|(L to R) Will Wallace, Josh Rampton, Daniel Rollins, Mike Hancock MP|
(Photo: Chris Reed)
For those studying F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel The Great Gatsby, it’s far too easy to feel that the plot is rather warped by the extensive use of imagery and symbolism. It is however my favourite book, and I often try to remind myself of one of the most important messages that the narrator, Nick Carraway, conveys on page one: reserve initial judgments of others – as the moral is often coined, “don’t judge a book by its cover” Perhaps due to my sheer arrogance and narcissism, I regularly fall victim to this habitual mistake. After meeting and speaking with the local MP for Portsmouth South, I once again found myself reassessing my preconceptions.
We discussed issues ranging from the recent Police & Crime Commissioner elections to the situation developing in Gaza. Mike confirmed that he would be willing to support and work with the newly elected Commissioner for Hampshire & the Isle of Wight, Simon Hayes, but that he felt the election had been “a fiasco” with major failings by the government and that the concept itself might not prove to be cost effective. With his experience as a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, he has been to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank on a number of occasions, and, during our interview, affirmed that the UK government should not be so easily wooed by the pro-Israel lobby – entire cities have been devastated and lives ruined by the indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks by Israel on Palestine, a nation that should, in both my opinion and Mike’s, be able to defend itself from regular incursions by Israel.
His views on the future of the Liberal Democrats, young people’s role in politics, his past membership of other parties, George Osborne’s economic policy, his work on Portsmouth City Council and the morphing together of the three major parties were also discussed, with me asking questions for Portsmouth Point and Danny Rollins posing questions for The Portmuthian. Below is a full transcript of the interview.
WALLACE: I’d like to hear your thoughts about the Police & Crime Commissioner elections last Thursday – given the record low turnout of about 15%, do you believe that the new Commissioners have got a mandate or at least some political legitimacy?
HANCOCK: I think the whole thing was a mess, from start to finish and the government should accept total responsibility for the fiasco that’s occurred; shifting it from May to November was a big mistake in the first place and at the time I said it was not going to be a good resort for the democratic processes. For anyone who seeks election, it’s not the candidate’s fault that the public are turned off by it and don’t find anything to be interesting. I think once again the failure was to explain the changes in greater detail than they have been, and that was a mistake, I think, not giving a free mail drop to each candidate so everyone would’ve got at least in [Hampshire & the Isle of Wight] six pieces of information through their letterbox; the allegation that people just didn’t know about it is a fair one, because it’s very hard to be sure that you’re contacting anyone, let alone the vast majority of them in a county the size of Hampshire, with close to a million properties. So I think they have a legitimate mandate because that’s what the electorate gave them. I think it’s going to be extraordinarily difficult for them to answer the question posed in today’s paper: £85,000 a year for a three-day-a-week job in a county the size of Hampshire – is it money well spent? Is it possible for one person to do that job? So I think there will be, over the next three and a half years, a lot of questions that need to be answered. It’s quite interesting that the Labour Party were signing up for this before the general election and many Labour MPs were keen to stand and give up their seats. In fact three of them gave up their seats in Parliament to become Commissioners, all three of them have now been elected – so I don’t think the Labour Party are going to scrap it, but I think it was a mistake – a very big mistake.
WALLACE: So would you be happy to work with Simon Hayes, the new Commissioner for Hampshire & the Isle of Wight?
HANCOCK: Well it’s like people who don’t vote for me in elections; they have to work with me because that’s all they’ve got until they come to the next election. We’ve only got one Commissioner here and, whether we like it or not, we’re going to have to work through him if we’re going to have any influence as a city with its fair share of problems; and if we don’t actually actively engage with him, it’s going to be very difficult for Portsmouth’s case to be made.
Gaza & Syria
ROLLINS: Another thing that’s been in the news recently is the situation in Gaza, between Israel and Palestine. How do you think the UK government should react?
HANCOCK: I think we’ve been far too soft on Israel and I think the issue is a really dangerous situation now because I think undoubtedly it will escalate and will cause greater problems than we care to think about seriously. I think it will cause great problems in Egypt with the current regime running Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood. I think we will find it very difficult not to give active support to the Palestinians – that will then make it difficult because there is no go-between now between the Palestinians and the Israelis, with Mubarak out of the equation effectively. It’s a very dangerous situation for Israel, but then again Israel is a country that, every day of its existence, has been surrounded by countries that are hostile to it. No other country in the world has ever lived with that sort of predicament, and to have missiles fired into your country on a regular basis isn’t something governments can ignore; but there is a lack of proportionality about the way in which Israelis deal with these matters, and I think to indiscriminately bomb – such as yesterday’s fiasco where they bombed the wrong house, killed ten people including six children – is not good news for the Israeli cause, and, having been to Palestine and seen some of the camps myself, both in the West Bank and in Gaza (and, I have to say, Gaza is like a prison camp – it could be the largest prison camp in the world as nearly a million people live in a very small area, in appalling conditions whilst many of them have absolutely nothing), it is devastating to see what Palestinians live with. I was there just after the last major land incursion by the Israelis, something like four years ago, and it was horrendous to see the damage that was done – tanks just rolling through people’s houses, indiscriminately bashing down what little there was there, and the infrastructure being shot away on a daily basis is horrendous.
