Go back

On the doorstep with a hopeful Huppert

Former Lib Dem science spokesman Julian Huppert wants to win his old Cambridge City seat from Labour. Lila Randall joined him for an evening of knocking on doors.

Halfway through Julian Huppert’s canvassing pitch on the doorstep of a Cambridge house, two excited siblings pounced on the former Liberal Democrat MP waving their piano-lesson books.

His carefully prepared speech relegated to the rubbish bin, Huppert had to improvise. “That’s very impressive—well done,” he exclaimed, then, turning to their mother, he added, “so good schools must be important to you.”

It was a neat display of quick thinking from the scientist-turned politician, and was duly rewarded. Before shutting the door, the children’s mother, who had initially been undecided on where to place her vote, told Huppert the Lib Dems would get another cross in the ballot box in the general election on 8 June.

At first glance it would seem that Huppert has a difficult task. In the past, the constituency has swung between Labour and the Lib Dems. In 2010 and 2005 it went to the Lib Dems; Labour held it in 2001 and 1997.

In 2015 Cambridge went to Labour when Daniel Zeichner came out top with 18,646 votes. But the Lib Dems weren’t far behind with Huppert securing 18,047.

Even the road where Huppert’s HQ is based seems evenly split between households supporting Labour and the Lib Dems. One house was a sea of orange with Vote Huppert signs in its downstairs windows and boards in the garden. Other streets on our walk had only red posters.

When I ask him to describe the sensation of losing his seat, Huppert does not hide his disappointment: “It was very frustrating and I’d have much rather stayed in,” he says. On the other hand, he adds that spending time outside Westminster has also been beneficial. “It was useful to gain some perspective.”

After leaving parliament Huppert returned to academia, but not to his former biosciences lab at the University of Cambridge. Instead, he switched fields and has been researching the relationship between evidence and public policy, though still at Cambridge. He also spent one day a week running an NHS commissioning group.

Huppert says that working inside the NHS has helped him understand the organisation better as it has given him the chance to “step away from the political rhetoric”. When I ask him what he means by ‘political rhetoric’, he explains that it is “a lot of high-level people having detailed arguments about the shape of the top of the iceberg while ignoring the rest”.

He has also used the time out to reassess his view of what constitutes a healthy economy and society. Huppert says he would like to see a transition from using GDP as a measure of economic success to using indicators of wellbeing.

As a long-time local councillor, Huppert is clearly a familiar face to many, and the canvassing is interrupted by hand-shakes and pats on the back regardless of whether people are going to support him. And as the evening wears on, it becomes clear that if he can repeat such performances, he has a good chance of winning back the seat from Labour.

During two and a half hours of knocking on doors, 23 homeowners didn’t answer. Around 13 people confirmed that the Lib Dems would get their vote. A further 10 said they would not; nine people were undecided and three refused to give an answer. For the Lib Dems, that was a positive result.

Several people said they had no interest in politics. One man in his early 50s told Huppert: “I’m not voting. I’ve always backed the Tories but no party has been ‘good to me’ and the Lib Dems seem unable to get anything done.” Huppert asked what issues were a priority, then proceeded to list his successes in the area in connection to them.

Another man of a similar age echoed his disappointment with all parties and labelled Theresa May’s move of calling the general election “sneaky”.

“I’m not voting this time because of Brexit,” he said.

With the evening’s canvassing drawing to a close, Huppert is clearly buoyed up for the remaining weeks and is confident that he will be back at Westminster.

Huppert says he wants to remind researchers and scientists that they can make a difference. Politicians evolve depending on the pressures put on them, so people must show what they care about,” he told Research Fortnight.

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight’s Election Special 2017