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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 September, 2003, 07:19 GMT 08:19 UK
Liberal Democrats: The chairman of Party's MPs
Mark Oaten

Chairman of the Lib Dems in Parliament Mark Oaten answered your questions in a LIVE interactive forum from Brighton.

  • Transcript


    The Liberal Democrats, still buoyed by last week's Brent East by-election win, are now concentrating on how to capitalise on it.

    Sarah Teather seized one of Labour's safest seats in the key north London by-election last Thursday.

    The party is hoping to build on that success over the Brighton get-together in the coming week.

    Party leader Charles Kennedy plans to keep up the pressure on Labour during the conference, with particular focus on the Iraq war, which he said was a "significant" reason for Labour's defeat in the by-election.

    Other topics up for discussion at the conference include replacing council tax with income tax; pensions; university tuition fees and terrorism.

    How significant was the by-election victory? Can the Party replace the Conservatives as the official opposition? Have the Liberal Democrats gone too far to the Left?

    Chairman of the Lib Dems in Parliament Mark Oaten answered your questions in a LIVE interactive forum from Brighton.



    Transcript


    James Landale:

    Hello and welcome to this live, interactive forum. I'm James Landale at the Liberal Democrat annual conference here in Brighton. Thanks very much for all your e-mails - we've had lots of them for my guest, Mark Oaten, chairman of the Lib Dems in Parliament. Our first question today is on campaigning after your victory in Brent East in the last week.

    This question comes from Tony Little, Norfolk: How can we trust a party whose own secret campaigning document asks their candidates to "be wicked, act shamelessly, stir endlessly"?


    Mark Oaten:

    Well you could Tony, is the honest answer, and I really hope we don't do that. What we do like to do, and we're very blatant about it, is to campaign really tough and hard. We have had lots of people out on the streets, we delivered to millions and millions of leaflet - my own feet have suffered because of that. And we're also quite robust when we campaign. If, for example, an MP or a local councillor has managed to get that bus stop done, then we're not shy in coming forward, we'll tell people what we've done. But in a sense that's also about being accountable politicians.


    James Landale:

    Well one of the other big debates here in Brighton is the whole question about where the party goes now after this victory - should it be to the left, should it be to the right? There's a question here from Steven Alderson, Liverpool: Can you promise me and every other voter in the country that the Liberal Democrats won't be trying to establish themselves as a centre party? The whole reason voters elected you is because you are left leaning.


    Mark Oaten:

    Well Steven I disagree, I don't think they did vote for us because we're left leaning. I actually don't think that most people - and perhaps you're the exception which proves the rule - but most people don't think of themselves in those left and right terms. I think people are voting for the Lib Dems at the moment because of the position we took on Iraq. Now that's not a left wing position, there were a million people that marched - actually some of those people that marched had marched on the Countryside Alliance march. You had people like Ken Clarke taking a position - he's not a left winger. I think it's more complex. People are looking for a party which is a bit more modern, a bit more dynamic and I would say that we're not a centreist, we're a liberal party.


    James Landale:

    Now one of the other big debates that's being going on here this week is what the Liberal Democrats can do to move ahead from being a party of protest. We've got a question here from Mr Brooks, UK: Is there a real positive reason for voting Lib Dem rather than voting just because Mr Blair's gone out of fashion and because the Conservatives may still have hidden Thatcherite values?


    Mark Oaten:

    Well I think it's true that Tony Blair is going out of fashion. I think it's true that the Tories are on a pretty downward curve and I'm sure that of the reasons - some of the popular appeal for the party at the moment is because of dissatisfaction with those. But it's slightly different - this is not just a protest vote, for the last year or so our party's fortunes have been going in a positive direction. I think that when it comes to the position that we took on Iraq, when it comes to the investment needed for schools and hospitals, when it comes to things like abolishing tuition fees, we're saying some very popular things which people like to vote for.


    James Landale:

    But one of the big questions the Liberal Democrats often get asked is what do you stand for? What is your answer to that?


    Mark Oaten:

    I would say to them that we're a non-stuffy party, we want to trust in local people at a grass roots level - do away with some government departments - centralist control, league tables - we believe in investing in decent schools and education. We're a European party, we're an internationalist party, a party that supported the role of the UN. But above all we're a liberal party and that means tolerance on issues of asylum, it means tolerance on issues of gay rights and racism. And I think putting all of that together you have quite an interesting appeal which crosses the so-called political spectrum.


    James Landale:

    Now one of the criticisms that's often levelled against the Liberal Democrats is that they put out mixed messages across the country, depending on who their electorate are. We've got a question here from Robert Crosby in Nottingham, he says: Robert Crosby, Nottingham: Isn't the real problem with the Liberal Democrats that you simply want to be all things to all people?


