Darren Sanders, Liberal Democrat candidate for Portsmouth North, talks to Mark Wright about the need for affordable housing in Portsmouth, the importance of consulting the British public on any Brexit deal and the function of alternative, hyperlocal news organisations in a modern democracy.
Mark Wright: With the General Election coming up, what for you are the important issues at both local and national level?
Darren Sanders: Locally, it is around the future of our city after we have left the European Union. To me, there are three or four key things there. The first is making sure that our health service is fit for purpose. At the moment, there is not enough investment. Queen Alexandra Hospital is full, mainly with people who shouldn’t be there, so we want to put a penny on income tax to deal with health and social care. We want to use the land the NHS is flogging off at St James’s to build a convalescent home to deal with bed-blocking at QA. Health and social care need to be sorted, and they need to be integrated.
We also want to make sure that poor kids have the best start in life. We want to reverse the £10 million the city has lost through cuts the Tories have made since we left government in 2015. That’s the equivalent of 260 teachers. Our education system should be around how good the teachers are, not how rich the parents are. We would also want to increase the amount of money given to schools that have pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The third thing is housing. Many people in the city simply can’t afford a home. The Tories so-called ‘affordable housing’ isn’t affordable for many people, and now they are asking the council to flog off family homes. That is crazy. We want to see more affordable homes built and – because the people in the city don’t want to see a concrete jungle – we want to give Portsmouth the chance to decide how many homes it builds.
And that leads into the fourth thing: jobs. We believe that crashing out of the single market, particularly without any deal with the European Union, will be disastrous for the poor, and for our public services that rely on EU nationals. It would be disastrous for companies like Astrium. So we would fight to stay in the single market, but whatever emerges we want to make sure that Portsmouth is ready to cope with whatever comes out of the Brexit deal.
MW: Do you think the current electoral system is fit for purpose, and do you think it represents the will of the people?
DS: No. It is ridiculously unfair. For instance, in Portsmouth South the Tory candidate was elected on a third of the vote. That is bonkers. That is forcing people to vote against a person they don’t want, rather than for a person they do want. This morning I saw a Facebook ad for an organisation called Compass, which is the Labour Party pressure group, telling me to vote for LibDem in Portsmouth South to unseat the Tory.
I wanted to change the voting system; the Tories didn’t, Labour was split down the middle. I think a fair voting system based around communities would give people more trust in politicians. They won’t feel forced to vote for someone they don’t want.
MW: How did you come to represent the Liberal Democrats?
DS: From my background: I was brought up in council accommodation in Portsmouth. I’m the son of a cleaner from a single parent family. As I was growing up, I became increasingly unhappy with the state seemingly wanting to do everything. That made me uneasy about the Labour Party, which at that time wanted to take everything over. The Conservatives just seem to be in it for themselves. And the values I grew up with – which are treat everybody the same, treat everybody with respect, and stick together in good times and in bad – seemed to be values that the Liberal Democrats embraced. And still embrace. We are the only party interested in the protection of human rights. That is why we oppose the Snooper’s Charter. I also believe that, instead of shouting at each other, you should work together. People of different political persuasions should be able to be civil enough to work together on the issues that matter.
MW: The Lib Dems have a policy proposing a second referendum on Brexit, with the possibility that Britain could remain a member of the EU. Why do you think a second referendum would be good for the country?
DS: I think it would give us a sense of closure. This is very much like a divorce. The British people have filed for divorce, but we don’t know the settlement. At the moment, as with all divorces, we are arguing over access and cash, but there are many ways in which we can leave the European Union. One of the sad things about this election is that the Tories, in particular, are not saying what they would want out of the Brexit negotiations. Say, for instance, we pay for access to bits of the single market, which the Conservatives are interested in doing. Does that mean there is then freedom of movement, that there is unlimited immigration in those sectors? If that is the case, that is going to upset a great number of the Leave voters I’ve spoken with. They feel that we won’t have left the European Union, and they will be angry.
In order to provide closure, having a referendum on the deal – not a second referendum on whether we are in or out because we have voted out, but a referendum on whatever emerges – seems sensible. Just as you show a divorce settlement to the relevant parties, you should show a Brexit settlement to the people and ask them simply, ‘is this OK?’
MW: The Conservatives are just about leading in most of the national polls. What do you think are the reasons for that, and in your campaigning do you see this support mirrored in Portsmouth?
DS: I think it’s fair to say that many traditional UKIP voters are going to vote Conservative. I have heard UKIP voters saying, ‘What is the point of my party any longer? We won.’ But I’m also seeing many Conservatives who are deeply unhappy about the dementia tax. Not just the policy itself, but what it says about the Tories. Policy-making that is dreamt up by a few people and imposed on everyone, and at the first sight of gunfire they back down. If they are backing down on their own proposal then what happens when we get to the top stage of the Brexit negotiations? If they back down then, that will not be great for the country.
I think increasing numbers of Conservative voters are looking for a plausible alternative, and in Portsmouth I think we provide it.
MW: There has been a lot of discussion amongst our readers about tactical voting to keep the Conservatives out of Portsmouth South. Who do you see as your main competition in Portsmouth, and what do you say to tactical voters in the city?
DS: I’m always keen to make sure that as many people vote for the Liberal Democrats as possible. That’s why I want to see a voting system that gives people positive choices. However, in our unfair voting system, tactical voting is simply a fact of life. If people wish to do that, they shouldn’t be guided by politicians but by independent websites such as Progressive Alliance or Tactical 2017.
In Scotland at the moment you have us, the Conservatives, and Labour going to everybody and saying: ‘Please vote for us to stop the SNP’. The SNP is going around to Green voters saying: ‘Vote for us to stop the Tories’. People should follow independent sites, check what is best for their seat, and try not to be guided by opinion polling or politicians. Politicians of every stripe will try to gently guide the voters into what they want to do.
