Friday, September 17, 1999 Published at 14:30 GMT 15:30 UK
The Lib Dem leader answers your questions
Gavin Simpson, teacher of economics
A: I think that Gavin's question does go right to the heart of a big problem, not just in British politics, but in politics in the western world as a whole. And that is that we all want better-funded, better-resourced public services, but are we willing to pay for them?
And it seems to me that a party should not necessarily have the ambition of going into an election and saying vote for me and you'll pay more tax, but a party should be willing to say that there are specific tax increases that go towards specific initiatives - one pence on income tax going towards education as we've argued at the last two elections for example. I think more of this dreadful word hypothecation is going to creep into political dialogue.
BBC News Online: So you could see a party saying it would put up taxes winning an election?
A: I think that what the voters want is honesty and transparency when it comes to taxation. I don't think we're getting that and if Gordon Brown for example goes down the line of cutting income tax when the money should go towards better-funded public services, then I think that is playing to the Thatcherite agenda of the 1980s that led people to believe that you can get something for nothing. The truth is you can't.
Q: I seem to remember that the Lib Dems were once in favour of a local income
tax to fund council spending. Is this still the case?
A: That is still the case. We've not talked enough about it in recent years and I will be talking about it next week at our party conference in Harrogate.
Q: Having been an MP since you left University, how can you claim to know
what's best for the country's people, business, economy, etc, when you
have not, as far as I can tell, had any experience of the "real"
A: It's a fair point and I can't deny that I was elected when I was 23 and I was very lucky to get elected at 23. I think at the end of the day Parliament has got to mirror the country as a whole, which means you have people like me who enter Parliament very young - why shouldn't you have young people in Parliament?
That's a good thing - and equally you have got people who have got vast different ranges of experience. I happen to fall in one part of the spectrum, lots of different people fall in different parts of the spectrum.
Q: Proportional representation has understandably been a major policy of your party for many years, but how it is to come about is perhaps an issue that has divided voters. Following the recommendations of Lord Jenkins' commission, how do you foresee the policy being projected at the next election?
Will you make proportional representation a part of
your manifesto, or would you prefer to promise a referendum on the
matter and keep the issue separate from the main poll? Either way, which
system will you be supporting, bearing in mind that the AV plus system
recommended by the Jenkins' commission is not a true system of
proportional representation at all?
A: First of all it will certainly be part of our manifesto commitment of course, we are in favour of fair votes for Westminster as we are for everywhere else. In terms of the Jenkins recommendations, I think what Roy Jenkins was taking account of was that you have to be incremental.
You've got to persuade the existing House of Commons to change on the basis that it's presently elected. And I don't think you'll do that by going to what I would prefer in a personal capacity, which is the single transferable vote. So therefore AV plus, as it's so called, was what Roy came up with and I think it is ingenious in maintaining a constituency link, which is important to Westminster and giving more proportionate an outcome to the result. So I would go with that. It wouldn't be my first choice, but we have to deal with the world as it is, not as I'd like it to be.
Q: It all seems to have gone very quiet since the Jenkins Report was published.
What is your strategy for ensuring that Labour deliver fair voting systems
for Westminster and for Local Government as they have for other elections ?
A: Well, I cannot ensure and no Lib Dem leader can ensure that Labour delivers. At the end of the day, that's in the hands of the Labour Party and Tony Blair predominantly. What I can do is seek to persuade, influence, nudge, do all the things that the person in my job should be doing to try to advance the argument and that's what I'm doing already.
Q: Do you foresee a time when the Liberal Democrats will be in a national
coalition with the Conservatives, and if not, wouldn't the introduction of
PR for Westminster, result in a permanent Lab/LD coalition which the voters
would be almost powerless to remove; PR therefore, while allowing a better
representation of parties, would result in the voter being almost unable to
remove the government.
A: I think that if you have proportional representation for Westminster then it increases the likelihood that you would have coalition government. That goes without saying. The reason being that no one party commands over 50% in the opinion polls.
Can I foresee circumstances where we would be co-operating with the Conservative Party? Well we did so during the Maastricht treaty when I was the party's European spokesman and John Major was prime minister and if there are issues of principle where you agree I am not disinclined to work with other parties.
But at the moment it has to be said under the present leadership I don't see much prospect of that happening.
Q: Do you think that the fact a long established centrist party is so far Left
of the Labour leadership shows just how right-wing, indeed Thatcherite, New Labour
A: I won't comment on the government, but let me comment on ourselves. I think it would be a great mistake to fall into the trap - and it would be a trap - of allowing ourselves to be perceived as being a left of Labour Party. We are not.
We are more socially progressive than Labour. We are more radical and reformist than Labour. But that doesn't mean we are left of Labour and it seems to me a reflection on British politics that if you talk as I have of social justice then you are perceived as left-wing. I know a lot of Conservatives who care deeply and passionately about social justice as well.
