Some thoughts on what either might be like as MP for Cambridge.
The bookies have Julian Huppert of the Liberal Democrats slightly ahead of his rival Daniel Zeichner of Labour. We know what Dr Huppert will be like given the past five years. In the grand scheme of things, Dr Huppert has been an excellent constituency MP. The number of constituency cases is testament to that. He’s also been a hard-working MP on the high profile Home Affairs Select Committee and an almost single point of call for the various national science campaigns. If Dr Huppert doesn’t get re-elected, then those in Cambridge in the science communities who support Dr Huppert will only have themselves to blame for not matching the buzzing ground campaign fought in particular by Labour students. While there are a growing number of scientists engaging in public policy, more need to make the jump from policy to politics & stand for election. Otherwise too much falls onto the plate of too few MPs with an understanding on science.
What would Daniel Zeichner as an MP be like?
I can’t help but feel that people are underestimating Mr Zeichner. As a non-party type whose spoken to Mr Zeichner on a regular basis during this campaign, I don’t completely buy the idea that he will be the stereotypical ‘New Labour clone’ who only breathes in & out when Peter Mandelson tells him to. People have generally commented to me that Julian has come out stronger at the hustings as a public speaker.
Part of the problem Mr Zeichner has is that he has no record of public office in Cambridge – hence it’s harder for him to recite a list of achievements & successful campaigns other than ones inside the Labour Party. At the same time, with no immediate record in government to defend, he’s been able to go on the offensive in this campaign in the way he could not in 2010.
Daniel Zeichner as a minister?
Mr Zeichner is extremely knowledgeable on public policy, as well as being a negotiator for a trade union. With his degree from Kings College, Cambridge and along with his strong connections with Labour shadow ministers, should Mr Zeichner be elected I strongly suspect he would be offered a junior ministerial post should Ed Miliband become Prime Minister. Think of Mr Zeichner as a sort of Labour equivalent of David Willetts – the former Universities Minister in the Coalition for the Conservatives. Mr Willetts is softly spoken like Mr Zeichner, incredibly cerebral but is not the sort of person who comes across as someone who relishes the rough & tumble of party-political brick throwing. (That’s not to say they cannot do it – more that they’d rather be involved in the public policy problem solving side of politics than continually berating their political opponents).
Ed Miliband will need MPs with the disposition and talents that Daniel Zeichner possesses in his administration
You normally have about 100 ministers in a government in Whitehall. Not all of them will be the limelight-seeking media-friendly types. You need within your cohort of ministers the more reserved, cerebral types who are quietly effective behind the scenes. I get the sense from Mr Zeichner that he’s one of the latter. I can picture the scene where he’s able to use ministerial offices to bring people together and unpick some very complex problems. That’s how I think he would operate in that role.
“What would that mean for him as a constituency MP?”
This for me is what makes the choice interesting between Dr Huppert & Mr Zeichner. Should Mr Zeichner be elected for Cambridge, & should he be appointed a minister, he would need to be responsible for a transport/housing/infrastructure portfolio where what’s happening in Cambridge informs his ministerial work & vice-versa. In the latter case it would be as simple as saying to a non-co-operating local authority that he’ll put his ministerial hat on to deal with the infrastructure issues Cambridge faces.
Being a minister though means two things:
- The ministerial convention of not being able to speak on the floor of the Commons on constituency issues – and having to toe the government line on ****everything****
- Having to spend at least four days a week on ministerial work – which is massive.
Dr Huppert has been able to be an effective back bench MP because he’s dedicated himself full time to the role. Being a minister means you’ve got three days max on constituency issues. It also means you can’t go to all of the constituency-related events held in the evenings during the week. This means a significant burden will inevitably fall on sitting councillors in Cambridge. Are they ready to take up the excess workload?
Dr Huppert has also used social media incredibly effectively during his time as MP. Should Mr Zeichner become both an MP & a minister, he simply will not have the time to use social media in the way Dr Huppert has. He’ll be stuck in ministerial meetings, signing off decisions and running his policy area instead. That would inevitably mean he would be less accessible. How would Mr Zeichner and his team compensate for that? Should Mr Zeichner get elected but stay as a back bench MP, it would be interesting to see if his approach to social media evolves from a broadcast approach to one that’s more conversational in the way Dr Huppert has used it.
So…to summarise the similarities?
Both are talented men. Be in no doubt that whichever of the two gets elected (if the bookies are right that it’ll be one of these two), Cambridge will be very well served. Both are intelligent, cerebral, hard-working and are passionate about making our city a better place. They just happen to have different dispositions and slightly different policies and approaches on how to achieve it.
…and the differences?
With Dr Huppert you’ll get a politician who is content to speak out against his party when it goes against what he believes. You’ll get the social media savvy, well-connected and scientifically literate communicator and public speaker who will continue to raise the profile of the city in the media & beyond. Will Dr Huppert’s party be in a position to form a new coalition or will they find themselves in opposition? Either way, I think Dr Huppert will still be able to influence either way. Cambridge is too important an economy for Whitehall to ignore – & Whitehall knows it.
With Mr Zeichner you will get the lower profile but quietly effective influencer working behind the scenes to get what Cambridge needs. Should Mr Miliband become Prime Minister, Mr Zeichner (if elected) could have a significant influence on how a Labour administration deals with Cambridge & the challenges our city faces. While Mr Zeichner might be less likely to speak out against his party, he might argue that it was on his party’s platform that he is campaigning on, so why would he want to rebel against it?
That’s the choice between the two if you choose to frame the election in Cambridge as one between Dr Huppert & Mr Zeichner. I’m not going to tell you which one to pick. You’ve got to decide which assuming you think it’s a straight fight between the two. This post highlights the similarities and differences between the two and how this might impact on Cambridge over the course of the next Parliament. Which one works for you? Because what works for me might not work for you.
Personally I think the framing goes beyond it given the 12,000 votes that UKIP & The Greens got in Cambridge last year in the European elections. The interface between the top two parties and these two newer arrivals is a huge factor in this election. Will the smaller parties be able to hold onto their gains? Will tomorrow set a new local baseline for the health of the smaller parties in Cambridge? Finally, given the leftfield interventions of two Tory-supporting national tabloids calling for Conservative voters to tactically switch to Lib Dems in Cambridge to keep out Labour, how much of the 2010 Conservative vote will hold up? How much will switch to Lib Dems or to UKIP? My guess is that the number and proportion of the vote share for the Conservatives will fall, but not enough to put deposits at risk.