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Last Updated: Sunday, 19 September, 2004, 12:13 GMT 13:13 UK
Lib Dems fly high?
Please note BBC Politics Show must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

NB:This transcript was typed from a recording and not copied from an original script.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.

On Politics Show, on Sunday 19 September, 2004, Jeremy Vine interviewed Simon Hughes, MP, President of the Liberal Democrats.

Simon Hughes, MP
Simon Hughes, MP, President of the Liberal Democrats

Jeremy Vine: At the end of conference week the MP, Simon Hughes, will become President of the Liberal Democrats. Congratulations on that.

Simon Hughes: Thank you Jeremy.

Jeremy Vine: And joining us now. There seems to be a fight going on inside your party, which you're going to have to sort out.

Simon Hughes: Can I say something, I thought the idea of the Adrian Mole parallel was quite a good one in a way; sixteen is the time you leave school, you go out in to the real world, and you're ready to take on full responsibility; so I'm happy to accept that we've had sixteen years getting there, and now we're off the mark. There isn't actually that great debate. Before conferences, every party, every set of political commentators try to find a big issue to present as a split or as a divide.

I understand that, it makes for a more interesting journalistic story but if you look at the spread of commentary in today's papers, in the weekend press in the last week, you've seen people saying, the Liberal Democrats are going forward, they're making progress; Charles is doing well. And the subscribe to that and the reason I stood for, and I hope the reason I was elected to be the new President is because I believe we can now deliver the party, towards government, in a way that we haven't been able to do in your life time and in mine.

Jeremy Vine: And that's why we're discussing this, to try and work out what shape of party will be doing this. Now, Alistair Carmichael said, I don't think it's particularly helpful to confuse the message that we're sending to electors at a time like this; he's not a political commentator, he's one of your MPs.

Simon Hughes: No, no, and that, and that to be honest is a fair comment, because the famous orange book, I see you have your ...

Jeremy Vine: We, we have it here.

Simon Hughes: Copy, it doesn't look very well thumbed yet. But I see you have your copy with you. I have my copy too - was launched at the beginning of this month. And probably the timing wasn't very helpful, realistically because there are some interesting ideas in there, most of it goes with the thrust of Liberal Democrat policy, even the slightly vilified David Laws, has written a very good introduction, saying we come from a very strong tradition of social liberalism, and economic and political liberalism, and we must hold to that.

Jeremy Vine: Hang on, slightly vilified, he's number two in your Treasury team.


Simon Hughes: No, but by your film I meant ...

Jeremy Vine: By your MPs, apparently.

Simon Hughes: By your film (laughs) Well, as it happens I wasn't at the meeting but certainly by your film. But I spoke to David this week and I think he accepts probably that launching this just in the year before a general election, was probably not the best time to do so. Why?

Because we've had work done on a pre-manifesto. The pre-manifesto is up for debate this week. It's not the final word. But it's the draft of the document we expect to put before the country, if the election is called next May.

And what are the key messages about Health and Education? They remain the same. We believe in Health funded through tax, free at the point of delivery. We believe in education for all, funded through tax, free at the point of delivery.

And in relation to people who go on to higher education, we believe the same about that too. That you shouldn't have students with a mounting amount of debt; we think that too can be paid for from tax.

Jeremy Vine: Right.

Simon Hughes: But we have a very clear philosophical position.

Jeremy Vine: Well maybe, but maybe it's not so clear because David Laws says in this Orange book, traditional liberal values at a minimum imply, reducing the State's role in the economy. Is that true?

Simon Hughes: Yes. And that's why ...

Jeremy Vine: You all agree on that.

Simon Hughes: Yes.

Jeremy Vine: (overlaps) ... and he wants privatisation in the Health Service then for example.

Simon Hughes: No, that, that. Your first and second proposition aren't linked. Whose idea was it that the setting of the exchange rate should be taken away from the government? Ours. Adopted, within a day or so of the '97 election by Gordon Brown, although it wasn't in the Labour Manifesto.

That's an example of how we believe we should be taking the State away from the economy. Who are the party who have most said, give power to Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland, to the region of England, and to local government? We have. Because we've always been a non- statist party.

Jeremy Vine: Let me give you another example then. David Law says, we've allowed ourselves to be caricatured as being against the enormous extension of human freedom and opportunity, that's come with wider access to the car and cheap overseas travel. So why shouldn't Lib Dems say to people, Use the cheap flights, get flying.

Simon Hughes: Well there are two. If you want to go in to the specifics, there are two real issues around here. The first is that the airline industry does not pay any tax on the fuel it uses for powering airlines. Unlike you and I, when we drive, and all the people who watch, when they drive too; that's unreasonable.

Jeremy Vine: But you're on the side of the consumer aren't you?

Simon Hughes: Of course we are - but we're also on the side of the planet. And we're the party that keeps on reminding people and I'm glad that the Prime Minister has made a genuflection in this direction at Mr Howard this week.

We keep on saying, if we go on the way we are, consuming the fuel we do, using up the energy we do, we risk having no planet for us to have any politics in at all.

Jeremy Vine: But doesn't a Liberal Party allow people to make that choice for themselves?

Simon Hughes: (overlaps) Well Jeremy, no, Jeremy of course. But it has to be a choice based among options which take account, which pay for what they, for the contribution they make to the economy.

And we've always said, the purpose of taxation should be to make the polluter pay, or the depletor of resources. Let me take the car point; we're not an anti car party. What we say is, people should, of course be allowed, and need to use cars, in rural areas, much more than urban areas.