News Online: But why not talk about the government? Surely if you want to be perceived as distinct from Labour you will need to criticise them as well?
A: Of course and the whole social justice agenda is one where we are very critical of Labour. I don't think they are doing nearly enough and as much as they could and should.
Q: Do you think there is still an identifiable New Labour project, or is the Labour government now engaged in the way of traditional consensus moderation, without any vision of the future?
A: I have no idea.
Q: You have made clear that you do not wish to extend the Liberal
Democrat's links with New Labour and that you want to take your party to
the left of Labour. Don't you think this is unwise seeing as socialism
has been comprehensively defeated by 18 years of Conservative government
and now the Blair government?
A: It would be very unwise, if that was what I am proposing to do but since that is comprehensively not what I am proposing to do it is not the case.
Q: Would you be prepared to enter a coalition with Labour if they fail to get an overall majority at the next general election, despite issues such as tuition fees & PR, and work with them as the Scottish Liberal Democrats are doing?
A: I'm prepared if you do not have a decisive outcome to a general election to consider entering into agreements, coalitions, whatever you might wish to call it with other parties, but you can't predict these things. My inclination is to co-operate and to co-operate to provide stable government, but I don't know the circumstances, I don't have a crystal ball and even if I did I don't know if I could read it.
News Online: Are there any issues on which you would say we will not compromise before you entered into negotiations on a coalition?
A: Well, there are two hypotheticals there. First of all we don't know what the circumstances would be and secondly we don't know what the issues might be in 18 months' or two years' time and I think it would be a mistake for me to get embroiled in that at this time.
Q: As a supporter from afar, I am concerned that the Lib-Dems are becoming increasingly indistinguishable from New Labour, especially now that they have chosen to be part of the administration in the Scottish Parliament.
What elements of the Lib Dems' message do you see as being distinct from New Labour? (It is not enough simply to say you will spend more on social programmes than Labour - where would you cut to keep the budget in balance, or would you raise taxes? Which taxes?). What will you do as leader to make sure that the Lib-Dems are not seen as an arm of New Labour?
I am impressed by the recent statements you have made which have revived the
libertarian strand of Lib-Dem thought - I hope you will elaborate on that in
the years ahead, from an economic as well as social viewpoint.
A: I think that the point that's being made in that question rather makes the point that I'll be making in a few days time at the conference: it is not enough for us as a party to say, where are we different from New Labour? It's actually, what are we? is the first question.
And there is a great temptation to always think of it as people do in terms of, what's different between you and Tony Blair? Or what's different between your party and his party. There are profound philosophical differences, differences of principle and priority and policy and all the rest of it.
But the important thing is what we're about that really matters and what we're about, I think, is advancing a socially-progressive agenda, focusing very strongly on civil liberties issues and the rights of the individual, more emphasis on the environment as a theme and as a policy that's going to affect everybody's lives increasingly as time goes on. These are the things that make us who we are, not our relationship with New Labour.
Q: Thanks for attempting to bring up the issue of drugs in a non-melodramatic way, something our current politicians seem totally incapable of doing. Perhaps you could take another small step by telling us whether or not you have ever tried illegal drugs yourself.
A: I can certainly tell you and the answer is that I haven't.
Q: Despite calls from a few enlightened MPs for a more mature attitude to sex, there has been a noticeable lack of intelligent debate on the matter. Whenever sex is on the agenda, we always hear the same narrow-minded hysterical arguments from the same few unrepresentative MPs who firmly believe that the Victorians got it right. On television we are now bombarded with sex programmes that are the mostly cynical patronising pap; the broadcasters are as out of touch with reality as the politicians.
What's so clearly missing from all this is a strong, clear voice of reason. I firmly believe that you have an obligation to provide that voice. The government's reaction to the problem of teenage pregnancy is to punish the father by calling in the police and/or the CSA. What we need are radical new ideas regarding sex education for both schoolchildren and adults. The "Tic Tac", "A Pause" and "Outercourse" sex education initiatives in the South West have all but been ignored, yet they all tackle the problems of teenage sex in an intelligent and creative way.
The government and the media should facilitate an open and honest debate
about sex. I'm convinced that the Liberal Democrats should play a large
part in this. Do you ?
A: It's a very difficult question to answer. I think on matters, whether it's drugs, sex or various other things that the politicians need to treat the public in a more mature way than perhaps we do. Most households in the land are concerned about issues ranging from drugs being available outside the school playground to teenage pregnancy and it's only sensible politicians are seen to address this is a sensible way and not a hysterical way.
Q: I have a challenge. Are you brave enough to speak for the vast majority of
adults who believe that adult pornography is harmless?
A: No, I don't think MPs should be making a priority of that whatsoever, it's not a predominant issue to people in the land.
Q: To what extent, do you think, the press manipulates the publics understanding of politics?
A: As much as the politicians try to manipulate the press's understanding of them.
