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Last Updated: Sunday, 18 September 2005, 13:43 GMT 14:43 UK
Jon Sopel interview
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, Sunday 18 September 2005, Jon Sopel interviewed:

  • Simon Hughes MP, Liberal Democrat President

Simon Hughes MP
Simon Hughes MP

Interview with Simon Hughes MP

JON SOPEL: Well I'm joined now from Blackpool by Simon Hughes, the President of the Liberal Democrats. Mr Hughes, do you agree with Vince Cable and others when they say it's time now to go after Tory voters.

SIMON HUGHES: Jon, good afternoon. We want voters from either of the other big parties. Look at the last election, we got nearly a quarter of the votes from people who voted.

The Conservative Party were stuck on about 31%, certainly less than a third, and the Labour Party were just more than that, about 35%. So, out there, there are effectively three parties, roughly the same size in terms of support, two a bit bigger than us, the other two not much between them. We need to win support from either.

But there's not a very great amount of likely transfer from Conservatives, who are down to their rock bottom of support, to come to us. So I don't think there are many people who currently vote Tory, who will come to us.

There will be some who voted Tory in the past, who've been disillusioned and certainly there will be some who take our view on liberty issues, wanting to challenge an authoritarian government, who in the past have seen the Tories as their salvation, but certainly wouldn't, now that they're on their fifth leader, or about to be, in eight years, in the foreseeable future.

JON SOPEL: So was this whole decapitation strategy of senior Tories completely misguided because you gained three seats from the Conservatives and lost five.

SIMON HUGHES: And as your report quite rightly reminded your viewers, that we gained a dozen seats from Labour. The answer is we needed to win seats from both. At the last election, we were closer to Conservatives in more places than we were to Labour. We tried and succeeded in taking on both, we won seats from both.

We won more from Labour, there were more seats to win from Labour, and if you look at how we're placed for the next election, we're in second place in between a hundred and two hundred seats, and in many of those are behind Labour so my judgement is, to be the government, we have to, it's not difficult to work out the maths, you have to win more seats from Labour than from the Tories. The Tories only have two hundred seats in total, many of them are hard core Tory territory, therefore, we're going to have to win seats more from Labour than from the Tories.

JON SOPEL: So Vince Cable and his colleagues are strategically misguided.

SIMON HUGHES: Well, if we won every Tory seat in the country, we still wouldn't have a majority so we can't only appeal to them. Now, Vince, who comes from a background of being on the left, is obviously wanting to make sure we appeal to those who don't want an oppressive State - I share that view. Who don't want over regulation, I share that view. But for me, the two watch words for our party now, as always, are fairness and freedom. We don't have a fair society.

It's less fair in many ways than it was, not just when the Tories were in office than when Labour came to office, and therefore if we're talking about tax, we've got to end up with a tax system that brings in the money to make sure people in my constituency in Bermondsey have houses when they need houses. Have a health service that doesn't keep them waiting. Have schools that are up to standard, and if we don't supply those things, because we haven't got enough money, we need to raise more money, and clearly the better off should pay more.

JON SOPEL: Okay. Apologies for the noises that are going on in the background. I gather there's a studio next to you. But let me just come to our poll finding. 52% of people think you're closer to Labour, only 17% think you're closer to the Tories. You're essentially saying, that's the way I like it.

SIMON HUGHES: Jon, I'm not saying that I like to be judged in relationship to either party. We're a fairness party. We're a party that believes that we want a fairer society. At the last election, that was why we had policies for not requiring students to pay debt. That's why we had policies for changing the way of raising money for local taxation. We're a fairness party. We have a very unfair society. Some people are very well off but they're a minority. A lot of people are very hard pressed.

And I think we need to take that pressure off and if the result is that people see us as being better at fairness than Labour, which I sense they may increasingly be doing, that's why they voted for us in increasing places, and we won seats from Labour - if they see us as being better at fairness that Labour, we're certainly better at freedom than Labour, then I hope that we will, in many ways, replace the Labour party as well as course, as keeping the Tory party down to its rock bottom support.JON SOPEL: But Mr Hughes, many of your colleagues, and colleagues who seem to be in the ascendant in the Party, are looking for free market solutions, not the sort of alternatives you're talking about.


JON SOPEL: Well part privatisation of the Post Office for a start.

SIMON HUGHES: Well, hang on let's take it - firstly I'm not sure that an analysis as to who's in the ascendant or not is very well informed. There's a whole breadth of the parliamentary party, if you look at the sixty two colleagues in parliament, you'll see a whole breadth of ideas - you've reflected some of them in your film. Part privatisation of the Post Office is on the agenda. The proposal there ...

JON SOPEL: Are you opposed to it.

