Listening and learning from Mrs Campbell’s time as our MP. But before that, my own experiences of Cambridge in the 1990s as context.
Let me take you back to a time when the main Cambridge was a very different place politically and socially.
Chesterton was a Conservative stronghold, Labour ran the council but with a wafer-thin majority, and the Liberal Democrats as a political party had only just been invented. The Member of Parliament was the Conservative Historian Robert Rhodes James. And I was at primary school, making the transition to go to Secondary School. It was this Cambridge that former Cambridgeshire County Councillor for Petersfield division (in the news today) Anne Campbell secured the nomination for Labour at the 1992 General Election.
According to school and church, sex was something not spoken about in polite society, and was something only parents did if they wanted to have a baby. Sex outside marriage didn’t exist – and neither did anything outside the strict teachings of the church because of Section 28. Hobbies were things that you had to take exams and medals tests in, or perform in front of parents and their friends. And this chap was responsible for the system of social security.
The whole of my childhood up until a few months before my 18th birthday were spent with The Conservatives in Government.
And as I became more politically aware, the more I began to hate the Tories. Because at school our buildings were so bad that even the Tories had to find money to replace all of the buildings lest any of the students got killed by crumbling pieces of glass and masonry.
Hedonism being one of the few escapes
That summer of 1995 was the one where I started drinking with friends – just before we went into year 11. Think teenage drinking and drug taking is a new phenomenon? It isn’t. This generation, my generation, the ones of the 60s & 70s (See Warren Dosanjh’s book about Cambridge music in the 1960s) through to Cambridge during WW2. Even Eglantyne Jebb in the run up to WWI talks of a Cambridge with so many pubs down its main roads that it’s a wonder that we got anything done or made given how drunk we all must have been!
The irony for me is that Labour councillors in the 1990s were put under huge pressure from the college masters to do something about underage drinking – especially with pubs serving teenagers, that it drove many teenagers into the hands of drug dealers. It got to the stage where it was easier for teenagers in the 1990s to get hold of controlled narcotics than it was alcohol (because dealers don’t ask you for ID).
Caught between two worlds.
I was caught between two very different worlds – ones which contributed to my mental health problems of today and the fallout of which are some things local councillors have to deal with today whenever I rock up to a council meeting to ask questions. There’s decades of baggage behind some of the questions – baggage that could have been dealt with had successive governments provided proper mental healthcare for teenagers and young adults at the time, amongst other things.
The two worlds were the sort of fantasy that some Remain campaigners accuse some Brexit campaigners of wanting to take Britain back to – where the church was much more prominent in public life, along with its strict morals, where Britain had an empire and where fiction books in schools were full of dashing young White boys on colonial adventures while girls knew their place. The other was a world backlashing against authority, one full of cigarettes, alcohol, dope and music. Oh – and all the portrayals of the figures of Christianity were of White Jesus and White disciples. Like in this spoof.
“I was born in the Middle East 2000 years ago – it’s pretty clear about that. It should be pretty obvious I don’t have blond hair and blue eyes.”
Yes – the Cambridge I grew up in was very White Middle Class, socially conservative, and politically fragmented, as reflected in the election results in those two decades. Which was a strange place to be as one of about a dozen or so children from mixed-heritage backgrounds in a year group of 250 children at secondary school.
And finally: No internet.
“Why is all of the above important?”
Other than my blog, my rules, the city that Anne Campbell became politically active in during the early 1980s was a very different place to the city of today.
Cambridge under the crushing thumb of Margaret Thatcher’s Government.
One of her most vociferous critics from within her own party according to Mrs Campbell was her predecessor, the historian Robert Rhodes James – who apparently couldn’t bear to be in the same room as the former Prime Minister on some occasions.
A big economic problem Cambridge faced in the 1980s was unemployment – and alongside that, low pay. The colleges were notorious for low salaries for working class Cambridge residents – and this was in the days before the national minimum wage. It was this lack of a national minimum wage that meant my first wage was £2.65 an hour at the local Budgen’s Supermarket – since closed, on Cherry Hinton Road. I am just old enough to remember what it was like working under what was an incredibly unpopular government – one that ultimately delivered the worst general election result for the Conservatives since the Great Reform Bill of the 1830s.
Tuition fees part 1
Not long after Labour turfed the Tories out of power, Tony Blair brought in up-front tuition fees. My year group was pencilled in as the first year to pay them – along with the scrapping of maintenance grants.
“Tony Blair himself admitted to being taken aback by the hostility over the introduction of tuition fees and the scrapping of maintenance grants, one of the first major decisions of his new administration in 1997.”
This meant that my older brother – who had just started university – received a grant and didn’t have to pay fees, while me, a couple of years younger than him, got no grant and had to pay fees. I still haven’t forgiven Tony Blair for this. The question I put to Mrs Campbell was about the impact this had on young people and the Labour Party. Because my experience when I went down to Brighton in the late 1990s to go to university myself was that it made brand Labour absolutely toxic. The long term impact of this was that it turned the newly designated city of Brighton and Hove Green – politically. The then Cllr Keith Taylor made a breakthrough with the largest Green vote in the 2001 general election with over 4,000 votes, which doubled to 8,000 in 2005, before Caroline Lucas finally took the seat in 2010.