Q: Are you familiar with the section of the Welfare Reform Bill called IR35, and the implications this will have on the IT and other knowledge-based industries in this country?
Do you have an opinion on these changes and their implications, and do you feel as many people do it will lead to an exodus of skills to other European countries?
Remember when you thought you could make a difference, well you can now.
A: The answer is I'm not, I'm sorry.
Q: Will the Liberal Democrats support the fight to retain those Coastguard
stations at Oban, Pentland and Tyne Tees that the Government has decided
to go ahead and close?
A: Yes, we will and we're on the record of having done so already.
Q: I am a student at Napier University, in Edinburgh, studying for a BSC honours in computing and in my final year and have quite a large amount of debt due to this, but I feel its worth it in the long run if I obtain good employment.
What are you views on student fees/finance and the general state of university
education and what do you propose as an alternative to Labour policies in
A: I think there is a great disincentive for people to go to university if they know they are going to be saddled with debt when they come out of university. I was in the fortunate position of being on a full grant, of not having to worry about debt, when I graduated. So I think it's a great disincentive and I think it's a great backward step for this country to be taking in this field. But this is something we are trying to do something about in the Scottish context at the moment.
Q: Does Mr Kennedy support 1) an elected second chamber 2) an elected Head of
State to give true authority to the British electorate ? Thanks from an
A: I'd say to our exiled Brit that I think the monarchy as presently constituted is sound as far as this country is concerned. I do think you need an elected second chamber and I would support that.
News Online: But no elected head of state?
A: No, I'm not proposing changing the monarchy or anything like that.
Q: In Leeds North East we had a Liberal Democrat candidate polling around 5,000 votes. In Harrogate and Knaresborough the Labour candidate polled around 4,500 votes. Clearly neither candidate had any realistic chance of victory. Surely we shouldn't be in the situation where anti-Conservative parties put up paper candidates in constituencies they cannot win. Shouldn't we unite behind a common agenda to prevent a waste of talent and activism that serves only to assist the Conservative Party.
A: No we shouldn't. I think that your denying the voters legitimate choice when the political parties choose not to put up individual candidates.
Q: What do the Lib Dems intend to do about "rip-off" Britain, especially the
extortionate prices charged by the car makers?
A: I think that in fact one of the things that would help us is entry into the European single currency, because you would then be able to compare directly and immediately the real price of goods and materials, whether it's cars or anything else, between say Germany or Holland and Britain much more easily than you can do at the moment. That's one of the things we would be in favour of doing.
News Online: Is that an argument you think hasn't been put across very well so far?
A: Yes, that's right. I don't think it's been put across sufficiently.
News Online: And who would be to blame for that?
A: I think all of us who are in favour of a single currency have got to argue the benefits of the single currency much more strongly and that's one argument we should be deploying.
Q: If the Liberal Democrats were elected to power what would you do to tackle rising crime particularly by young people?
Also what are your views on the Northern Ireland peace process, do you
approve of terrorists being released or do you think there is a better
way of sorting things out
A: On the Northern Ireland peace process, what I'd say to Veronica is that we do support the government's efforts in terms of the peace process. I've been quite critical of William Hague in the last couple of weeks and the approach that he seems to be taking. And although it is a very difficult thing to do seeing these prisoners being released, I think it is a necessary part of the peace process and should be maintained.
On rising crime, part of it is to do with social conditions and the more you can improve people's welfare the less they will become involved in crime. The second thing you need to do it seems to me is to put more policemen and policewomen back in the community. That contributes significantly towards lowering the potential for crime and that's something that's not happened because police numbers are actually being pulled back.
Q: On which issue has this government most seriously failed to deliver?
A: I think that one of my many criticisms of the government is that they have not been positive enough about Europe and I think they should have given a bigger and a better lead on the European issue than they have.
Q: Mr Kennedy, you supported Michael Fosters Private Members Bill to outlaw hunting with hounds. Is your support assured when the Government announces their plans in the coming parliamentary session to ban these cruel activities?
A: I have voted in the past to ban fox hunting and I will probably do so again, although we don't know on what date or in what shape this bill is coming.
News Online: You will probably do so again?
A: I say probably in the sense that I don't know if I will be in Westminster that day. If I am there I will vote for it.
Q: Were you embarrassed that a contestant on 'Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?' didn't know which party you had just been made leader of?
A: The general feedback I've had from an awful lot of people - and it just shows you how many people watch Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? - is that it was not so much a surprise that the contestant didn't know me but that the contestant was a deputy headmaster who didn't know who the leader of a political party was. I was amused by it, that's all.
Q: Given the tragic accidents that have befallen the Kennedy family over the years
were you ever worried about going into politics ?
A: I can't say that I've ever thought there was any link between the fortunes of the Kennedys in the north east of the United States and the fortunes of the Kennedys in the north west of the highlands in Scotland.
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