by Edd Mustill
This interview with Cambridge MP Julian Huppert was conducted before last week’s education protest in central London.
Cambridge MP Julian Huppert is one of those MPs that advocates of first-past-the-post dream about. Brought up and educated in the area he represents, he seems to embody the MPs’ attachment to their constituency which is regarded as so important.
Like his Liberal Democrat predecessor, he is a fellow of Clare College. As an academic, he is perhaps more concerned about higher education that some of his colleagues.
“I was one of the student campaigners, I led some of the marches in ’97 and ’98 when Labour were first planning to introduce fees. I think it’s a mistake, I think it’s the wrong way to get people to pay at all,” he says. “Having said which, currently it’s going to be very hard, with the economic climate there isn’t the money to put into it right now.”
However, he is quick to defend his senior party colleagues who have faced so much anger from students in recent weeks. Given that a majority of MPs want higher fees, he says:
“I think Vince [Cable] was placed in an impossible position. Actually he’s done a fantastic job in terms of bringing down the fees from what they would have been otherwise.” He adds: “Do you say I don’t think there should be fees so I’m just not going to play any part in this. Or do you say, look, the two main parties want to do this, we’re not going to win this one, so what I’m going to try to do is to make it as good as possible.”
These are words that perhaps won’t hearten any prospective students who want to see fees defeated in Parliament. Huppert explains that the vote on the fee rise will be taken separately to the rest of the Bill, and he will support the Bill as a whole if he loses on the fees vote:
“I will be quite happy to vote for the Act that introduces the rest of it because if we don’t and we’ve lost the thing on fees, then it would be perverse to say I’m not going to vote for supporting part-timers and all the rest of it.”
It seems even those who will rebel on tuition fees regard the bulk of the government’s proposals as largely “progressive.” Of the NUS pledge, which Huppert re-signed after the Browne Review published its findings, he says:
“There were two halves to the pledge. The first half was to pledge to vote against an increase in fees and the other to try to get a more progressive system, and we are doing the second half. Everybody within the LibDems is going to do the second half.”
Wasn’t the coalition agreement, that only allowed LibDems to abstain on this issue rather than vote against, already an abandonment of the first half of the pledge?
“I don’t think it was. We didn’t know what the government response [to Browne] would be, and I agree with what is in the coalition agreement which is that you come up with something that ensures universities get fair funding.” He adds, “There are so many better solutions to the problem. A graduate tax. There are ways of raising a graduate tax which would be much better than those being proposed.”
But he insists that he still believes in education free at the point of use: “Ultimately I think the correct solution is for it to be funded from central taxation.”
Huppert accepts the government’s argument that the deficit needs to be closed quickly, although he says it is being dealt with by changes to the tax system as well as cuts.
“If we do it too slowly there’s a whole psychology about that, and what happens is what’s started to happen in places like Greece. The markets don’t trust each other, interest rates shoot up, the cost of borrowing shoots up as well,” he says.
His argument for public spending cuts is one that public sector workers have heard a thousand times before.
“We know that there is huge inefficiency, frankly, in a lot of things the government does,” he says.
“I think spending money by government is a bad thing; the good thing is what you get for it.”
Some in the public sector, such as police chiefs and fire authorities, have warned that they cannot avoid job cuts given the figures they have to work with. Is he worried that this will result in frontline redundancies, given the figure of 490,000 job losses that the government itself has raised?
“That figure is over four years, and a lot of that will be people retiring, leaving and so forth.” He adds: “In the last 6 months there were 300,000 new private sector jobs created. I don’t particularly mind whether people are working in the private sector or the public sector.”
He is quick to deny that supporting the creation of equivalent jobs with similar skill sets in the private sector implies the privatisation of services:
“No, not necessarily in the slightest. We’re not talking about privatising a service. It’s just that there are other jobs people can do which do not consist of having more bureaucrats.”
In defending the cuts, Huppert touches on an interesting point about higher education funding that is largely ignored. Because fees are not paid up-front, the government has to provide the universities with the money that covers them.
“Universities get the money for students from two sources; HEFCE teaching, and the fees income comes from the government,” he explains. “There is a large amount of money that will go from the government to the universities, from fees, but none of that money comes back in, in the whole time we are talking about.”
This means that charging higher tuition fees may not even save the government any money, especially as their expectations of how much of the debt will be paid back are based on unrealistic assumptions about how much graduates will earn.
Huppert thinks the best way of saving money in higher education is to have less people go to university in the first place. His criticism of the target of getting 50% of school leavers to university is one which has become common on the centre-left and the right alike. He wants to see more vocational courses.
“The fact that we are not good at training people to actually do things, has hit us very badly,” he says.
Although Cambridge is much more than the university, it would be safe to say that Cambridge MPs rely less on party machinery to get elected, than on the amorphous mass of liberal-inclined students in the town. These are circumstances that perhaps allow the town’s MP a greater degree of independence than many others.
The day before our interview, Huppert had made the news for celebrating the loss of the last Tory seat on Cambridge City Council on twitter. Labour had won, and the LibDems only came third. “Cambridge is officially Tory-free. Very satisfying!” he tweeted.
Such an episode might betray some of his feelings about his coalition partners, but Huppert doesn’t have a kind word to say about the Labour Party, describing their position on fees in particular as opportunistic. They have no alternatives, he says, to what the government is doing:
“I think their line that ‘We’d cut stuff, we’re not going to say what,’ is really pathetic. It’s really tragic when you have a political party like that, which is now betting everything on the economy collapsing.”
However, he was keen, after the election, for the LibDems to at least explore a coalition with Labour, but not for the usual reason.
“I do not count the Labour Party as a progressive party,” he says. “On some things the Conservatives are being more progressive than Labour have been, which is astonishing. The fact that Labour weren’t prepared to introduce a bank levy and the Conservatives are is astonishing.”
“Labour’s starting point was essentially that we had to support their manifesto. I remember when we had the report back from the first negotiation sessions. We had to support a third runway at Heathrow, we had to support ID cards, we had to support fees at £7,000 per year.”
He does admit to being slightly worried about his party’s poll ratings since they went into government with the Tories, but says: “They’re always very low at this time of the year. It’s a per cent or two lower than typical, but that’s what happens.”
Huppert acknowledged that the fate of the coalition, and of the Liberal Democrats themselves, is tied to the economy. But he is adamant that the party is healthy: “Membership has gone up. We have lots of new members coming and joining.”
Nevertheless, regardless of how he votes, it’s difficult to imagine how these new members will replace the party’s student electoral base which seems to have been so comprehensively trashed.