First question, it’s May the 8th, you’ve been returned as MP for Southampton Test, what is your number one priority as MP?
Getting hold of a map of the House of Commons.
Aside from that, obviously, I’m thinking more policy. What would you want to raise awareness of?
I won’t dictate how policy will work, I’m not Prime Minister. Really, the best answer is what I would do as a Private Member’s Bill, which would be to put restrictions on payday loan companies so that they couldn’t charge more than 50% interest on anybody as a total of the loan they have, regardless of circumstance.
That seems pretty reasonable. Also, what as MP can you offer to students?
It’s difficult because my party’s priority will be to maintain higher education funding and we are very, very keen to maintain UK universities reputation in the world, a reputation for excellent courses that attract students from all over the globe. We want to have more overseas students that can stay over here presuming they can find work, we don’t want to shut anyone out. From a more personal point of view and it must be stressed this is not the party’s view, I think we should reduce the 9% of your income you pay on your student loan to 5% per year, so a vast majority of students would only pay their living expenses rather than their tuition fees.
Okay, since you’ve brought up tuition fees, I have to ask, do you or would you stand by that decision?
If I’d been in the House of Commons at the time I would have kept our promise and voted against it, along with the 27 other MPs who did, including three who resigned from the Cabinet to do so. Nearly half our MPs kept their promise and it’s important for people to know that. The reason I would have voted against it is that I feel when you make a written pledge you should keep it, it’s that simple. If we hadn’t have made that pledge, and it had been suggested we bring in the current system, with lower interest on repayments, I would have voted for it, but since we pledged not to, I wouldn’t have gone against that.
So you support the current system?
Yes, I think it’s an excellent replacement for the old student loans, because the old one’s were a lot worse for your living expenses.
But you wouldn’t support lowering tuition fees and making the payment more aggressive, as Labour have proposed?
No I wouldn’t, that won’t benefit anyone who isn’t paying higher rate tax or are rich enough to pay their own living expenses before you go to university. If you have to borrow your living expenses you will be no better off, I would much rather see the money used to lower the amount you pay back from 9% to 5% which would benefit all students.
How much would that effect what we actually pay, because with the current situation very few students will pay back their whole loan after graduating?
If you take the Labour policy and reduce fees to £6,000 the government still pay the other £3,000, it’s not going to save money. This is just a swipe by Labour that leads to a good headline, but it won’t benefit the vast majority of students. What matters is that it’s affordable to go to University and maybe it’d be better if people got more money for accommodation, or the price of accommodation, which I think is too high, could somehow be lowered. I’d also like to see Universities able to provide Halls of Residence for more students, and students would have enough money to live and eat and survive and for spending money you can get a part time job, which isn’t the case at the moment. Obviously, that is not Liberal Democrat policy, but I’m happy to stand up for my own views.
Okay, well reading your party profile, you highlighted “cheaper and more frequent trains and buses” and given the Lib Dems support the HS2 project, do you think High Speed rail is something that should be expanded across the country?
Nope. I’m not a supporter of paying for HS2, I don’t think it’ll make any difference to people in the north of England. It may increase house prices, but that may not benefit everyone. My own view is that if it’s privately funded and privately run without government subsidies then that’s fine. But I’d rather see the money spent on improving rail services for everyone. One policy I will put forward to the Policy Committee I’ve just joined is a reform of railway contracts with fares set by network rail and the rail companies bidding to run the lines on a fixed fee basis, so they can no longer have a vast array of prices, because at the moment it is just too expensive. This is a public service, not a business, I understand this is pretty radical.
Well it makes my job more interesting.
I know, my party might crucify me for this.
Well given that, this might be a bit more contentious than I expected. Are you proud of what the Liberal Democrats have done in government?
Yes I am. We have achieved way more than you would have expected for a party of 57 MPs against nearly 300 Conservative MPs. Raising the personal rate of Income Tax was our policy, not the Conservatives, it was in our manifesto not their’s. Plenty of things that have happened in government were in our manifesto: equal rights for gay marriage, we’ve done that; equal pay for women highlighted, we’ve done that by forcing companies to be more transparent about what bosses are paying their employees. Women can now see what their male counterparts are being paid and challenge their bosses about it. We’ve done a lot of things you don’t see, that the press don’t like to talk about.
Well the second part of the question is then, if there is no majority, would you be happy to go into coalition with the Conservatives again?
Personally, no. I don’t mind giving you a straight answer, because we will decide as a party to join any coalition if invited- and who says we’ll be invited to anyway- who knows, there may be huge change of mind in undecided voters and we may end up as the party of government, I have no concept of being unambitious. We will have a vote whether or not to go into any coalition, we are a democratic party, and if the option is to go into coalition with the Conservatives then I shall vote no.
Well they know that now, so if I’m elected they’re going to have to account for me.
Okay, going back to your party profile. You’re very proud to be from Southampton, you live and work here, do you think that’s important for an MP to take an active role in the community before taking a seat?
That’s a very interesting question. I think that as a constituency MP, yes, as you’re representing your constituency. In a different system, such as STV [Single Transferable Vote] it would be different. In Scotland it’s obviously different, so it depends who you ask. In this country, with First Past The Post I think it’s more important.
So you think it’s important for all MPs to be involved in their local area before they take seat?
I’d like to make the point that every single candidate lives in Southampton Test lives in Southampton Test and is involved in the local community.
Unlike Nick Clegg, who, obviously, isn’t from Sheffield?
I think it’s different for someone who is the Deputy Prime Minister, it’s a slightly different situation. If you’ve been an MP for a while and have a position like Deputy Prime Minister, then maybe it’s not practical for you to be so far away from Westminster.
It’s more that the constituency he represents is not somewhere he’s tied to, it’s not where he lives, it’s just a convenient safe seat. Is that acceptable?
I think, when you’re talking about party leadership, then yes. But what I would like to say is that if you’ve got that, with leaders of parties standing if they were to have a representative from the area to have someone represent your area, since it’s hard for the Prime Minister or a Party Leader to represent their constituency as a back bencher would. I mean, it’s a radical idea, I’m all for exploring new ways to add to democracy, I’m not against minority government, or more cross-party support. I quite like the Scottish system, since in the Scottish system you wouldn’t have to ask me that question as Nick Clegg would be voted in under STV as a party politician.
Would that be something that the Liberal Democrats might look to do. Obviously you had the AV referendum, would you look to push that again, especially if people seem more receptive after an election in which a party like UKIP could win 12% of the vote and only return one MP. Would the Lib Dems again push for a change in the voting system?
I’m afraid it seems unlikely, from a personal point of view I think there are more things that need to be done from a public service perspective that needs doing. From a personal point of view I think that there are a lot more things in the public service that need improving, from a party point of view I think it’s a wait and see, we’ve yet to say we will and are yet to say we won’t. We have an ambition for more devolved government and a greater role for regional government and I think that is something we are more likely to push.
That’s a very reasonable answer, and also the end of my questions.
Your questions have been very different, but you didn’t actually mention, and no one in most of the events I’ve been to have mentioned climate change and green policy.
Well, we’ve got time if you want to go into your green policy then fire away.
I just think that it’s important that people realise that we as a party are keen to tackle climate change, that the Green Party are not the only party concerned with the environment. We’ve got five pieces of Green legislation that are literally on the front of our manifesto and we want to show people that the Liberal Democrats are keen to combat climate change by insulating homes, reducing waste and trying to make the UK a world leader in renewable energies, we are a truly green party.
A list of all candidates running in Southampton and Winchester can be seen here.