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The Race To The Bath Constituency: An interview with Liberal Democrat candidate Wera Hobhouse 

This is part of an election series with all of Bath’s parliamentary candidates – all interviews will be posted on our website over the next week. Some answers have been edited for legible clarity. 

Wednesday 12th June 2024

Interviewer:  Finn Lawrence-Knight (in bold)

Interviewee: Wera Hobhouse, Bath’s Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Candidate

Thanks very much for joining me today. My first question is, where do you get your drive from? Why did you want to become an MP here in Bath, and run for party leadership?

So, I have actually been involved in politics since I was a student; I grew up in Germany, and even in those days, there was this lack of engagement from young people. So my political engagement dates back to the times when I felt we needed to have a bigger voice for young people. And ever since then I’ve sort of taken on my political activities. There was a gap at some point, of course, I had to finish my studies – there was a time when I hadn’t seen the university for several months! Those were heady days of campaigning for students’ rights. And I still feel that is very important. Later in my life, I became a local councillor as I wanted to represent people and communities. And then you move on from being a local councillor to an MP, somewhat naturally, but it’s something that I was encouraged to do. We lack women in parliament, and in fact we still have an under-representation. It is important to have women’s voices in Parliament, and since I was elected, I’ve taken up particularly women’s issues.

Not only have you focused on women in parliament, but violence against women and sexual assault have been some of your key policy interests. Do you think when you look back at your political career, that will play into your legacy?

Definitely, although I’m not quite thinking about the end of my career yet! I think to highlight issues that have been hidden for so long – and domestic violence is one of them as well as femicide – these are vile practices that some people think are just a joke, without thinking that they actually create victims. Those are the areas that I really want to continue to campaign on and would love to have a legacy in. I’m not the only one. I’d say in politics you only ever achieve anything in teams. So in Parliament, there’s a team of women who actually on a cross-party basis have campaigned on similar issues. I’m pleased and proud that I could push through two bills which are now Acts of Parliament and the law, and that’s the Upskirting Bill and the Workers’ Protection Bill. These are small steps. But politics is always done in small steps. I think sometimes, particularly when you’re young, it’s quite frustrating that things take such a long time. But that’s democracy. Democracy takes time.

I would say you’re right about frustration – I suppose that’s why so many young people have so much passion, we’re all trying to be politically engaged.

I like to hear that. But also, things have changed and not changed. When we were young, we were impatient in the campaign, and we had big anxieties about the future. It’s not a new thing. You can obviously then look back at a relatively long life and think, well, why did we not do more particularly around climate change? And that for me is a very sore point. We have known about environmental destruction for a long time. I’ve been a member of Greenpeace in Germany since the 1980s – environmental campaigning has already got decades of legacy. And yet it seems that we continue to destroy our planet. And why do we not make more and better progress? And you can certainly look at my generation and think, well, what went wrong here?

Well, let’s focus on climate policy. We’ve had some U-turns from the governing party in terms of net zero commitments, and the same from the Labour Party, who polls suggest will form the next government. As the Climate Change spokesperson, what do you think distinguishes Liberal Democrat climate policy from these two large parties? 

I’m very proud of the manifesto that we have produced. I’m also very proud of the plan we produced in 2019. And we are still committed to getting to net zero by 2045. I would personally say, that what doesn’t help any political movement, or any political strategy, is chopping and changing. You have to stick to your guns. Yes, of course, we need to take people with us, and that’s very much around citizens assemblies. And that costs money. So when we are putting a budget behind our climate commitments, that actually includes money to hold citizens assemblies, be that nationally or locally, and make sure that we can communicate why we need a strong commitment to net zero and why, as I always say, this is not the bus we can miss. Parties who don’t communicate that urgency, I think are failing people. It is of course, well understood that people are anxious and worried about jobs that they might lose, about changes in their habits and their lifestyles. But that is of course, where the government comes in and supports. That’s where a government doesn’t have to deliver everything, but the government needs to set out the guidelines. We Liberal Democrats have always called, and continue to call for, an industrial strategy at which Net Zero sits at the core. What my colleague Daisy Cooper said very well in the panel discussion, just a few days ago, is that it isn’t an ‘either-or’: effective climate policy, or a growing economy, we cannot grow the economy without an effective climate policy. This has to be communicated. In some countries, finally, the breakthrough has been achieved, particularly in the US with the Inflation Reduction Act and other pieces of legislation where suddenly people see actually the future is with green sustainable jobs, with a green future that is good for the planet.