    Mark Oaten:

    Well Robert I would have generally thought that it's probably a good idea for politicians to want to do things which people like. And what I find is that if you're in a constituency like my own in Winchester, which has in the past been traditionally Conservative, I will talk there about the need for a decent health service, trying to tackle crime. I will talk about those same issues if I'm campaigning in Brent.

    Actually people want decent investment in public services whether they are in one part of the country or another. And so the beauty we have is that we actually can say the same things in different parts of the country in a way in which I don't think the Conservatives can these days. It was astonishing that Iain Duncan-Smith basically said that you cannot represent an area like Brent and Newbury at the same time. Well in the past one nation conservatism was all about doing that. That party's turned its back on that and I think that the Liberal Democrats now do have an appeal to a wide range of people in different parts of the country.


    James Landale:

    On the question of Europe, it's a policy that's very tricky for the Liberal Democrats because it's exactly one of the issues that people have different views on in different parts of the country. We've got a question here from Jane Wickenden, Somerset: It seems to me a shame that party policies come in such inflexible packages. I support the Lib Dems, but not the single currency. Consequently, the Liberal Democrat party does not accurately represent me.

    Now I'd imagine there are one or two voters in Winchester who might share those views?


    Mark Oaten:

    Well Jane I mean I understand your point but what would you want us to do because whilst you may like 60% - 70% of what the Lib Dems are standing for, I don't think you would also like it if the party suddenly decided that we should abandon our European values to try and pick up those extra 40% of votes - then we would be a party which wasn't principled and didn't actually stand for things.

    I think one of the appeals that people have about our party is that there are occasions when we're able to say look this is what we believe in, if you don't like it then we accept you may not want to vote for us. But we're not going to duck and dive and change our message for something we don't really believe in just to try and win votes.


    James Landale:

    Now one of the policies that has been voted through today is that the party would abolish council tax and replace it with an income tax based on means to pay. We've got a question on that from Scott Hayes: The Lib Dems have suggested that the council tax should go and be replaced by an income tax based on around 3%. Does this mean each person living in a house who is earning a wage will pay 3% each? How can this be fair? Surely the fairest way is for everyone to pay an equal share.


    Mark Oaten:

    I don't think that is fair. Look at some of the outcry from pensioners this week, who've been saying why should they be facing such big increases in council tax when at the same time their pension isn't going up by inflation. So what we're trying to do with this policy is to do away with the council tax, we think that is unfair, and move towards a tax based on individual ability to pay. Now I'd like to give you an absolute straight answer to the point about how many in the property and how does that all work through - the honest answer is I don't know, I haven't done the calculations so I can't give you a direct answer on that.


    James Landale:

    We've got a question from Geoffrey Brooking in Lincolnshire on education. He says: As a mature student, as well as having to take out a student loan I also have the burden of tuition fees.

    Now your party's been voting on that today, hasn't it?


    Mark Oaten:

    We feel very strongly that this is what we've described as a tax on learning. It is acting as a barrier, I think, to some people going into education. And when I talk to students - if you got to the freshers' fair in a few weeks time, 10 years ago people would have been queuing up for the beer club and stuff like that. Now they're queuing up for employment agencies because they're having to work to be able to manage the debt that they're inheriting when they leave college. I think trying to tackle that issue is an important issue and that's why we've said on this issue we would be prepared to put an additional amount of tax on those earning over 100,000 - we'd take them up to the 50% per cent rate, to pay for the abolition of tuition fees and top up fees.


    James Landale:

    Isn't there a problem with that whole 50% top rate of tax which you've just said you're going to plan for? It puts out a message that you are a party of high tax and yet that's something that the party has been trying to move away from in recent years. How do you reconcile those two points?


    Mark Oaten:

    Well I think where we stand is not now saying that we want a penny on income tax for education. We felt that was a strong issue but the government have put money in place for public services, they're misspending it but it would be wrong of us to suddenly say well we just like taxing for the fun of it. So I am keen the party is not known as a tax and spend party. But equally we have to be honest and if we decide we want a policy of abolishing tuition fees then I have to fund that, we have to fund that from somewhere. And it seems that that small amount on the income you earn over 100,000 paying a 50% rate just on that income is actually a fair sensible tax to put in place.


    James Landale:

    Now here's a question on the policy that's very close to one or two Lib Dems' hearts, it's from Frank Murphy in Scotland, he asks: Does the Liberal Democrat party think that they should now grasp the nettle presented to them at a past conference, and put a pledge to legalise cannabis in their manifesto, and encourage a large section of society, disillusioned with politics as they stand, to turn out and vote?


