Louis Ashworth

This year, perhaps sooner than expected, the Lib Dems appear once again to be on the rise. New leadership, the Brexit stalemate, and an ever more vacant centre ground have all helped pave the way for their return. In Cambridge, Labour currently holds a 12,000 vote majority, though this time the result is expected to be closer.

As well as new national leadership, the party has a new candidate for Cambridge - Rod Cantrill. Cantrill works as a councillor in Newnham and is a trustee for a homeless charity, Wintercomfort. I met him in Fitzbillies by Mill Lane, where our conversation began on the topic of his political history.

Cantrill comes from a Labour heritage. He grew up in a mining village in Nottinghamshire: his father was a union official, a miner, a Labour party member and a councillor. Cantrill came to Cambridge as a student in 1985, where his double-edged college election campaign for condom machines in the toilets and representation in the governing body won him the JCR Presidency in 1987. Upon leaving Cambridge he went into finance, starting his own financial advisory business in 2002 and becoming a Cambridge councillor soon after.

The 2016 referendum was a key moment for him. “That changed my view of the world. I stepped out of party politics and was one of the lead people in ‘Cambridge for Europe’,” he says, attributing the result of Market ward in central Cambridge showing the highest remain vote (87%) in the country in part to his campaign. In May this year, Cantrill ran a European election campaign for the Libdems, which won in Cambridge on the platform of ‘Revoke.’ He feels his party is gaining momentum.

I ask Cantrill about the differences between Labour and the Lib Dem positions on Brexit. He argues his party have shown more consistency, certainty and clarity in their support for Remain since 2016. If voters want to support a Remain party, he suggests there is only one option. “Labour’s manifesto promise in 2017 was to accept the result of the referendum – our position at that point was that we wanted a second referendum. We’ve been in that position through thick and thin, when it was unfavourable.” He suggests that Labour have only taken the position because of electoral positioning, rather than true conviction. “Six million people signed a petition this year to revoke Article 50,” reflecting what he sees as a general trend towards Remain among the public. They are following, not leading, he argues: “I don’t think their leadership is actually a Remain leadership. Look at how they campaigned in the European elections. There was no campaigning.”

The Lib Dems were the first party to call for a second referendum – however, they currently pledge to revoke Article 50 and cancel Brexit. Given politicians’ promises before the referendum that its result would be implemented, is it too extreme to revoke without a second referendum? “We will revoke, if we win a majority government, because we live in a representative democracy. You put your proposition to the public in your manifesto and if they elect you as a majority government, you affect that.” He suggests that the UK’s representative structure does not accommodate referendums, unlike in countries such as Switzerland where referendums are institutionalised along with mechanisms for ‘undoing’ them afterwards if need be, they don’t make sense in our system. He also makes the separate argument that though 52% voted Brexit, only a third of the population in total voted for it due to the turnout. However, if the Lib Dems are not the next government? “We still want a second referendum. We put seventeen amendments in Parliament to get a second referendum.”

He questions how strongly the vote to Leave was really linked to the question of Europe, referring to his hometown of Ashfield in Nottinghamshire. “They voted 70% to Leave. Ashfield comes 604th of the constituencies in terms of sending people to university. So why did these people vote Leave? They voted Leave because they felt left behind, because of that lost opportunity, because of the level of unemployment, because of the lack of social mobility – did they vote Leave really because of Europe?” The last Europeans to turn up in Ashfield were the Polish miners in 1947 – he argues that Europe is not the cause of problems in Ashfield, and Brexit is not the solution.

I’m comfortable with our position, which is some form of graduate tax, with extended maintenance grants

However, he recognises the strength of feeling over Brexit and how revocation might make some people feel. “There needs to be a process of reconciliation that takes place, similar to the South African process and what went on in Northern Ireland. We are now at that point where the politics have become so stark between the two sides that we must find a way to live together.”

Moving away from Brexit, we talk about Cantrill’s other priorities for the election which – other than Brexit – are the climate crisis, and tackling inequality. His campaigns against inequality have focused on school funding, housing for all, and helping people who are homeless, particularly during the cold seasons. He is particularly passionate about addressing the amount of homelessness in Cambridge. His work with Wintercomfort gives him expertise here. “There are 80 to 90 rough sleepers in Cambridge. The council say there are 27.” He volunteers on the CCHP homeless project for three months over Winter, and proposes that Cambridge follow Manchester and Birmingham in their schemes which offer a bed every night to every rough sleeper. “This shouldn’t be falling so heavily on charities. Isn’t it a human right?”

He also advocates a higher living wage for Cambridge, of £10.25 per hour. In 2012, it was Cantrill who introduced the real living wage to the city council. “A lot of the colleges don’t even pay the real living wage, let alone the Cambridge living wage. Since the time I introduced it in Cambridge, the cost of living has gone up, mainly on rent”, he adds.

A large part of his campaign focuses on climate change. He opens with the line, which is strong, though certainly prepared: “Brexit will be life changing; climate change will be life threatening.” Addressing climate change is in his top two priorities for the election. He refers to the proposed Lib Dem tax on frequent flyers, proposed because of the evidence that most flights are taken by a very small number of people. The other Lib Dem policies include a total ban on single use plastic, plant 60 million trees each year, and to generate 80% of electricity from renewables by 2030. Last year, he proposed a motion to the city council calling for a 2030 carbon neutral target and to declare a climate emergency. His personal proposals are more radical than the Lib Dem party policies.

On school funding and tuition fees, Cantrill is also passionate. “All my life opportunities are based on education. I went to a comprehensive, then a state sixth form college.” He had major issues with the Lib Dem decision to renege on their tuition fee promise, coming from a personal experience. “If I had been in the same position, and had to pay to go to university, I wouldn’t have gone,” he tells me.

However, he is unconvinced by the Labour policy to fully abolish tuition fees, which he says would cost £90 billion. “I’m comfortable with our position, which is some form of graduate tax, with extended maintenance grants.” This will be released properly in the upcoming manifesto, and so we were unable to talk about details. He is keen to stress that it will be linked to earnings, and will amount to less than the current cost of university for students.


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If elected, he would push for better school funding in Cambridge. “Cambridgeshire comes out as one of the worst counties from the school funding formula. Newnham Croft school has had a cut of £115 per pupil per year since the coalition.” Teacher funding and staff funding has been hit hard across the county, and he would push for a revision to the funding formula. Wider reforms to the higher education sector would be welcomed, too. He argues that the Tory conversion of polytechnics to universities in the 1990s has created a skills shortage outside of university education - electricians, plumbers, carpenters. He believes everyone “should have the ambition to go to university,” but there should be far stronger provision in late school years and afterwards for teaching vocational skills.

Our conversation ends on the topic of ‘doing politics differently.’ He believes Jo Swinson is the leader for this. “You’ve heard the Labour slogan, ‘a kinder, fairer politics?’ That’s what we’re gonna be doing. Jo is a fantastic leader, she’s about the politics of the future, a woman of the 21st century, married with young kids. She understands what it’s like to juggle life. She’s prepared to reach out positively to create that broad liberal movement. We have former Labour MPs, former Conservative MPs, former independents, who have all come to the Liberal Democrats. The traditional parties are polarising … the country is crying out for somebody to be that voice in that central position - we are that voice.”

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