2010 was a fraught year for members of the Liberal Democrat party. On the eve of last December’s tuition fee vote, I spoke to UCLan graduate and Lib Dem Preston City councillor John Potter about his politics, activism, the trials and tribulations of the past year, and what this means for the party.
I started as an activist when I was seventeen, and I joined up in 2005.
So you’ve always voted Lib Dem?
Yep, my whole life!
Did you have a ‘click’ moment when you decided you identified with the party?
Well, I’ve always been liberal, so have my mum and dad. They never told us, but they read The Independent, and watched Channel 4 news- a bit of a giveaway! The thing that really got me active was the war in Iraq. I’d finished uni [John graduated from UCLan in 2004] and I wanted something to do- I wanted to get active in the community, and Iraq seemed the perfect reason to get involved, because I was so angry about it.
You’re one of the youngest councillors on Preston Council. My research tells me you’ve stood for election twice now-
-Four times actually! Fourth time lucky, it was.
Four times? Wow, my bad! Did you find standing for election daunting, being so young?
I didn’t stand for election at first. I had a go at helping out, coordinating, handing out leaflets and stuff like that. Not really, no. You have a few nerves about whether people will take you seriously because you’re young. But once you get out there and get on the street, you find people are happy just to have someone different, a bit of fresh blood. People like the fact that you’re young and you’re energetic and you care about something.
Now that you represent Cadley, what sort of stuff do you get up to as a councillor?
The most surprising thing I found was that you very rarely need to go into town hall. There are various committees you can go on to, but the most important thing is being there for your voters- your constituents. I’m usually doing some sort of case work every night. Last night I was in a meeting about leisure centres. I’m actually very busy and that’s not including getting out case work letters, or leaflets, or things like that, that can make you a good councillor.
What’s been your highest achievement since you were elected?
To tell you the truth, it’s been a quiet period. I’ve sorted out a new gritting route which runs past sheltered accommodation. I’ve got a pavement resurfaced. The big stuff is happening in the next few months. That’s when we get our settlement from the government on how much money we’re not getting now, and how much we’ll have to cut. From now up until the budget in February, it really is crunch time. There will be very serious decisions that will have to be made, that is where I will earn my stripes as a councillor.
Would you say there have been any low points since your election?
Not really, no. Local politics is quite strange; it’s not as cut and thrust as national politics. You get your head down, and you do your work. I apply myself and make sure I get out there. If someone’s got a problem I make sure I go round to their door as quickly as I can. I’ll have a chat to them in person, get hold of whatever the issue is, and get it resolved. I’ll let them know about it as much as possible. You should never be really quiet, as a councillor, because if you are, you’re probably not doing as much as you should.
It’s been an interesting year for the Liberal Democrats. One of the pivotal moments for the Lib Dems was those historical televised debates. How do you think the Lib Dems came off in them?
I think they were absolutely vital. Having been quite an active campaigner, everyone knew that it was a big chance for the Lib Dems. The problem that the Lib Dems have always suffered is that nobody knew what we stood for. Obviously, we know what we stand for, but we need to get that message across the nation, to areas that didn’t know. It gave us a primetime seat in front of millions of voters who had never even looked at the Lib Dems before. Nick Clegg did very well on them, and there was ‘Cleggmania’ that subsequently came from it. He offered something different to Labour and the Tories. Locally, we prove that in Cadley all the time. On a national level, that was the first time for us, and it was very exciting. I remember watching the first one, and we had a debate party- there was twelve of us, enjoying a beer and watching it. For the second one, I was working down south, and I was driving up listening to it on the radio. I thought ‘Nick Clegg’s done well here’ – as soon as the review started coming in saying he’d done well on the second one as well it was incredibly exciting for me as a campaigner and as a Lib Dem.
You’ve touched upon the fact that it was around this time public opinion really began to change regarding the Lib Dems. What was the feeling amongst yourself and other Liberal Democrat Party members?
Well, obviously, we were ecstatic. Seeing the Liberal Democrats 32% in the polls, ahead of the Tories and Labour was incredible. In my heart of hearts, I went to talk to one of the North West campaigners and I said that with every bounce there has to be a come down. It was when there was an initial feeling of ‘oh right! They’re the Lib Dems’ started to take off, I recognised that it was a honeymoon period and wouldn’t last forever. It was an incredibly exciting time, but it didn’t quite hold out to polling day. That was a shame. There was a general opinion that the Lib Dens my go down to about 40, that we would be squeezed by the Tory resurgence in the south west. But for us to only loose five seats, and actually holding off Tories in some seats was quite a success for us. We would have loved to have had 100 MPs, but we got a million more votes. A million more votes, but five less seats. It shows the crookedness of our electoral system if anything!
And so the coalition government was formed. Were you watching the live coverage?