MW: What do you think of the way the local press currently reports on politics, and what impact do you think reporting has on a broader political understanding and debate in the city?
Now, increasingly, it’s not just the press. We are also looking at online work. What Jerry Brown does in Portsmouth Politics by going to meetings that The News won’t attend is classic community journalism. That is a valuable service to everyone. Star & Crescent did a good job in highlighting the work of Aurora New Dawn when the domestic violence cuts occurred in the city. It was invaluable in highlighting their shameful treatment by the Conservatives and their allies.
The press does some incredibly good work. The News campaign around homelessness highlighted an issue that many people misunderstand. I think that is invaluable.
I’m also deeply uneasy about the Breitbart fake news approach. News has to be sourced, and opinion shouldn’t be passed as fact. Star & Crescent is good at separating out news and opinion. Providing it is rigorously checked, there are many sources we can use.
MW: The Conservatives have a policy to scrap free school lunches, albeit by replacing them with a subsidised breakfast, as a measure to cut costs in the latest in a long line of public service cuts. Here in Portsmouth, similar cuts have led to the loss of services such as Off The Record, Portsmouth Mind, and SureStart centres. Do you feel the government is squeezing too hard, or is this simply the reality of running a country?
DS: I think all governments of all political persuasions, whether it’s the coalition, Conservatives, or Labour, see fit to cut local government despite it being the most efficient part of the public service. And it is one that is actually very keen to work with other public services to provide better solutions. My fear is that it has all been around cuts without offering incentives for better integration within the public services. You look at health and social care: the councils do social care, and the NHS does health. The two have got to come together. If they work together, we can provide a more efficient service.
That is sort of what the government is trying to do when cutting, but there are no rewards for being efficient and that is frustrating. I think here, in Portsmouth, the Conservative administration has been cutting the wrong places. It is a scandal that they chose to take away £130,000 from the domestic abuse service. The council has insisted they look at it again, but that has already happened. It is a disgrace to organisations like Mind and Portsmouth Dial-a-Ride that the council have not given them the support to run on their own. We have worked with Dial-a-Ride to provide a business plan.
These organisations provide vital services, and the council should let us support them and allow them to stand on their own, not say, ‘We are taking your money away, now sink or swim’. That’s the wrong way around.
MW: The Lib Dems lost a lot of voters in 2015 over the tuition fee increase. What would you say to reassure voters that your policies for this election will be honoured?
DS: If I was elected and we weren’t able to deliver in government the things that were on my election leaflets, I would struggle to stand again. Affordable housing, education, using the land at St James’ to deal with the bed-blocking at QA: I think those are eminently doable. And if I have failed to deliver, rather than other organisations telling me to get lost, I would struggle to stand again.
As far as tuition fees are concerned, I think we have learnt our lesson. My fear is that Labour is going down the same route we did. They may discover that they cannot deliver certain things that they are promising, particularly around scrapping tuition fees. After all, they brought them in, after they said they never would, and they brought in top-up fees, when they said they never would. They gave us weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that were never there. We’ve had a snap election from a party that never offered a snap election, we’ve had a dementia tax reversed at the first sign of gunfire. Sadly, all politicians have broken their promises from time to time. But certainly, if I did not pursue the three things that are on the front page of my election leaflets, then I would not want to stand again.
MW: Are there any contemporary politicians or political thinkers that you admire?
DS: The political thinker that I am probably closest to is John Stuart Mill, whose analysis of a free society is that individuals have the right to do whatever they like, provided they don’t harm the rights of other individuals to do what they like. That should be the touchstone of every single government and every single political party in the country. It’s not, but it should be. That is how I approach every policy I’m involved in.
I did social sciences at University, so people such as Max Weber and Michel Foucault are an important part of my thinking. As far as contemporary politicians are concerned, I would say Martin Luther King, who believed that non-violence could change societies. And what happened in South Africa under Nelson Mandela remains an astonishing example of national reconciliation in a country.
MW: Where do you see British politics going in the next five years if the opinion polls are correct and the Tories win, and where will Portsmouth be in five years under your representation?
DS: If the Tories win, to my mind, they will be going in the wrong direction. We will have a hard Brexit. We may crash out of the European single market and have tariffs put upon us. If that happens, I fear we will become a more divided country as people realise they aren’t getting what they were promised. I fear we will become a more polarised society, and not come together to work out where the future lies. I think we will become increasingly in hock to foreign governments who will see our desperation to secure trade deals and, simply, try it on. The American administration clearly wants private companies to take over healthcare. They want reductions in environmental standards, they want animals injected with human growth hormone. We don’t want that, but we will be so desperate to do a trade deal that, chances are, those things will come to our country.
If I get in, I hope that Portsmouth will be an even more tolerant place. It is already a very tolerant place – unless you are a Southampton fan! I want it to be a place where people can feel comfortable, where people can feel even more accepted than they are now. I want to end the scandal of rough sleepers living in our doorways. I want to start dealing with the problem of people who aren’t able to afford a home through no fault of their own. I want to see more sustainable jobs coming to our city. We have been very good at protecting jobs, but not so good at attracting them. So I want Portsmouth to work together to attract more firms.
And I want Portsmouth more in control of its own destiny. Too many things are decided in London. I want powers to come back to Portsmouth, and we have a policy called ‘devolution on demand’ which would allow that. Under my representation, I want to work with people in the north of the city on their own future, and helping them decide the best future for themselves and their communities.
MW: And, lastly, where can people go to find more information about the Liberal Democrats?
DS: People can go to: www.portsmouthlibdems.org.uk.
Photography by Moshe Tasky.