinary." Moving on to Labour's pledge to abolish higher education fees, he charges the cynicism of Labour's ability to follow through on its promise with the Liberal Democrats'  betrayal of the public trust, when they failed to deliver on Nick Clegg's promise not to raise university fees, which "so poisoned the well of politics that people are now very cynical about anyone promising anything". 

The best piece of advice he has ever received, he says, was from Robin Cook, former Foreign Secretary. "Always make up your mind, never abstain." ‚Äč For Zeichner, this means, "basically, what are your principles? Because if you’ve [got] that, then you don’t agonise over decisions – you know what’s right. Do it. That’s what’s guided me." Zeichner speaks of reverence when it comes to Cook. "He’s one of my political heroes. I knew him, he was a good friend. I think if he had lived, Labour politics and British politics would have been different." 

At certain points, Zeichner leans forward on his elbows, and looks me in the eye. It has a great effect, especially when, upon my asking what has motivated him throughout his political career, he answers, "It’s social justice. Absolutely social justice." He then delves into a speech characteristic of any Labour Party politician, verging on a cliché. "I think that we live in a wonderful world, and wonderful time potentially, but then I see low-pay. I see zero-hour contracts. I see young people unable to afford housing. These are things that fire me up, and that’s why I’m in politics." His response nevertheless seems indubitably sincere. Maybe it is because his claims are backed up by a voting record which consistently supports equality and human rights, pacifism, and EU integration. Or maybe that he speaks at length, without fail, of just why he believes what he does, and how exactly he thinks he can enact the changes he wants to see, in detail. Whatever it is, it is difficult not to be convinced. 

Speaking of his time reading History at King's College in the University of Cambridge, Zeichner reminisces on his favourite memories at Kettle's Yard, an art gallery and house in Cambridge, which he visited often with his partner. To this day, he frequents the Kettle's Yard's chamber concerts one day, and the Cambridge United Football Club another. "[They're] two completely different worlds!", he tells me excitedly, and adds, "We are very lucky to live in one of the greatest cities in the world."

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