Yet according to Mrs Campbell, there was strong working class support for fees because as far as workers could see, students were simply drinking away taxpayers’ money on their grant. A follow-up point from local historian Allan Brigham, a council roadsweeper for many years, showed that there was a massive class divide even back then between students and working class communities. (I wonder to what extent this was driven by TV sitcoms as well as a failure by universities to bring together students and local residents for joint events and activities).
In the 2004 when Labour brought in higher but deferred fees, it was (along with the Iraq war) that cost Anne Campbell her seat when she abstained rather than voted against the legislation – a bill that needed the support of Labour MPs in Scotland to bring in fees that only affected students from England. The Tories at the time opposed the rise in fees, only to do a tyre-screeching U-turn a few years later in the Coalition of 2010-15, the effects of which still plague the Liberal Democrats. (My blogpost from ages ago on University fees covers the history of the policy that none of the political parties that should shame all political parties). Mrs Campbell said that they knew a long time in advance that Labour was going to lose Cambridge from information in the canvass returns.
The Iraq War – and Mrs Campbell’s resignation from the Labour Government
Mrs Campbell was asked a couple of questions about this and international intervention. In the initial run up to the war in autumn 2002, local peace campaigners presented a petition to her with over 2,000 signatures on it. She also received a similar amount of correspondence arguing against going to war.
“What persuaded her to resign as an aide to Patricia Hewitt in Government?”
Mrs Campbell explained that compared to other MPs, she was effectively a loyalist – very very rarely rebelling against the Labour whip. Voting against a Labour Government on anything was a very big deal for her. She said that it ultimately came down to the United Nations and the second UN resolution. If the United Nations explicitly authorised military action to get rid of the Weapons of Mass Destruction, she would vote with the Government. No resolution, she would not, and would resign. Which is ultimately what happened. (I’ll try and dig out the front page of the Cambridge News of this). One person she spoke very highly of when discussing whether to resign or not was the late Robin Cook – one of the first Labour politicians I remember from childhood because he was always on TV.
I remember at the time being furious with Patricia Hewitt for criticising Mrs Campbell over her considerations and ultimately her decision to resign, describing it as “self-indulgent.” But note the language Ms Hewitt used as a minister is identical to that of the current Prime Minister Theresa May on ‘working flat out’ to achieve an otherwise unachievable policy objective that everyone knows is unachievable. And thus dismissing hypotheticals that they don’t want to get drawn into – no matter how likely said hypothetical is. Today, Ms Hewitt has a role at the University of Oxford, and is on Liam Fox’s new Board of Trade – which feels very far removed from the Labour Party of today led by Jeremy Corbyn.
Back to 1992 – a front row seat on some huge political moments
Robin Cook made this speech on the Arms to Iraq Inquiry debate following the report published by Sir Richard Scott.
“Ministers changed the guidelines on defence sales, and did not tell Parliament or the court.”
The big accusation – which should have led to the fall of the government of the day, was that ministers were prepared to allow innocent men to go to jail to save their faces. This not long after Mrs Campbell’s maiden speech in the Commons. Note how few women MPs and MPs from minority ethnic backgrounds there are in that 1992 House of Commons.
Campaigning against inequality – comparing the early 1990s with today
Mrs Campbell said that unemployment and low pay were two of Cambridge’s big problems, and that Cambridge University and its colleges were one of the major forces dragging down average pay across the city. It was only with the growth of supermarkets – Tesco in Milton and Fulbourn in particular opening in that period – that put upward pressure on pay with Cambridge University because they were paying more than the colleges were. I remember a number of people from my local supermarket moving to Tesco in Fulbourn because it paid over £1 an hour more – which was the equivalent of a 50% pay rise for some of them just for switching employer. Could you blame them?
You saw the demonisation of single parents by the former Secretary of State for Social Security. One of the things Mrs Campbell she campaigned on was to make work financially worthwhile for parents – especially single parents. She gave the example of a former county council employee who had to give up her job in the early 1990s after a relationship breakdown which meant that she was spending more on childcare than she could afford staying in her job. It was more affordable for her to be on benefits even though she wanted to stay in her job. The policy that Labour brought in on Working Family Tax Credits would ultimately result in nearly 100,000 fewer workless families with children, and no doubt had a positive impact on reducing poverty across more low paid families too.
Yet we still see homeless people on the street today as we did in the 1990s. So what has gone wrong? The big problem is not unemployment, but high costs of living and a lack of affordable housing – as one homeless person in Cherry Hinton was recently quoted in the Cambridge News. In retail, catering and other low paid but essential jobs needed to keep cities functioning, Cambridge has shortages. Yet employers say they cannot afford to pay more because of things like high rents and business rates. Given Cambridge’s ‘clone town’ reputation, franchise fees may also be an additional cost.