I think students are in two minds, we want to have climate justice, but we want to be able to afford basic commodities. In Bath, for example, Wessex Water have said they would like to increase prices by potentially 50% in coming years. And with nearly 4 million hours of sewage spilling into our rivers and lakes, we feel a certain hypocrisy when we see price rises at home.

You’re really getting right into the issue of a company like Wessex Water, which has been spilling sewage at the rate of millions of tonnes of water. And that is absolutely, totally unacceptable. And we Liberal Democrats were the first to call that out. So clearly this this is a total lack of regulation. We Lib Dems have called for a long time now, but it’s also in our manifesto, to replace the regulator Ofwat – you have to remember, a regulator is not a completely independent body, a regulator is ultimately a negotiator between a private company and the government. So, if a government wants to be tough on private industry, it can. But 14 years of Conservative government has not been tough on private companies. So, what have they done, they own the assets, they have borrowed against the assets, and they have created a lot of debt, while at the same time paying a lot of money to shareholders. And taking a company now back into public ownership would mean that any government of whatever colour would inherit a lot of debt. That’s why no party is saying it. And nor do we but what we say is we would take away the licence and would create public interest companies. Ultimately, people need to understand if you’re a private company, you can do what you want unless a regulator comes in and says what you’re doing is illegal. And then they can be taken to court. But so far no water company has been taken to court, for example, for paying their top management bonuses despite non-performance. That is where a regulator comes in. And when the legislation law would come in, to sort of keep a much tighter handle on what the water companies are currently doing, and currently that regulation is very lax, and that was a choice of a Conservative government.

And this theme of the public service and its relationship with private industry is seen in your other jurisdiction: Transport. In Bath, we have First Bus and last year it increased prices again on the primary form of transport for students, and for residents in general. What can be done by the council, whose primary responsibility it is?

Hang on, no, it’s the West of England Combined Authority. It’s a mayor, currently Dan Norris, who holds the funds for bus services. So, this is, of course, where people are hiding who is actually responsible. The money goes to WECA, and then the local council can apply and make the case for keeping bus routes. My local council has tried vigorously, tirelessly, to save bus routes. And we have lost that battle with WECA and Dan Norris, who is standing as a Member of Parliament for Northeast Somerset and wants to two-time, be the Member of Parliament and the Mayor! Well, how good is that? In the meantime, what we are actually asking for is that councils can have their own franchising powers. This will restore some local public oversight into bus services, so they’re not just run by public companies. WECA can support certain services. But actually, we need a lot more local control over where we have the buses and what it costs to travel.

The Trussell Trust reports that food bank usage in Bath has risen by a quarter since the 2019 General Election. Now, a lot of rhetoric we hear surrounds inflation reduction. But is that enough? What can we do in our local areas to prevent the rise in food bank usage?

Well, the cost-of-living crisis is absolutely real and has been getting worse and worse, particularly for vulnerable households. So, there’s a combination of things, there’s inflation, but there’s, for example, the cost of energy bills. And we’ve always said that in order to keep our energy bills low we need more renewable energy. We need to insulate our homes because the cheapest energy is the energy we don’t use. Bringing the cost down for energy bills, and actually tackling climate change, again, goes hand in hand. Therefore, the best thing that I can offer is lowering energy bills by having a massive rollout of home insulation, incentivizing landlords to do the necessary work because if you think about it, you’re a tenant, you are the one who pays the high bills, a landlord doesn’t have necessarily any interest themself to do upgrades in the home because they’re not benefitting and they can charge, as we know in Bath, very high rents. So we have to find a system where we incentivise private landlords to do the necessary work in private rented homes. Lots of vulnerable families live in private rented accommodation in Bath. One of the first things we can do is bring down energy bills by A) home insulation, and B) making sure that the energy with which we power our homes is cheap, and the cheapest form of energy is renewables and the energy that we do not use.

It’s not only with families, but also student housing in Bath has been described as ‘deplorable’ by our Student’s Union, with many student houses reportedly being mould-infested and poor to live in. But what specific incentives that you mentioned can we give? 

Well, you need to you need to particularly provide disincentives – the first thing that needs to happen, I’ve been calling for it for a long time, is to have a register of landlords for the local authority. And then as a local authority, you can impose proper, decent home standards. And that’s been missing for a long time.

What about house-building targets?

