Now that the starting gun has been fired for the General Election campaign proper, here’s a look at the situation in Cambridge, and the prospects for the candidates.
Politically, Cambridge has changed a great deal over the last 30 years. From being a safe-ish Conservative seat in the days of Robert Rhodes-James, it has gradually transmuted into the Lib-Dem/Labour marginal that it is today. Here are the General Election results in the Cambridge constituency since 1979:
For most of the 20th century, Cambridge was a Conservative seat, only occasionally electing an MP of a different colour. By the 1980s, Robert Rhodes James was holding on for the Conservatives fairly comfortably, but after he stood down, Labour’s Anne Campbell took the seat in 1992 by just 580 votes. She was resoundingly returned in the Labour landslide of 1997, but that was the high-water-mark for Labour; thereafter their votes ebbed away as long as they remained in office nationally. In 2005 David Howarth became the first Liberal to win the Cambridge seat for 99 years, and he was succeeded in 2010 by Julian Huppert, who scored a lower vote share, but a larger majority, thanks to the continuing Labour decline. The Conservatives, represented by Nick Hillman, managed to sneak back into second place in 2010. The Green party have stood in Cambridge since 1987, but barely moved the needle until last time. Even then, the relatively well-known figure of Tony Juniper managed to poll just 7.6% of the vote, despite a well-funded and vigorous campaign. UKIP’s best result to date is 2.4%.
What of the candidates this time?
The incumbent, Julian Huppert, is seeking to be the first Liberal Democrat to be re-elected in Cambridge. After his predecessor, David Howarth, stood down after a single term, there was some speculation that Julian would also prefer a return to academia over five more years of being shouted at during Prime Minister’s Questions. However, my disagreement with this theory is about to win me a fiver from 2010 Conservative candidate, Nick Hillman. Even quite a few of Julian’s opponents will admit that he had been a very hard-working MP in terms of casework, and constituency and media appearances. (In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that I was responsible for asking Julian to stand for the East Chesterton County Council seat that he first won in 2001, and he blames me to some extent for initiating his political career). Julian is currently the favourite with Ladbrokes to retain Cambridge.
The main challenger for Cambridge MP is Labour’s Daniel Zeichner. This is his fifth attempt to enter Parliament; after three unsuccessful attempts to win Mid Norfolk in 1997, 2001 and 2005, he switched to Cambridge in 2010. Here are his previous election results:
After a somewhat disappointing third place in 2010, Daniel faced a strong challenge from local activist Peter Roberts for the Labour candidacy, and was reselected by the constituency Labour Party by a margin of just eight votes. However, the local party has swung behind him and has been running an effective and forceful campaign, with numerous visits from senior Labour MPs. The latest New Statesman projection is that Cambridge is the most marginal of the seats the Lib Dems hope to retain, with an estimated majority of only a few hundred votes (though this doesn’t take account of the latest polling). It looks as if Daniel is in a closer race this time.
Looking at the first graph above, you might expect that the Conservative candidate, Chamali Fernando, would have hopes of finishing in the top two – after all, the Conservatives were in second place last time, with Labour in a long-term decline. The difference this time, of course, is that Labour are no longer in Government, and it is the Conservatives and Lib Dems who are now suffering the unpopularity that generally comes with being in charge. Consequently, Chamali is widely expected to finish third – there are enough Conservative supporters in Cambridge to virtually guarantee that, but not enough for her to mount a realistic challenge to win. This was vividly illustrated when I spotted that her picture on the main Conservative website included the text “Non target candidates” in its web address. Another key factor is the relatively decrepit state of the Conservative organisation in Cambridge – while they have a few dedicated activists (hello!) they simply don’t have the feet on the streets, or the years of canvassing data, that the main two Cambridge parties can muster. Chamali herself is a former Lib Dem – she sought the Lib Dem nomination for Mayor of London in 2007, before defecting to the Conservatives in 2009.
The Green candidate Rupert Read is also a former Lib Dem, who will be trying to build on the Green party’s 2010 result. In 2010 the Greens ran a very energetic campaign in Cambridge – they had a high-profile candidate in Tony Juniper, a Thom Yorke benefit concert, a large team on the streets, optimistic articles in the Guardian, and lots of window posters displayed by their supporters. They also spent a lot of money – their accounts for 2010 show total spending of £44,783 in Cambridge – but the end result was fourth place with just 3,804 votes, a mere 7.6% of the total poll. I was part of the Lib Dem organisation at the time, and at first there was some consternation at the strength of the Green campaign, but it quickly became apparent from canvass returns that it wasn’t really having much impact. In retrospect, the Green 2010 Cambridge campaign was a tragicomic demonstration of how to waste election resources. Since 2010, the Green Party in Cambridge has suffered a number of severe blows – the death of two of its most prominent activists, Margaret Wright and Simon Sedgwick-Jell; the defection to Labour of its sole remaining councillor, Adam Pogonowski; and the departure of former election agent James Youd, one of the Cambridge Greens who really understood how to run election campaigns effectively, though he had little input in 2010. However, the party has bounced back to some extent, with a new generation of activists, and, just as importantly, some signs that it is starting to target its resources more effectively. However, it’s hard to see them doing better than fourth place this time.
Completing the field – at least at the moment – is UKIP’s Patrick O’Flynn. He is currently MEP for the East of England as well as UKIP’s economics spokesman. While Cambridge is his home town – he was educated at Parkside, Long Road, and King’s College – it is also one of the least UKIPpy places in the East of England, judging from the European election results. Patrick is quite heavily involved in the UKIP party nationally, but his approach to the Cambridge campaign can be measured by the fact that he has failed to turn up to many of the hustings events that have been held so far. Fifth place seems likely, though he may exceed the 5% necessary to retain his deposit.
As I was writing this article, Lord Ashcroft published a poll of Lib-Dem-held seats, including Cambridge, which suggests that Julian Huppert is currently on course to retain his seat. However, with five weeks to go, there is plenty of time for the situation to change.