    Mark Oaten:

    Interesting way of getting the turn out up Frank. I think what we need to do is have, as we have in this party, a sensible debate about this issue. We've seen all the political parties move and the Lib Dems have been at the front of that. You can't just bury your head in the sand on these issues. A lot of crime is related to drugs, a lot of problems with marriage breakdowns are related to drugs. And if by having a more relaxed approach on cannabis, the police can turn their attention on some of those harder drugs, which are connected with crime, then I think most people, most people, would believe that is a sensible and better use of police time.


    James Landale:

    I suppose the problem is that all these people who might be taking drugs might not be awake to go and vote on polling day even if they were motivated by your policy?


    Mark Oaten:

    I think you'd have to have a drug test and a breathalyser test before you can vote in the future!


    James Landale:

    Is that a new policy?


    Mark Oaten:

    I've just made it up.


    James Landale:

    I've got a question on the party's ambitions. At the moment and in the wake of Brent East and new polling putting the party up at 28%, there's a lot of talk within the party about maybe now is the time that the party can maybe replace the Conservatives as the official opposition to Labour. We've got a question from Rob White in England who says: Why are you focusing on coming second at the next General Election, rather than winning it? I voted for you last time hoping you would build on previous advances with the view to forming a government in the near future. With both the other parties in disarray, it would appear an ideal time to strike for government. If you are not interested in forming a government, why vote for you?


    Mark Oaten:

    Well we are interested in forming a government and one of the things that Charles Kennedy is always very clear about however is not to be that kind of politician that takes one result and says we're going to take on the world. He likes to be straightforward and honest and we think at this stage it is the sensible ambition for the party to really ask the Conservatives to move over frankly at the moment, they're not acting as the real opposition, let the Lib Dems get with that job of taking on this government. And if by the next Election that means we are the official opposition, then everything is to play for, you'll get a good strong opposition with a launching pad to then become a Lib Dem government.


    James Landale:

    A slightly left of field question here from Henry Rogers, he asks: Would the Liberal Democrats be prepared to go into coalition with the Conservatives if it were the only way it could form a government?


    Mark Oaten:

    Henry I really find it hard to conceive that under IDS (Iain Duncan Smith), with the anti-European stance they have, the illiberal approach they take on such a range of issues, their commitment to cut back public services by 20%, it is very hard to see how the Lib Dems would be able to work with a Conservative government like that.


    James Landale:

    There are always rumours from time to time that every so often there might be one or two Conservative MPs willing to defect to the Liberal Democrats, is there anything you can tell us about that, any approaches recently?


    Mark Oaten:

    Well you heard it first here! - No, sadly I can't say that. I would have thought that given the disastrous performance in Brent that more importantly that statement from Iain Duncan Smith that he doesn't now see the party as a one nation Conservative Party, that there may just be some Conservatives who are very, very close indeed to jacking politics in. And I would say to them that if you do share a lot of our values, then look to the Lib Dems because in the same way that we saw people like Hugh Dykes and Emma Nicholson and others come over to us, they would have a very welcome home here.


    James Landale:

    Now we've got a question on spin here, we never have any debate about politics without spin. This is from Martin Curtis, he says: The Lib Dems have heaped praise on themselves for winning Brent East. But isn't it true that they did so by out-spinning Labour (which I admit is quite a feat), but doesn't that show that they are equally as unfit to govern as the Labour Party?


    Mark Oaten:

    Gosh the idea that this party could do spin. Well anybody that knows the Lib Dems knows that we are a very un-control freak kind of party. We do work hard though and we did work extremely hard in Brent. I don't think that was about spin and briefing journalists, it was about knocking on doors, putting leaflets through and persuading people of our arguments. If that's the new kind of spin well then that's a good thing because that's about proper engagement on issues. What I think that people are fed up with is the sense in which spin is controlled by four or five people in Westminster who are having a chat to each other and they decide what the agenda's going to be for the day. We're not part of that.


    James Landale:

    One final question. The great paradox for the Liberal Democrats is that at the moment they get a lot of support because they are seen as the party of protest. A lot of people vote for you because you're not the Conservatives and you're not the Labour Party. What happens if you reach a stage, the tipping point, where people actually think well we could vote for you to be a party of government - won't all those people who voted for you as a protest vote suddenly say, oh no we're not going to vote for you now because you might actually get in. What do you say to that?


    Mark Oaten:

    That's a nice problem to have I would have thought. I think that you find increasingly that it's not protest that is bringing votes to the Lib Dems, there's a real sense in which they're fed up with the way politics are done in this country. Tony Blair has lost trust, he's been a disappointment, IDS is a party which is in the other direction. I reckon that there's some real positive enthusiasm for this party at the moment and we can build on that and go great places.



    James Landale:

    Mark Oaten, thank you very much indeed for joining us today. Thank you very much indeed everybody who's taken part and from me, James Landale, goodbye.




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