We continue to have a national house-building target of 300,000 per annum. A very important thing that I put there when I was speaking for housing, communities, and local government in the 2017-2019 parliament was to make sure that a third, ie 100,000, homes should be social homes for rent. And that is not affordable housing, you’re talking social homes for rent, it’s different. Affordable housing is usually 80% of market value – social housing is ultimately something that a public body can control directly. And really, I would always say, it is important that social housing is not left to the private developers, because that’s always the first thing that goes. Social housing, at the scale that we are asking for, needs to be part of a government infrastructure program. We have lost millions of social houses through right to buy, we need to rebuild them at a very fast pace or the housing crisis will not be solved.

I want to talk about wider politics electoral politics outside of Bath. We have had a decline in voter turnout in a lot of regions in the UK. In your eyes, why do you think voter turnout has decreased?

Well, so we have a political party – the Conservatives – that has promised things that they knew they couldn’t deliver, particularly around immigration. They have had broken promise after broken promise for a long time. Remember David Cameron, pledging to keep immigration in the 10s of thousands. They’re trying to promise something that they cannot deliver. Their promise of Brexit finally put a stop to immigration. In fact, since Brexit, immigration, legal immigration, has shot up. Why? Because of course, the jobs that European migrants did needed to be filled. And rather than being filled by Europeans, they are now being filled by people coming from much further afield. They then want to bring their dependents with them, for very good reasons. Whereas the European migrants came and went, they spent some months here, and then some months back in their European homes, not all of them, but a very large amount of them. Whereas now people come much more permanently. There’s nothing wrong with that. But then don’t promise that you’re going to curb immigration. The other problem is illegal migration. And again, the Conservatives are trying cruel and totally unrealistic ways of curbing migration, when really we know that a lot of that illegal migration is driven by war, destitution, and horrific crimes. And the only way to stop illegal migration is to find safe and proper legal routes to migration into this country. If a political party for over a decade sets out and breaks promise after promise, guess what? Voters become very disillusioned. And that is a shame. Some even say all parties are the same. Hey, hang on. For 14 years other parties didn’t have a go. Let’s give other parties a go, and see how many promises they can actually fulfil. But if a party has been so bad at actually fulfilling their promises, then people get very disillusioned. The other thing I would say is we are sometimes failing to engage with people between elections. If you only ask people to participate from one election to the next or from four- or five-year cycles and only ask them to participate by voting, that’s simply not good enough. I mentioned citizen assemblies before. There are other ways of engaging with people in much more meaningful ways by engaging with them outside the party-political ding-dong and division created by media outlets who just want to sell newspapers, rather than being interested in democracy.

In previous elections, you discussed the importance of tactical voting and collaboration with the Greens. Is your focus on electoral reform a reflection of the importance of the youth vote this election, and is tactical voting still a priority?

It’s one of our core manifesto points that we continue to stand up for proportional representation. And I was a member of the Electoral Reform Society, between 2015 and 17. And, in fact, I was on the governing council. And we looked at all the reasons why PR is so much better, not just for the electoral success of one political party, but it leads to better democracy. More people are engaged if they think their vote counts. In so many constituencies, voters over decades always have the exact same outcome. Because whichever way they vote, the same political party always makes it, and they get very disillusioned and disengaged. So, PR is definitely a way of engaging more people to vote. We have supported votes at 16, I absolutely believe it’s the right thing. People at 16 can work and pay taxes, so why shouldn’t you vote at 16? And why do we make an argument that young people are not engaged or informed enough? These were the reasons put forward why women shouldn’t have the vote in the last century. Yeah, I believe at 16 you’re pretty switched on and able to make a decision. And like in the rest of the population, if you feel you do not want to vote, fair enough, we don’t have a duty to vote. But I think people will find that proportionately as many 16-year-olds will vote as the rest of the population.

You mentioned citizens’ assemblies earlier. Could you explain what citizens’ assemblies are, and what role would they ideally play in local democracy?

The way citizens’ assemblies work is basically a bit like a jury service. You’re asking people over however long it takes to come in and get informed about a specific political issue. In Ireland, there was a very famous debate about abortion: should abortion be decriminalised? And the outcome was that an overwhelming majority of people then in a referendum voted to decriminalise abortion – people get properly informed outside party-political ding-dong, they’re meeting with people from different walks of life. And they’re getting paid, which is important because we’re asking for that time. And then most people come out of the citizens’ assemblies and say they knew a lot more and have become a lot more thoughtful about the difficulty, and the complexity of particular political issues. If you want to, for example, prepare a referendum well, and we could have done that with Brexit, we should have had citizens assemblies. If we want to talk about a complex, difficult and divisive issue like climate change and net zero, we need citizens assemblies in order to explain what the options are. A citizens’ assembly does not replace the role of an MP. So, MPs continued to have the vote in Parliament. But what the citizens’ assembly would do is prepare options.

