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An interview with Wera Hobhouse, Bath’s Lib Dem candidate

This is part of an election series with all of Bath’s Parliamentary candidates – all interviews can be found on our website. Some answers have been edited for legible clarity

Interview by Henry Robinson and Luke Gardiner

How did you get into politics?

I’ve been a Member of Parliament for two and a half years until November. Before that, I was a councillor up in where we lived from 2004-2014 so ten years of local government. I always think that is a very good introduction into serious politics. I was also engaged in student politics when I was your age.

What is one of your highlights as a Bath MP? What lessons have you learnt? 

A particular highlight of course was to get the up-skirting bill through. It is actually very rare that private members bills make it through the whole process. That was only possible because the Government took on my private members bill and made it into a Government bill. We created cross-party support and that is often how we are most successful.

But politics is about controversial proposals and the difference and competition of ideas. Obviously, on Brexit it was very controversial. Ultimately, we are now at an election and we haven’t left the EU as promised on 29th March nor on the 31st October as it was promised. It was also an achievement and a victory. I understand that a lot of people are frustrated that we haven’t left yet but it seems to neglect the fact that after all, nearly half the people didn’t want to leave the EU. Having fought on their behalf and for that corner was difficult.

Having an election now which one can see as having another mandate on Brexit is ultimately a highlight although I’m very exhausted.

The Lib Dems have made news with their Brexit policy, is that something you fully support?

So, I am a supporter of the People’s Vote and we as a party have been since 2016. It was in our election manifesto and my first speech in parliament was that people must finish what the people have started. 

Absolutely, I am a passionate supporter of the people’s vote. The difficulty was that it was ultimately 12 MPs who supported it and then gradually the SNP joined, and we already had the support of the Green Party. But, the Labour Party wasn’t behind it at all. We put 20 amendments of a People’s Vote through Parliament and we did not get the support from the Labour Party. We managed to get a million people onto the streets of London twice for a People’s Vote campaign. 

It was just so difficult to get the Labour Party to support a people’s vote. Now, at a point where we’re really running out of time, the Labour Party are saying that they support a People’s Vote. So of course, the idea of a People’s Vote is absolutely passionately what I believe in. The question is really how can we deliver all of that?

But also, we thought through about when you’ve got a ballot paper there, you know stay in the European Union or leave the EU with whatever deal, where would we stand as Lib Dems? And we are very clear that we want to remain, the logical conclusion is that if we cannot have a people’s vote which is the preferred option, the second option is a second-rate public mandate if you wish on this issue i.e. a general election which is after all a democratic decision. If in that democratic decision the Lib Dems get an overall majority that is a public mandate for revoking Article 50 which is what we want to do. 

And in fact, you would be very surprised if let’s say Boris Johnson and the Tory party would stand in a general election on Brexit and say I deliver Brexit and then they wouldn’t do it. I don’t understand why when the Lib Dems say we want to stop Brexit and then when we get into government, we don’t stop Brexit, wouldn’t that be very strange? Of course, if we go to an election and say, “we want to stop Brexit” and then on the day of winning of an election we stop Brexit, hey ho that’s what any party would do. 

Would it be a political mandate though because obviously the voting system for the referendum is that you have to get over 50%, but with the way our system works you can get 40% of the votes but still be the majority party?

Which is why originally, I always wanted a referendum as that would give you a very clear indication. But it is this Government, the Tory Government, that has persistently and doggedly refused to hold a referendum. So, I lay it at the feet of the Tory Government that we don’t have a referendum but an election which is a much less good public mandate. But, Boris Johnson and the Tory party, as I have said before, go to this election to say that they will deliver Brexit and on day one of winning an election that is what they will do. So that is what we do. They might do it on 35% of the vote. Yes, that brings me to the point that we’ve got a very outdated voting system and I’ve campaigned for electoral reform. 

Given that Labour are now vying for a People’s Vote would you see yourself going into coalition with them or making a deal with them? 

We are the Lib Dems with our sets of proposals and that’s a unique offer – we want to stop Brexit, the Labour position is not very clear cut but of course, the People’s Vote has been an ambition of ours as well. We have promoted the people’s vote and will continue to promote the people’s vote even if we are not in a majority government. So yes, of course we are ultimately closer to the Labour position. For me, the most important thing is to stop a Boris Johnson majority government. This is what the election is about – stop Brexit, stop Johnson. 

There’s a massive amount of support amongst students for the Lib Dems, especially given the Stop Brexit policy, but given the controversy around tuition fees how can you reassure those students that are unsure after that 2010 promise? 

Yes, I mean of course this has been dogging up our party for such a long time. I think we have learned many lessons and we have also apologised many times for why we ended up in that situation. And yes, I think as a party one always has to prove oneself afresh and look back at what has been done in the past four years and what the Lib Dems have said and done. 

In the end, I hope that young people can look at our party now as a new party, our membership is new and there is hardly anybody left whose actually been a part of the coalition government. We have had MPs joining us from other parties and we are a growing movement. We are in many ways a different party, albeit with the same principles and values that we’ve held for many decades. In politics, what you believe and what you deliver should be the same. But in the realities of politics, particularly in this country where it’s First Past The Post, the Lib Dems are somewhat squeezed out and stuck in the middle as a third party. It sometimes makes it very difficult to explain to people when and why you couldn’t get your pure vision of what you wanted through. In 2010, it was clearly that we were stuck as a smaller partner with a bigger coalition partner and for that reason, the question of whether we go into coalition again, we have obviously burned our fingers as a party and we will be very reluctant to go into similar arrangements again.