But you should pay when you use them, rather than having to pay up front. That's why we believe in a tax being on the petrol, rather than on having a car. Owning a car, there's nothing wrong, and we have never been an anti car party.

Jeremy Vine: All right, well Vince Cable, another of the so-called Young Turks.

Simon Hughes: If he's young at sixty one Jeremy, come on.

Jeremy Vine: Well he's, he's an out-rider, he's thinking about what your policies need to be. He says, on Tax, he says, there's a strong case for limiting tax as a proportion of GDP. Put an upper limit on it.

Simon Hughes: Well.

Jeremy Vine: That's been thrown out as well.

Simon Hughes: Vince and I had this debate this week and he's an extremely respected economist as you know and in the past two years, he comes, he's perceived to come, although he came from the Labour party originally, from the right of the party and I'm perceived to come from the left.

We agree, the party agrees, we've all signed up to the idea that we should not seek to increase the burden of tax on the lower paid, quite the contrary. But for people who earn more than a hundred thousand, it is reasonable that they make a bigger contribution. It is reasonable. And that would help pay for things like free care for the elderly.

Jeremy Vine: Different, different point. He's talking about limiting the tax take.

Simon Hughes: On, on the issue of how much tax you need to take, we had the discussion, as it happens at a meeting this very week.

Jeremy Vine: And it was thrown out wasn't it.

Simon Hughes: (overlaps) And we, no, and we agreed that there is no theology or philosophy about how much you need to take. You need to take enough tax to pay for the services. The more people in work, the less people out of work, with more people paying tax, the less you need to ask people to pay.

Jeremy Vine: But clearly, and I know that Charles Kennedy said at that meeting. I don't like such a theological, he said at a press conference afterwards, I don't like such a theological approach by ...


Simon Hughes: I was going to say, I didn't see you at the meeting Jeremy.

Jeremy Vine: Well, he said it publicly. I don't like a theological approach by right wing Conservatives, he said. As if he's saying Vince Cable, is somehow in that group.

Simon Hughes: Well, Charles' view and Vince's view, Vince said, You, you have to start with working about (fluffs) - asking this question. Is the present take about right or not. And Vince says, he reckons it's about right. What is it? It's about forty pence in the pound is taken in taxation.

Some countries go up to fifty pence in the pound, some countries go down to about thirty pence in the pound or less. Vince is comfortable, broadly comfortable, those were his words, about what we take at the moment. And the party has said, The only extra imposition we need across the board, are for that 1%, one in a hundred people, viewing, or out there in the country, who earn more than a hundred thousand pounds a year. And I think that's a reasonable proposition.

Jeremy Vine: This is where we get to this whole point about what kind of party you're going to be with this ...

Simon Hughes: Yeah.

Jeremy Vine: The growing pains we discussed, the Adrian Mole ...

Simon Hughes: (overlaps) I think the growing pains sort of finish at about sixteen, Jeremy.

Jeremy Vine: Well you've said you can have an a la carte menu of policies. You have said Simon Hughes, it's all about an a la carte experience. It's - people can eat in the Lib Dem restaurant, they won't all want the same meal. That's a cop out isn't it?

Simon Hughes: No. Let me explain exactly what's happening. In Hartlepool, featured in your film or Leicester, in urban areas, traditionally working class areas, what may be at the top of people's list is how good the Heath Service is. Whether the hospital in Hartlepool stays.

Whether in Leicester people can have their elderly people looked after. If you go to places like the South East, it may be the issues are the Green Belt, agriculture, farming, those sorts of issues. Now what I have said, we've got to be consistent, I agree with Tim Razzle in the film, and we are very good now at being consistent.

Jeremy Vine: A la carte isn't consistent is it. It's pick and mix.

Simon Hughes: No, no, no, a la carte says, you have a restaurant, it's a type of restaurant, it's a Liberal Democrat restaurant, there's a whole set of policies. That's why in the pre manifesto there are ten policies, very popular but very properly costed policies.

That's why we said for example, let me give you an example, that pensioners should be paid more if they're over seventy five. Now, that particular menu item, would appeal equally to the people in the south of England, in the more prosperous areas, as in the less prosperous areas elsewhere.

Jeremy Vine: So why is it in The Times tomorrow, their populist poll will say, a lot of people still don't think the policies add up and they're confused about you..

Simon Hughes: Because we haven't had enough coverage to put the case across because although we get 25% in the polls, although one in five electors in Britain voted for us at the last election, the electoral system doesn't give us one in five seats in the Commons.

And it's only at conferences and in election times, that we have the chance to put our case, and so this week, what we're doing, is we're making absolutely clear that we're focusing on the central policies, being fair for Britain, fair to students, fair to council tax payers, by replacing council tax, fair to pensions, fair to people, for whom Labour has been unfair, and I honestly believe, you might expect me to say it, but I honestly believe, that with the Tories people know what they're going to get, they remember what they got, they remember when Michael Howard was a government minister.

With Labour, they haven't a clue what they're going to get now. They knew what it was with Old Labour, they haven't a clue with New Labour. With us, our job is to make sure we know what people will get, and they'll get a fairer Britain, where freedom reigns, and we have hopefully, a restoration of trust in the political process.

Jeremy Vine: And Lord Bill Rogers says that Charles Kennedy, he should walk slightly taller.

Simon Hughes: Charles is quite capable of exercising authority. Ask his colleagues. He may appear mild and he is an extremely good and friendly politician. But if he needs to exercise authority he does. He'll walk tall enough. He's on great form. The party is very upbeat, and the reality is, we think we're in for a very good twelve months ahead.

NB:This transcript was typed from a recording and not copied from an original script.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.

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