ROLLINS: So another conflict that is going at the moment, is Syria. Although the focus has maybe changed, it’s still a problem. What do you think about Britain’s role in preventing further citizen deaths?
HANCOCK: It’s peculiar, isn’t it? It could happen only here where last week, Syria was front-page news and led the story but over the weekend I didn’t hear Syria mentioned once – on television, radio or written media. And it’s so easy to take your eye off the ball. I don’t know how people have died in Syria over the weekend, but I would imagine it is ten times as many as in Palestine or Israel. Syria is, I think, a complete and utter basket case, and why didn’t we insist on having a no-fly zone? I think when any leader decides to bomb his own people, there’s a time where those who have the muscle should intervene and should prevent that happening. Putting a no-fly zone over Syria was something we should’ve been doing a year ago, and we could have prevented a lot of the problems that we’ve got – and it might have brought Assad to his senses a bit sooner. I think there’s no future for him or for the Ba’ath regime in Syria: they will go. The big problem in Syria is, because of the diversity of the communities and real minorities situation there, it’ll be very difficult to see how a new country can be put together. I was a meeting in Strasbourg last week with members of the Syrian opposition, and they’re only united because they want to see Assad go, but they’re not united about what they want to offer the people of Syria as an alternative – now that’s an extraordinarily dangerous situation to occur – it’s a bit like what happened, and what is happening in Iraq.
Future of the Lib Dems
WALLACE: Looking ahead to the future in this country, are you concerned that, if the economy improves, it will be the Conservatives that benefit, not the Liberal Democrats?
HANCOCK: I think it’s a bloody good question and one that is going to cause us a lot of concerns. The whole Coalition has been a bloody disaster for us and will continue to be. At the time it was the only real solution that was on the table, but the junior partner in any coalition, no matter where it has existed, will always be the one that’ll suffer and will not get the benefit of anybody’s doubts. So I think it’ll be a problem, come the next general election.
WALLACE: So are you quite supportive of your colleagues in the Coalition?
HANCOCK: No. I’ve voted more times against them than I have for them
WALLACE: And do you feel that Nick Clegg might not be in the leadership role by the next election?
HANCOCK: Well I’d like to think he wouldn’t be, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. I don’t think there’s an heir apparent – and I think we’re stuffed!
ROLLINS: Do you have any favourites who you’d like to succeed Nick Clegg?
HANCOCK: Out of the current bunch?
ROLLINS: Out of anyone.
HANCOCK: I don’t think there’s anyone that would really rush to take it on. Vince might want to do it but I think his age might be against him. So I think it’s highly unlikely that we’ll change our leader before the next election, mainly because there’s nobody else around, which is rather sad.
Young People in Politics
ROLLINS: Another thing we’d like to talk about is how young people can engage in politics. Where do you think their role is in local and national politics?
HANCOCK: I think the real problem is my generation and the one behind me don’t like others coming in – we don’t like competition. That’s something that political parties have to face up to. If you’re going to try to encourage more and more to get involved, you’ve got to make some space for them and give them a chance. I’m delighted that, come the next election here in Portsmouth, at least two of candidate will be just eighteen or just over eighteen, and four of five of them will be under twenty-three. I think that’s a good thing, but there still aren't enough people involved in ‘thinking politics’ – why is that? We don’t make our meetings interesting enough; who would want to join a political party if the only reason you were being invited in was to deliver leaflets and raise money? There has to be something more in it for young people, we should be able to talk about things they are interested in, the problems they face, the concerns they have for their future and what sort of city they want to live in. I think it’s a shame that we haven’t got more young people telling us on a regular basis the problems we have in Portsmouth, as they see it. We always see it from a different perspective, and that’s not the way to encourage young people to get involved in politics. There is not a very welcoming sign on the door of political parties which says to young people, “Come in and play a part and we will give you those opportunities”.
ROLLINS: So how do you feel about proposals to change the voting age from eighteen down to sixteen?
HANCOCK: I would support the voting age at sixteen. I don’t think it will alter the numbers of people voting but I think it will mean we can say to young people, ‘You’ve got a vote now so come on, use it and get involved – don’t just give your vote away because politicians worked for your vote’, but unfortunately we don’t have enough of that.
Mike’s Past: Labour Party & SDP
WALLACE: Before you joined the Liberal Democrats, you were a member of the Labour Party and then the Social Democratic Party (SDP). What was it that caused you to change your political allegiance twice?