I was glued to it! Twitter, Facebook, radio, TV, it was really exciting. I’ve just bought David Laws’ book about his inside account and I’m looking forward to reading that.
What were your thoughts on the Lib Dems teaming up with the Conservatives?
All political parties have various wings, and the Lib Dems are no different. We have the social liberals, on the left of the party. Most people would say that we have more in common with Labour than with the Conservatives. The amount of our manifesto that is in that coalition document was incredibly encouraging for Lib Dems. Some members who had fought the Tories their whole lives and who can’t think of anything worse will never like it, and still don’t like it. People get tribal with their politics, and they were never going to like it. I think the party did very well in letting us know as members what was going on. We’re the only party I know that spent their money putting on a special conference after the coalition document had been released where members from across the country could go and have their say, and were asked ‘are you happy with this?’ No other party would do that, but the Lib Dems take pride in the fact that whether it’s a lowly councillor or party activist like me, right up to Nick Clegg, we all had a say. I think it was 95% of us that were in favour of it. I believe in coalition politics. Compromise isn’t a bad word. There are 22 coalitions in Europe. The last peace time coalition was in the 1920s. We have to get used to it. Some people are very uneasy about coalition, but if we get the voting system we’ve always wanted, PR [proportional representation], that more or less ensures coalition for life. It makes it virtually impossible for one party to get a majority. It’s nothing new. We were in coalition with Labour for eight years in Scotland. Labour are currently in coalition with the Welsh nationals in Wales. Even more astonishingly, Labour are in coalition with the Conservatives in Cumbria county council. This is nothing new for people in local government and devolved government. But I can understand why people are wondering why we can’t do everything we said we could do.
Let’s fast forward a few fateful months. The tuition fees debate started gaining momentum during the summer, and is still going. During the election at UCLan, the Student Left Network held a debate where a representative from the three main parties came in talk to us, and we were told that free tuition was one of the Liberal Democrats’ core policies. When the debate started to rear its head, what were your opinions on it, and what are they now?
Nothing’s changed, technically. Free tuition fees are still a bench mark of Lib Dem policy. We’re not able to deliver it in this government. We wouldn’t be able to deliver it if it was us and Labour in government, because neither Labour nor the Conservatives want free tuition fees. We’ve only got 57 MPs. If we had 320 MPs, there would be no tuition fees in six year time. The Lib Dems have a federal policy committee, and that’s still our policy. Some Lib Dems don’t believe that, but the party does, as a whole. The membership all get to vote when we go to conference. We have these debates, and it’s still a major Lib Dem policy. Coalition is give and take. It wouldn’t have mattered if it was Labour, Tory, or a rainbow coalition- no one was going to give us the tuition fees.
It was reported yesterday that 17 Lib Dem ministers in parliament will be voting for a rise in tuition fees. What sort of knock on effect to you feel that that will have on the party?
I think most people understand that there’s a ministerial responsibility when you’re in government. There’s a collective responsibility to represent the government. This is why someone like Tim Farron, who’s just become our party president, says Nick Clegg has to represent the government as well as the Lib Dems, so that issue is going to be squeezed. Having someone like Tim Farron as a non-ministerial president of the Lib Dems has been vitally important. He’s been the voice of the Lib Dems outside of the government. I graduated in 2004, and it shouldn’t detract from the fact that this policy is a vast improvement from what I went through. I remember starting every term, going into university with a cheque worth £1000. That’s not happening now, and no upfront fees are a massive improvement. Not to mention the 40% of part time students that will pay no upfront fees. The cost of paying fees is now dramatically lower as well. It’s down to £7 a month for someone on £21,000 a year. I wouldn’t be paying anything [if the new policy was in place when I went to UCLan].
Finally, what are your thoughts on the caricature of Nick Clegg in the press, especially amongst the student population? He’s gone from Mr Reasonable to Mr Nasty in a matter of six months.
I think it’s exactly what you said- a caricature. He’s the face of the Lib Dems as part of the coalition. It wouldn’t matter if it was Nick Clegg or Bob Russell, the very left wing backbencher. It wouldn’t matter who it was, they’d get tarred with that same brush. He’s almost like a scapegoat for every policy that’s more conservative than ours. Nick Clegg has become the face of that. Rightly or wrongly, you do lose a bit of your identity in coalition. I actually think he’s doing a pretty good job. There is a collective responsibility when you’re in government, and it’s for people like me, and local MPs to make sure we look for the Lib Dem view as well. It’s too easy being in opposition, and that’s what Labour is doing now. What would they do instead? As Ed Miliband said, they have a blank page. If Labour start giving us alternatives, then things might get interesting. But at the moment, they’re not. At the moment there’s the coalition way, and no other way, because there’s no opposition in Britain.