It seems the focus of the Liberal Democrats in some ways is to restore a sense of trust with young people because some would point to the coalition, and the Lib Dem U-turn on student tuition fees and feel there’s a sense of disconnect with the party – is that a priority? Do you think that the other major parties have lost a sense of trust with young people?

Well, I would say with probably most political parties, young people have lost trust with the political system or are frustrated as a whole. I think part of that problem is also education in schools. We are shying away from actually educating young people about our political system. When I talked about how I first got involved in politics, in another country, in another century, that same problem existed, the disengagement of young people. The organisation that I worked for – a political Educational Trust – was explaining different political systems, making the case for parliamentary democracy and how it works. Unless you understand how parliamentary democracy works, and on what values our democratic system is based on, it’s very difficult sometimes for people to understand, for example, that politics takes time, decision-making takes time, and debating legislation in parliament takes time. The impatience with which young people sometimes come with when they first become politically aware, sort of clashes really, with the slowness and cumbersomeness, of the political processes that we have established in order to be inclusive, to make sure that as many people are being heard as possible, to make sure that there is discourse. You know, we are not all of one mind. That’s why I’m a liberal because I want to make sure that everybody, of whatever political creed, faith, colour or background can live their lives to their full extent, but you don’t necessarily need to have the same interest as your neighbour. And yet we in politics need to balance out different interests and come to the best possible solution. It’s never 100% perfect, but the best possible solution. That is what our parliamentary democracy is trying to achieve. The first thing I would always say to people who think that politics is not important to their life is that everything, from your education to your job, to your health, is about politics and the decisions that are being made in this country in Westminster. So just don’t walk away from that.

What do you see the role of the Lib Dems after the election in a potentially Labour-run parliament – what do you see as the main opposing points between the two parties?

Well, I know it’s frustrating, but we’ll just have to wait to see the outcome of the election. In the meantime, we campaign hard to win as many seats as possible and to have our Liberal voice heard in Parliament. Honestly, I cannot predict the outcome of the election. So much of what our role is going to be will depend on how the election is going to map out. My personal prediction is that the polls are probably going to narrow and that this massive Labour lead may not come to fruition. I think, looking at my own door-knocking, there are a lot of what we call ‘shy Conservatives’ around, who will, at the crunch, come and vote Conservative again, although they currently tell us they’re a bit fed up. Therefore, honestly, you’ll have to ask me again once we see what the outcome is. Opinion polls leave out a large amount of people who haven’t made up their minds. Something that the Conservatives keep saying, that is true, is that the only poll that counts is the 4th of July, so you have to bear with me and see what the outcome of the election is. That’s not easy for us either, because of course it means we must think about a plan. The one thing that we have said loud and clear is that we need a change of government.

The Lib Dems were one of the first parties to call for a ceasefire in Gaza. Why do you think this was a priority for the party, and does your background in a divided region make it personally significant?

It is in many ways personally significant because I’m originally from Germany. The Nazis committed the most horrendous atrocities, they were defeated, and those atrocities should never be forgotten. After the Holocaust came a solemn promise, that Jews should never be persecuted again. That support has been with the Jewish people, and I’m firmly behind that. We’ve got the state of Israel, that has come to the homeland that they picked, and it has created the most awful conflicts since 1948. The world stands by and watches these atrocities. While Israel is a friend and we support the Jewish people, particularly after the atrocities that are being committed to them, it is unbelievably heartbreaking to see the suffering of the Palestinians. We are all standing by these atrocities with bleeding hearts, trying to reign in the state of Israel, in order to stop these atrocities. Even the most powerful country, the US, seems to be powerless to stop the determination of Netanyahu and the right-wing government to completely destroy Hamas. And that is where our difficulty lies – how far can we actually reign in a government that, after having the right to defend itself, has disproportionately responded?

Whilst our contribution is minimal in comparison to the United States, do you think that arms sales to Israel should be stopped?

Absolutely, and we have called for that. The Conservative government has said it’s more complicated, as it’s to do with arms licences. You have to remember, small components go into arms, and the process is fragmented, but absolutely. Where arms are used to commit crimes against humanity, that absolutely should be stopped. In fact, there are safeguards in place, and Israel has been on many lists for committing atrocities against the Palestinians. These are reason enough to say that these licenses should be revoked.