HANCOCK: Well it’s a long time ago now, it’s over thirty years ago. I was in the Labour Party from a very young age, so was my family. My mother, who passed away last week, was seventy-five years a member of the Labour Party and she died a member of the Labour Party – and never once voted for me because she was knocked into that idea that socialism was the answer, even though she didn’t like the way the Labour Party had gone under Blair. She’d have much preferred a more left wing, ideologically–based, Clause IV Labour Party – but I left the Labour Party mainly because of the interference of militants in the Labour Party; they were the driving force in the party when I was there. I had a rather good position at the time; I was Leader Group on Hampshire County Council, I was Labour's parliamentary candidate, but the party just was not addressing the problems that people faced. It was a terrible time after the ’79 election, which was a complete catastrophe for Labour, and those eighteen months after that election were probably the worst time I had in politics – and I was up for leaving. I was working in a factory where I was going to India to work for maybe a year, and I changed my mind right at the last minute and joined the SDP, mainly because Shirley Williams, who had been a good friend of mine, persuaded me that there was a chance in the future there.
WALLACE: Final question. Do you believe that Plan A is working?
HANCOCK: No, I fear not. I don’t think it’s working – I think it’s rather spiteful. It’s hurting people at the wrong end. The mistake was to reduce the top rate of tax, placating the very rich at the expense of the worst off. I think some of the decisions have been very good; taking so many people out of the tax catch anyway is good. But I think the overall concept of not really investing into the economy, into jobs, is going to sell us short and is not going to be helpful.
WALLACE: So you would obviously endorse a wealth tax or a mansion tax?
HANCOCK: Yes. A wealth tax would be ideal. A mansion tax, I’m not altogether sure because there are a lot of people sitting in expensive houses that don’t necessarily have the money to pay a mansion tax. So I think we should be taxing the wealthy, and I think we should be doing more. Cable’s now come out with this statement saying that businesses who operate in Britain should pay their fair share – I think they should be forced to pay corporation tax here, and I can’t believe any of them would do a runner from the UK; you hear it all the time, but Starbucks are making too much bloody money in Britain that they wouldn’t do a runner, and we shouldn’t be afraid of that. I also think we should go after people who’ve got money in Swiss bank accounts, and I think it’s an insult for us to receive £300 million a year from the Swiss government in lieu of not pushing it with people who’ve got billions stashed away in Switzerland: they should be paying tax on all they have.
ROLLINS: How do you propose to beat the tax evasion?
HANCOCK: We have to make laws which make it very uncomfortable for people and should prevent people from being able to manoeuvre around it and shift income, sometimes in three-way moves. If it was on the turnover of your income in the United Kingdom and you were taxed on that, it’s clear this is what you’re making here – not as Starbucks are doing; they buy their coffee from Starbucks US via Starbucks in Germany who in turn sell it to Starbucks in London. So, by the time they’ve all been entitled under the law to take a mark-up profit, the UK company is actually losing money, which everyone knows is complete and utter tosh. We should be going after them in a big way – same with Google, same with Amazon and anybody else who seeks to hide their money: pop stars and racing drivers, and what have you; somebody who makes their living and cashes in on being British when it suits them, but should be paying taxes.
Westminster v. Portsmouth
ROLLINS: You touched on this in your talk, how do you split your time between your work in Portsmouth and your work in Westminster?
HANCOCK: Because I’m responsible for the issues, I’m able to fix the time of my meetings from my council responsibilities around me, as opposed to around somebody else, so that works quite well. I normally work here on a Monday and a Friday – and the rest of the time, I’m in London – but it’s easy enough for me to get from London to Portsmouth if I have to come back to do something, and I do quite often come back to do things during the day: I might be in London doing something in the morning, and then come back to Portsmouth in the afternoon, back to London in the evening to vote. So it’s not a problem.
The Three Major Parties
ROLLINS: You said in your talk that Cameron and Clegg have started to sound the same on the radio. What would you say to a first-time voter who may think that all the parties have actually converged and don’t have separate identities anymore?
HANCOCK: Yes, they’ve somewhat morphed. I think that is a problem. There is little or no open water between us and it’s going to be increasingly difficult to actually spell out what we stand for, and that’s a real problem. I would then say to first-time voters to look very carefully at what is on offer in your area and try and go to one of the hustings that is on. It’s a bit like questions about why young people don’t get involved and I think you should be voting for people who are encouraging young people to get involved – have a hustings for young people, for example. The worst thing is politicians who play lip service, who say they will listen and hold consultations but then disregard it. So you really have to put people on the spot because it’s too easy for politicians to hide behind ignorance, so if you’re telling them what the problems are, you then have to make sure that they’re going to address them properly. That doesn’t happen much. Lots of people say they’re going to do something and let you down. I think one of the real things first-time voters should be doing is really putting politicians on the spot, and very sadly not enough people are prepared to do that. I have a daughter who is involved in politics – she was a councillor here in Portsmouth and is now involved in politics in the north, where she lives. She was always up for it, she was always the one to ask the difficult question, and not afraid to stand up in a meeting and say “You’re talking a load of tosh” or whatever, and I think that’s what is needed. Politicians have gotten away with it to easily when it comes to young people and we shouldn’t be afraid to give young people an opportunity to have their say, but that in turn means that young people have to be prepared to try their hand in return.