The Badger interviews Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate Chris Bowers
Given that your party did not deliver its promises regarding tuition fees, do you think you can win back student trust?
I hope so. I think it’s important people, students, understand the process in which the tuition fees decision was made.
Labour and Conservative both committed themselves to implementing the Browne report before the election, which had not been published at that stage. It was only published after the election and it was grotesque, stating that if universities could charge whatever they want, if that’s £30,000 a year, they should charge £30, 000 a year.
We were faced with a dilemma. We could say no, we promised the abolition of tuition fees and been steamrollered, in which case there would have been no talk of broken promises, just that Liberal Democrats are impotent. But instead we used the support we had through all the people who voted for us for our stance on tuition fees to go into bat for a much better deal. We got a cap on fees, which never would have been put in place otherwise. Originally of £6,000 a year cap that we compromised up to £9000 on the condition that there were mechanisms in place to help poorer families, like scholarships and grants.
The idea of using £9,000 as a short hand for bashing the Liberal Democrats is desperately simplistic and unfair. We also also made sure the pay back threshold went up from earning £15,000 to £21,000. I think we acted with common sense.
Research carried out recently states that children from poorer backgrounds are 70% more likely to go to university now than they were before under the old system.
You can probably sense I’m quite angry about this issue, the reason I’m angry is because I think we’ve done bloody well both by the students and students of the future. It’s not perfect but we were in a ghastly situation in the first place. It has taken me four minutes to explain all this to you and we are normally only given 12 second sound bites. We have still done a lot that is good for society and have made the higher education system fairer.
Students, as the academic elite of this country should really understand the background, when I hear a student saying ‘those bloody Lib Dems they sold us down the river, they’ve betrayed us they’ve broken their promise’ I find that so fatuities, it makes me wonder what that person is doing as a student, which is aggressive on my part. In this election I am going to be bullish about the tuition fee issue. If students are worthy of their place in the academic elite they ought to know their facts and understand that governing is not easy. If you disagree with what we did that’s fine, but don’t take cheap shots at us based on a couple of headlines and prejudiced newspapers.
Are students still your priority?
We sit on the progressive wing of English politics. We care about the welfare of society not just ourselves and students therefore tend to gravitate toward us and the Green Party, making them a priority.
Do you think the coalition has had an overall positive or negative effect on the Liberal Democrat party?
Although it has had a negative effect on how we are viewed forming coaltion, I think, was still the right thing to do. We have provided a stable government in a difficult context, after an election that immediately saw Greece go bankrupt.
What makes the Liberal Democrats distinct from the other parties, like Labour and Conservative?
We are radical but not extremists, we are for deep-rooted change for things that are not working. We understand that a strong economy is necessary for a fairer society, but you can’t trust Conservatives with promotion of a ‘fair society’ and you equally can’t trust Labour with the economy. We offer a radical anchor in the middle ground. For example, mental health will be a central plank of our manifesto unlike other parties. Patients with mental health issues need just as much care as people with medical illnesses, but because they are “mentally ill” they slip through the net.
The Liberal Democrats have performed poorly in the last 2 by-elections, losing their deposit both times. Do you think this is just a protest vote or does it represent a permanent shift away from liberal democrat support?
People are angry, and using their vote as a weapon. Once you are in government you get your hands dirty, especially in a difficult economic situation and we have been tainted with Conservative policy. Politics is cyclical, if we were an opposition or protest party again we might pick up votes. In retrospect I think people will realize the Lib Dems have not been bad in government.
Brighton having an MP from a party that only has one MP makes it more important to listen to constituents rather than towing the party line, do you feel that you can make a similar commitment to listen to your constituents?
Yes absolutely. You can’t deliver everything because people want conflicting things but you should always listen. Me and Carloline Lucas have little to disagree about, but how you should vote in relation to the environment is tricky. Voting Green is a more open statement but leaves you with a one woman lobby in government where as Lib Dems have actually got things done, we have been running the department of energy and climate change.
Looking at their popularity in recent national polls, do you consider UKIP to be a serious threat?
Nigel Farage is very clever. He has tapped into the feeling of the country and has a way of making what are actually facile arguments sound reasonable, and I’m not just talking about to closet racists (although I’m sure there are some). UKIP also has Conservative running scared. The Conservative party has been split as a result, many people in the party are uncomfortable with the idea of leaving Europe as they recognize its benefits. There comes a moment when you need to stand up for what you believe, in spite of pubic opinion,
UKIP and Conservative are allowing public dislike for Europe drive the country into a very dangerous position. In reality (as the more uncomfortable, what might be called ‘soft’ Conservatives realize), they rely on non-British national work.
Just because you don’t like aspects of the EU doesn’t mean you get rid of it altogether. There are things I dislike about England, but I don’t move! We can make changes to both from within. We gain benefits from the EU like an influence in world affairs we would not otherwise have.
However unfashionable it may be, there comes a point where you need to say, this is just wrong.
I do not think UKIP will be a threat to Brighton Pavillion because their support tends to come from aging men. Brighton has a mixed population, of gender and age meaning UKIP do not have very fertile hunting ground here.
Do you think the Liberal Democrats are in need of new leadership?
Clegg has given people what they wanted on the run up to the last election, the question is do people see that. What people say they want isn’t necessarily what they respond to when they see it in action. People love voting for change but then hate change when it comes into being. Nick Clegg just got on with it, and thought I’m going to just carry on. Clegg has taken incredible amounts of flack and is still there smiling, a thoroughly decent human being.
We have hopes that despite five years of frustration, people will ultimately think, ‘he’s not such a bad guy, he’s had so much thrown at him and good on y’ mate’- even if this is a grudging kind of respect from people.
It’s time not for a change of leadership, but to put Clegg’s leadership style to the test and see if people are willing to say, ‘I’ve been frustrated with him for five years but actually, he may be the best of the bunch.’
Will the Lib Dems drug policy be a red line issue if there are negotiations to form a coalition at the next general election as a lot of young people that support the decriminalization of drugs might be skeptical about the Lib Dems after the tuition fee pledge?
At the moment it is not clear what are red line policies will be. If we do end up in negotiations again we will push as much of what we stand for as we can.