Nick Hillman is a former Special Adviser to David Willetts and is now the Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute. In 2010 he was the Conservative Candidate for the constituency of Cambridge, where he pushed Labour into third and increased the Conservative vote share by eight percentage points.
Last Friday, Cambridge City Conservative Association met to choose their candidate for the 2015 general election. In a tough competition, the victor was Chamali Fernando, a former Lib Dem.
At the 2010 general election, all seven candidates in Cambridge, including me, were pale and male (though not, I think, stale). Given that Labour and the Lib Dems have re-selected the same candidates as last time, Chamali is bound to stand out as an alternative. The local electorate will give her a fair hearing, just as they did to me.
The Conservative Party did well in Cambridge in 2010, enjoying the first increase in vote share since a 1976 by-election, overtaking Labour for second place and securing a big swing from the Lib Dems. But it was not enough to scale the mountain: Chamali will need to make similar progress in a very different context if she is to win.
On paper, it looks like a big ask: it is a Lib Dem seat with a newly Labour-run city council. Nonetheless, anyone keen to assess the parties’ chances in the general election there should pay less attention to national trends and more to the local scene because Cambridge does politics its own way. It went Labour before much of the rest of the country in 1992, turned to the Lib Dems in 2005 and was one of the very few constituencies to support the Alternative Vote in 2011.
Chamali will rightly want to fight the seat her own way, but it seems an apposite moment to recall the three key lessons I learnt while standing in the city in 2010. I hope she and anyone thinking of standing for other parties in Cambridge might just find them of interest.
First, fight from the centre. The three biggest issues on the doorstep in Cambridge in 2010 were the environment, civil liberties (particularly opposition to ID cards) and electoral reform. That list explains why the seat has been so fertile for the Lib Dems and the current MP. The top three issues are likely to be different in 2015, but I bet they still don’t include fox hunting, Europe or immigration.
The demographics of the city are vital to understanding the seat: the population is younger, more educated and more transient than in other cities of a comparable size. I cant help thinking Boris would perform well there, but Bill Cash wouldn’t.
The two most important blocs of voters in terms of determining the outcome are the thousands of students at Cambridge and Anglia Ruskin universities, who swung from Labour to the Lib Dems in 2005, and those middle-class floating voters who have helped ensure all three main parties have represented the seat in living memory. Moreover, any candidate who forgets the high proportion of local residents who are employed in public service – particularly education, health and local government – will not win.
Second, respond to the wonderful civic life. During the 2010 election campaign, I and the other candidates for the main parties took part in around thirty hustings, which were organised by a wide range of student, community and religious groups – not to mention the media. I have yet to meet another candidate from any constituency at any election who did more than about five hustings. The number of well-attended public meetings not only reflects Cambridge’s vibrancy, but also makes being a candidate there enormous fun.
It all links to the ‘big society’, though as a newly-selected candidate, I struggled to explain the BS on the doorstep to those who asked me about it. I could see voters’ eyes glazing over, even though I believed in the concept. After a while, I adopted a different approach. I said, a touch conspiratorially, that ‘the big society is not about changing Cambridge; it’s about making the rest of the country a little bit more like Cambridge’. It’s slightly arrogant but the voters immediately understood what I meant.
On the downside, the things that make Cambridge world famous can mean local residents with fewer resources get overlooked (though, credit where it’s due, some of the local Labour Party are pretty good at highlighting this). The tendency has probably been encouraged over the years by the tradition of picking MPs and councillors steeped in the university world. Moreover, there are some important aspects of the city that not many people outside know about – such as the large, active and welcoming Muslim community.
Third, promise Cambridge a powerful voice at Westminster. This is one of the most important cities in the country in terms of the UK’s economic future. There is world-class research, high-tech companies expert at minaturising, modifying and monetising and top-notch educational establishments of every hue (universities, language schools and Cambridge Assessments to name just three). The city has a proud tradition of sending independently-minded voices to Parliament. But while such voices are a welcome addition to a national political class that has long been accused of being staid and out-of-touch, it is valid to ask whether one of the most important cities in the country would be better represented by someone who can look Ministers in the eye and challenge them whenever Cambridge fails to get the resources it needs to thrive as the starting motor of the economy.
In my first speech as a candidate, I promised to support the reopening of the Oxford-Cambridge rail link. This is now happening, except it isn’t because the line is to peter out at Bedford before it reaches Cambridge – despite the enormous cumulative benefits of reopening the other bit as well (albeit necessarily on a different route to in the past). Whoever becomes MP for the city in 2015 should be raising such issues in the corridors of power rather than confining themselves to shouting from the sidelines because they don’t want to ruin a carefully-constructed reputation for independent thought.