Protests, including amongst students, have ramped up in support of the Palestinian cause. Do you sympathise with those, coming from a background of student action yourself?

Yes, I do, I absolutely sympathise with the outrage of people who see the atrocities on a daily basis. It’s also important to remember to keep a balance – in the end, we have been asked again and again to take sides at the outset. The atrocities committed on the 7th of October were atrocities on an unbelievable scale, and there shouldn’t be a blind eye to that. We as Liberal Democrats have tried to keep as much balance as possible. When hostages are released, I rejoice with the Israeli people, but at the same time, I cry, thinking of the cost to the Palestinian people. This is why we need a ceasefire; this is why we need a two-state solution. We need as a global community to negotiate peace.

Moving now to talk about Europe – the Lib Dem manifesto talks about the process of rejoining the Single Market. Now you’ve personally campaigned for a second referendum on Brexit.

We campaigned for a referendum on the deal!

Could you expand on this manifesto pledge?

I have very much understood the value the European Union plays, not only economically but also for peace. Europe was destroyed by war in the 20th century – the EU was borne out of this idea to never have war again. Britain has always seen the EU more as a sort of vehicle for economic growth, but that’s not the only reason why it exists. Particularly in a time of conflict, with Putin’s war in Ukraine, we must remember the intrinsic value of peace. For me, Britain continues to be at the heart of Europe. We have now left the European Union, and realistically we are not going to get back in tomorrow – the EU won’t have us back just like that! We really must claw our way back into trust and more cooperation together. The Liberal Democrats have proposed this process, but it would be naïve to say we will rejoin the European Union in the coming Parliament; it wouldn’t be realistic or credible. Ultimately, our aim is to be a member of the EU again, however long into the future that is. A lot of European countries are very unhappy – I know Germany in particular is trying to build relationships, and I hope that can be achieved.

With the recent elections to the European Parliament, there’s a lot of rhetoric surrounding the rise of right-wing parties, as seen with the AFD in Germany, and the National Rally in France. Do you think this is being reflected in the growth in Reform UK’s polling?

These political trends are often global – they certainly affect our Western democracy if I can call it that. Remember, the EU is expanding massively. I saw the wall fall in 1989, which was the most incredible time, and we felt that democracy and freedom were growing massively. It has expanded in some parts of the world but retreated in others. When I was your age, the threat to democracy came from the extreme left, but today, the threat to democracy comes from the extreme right again, and we have to stand up to that. People are worried about immigration, and that’s a legitimate concern, but we are not combatting that with totally unrealistic promises or indeed cruel ways of dealing with refugees. We must understand that the world is on the move. If we don’t do anything about climate change, migration is going to increase massively – people have seen nothing yet. Incidentally, some of these right-wing parties question net zero, but they want to keep down immigration. Making sure that we have a planet that is liveable for people in other parts of the world goes hand in hand with keeping immigration manageable. The Conservative government completely disbanded the Department for International Development. These things matter! If the UK, as a comparatively prosperous country, are closing their support for people who are in need in other parts of the world, that is no way of dealing with the long-term issues that will affect our country too. It’s connected. If you’re stupid enough to say, ‘We can just be Britain, in the North Sea’, you haven’t understood politics at all.

Finally, what would you say to people who are disillusioned, like many students are, as mentioned earlier?

Firstly, it’s important to democracy and it is important to yourself to vote, participate, and be engaged in the political process, as I said earlier. Politics doesn’t happen detached from your life, it affects every part of it, so think about that. Not voting means that you’re voting for the winner, and that might not necessarily be the person that you like. Participate, even if in the end your vote is for somebody who doesn’t make it. You can’t win the lottery unless you buy a ticket. Get involved and inform yourself – as a student, you are a thinking person. Politics is complicated, yes, but spare a few moments. Read the manifestos, read what different parties and candidates have to offer, wherever you vote. In Bath, I hope of course that you support me. I’ve been the MP for the last seven years, and I’ve delivered for my community. I’m one of the few people that is actually local – the two major opposition candidates don’t live in Bath so that probably tells you how important they think the election is. I take this very seriously, and I want to be a local champion. I’ve been to the University many times, I’m always engaging with students, and my door’s always open. Go out and vote.

This has been really interesting, thanks for speaking to me Wera!

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