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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 September, 2004, 14:40 GMT 15:40 UK
Interview: Simon Hughes
By Hannah Goff
BBC News Online Politics Staff

Simon Hughes has kicked off his tenure as Liberal Democrat president in ebullient mood.

Taking his cue from the British Olympic teams' success in Athens, Mr Hughes has said he is "going for gold".

Simon Hughes
Mr Hughes hopes the Lib Dems will increase their MPs by 50%

For a party more accustomed to scooping the bronze medal at the ballot box, this is heady talk, but the Lib Dems are on a bit of a roll at the moment.

In recent months, the party has won by-elections in Brent East, a formerly rock solid Labour constituency, and Leicester South and narrowly missed out on victory in Birmingham Hodge Hill.

Mr Hughes, who unsuccessfully stood for London mayor earlier this year, must now work with Charles Kennedy - his rival for the party leadership in 1999, to ensure these by-election successes are not just another false dawn.

Unlike most senior figures in his party, he is happy to talk, in specific terms, about its targets for the next general election and beyond.

"Charles (Kennedy) has always been really careful not to say we are going to have this many seats or this many votes by this time. I've always respected that," Mr Hughes told BBC News Online.

'Tall order'

But that, it seems, is not Mr Hughes' style.

He says he wants to increase the number of MPs sitting on the Lib Dem benches - currently 55 - by 50% or about 27 seats.

"Now that's a tall order because its significantly more than we have increased by before. But we've got to be seen to be making good progress," he says.

"Fortunately," the party's former home affairs spokesman says with a smile, "I am blessed with energy".

But in order to achieve this goal - the party will have to win seats from both the Conservatives and Labour.

Of the 50 top Lib Dem target seats 13 are held by Labour.

But Mr Hughes insists that this does not necessarily mean the party will have to give out conflicting messages.

Modern democracy is no a longer a matter of died-in-the-wool party loyalty, it is a more of an "a la carte" experience, he suggests.


"You can eat in the Conservative restaurant, the Labour restaurant or the Liberal Democrat restaurant - but you are not always going to want the same meal.

"When we are in the restaurant - we can chose things that are Lib Dem or whatever but there are different dishes. You will want different things in the summer from in the winter."

If Mr Hughes gets his way, instead of sending out one single message as a party, the Lib Dems will tailor their message for different sections of society.

If we are going to be in government we have to be seen as the fashionable, the coming the arriving as the next thing
Simon Hughes

He envisages the party website with five or 10 different policy issues designed to appeal separately to families, pensioners and young people, for example.

This risks playing into the hands of those who accuse the Lib Dems of trying to be all things to all people.

But Mr Hughes insists all of these messages will be underlined by key Liberal Democrat principles of trust, fairness and respect.

"First we have to ask the question - who do you trust? A lot of people have not rediscovered their trust in the Tories, and a lot of people don't trust Labour.

"We have to work out how we can shown that Charles Kennedy can be trusted and how we show we can be trusted to deliver."

The Lib Dems also have to be seen to be the "fair party", he says.

Simon Hughes on the London election trail
Simon Hughes

"Most people agree that if you earn more than 100,000 a year you should pay more tax. Also with the council tax we have said we will scrap it in favour of a fairer system."

On the theme of "respect", he points to what critics regard as Draconian anti-terror legislation brought in by Home Secretary David Blunkett, in the teeth of Lib Dem opposition.

"We really are not going to buy into this "big brother" ID card society. We will make this a big issue."

He makes the point that the suicide bombers who attacked the twin towers on 11 September 2001 did not mind anyone knowing who they were.

"It's the wrong answer to the wrong question," he says.

He also says Lib Dems would not support the government if it attempts to keep the power to detain foreign terrorism suspect without trial when it renews the Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act 2001 this autumn.

Key issues

"There are other ways of dealing with terrorists and I hope the party will take note of that."

"There are cases where people have been picked up using powers under the terrorism act which have been inappropriate.

"The authorities have to realise that if they hold people for a long time who are ultimately not charged with any terrorism offences, there will be lots of civil cases."

But before this sharpened up message can be delivered to the voters, Mr Hughes says he must tackle two key issues - membership and resources.

"The Tories and Labour are in the Premiership when it comes to resources. We are a First Division Club. One of our jobs will be to identify a list of the sort of people who are likely to support us."

He describes the plan of action which led to the Lib Dems ousting the sitting Tory MP in North Norfolk in 2001.

Secret ingredient

"We drew up a list of 15 people in the county who we thought might give - in the end half of them gave money."

Mr Hughes has already pledged to increase Lib Dem membership, which currently stands at 75,000, to Labour's level of 225,000 by the end of his tenure as president.

He plans to make sure sympathisers are asked to join the party - not just to vote for the local candidates.

And then there is Mr Hughes secret ingredient - the celebrity.

"This summer the UK Independence Party moved forward very quickly partly because of their message and partly because they found two people who most people had heard of to support the campaign."

I am not saying it will happen but I think, if we do well next year, then we could be ready to be in government for the following election
Simon Hughes

He is of course referring to former TV presenter Robert Kilroy-Silk and actress Joan Collins.

"My honest view is that we have to find enough high profile supporters across the range of business, academia, the arts and sports that gives momentum to our party.

"It's an add-on - but if we are going to be in government we have to be seen as the fashionable, the coming the arriving as the next thing.

"I am not saying it will happen but I think, if we do well next year, then we could be ready to be in government for the following election."

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