Louis Ashworth

When Daniel Zeichner defeated the incumbent Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge in 2015, it was the result that had been 20 years in the making. Having worked as a councillor, represented the Labour National Policy Forum, and stood - unsuccessfully - in four previous elections, he had finally won a seat in Parliament.

The man who lost that day, Julian Huppert, has since left politics and runs the Jesus College Intellectual Forum. As we sit down to begin our discussion in the Jesus bar, Zeichner recognises him from across the room. Fortunately this was not dramatic - the two are friends, unsurprisingly, and are happy to see each other. Zeichner tries to make his way back to our table before being stopped again, this time by people he had met on the campaign trail, and dives straight back into conversation with them. By the time our discussion begins, it seems as though half the room wants to talk to him.

Zeichner’s father was an Austrian immigrant, his mother from a family of agricultural workers. He studied at a grammar school before being offered a place to read History at King’s College, Cambridge. Three years later, the year Margaret Thatcher came to power, he joined the Labour party.

He sees Cambridge now as a very different place compared to when he arrived. “I came here in 1976, much more sort of middle, lower-middle class background from South London, and I loved the teaching but I found Cambridge quite intimidating socially.” Having been taught politics by King’s Emeritus Professor John Dunn, he was astonished last week when Dunn, still at King’s, asked his thoughts on the political situation. “You can’t be asking me! I was the person who struggled through your very complicated books for three years” he laughs.

He left Cambridge and entered the job market with a million unemployed: “We take this as normal now, but it was just eye-watering at the time”, he says. After one fateful trip to to the careers service he found himself working in IT. “I said I wanted to make a bit of money and what did they suggest, they said scaffolding, erecting, or computer programming.” The Thatcher election so dismayed him and his friends, he says, “that we just wanted to find a way of opting out.” It remains unclear whether the careers service or Margaret Thatcher was more responsible for turning a history student to computer programming.

Now in 2019, he has done four and a half years in opposition, served as Shadow Minister for Transport for two years, and enjoyed his time in Westminster. He seems like someone who may have a future on the front benches. However he is quick to stress the joys of working as a constituency MP for Cambridge. “I think I do far more in the constituency, probably than most other MPs, because there is a lot more to do.” He is referring to the dual nature of Cambridge, with both the privilege of the University alongside the town around it, which suffers from many of the same problems that can be seen across the nation.

“Whatever anyone feels about how higher education should be funded, the tripling of fees in 2010 was so much the wrong way to go”

When I start to ask a question about some of the particularly pertinent issues in Cambridge, he finishes my sentence for me. “Obviously the climate issue is really really strong. That’s been coming up, after Brexit, most on the doorstep. People really like the idea of a Green New Deal,” which he sees as a flagship policy of Labour that will benefit the party across the country. He supports the climate protests by local Cambridge schoolchildren, too. “I actually took a delegation to see Michael Gove, which was an interesting experience for all concerned. I think Michael was a bit shocked by how clued up those children really were.”

Recently, he has been working hard against the East-West superhighway, the proposed plan for “basically a big road” between Oxford and Cambridge. “It wouldn’t be good, it would be environmentally damaging. The train [his proposed alternative] would be good, and we are strongly supporting that,” he argues. Zeichner has been pressing his Labour colleagues towards that position, with what sounds like some success. Otherwise, his support of divestment has also been committed. “You cannot now, in the modern context, be doing anything with the big oil companies.”

He considers this election to be vital to the climate change issue. Given the realignment of Britain’s global positioning post-Brexit, a party which would prioritise these issues is essential, given the long term effects that any decisions will have in the few years after (if) we leave Europe. “Johnson’s position, divergence rather than convergence, I’m afraid is shorthand for lowering environmental standards, consumer standards, and workers’ rights,” Zeichner adds.

It takes no prompting, either, for him to talk about tuition fees and cuts to school funding. He tells me about a member of his team whose debts are rising each year because of high interest rates. “So whatever anyone feels about how higher education should be funded, the tripling of fees in 2010 was so much the wrong way to go.”

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s policy is the total abolition of tuition fees. I point out that this pledge alone accounted for an enormous proportion of Labour’s proposed spending in the last election. “It’s a big expensive pledge, but when you look at the cuts in business tax since 2010 which have really benefited a lot of businesses, who haven’t invested it back in the economy - they’ve done share buybacks, money sitting unused in bank accounts - it has got to be better, we can’t be leaving young people with these huge debts.” It is expensive, he says, but it is a price worth paying, and there is money that can be found.

And it’s not just about tuition fees. Local Sixth Form colleges have been stuck, underfunded, with no increases for years. Pushing this point on social media has been a part of Labour and Lib Dem campaigning in recent days. I ask whether any particular examples of this jump out at him. “One of the headteachers told me about his son, in a school actually not in the city but outside, where the kids were going on a fundraising march to try to pay the teachers’ salaries.”

He suggests that the richer members of society would be happy to pay the increased tax levels Labour propose. This is because of the public good nature of many of the problems Labour plan to address. “You can’t pay for clean air even if you’re very wealthy, and people find walking through Cambridge seeing people in the cold, on the streets, distressing, really personally distressing. There’s something very sapping about it. We want to be able to be proud of our city. And we want all our citizens to be properly looked after.”

It is, of course, impossible to avoid talking about Brexit. Zeichner is rare on this issue. Though he is a passionate Remainer, he shows a great interest in reconciliation between both sides. “Three quarters of Cambridge voted remain, so a quarter did not. And spending time going to those areas which I suspected might be leave voting, the levels of unhappiness… people feel they’re being ignored.” This is a familiar issue, though from Zeichner it is clear that he takes his role as representative of all, not just remain, seriously. Another vote on Brexit must be the way out of this. Given the promises made before, and the strength of feeling since, a vote is necessary. “It is key that the tone is right. There must be no triumphalism.”

I wondered whether he regrets that his party has spent so long equivocating over Brexit, and whether this might damage him in a Remain stronghold. “One of the things I’ve learnt about Jeremy is, he’s quite stubborn, he’s quite difficult to move, but once he’s moved there’s no way he goes back on that… compared to Johnson who will say anything, do anything, can’t trust a word he says, with Jeremy, he’s an immovable object really - but we got him to move on the People’s Vote.”


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He suggests, rather, that the time Labour spent equivocating, and their decision not to commit to leave or remain, reflects the truth of the nation’s mood. “For Labour it’s always been a much more difficult issue than for the Liberal Democrats, who’ve basically just written off half the country.” He criticizes the Lib Dems when, having “got Boris cornered a few weeks ago when he realized we had the numbers for a second referendum,” Jo Swinson and the SNP voted for an early election. “She ratted on remain! She let Johnson off the hook.”

Since 2016, Zeichner has been closer to the remain position than the party he represents. He resigned from the shadow cabinet in favour of an amendment calling for Britain to remain in the customs union and single market. He has moved from the position of straight revocation of Article 50, to his current “more measured” position supporting another referendum. He does, however, admit to an error of his. He regrets voting for the referendum in the first place.

We have now been speaking for nearly an hour. As we stand to leave, he ends by adding, “In some way we are going to have to bring the country back together again and it’s gonna take some big figures. And I’m not sure who they are yet... I’d love it to be Jeremy.”