Richard Crook talks to John Leech Lib Dem MP for Withington
An interview with a Liberal Democrat MP doesn’t catch the student reader’s eye like it used to.
The party that in 2010 took many of its votes from students have seen their support amongst young people virtually wiped out after they agreed to raise tuition fees to £9,000 once in government. Today their support stands at just 10%, down 14% since 2010.
I ask John Leech – MP for Manchester Withington and a man who voted against the fee rise – whether he considered leaving the party over the policy.
“No. Party policy is still to abolish tuition fees. Whether we go into the next election with that policy remains to be seen.
“As someone who benefited from free education, I’m not about to start voting to suggest students of tomorrow should be treated differently. Secondly, why do we arbitrarily cut off free education at A levels? If we’re going to say students should pay for university, why not ask them to pay for their A levels?”
I put it to him that an arbitrary line must be drawn somewhere. Why draw the line at an undergraduate degree? Why not ask the taxpayers to fund a student’s MA?
“Whenever you make a cut off for these things, it has to be arbitrary. I personally think it should be after a first degree.”
As most Freshers are about to find out, the first year of university doesn’t always demand a great deal of effort. Should taxpayers for whom university education was never possibility be fronting the bill for that?
“If you don’t educate your kids, society goes downhill. It’s to our benefit to spend thousands teaching people to be doctors and teachers. I accept there are probably efficiencies to be made in terms of how people do their degree. I do think there could be a levelling out, where people in subjects with not many hours could be doing more. Then there would be less of an incentive for people choosing certain degrees over others.”
(This interview was conducted before Nick Clegg apologised for ever supporting abolishing tuition fees, so I can’t ask whether it effects his position.)
Beyond tuition fees, the Conservative Party most famously let the Lib Dems down on Alternative Voting and House of Lords reform. What is the point in staying in the coalition?
“I was one of two MPs who didn’t vote to go to coalition with Tories. The Tories are untrustworthy in the same way Labour are untrustworthy. It was clear they were always going to do the dirty on us when it came to constitutional and electoral reform.”
That may have been the case then, but polls suggest a general election would lead to a Labour victory. Wouldn’t pulling out trigger an election? “No, there would be a Tory minority government that would really struggle to get anything through parliament. The reality is if we pulled out of the coalition then we’d have no influence in government. We’re the people who are responsible for making the tuition fee policy more progressive. We’re responsible for the green deal.”
So why do half the voters think you’ve made no political impact? “Because they read newspapers like The Guardian, The Mirror, The Telegraph, and the Daily Mail, who have an anti-Liberal Democrat agenda.”
Nick Clegg remains the big media target, and if the newspapers dictate opinion as much as John Leech thinks, there will be many Lib Dem MPs who will be wondering whether Clegg is now too much of a liability. Who does Leech think will lead the party in 2015, and is he happy with the job Clegg has done? “I have no reason to believe we won’t go into the next election with Nick still as leader.
One reason could be 50% of Liberal Democrat supporters respect Vince Cable more than any other cabinet minister, compared to the 19% who say the same about Clegg. Could a move to Cable save the Lib Dems from – as the Telegraph puts it – ‘electoral oblivion’? “I would expect the Telegraph to talk about electoral oblivion for the Lib Dems because they’re a bunch of right-wing fascists. “ I’m developing a sneaking suspicion Mr Leech isn’t all that fond of the media.
“Even YouGov, the worst polling organisation in the country, acknowledge that when you ask people if they’re going to vote Liberal Democrat, we actually get a boost if you add, ‘With Nick Clegg as leader.’ But I accept that we get a much bigger boost if Cable is named leader.”
So if that’s the case, what is the downside, especially with recent overtures to Vince Cable by Labour? “These overtures are a load of nonsense, it’s the usual Ed Balls tripe. But if Vince Cable were leader, the papers would all be slagging him off.”
What about the attempts by The Telegraph to sting Cable over his plan to ‘declare war on Murdoch’? “They left a few bits of that unpublished, it was actually other newspapers that published full quotes. But all the newspapers have a more positive image of Vince than they do of Nick, even if it is at times negative as well. “
So regardless as to whether or not the media are being fair, wouldn’t bringing in Cable be the only way the Lib Dems could avoid a general election dominated by broken promises? “I’d be willing to bet if Clegg resigned tomorrow and Cable became leader, the first thing the media would say is ‘this is the man that did the dirty on tuition fees’.”
Does he think the media has that much influence over people? “Yes, absolutely. All the things constituents come to me with are regurgitated from the media.”
My media focus is beginning to irritate John Leech, so I move the conversation onto his constituency. Withington has a high student population and local residents have distinctly mixed feelings regarding their influx. I ask if he ever senses a tension between his student and non-student constituents.
He offers a long pause. “Unfortunately, students get a bad name because of a small number of students who have caused disturbances and upsets residents.
“The biggest tension is between the settled population and landlords. When people move, landlords often snap up houses for students because they see it as a fast buck. The residents I spoke to are angrier at the landlords rather than the students.”
That’s not always the case though. The Withington Civic Society can often be found labelling students as various wild animals. I read him one quote. “The explosion of bars in Withington and Fallowfield over the years has led to the degradation of both areas in terms of noise, litter and urination. Any change would be long overdue.” Is that taking it too far?
“It’s not the language I would have used, put it that way. Wherever you create areas with lots of bars and late-night drinking, there is always opportunity for more disorder.”
Those bars emerge due to student demand though, no? “Fallowfield is not the only place with lots of bars in South Manchester. I live on border of Chorlton, where there’s plenty of bars and rubbish left on the street after late-night drinking. I would never label that as the responsibility of students. It’s the responsibility of careless late-night drinkers.”
A high student-populated constituency isn’t the blessing it once was for a Liberal Democrat MP. Is he now worried about losing his seat? “All MPs should always be concerned about losing their seats. Unfortunately, in too many parts of the country, people get a seat for life thanks to the undemocratic system that we have in place. I think it’s healthy for democracy that you have unsafe seats.”
Does John Leech think he’s in an unsafe seat? He laughs. “I won by less than 700 the first time and less than 1900 the second time. I think that could be construed as marginal.”
For the one or two students out there who don’t follow local politics, the Liberal Democrats were quite substantially obliterated at in the council elections in May. Was it a wake-up call for the party and Leech?
“It wasn’t a wake-up call to us because we know at the moment the party is unpopular. There’s a sense of irony that the party that has to bear a significant portion of responsibility for the mess we’re now in is the main beneficiary of voter’s anger. People have short memories for who’s responsible for what.”
Does he think the Liberal Democrats are being used as a human shield by both sides? “Yeah, that’s fair. In places like Manchester where the Tories are a fairly endangered species, we’re going to get the blame for the unpopularity of the government. I’d urge people to ask why we’re in the mess we are? The fact remains the previous government didn’t do anything to stop the banking crisis from happening with light touch regulation. People have short memories in politics.”
If John Leech’s seat really as marginal as all that, he might hope that’s the case.