SIMON HUGHES: (overlaps) .. that it's private. It isn't that it's privatisation. I support a proposal that says that the Post Office, Royal Mail, must work better.

That we want to keep Post Offices rather than close them. And we need to find the money without losing public control. And that's what the proposal is, and it's a simplistic, simplistic description saying it's privatisation. (overlaps)

JON SOPEL: Hang on, let me read you the motion. It says, "Changing the ownership of Royal Mail by ensuring a substantial holding is given to Royal Mail, which will be placed in a Trust, allowing a minority of shares in Royal Mail to be made available for purchase by small investors.

Allowing a minority of shares to be floated on the Stock Market or sold to another bidder." That sounds like privatisation.

SIMON HUGHES: Well, there is a proposal that part of the shares of the Post Office are sold in order to raise some money to put in to keeping and developing the postal network. It will be a minority.

I think that's something one can live with. We haven't had the debate yet. There will be amendments in the debate and I've no idea which way the party is going to vote.

But it's a reflection of the bigger issue, the broader issue, and the answer is, ought we to have for example, the idea being floated, a flat tax. In my view no, you ought not because people who earn much more clearly ought to pay much more.

JON SOPEL: Okay what about a 50% tax rate. Do you feel (overlaps)

SIMON HUGHES: Well personally I'm, personally, I'm supportive of that but I'm quite willing to listen to the argument, the debate. I've just come from the Tax Commission. People made the very good point, it's not just tax on income, it's also tax on wealth we need to look at.

It's also about how you make sure that we raise more money locally, so that when people go to vote for their local council, they have real choices about spend locally. At the moment, most of the money comes centrally. So there are all sorts of issues to do with how you raise the money.

But the test is, it's not a theological question, how much tax should you raise, it's what do you need so that our schools work, that we have the housing we need, we have the Health Service we need, we have the transport we need, we have the social care we need, we have the pensions we need, and I'm - I have no theology about that. I just want us to raise enough money, and of course you raise more of it from the people who are better off. In my community, many people struggle.

Retired pensions, hardly any money at all. People juggling to bring up children, very, very big financial struggle. I want the burden to be lifted off them, and people who earn a million quid, could afford to pay in to the system of course.

JON SOPEL: Okay, what about vouchers then.

SIMON HUGHES: Well vouchers are slightly more complicated. I heard what Paul Holmes said, because it seems to me that sometimes there is a perfectly reasonable argument that you should be able to spend as it were your public money, in something, say a hospital run by a charity or the voluntary section, as opposed to only one run by the public service. But for me, the bigger issue is accountability.

How do the local communities hold their schools more accountable, hold their health service more accountable, hold their local hospital more accountable when things don't go well. Hold the Post Office more accountable. Those for me are the issues (interjection) ... more choices, but also that we make sure our public services are more accountable to the customers, the users, who pay for them in the first place.

JON SOPEL: O course, do you accept though that are many in the Party now, in prominent positions who are seeking free market solutions, looking at vouchers, looking at lower taxation, which traditionally is not the territory where you, Simon Hughes are known to have made your name, or where you're comfortable.

SIMON HUGHES: Well the answer is we are, like all parties are, a broad church. We've just had a General Election. Charles Kennedy, like I and others, want the party to have the debate. We have it in public. We're going to have a consultation on future policy on the whole of Tuesday afternoon here in Blackpool. We're looking at the whole of local government and devolution policy. We're looking at the whole of tax policy.

We'll take a year or so to do that. And then we will come to a judgement and there will be pretty ferocious debates about that. We're not frightened about that. That's open politics, with people committed to a liberal, progressive and I hope freedom and fairness agenda, those are the words, freedom and fairness, and if we can combine those, I hope, and if we get it right, we'll not just hold the party together, which we, I guess will, but win more votes and get on our way to (interjection) ... being in government, which is where we want to be.

JON SOPEL: Mr Hughes, Charles Kennedy said this morning that there was no truth whatsoever in the rumour that he was going to stand down after the next election. Are you pleased about that?

SIMON HUGHES: I heard what he said. I saw the rumour in one Sunday paper. I've always said that it's for Charles to decide how long he wants to go on. He has my support and the colleagues support for as long as wants to carry on. He's done us very well so far, if he wants to go on, that's fine by me and I guess it's fine by everybody else here in Blackpool too.

JON SOPEL: You're not snapping at his heels then.

SIMON HUGHES: No. I've got a job to do, elected for two years in the first instance, possibly another two years to try to run the party. That's the job of the President of the Party. I've got my hands full. I'm very happy to do that. And we're building the party to be more and more successful so that we can be in government in your life time and in mine, and hopefully in the very, very near future.

JON SOPEL: Simon Hughes, thanks very much indeed.

End of interview

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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