"The issue for me is how to fix the global problems that we have," Julian Huppert on values and vision

Image credit: Policy Exchange

In the run-up to June’s General Election, I sit down with local Liberal Democrat candidate Julian Huppert to discuss his views on the current political situation – from wider issues like Brexit to more Cambridge-orientated ones like homelessness. The former MP of Cambridge from 2010 to 2015, Huppert will be running to reclaim his seat from the incumbent MP Daniel Zeichner, who replaced him in the last election.

While Huppert’s manner is friendly and at ease, his drive and focus – whether it be in answering questions in the interview or in his political career as a whole – is immediately clear. It is evident that Huppert’s interest in politics is a life-long affair. “I grew up under Margaret Thatcher,” he says, “and I knew I was on the other side of politics from her.” He became involved with the programme Model United Nations in his youth, setting up a society for it in Cambridge whilst an undergraduate here, before becoming a Councillor and then an MP later in his career.

“The issue for me is how to fix the global problems that we have,” Huppert emphasises. He lists extreme poverty and refugee issues as some of these problems he hopes to counter, and adds that it was partly his original interest in international issues, and human rights in particular, that inspired his involvement with politics.

It is this interest, he feels, that makes him so relevant in a city like Cambridge. Depicting Cambridge as being “much more than just a university city”, he says, “I’m one of the rare people who are both town and gown – I grew up here and went to school here, so I’ve seen all the different sides. My key values are as a liberal, environmentalist, internationalist, and somebody committed to social justice, and I think these four values are crucial also to most of the people in Cambridge, university or not.”

Despite this, however, he acknowledges that the political enthusiasm he has recently encountered in the city is mixed: “The disaster of Brexit has made some people realise that voting matters, that you can change things. There are certainly a number of people who are engaged, and that is wonderful. On the other hand, there are other people who are feeling a mixture of election fatigue and of other things, and we are seeing a number of people becoming increasingly disengaged.”

Huppert has long been vocal about his opposition to tuition fee increases, an issue that must be acutely relevant in a Cambridge so populated by students. Calling this resistance “the obvious thing” to do, he adds, “I would still love to get rid of tuition fees if I could find a real way to get the money to do so, but I would say the biggest problem for a number of students is finding support while they are still students. For many people, it is the cost of rent, food, and travel right now. The cuts the Tories have done to grants have been hideous.”

The Liberal Democrat candidate is particular emphatic when it comes to criticising the Labour Party’s reaction to Brexit, citing this as one of the issues that distinguish his own party from theirs. “It was atrocious to watch Jeremy Corbyn take his troops through the lobby to back the Tories and UKIP on Article 50, to see him tell Labour peers they were not allowed to back proposals to ensure EU citizens could stay here, that we would remain in the single market. Time and time again we have seen Labour fail us, which is really sad. In a time when we needed opposition, Labour didn’t bother.”

He continues to oppose Brexit, stating that he will not “give up until the day we have actually left”. In the case that the separation nevertheless occurs, he will seek to protect what is valuable about the EU, including the single market and free movement: “Cambridge is an international city, and our businesses rely on people coming from overseas, our universities on people who are coming from overseas.”

Huppert hopes, too, that his own record in Cambridge – what he has already accomplished so far – will resonate with the city’s voters in June’s election. He was part of the team that delivered same-sex marriage, and has sought greater funds for the local NHS, schools, transport, and the construction of council houses. On a more academic note, he points out that he has “worked to ensure more money in the science and research budget”, and has “worked hard and managed to get support for graduate students”, increasing accessibility for those previously priced out.

Homelessness in Cambridge is another issue close to his heart, unsurprising given his earlier emphasis on human rights. “I think, in many ways, the test of society is the way one treats people who have suffered the most,” he muses. “I’ve done things including foot clinics at Wintercomfort, fund raising as the MP, and personally going around to redecorate and try to make things better for people. A lot of it is about treating people as people and helping them, but it is also about fixing the root causes – that is about getting more housing built, mental health support, getting rid of the unstable jobs many people have.”

Before concluding the interview, I ask him about his larger political philosophy, about what has driven him in his career so far. Clasping his hands thoughtfully, he says, “I believe in empowering people, and there’s a nice phrase from the Liberal Democrat constitution: ‘The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.’

“You can be enslaved by ignorance, you can be enslaved by conformity,” he repeats earnestly. “I find that very powerful.”

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