I personally would never go into a coalition with the Tories. It’s clear as day – they want Brexit and we are absolutely anti-Brexit and I cannot see where there is any overlap. 

Fast forward to 2019, what’s your position on tuition fees now? 

We wouldn’t support anything that would increase tuition fees. There have been proposals from Government actually to reduce tuition fees for certain courses. Universities themselves are very worried about that because it might actually mean that students look at courses in a different way – look at them as first- and second-rate courses. We have to listen very carefully to what Universities say and we are still in the middle of consultation or the government is with the government 

We certainly didn’t approve of the cut of the maintenance grant that came in after the 2015 Government. Also that the loans have been sold so that you pay interest. That was not at all part of the original proposal of tuition fees and we are very much against that. 

So, things have changed since the tuition fees issue was first introduced by the Lib Dem coalition and what the government has done since 2015 is absolutely outrageous and we are against it. 

What can the liberal democrats promise to do both locally and nationally in terms of climate change crisis?

Beyond Brexit, I believe that it is the most pressing issue of our time. This is not a new issue I have been an environmental campaigner since I was a little bit older than you guys are. I voted Green in Germany and for me the attractiveness of the Liberal Democrats in the early 2000s was that it was very much an environmental party. When I became a counsellor, I became the Cabinet Member for the environment and from 2006 onwards I did a lot at a local level to address environmental issues. 

We have lost direction and urgency in the past 10 years and I blame actually the financial crisis for that. Suddenly, environmental issues very much became a background issue. We now have to accelerate urgently the action that we do because the longer that we leave it the more difficult it is to address it and do something that doesn’t lead to catastrophic climate breakdown. 

We as a party have got a clear, decisive plan how to cut most emissions by 2030 and get to net zero by 2045. I know there’s currently a rush about who gets there first, but I don’t think that’s where we should pitch this issue. We should really look at what we can do now and do it now. 

The reason why we don’t go for an earlier target because there clearly are sectors where we haven’t got a solution e.g. aviation. As much as we should all think about how much or little we fly, aviation will not stop in 2030 so we haven’t found an alternative to jet fuel. We are looking at what frequent flyers should do and have a plan for a levy to make sure that big companies don’t send their staff out all over the world when it possibly isn’t necessary. We don’t want to punish family members who once a year go out and fly to visit loved ones. Unless you do what Greta did and sail across the Atlantic ocean, that is not what everyone would do. We are living in a global world. People have got family across the globe now and we shouldn’t punish every family. 

But at the same time, why is it that flying to Berlin costs £30 but taking a train costs £200? It’s surely not right. It’s a global issue on how we actually tax jet fuel. Can we reflect the cost of flying properly in terms of the cost to the environment? That needs to be resolved locally 

On a local level here in Bath how can we contribute? 

We are breaking down the whole complex issues into several sectors. We know in three sectors what we need to do that’s power, heating and transport service. We can take immediate action, government, local or individual action. Transport is the biggest contributor to carbon emissions in this country. So, what are we doing about it? At a national level, we need to look very carefully into alternatives for petrol and diesel cars. So that would be electric and hydrogen. The government clearly needs to expand the electric grid and needs to make a decision on a hydrogen grid so that for example, people can choose to buy an electric car.

But individually and at a local level, the council can look at where we can put charging points and how we can change local planning laws in order to make sure each new development has charging points to make it possible to own an electric car. Individually, it’s about making a choice how you travel around in Bath. Personally, I have bought an electric bike and so has my husband as well. It certainly doesn’t replace the car, but it does replace our second car. For every local transport we now use our electric bikes as much as possible. Sometimes it rains so hard that it’s fair enough to use a car. For many local journeys, an electric bike is definitely an alternative for a car certainly for older people like me who don’t make it up the hill. But you guys can make that decision on how you travel, could you actually walk? This works for families as well. There’s national, local and individual action that can happen, but it needs to happen at all levels. 

It’s great to see mental health policies but aside to that is the legalisation of cannabis which can pose issues for people’s mental health– how can you mitigate the negative psychological effects?

The thing is always when something becomes illegal that you start to get ultimately criminal activity and illegal use of a drug that could also have positive effects like we know with medical cannabis. The whole campaign comes from the fact that cannabis used in a particular and safe way can have beneficial aspects of it. It only becomes an issue when it is overdosed and used too much. By legalising it, you can control much better what you actually use. 

All programmes in all countries where cannabis is legalised, points to the fact that it vastly increases health benefits and outcomes for users. 

The biggest problem with cannabis is impure stuff that you buy and use. You end up with terrible problems and indeed mental health problems. Yes of course, I don’t want to get into problems at that end and we see a massive increase in mental health problems if people have over used cannabis but any research and comparative studies from other studies indicate that the opposite is the case.

If you win your seat again, what is your main priority for Bath?

Absolutely addressing the climate crisis in conjunction with local colleagues who have declared a climate emergency. How do we actually get to net zero as soon as possible locally? That cannot happen without national action so the interaction between me as the Bath representative and local councils as a representative of the city plus engaging with the people of Bath, how do we get here in Bath to net zero as soon as possible? 

Favourite thing about Bath?

My favourite thing is always people. It’s meeting many different people, organisations and events. There is so much going on in Bath and it is very diverse. I love the city because I think it is open, tolerant and inclusive. The spirit of the city is reflected in everything you can do here. 

Genevieve Redgrave

Genevieve Redgrave was the Editor-in-Chief (2019/2020). She won the 'Best Contributor' prize at the 2018 Media Awards in recognition of her frank and witty coverage of world politics.

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