Election ’17: ‘A Better Future for the City’ with Gerald Vernon-Jackson

Gerald Vernon-Jackson, Liberal Democrat candidate for Portsmouth South, talks to Mark Wright about the problems facing Portsmouth, how the Conservatives ‘buy elections’, and how the Lib Dems have moved on from 2015.

Mark Wright: With the General Election fast approaching, what do you think are the important issues at both national and local level?

Gerald Vernon-Jackson: I think a key issue is around lack of money going to the NHS. My mum has been in and out of hospital for the last three months, and I’ve seen hospitals at breaking point. I have been for a meeting today with one of the biggest domiciliary care services in Portsmouth; they say they are about to go out of business. Health and social care are at real stretching point. They need money, and that is why I’m pleased the Lib Dems have said we will put 1p on income tax to fund it.

A second issue is education. The cuts to spending power in schools worry me. The Tories will say the amount of money going into schools is rising – and they are right – but it is not rising per-pupil. It is rising because more and more pupils are going in. And the government are loading extra costs onto schools so the extra percentage they have to pay for employers and national insurance contributions, the extra pension contributions, means there is less money for classroom teachers. Across Portsmouth, we are looking at losing 260 teachers over the next three years.

And people want an MP here who will speak for Portsmouth. We are a very distinct city with real problems, real challenges. They don’t want somebody who will parrot a government line, they want somebody who is going to be independent. That comes out loud and clear to me.

I am extremely worried about what is going to happen to the local economy if we are outside the European single market. Huge numbers of jobs are at risk. 55% of our exports from Portsmouth go to the single market. Trade barriers there will put Portsmouth jobs at risk.

And I am worried about homelessness, and what appear to be almost specifically designed policies to make more people homeless.

MW: Do you think that the current electoral system is fit for purpose, and do you think it represents the will of the people?

GVJ: Absolutely not. Portsmouth South is a good example: at the last election, Flick Drummond won with less than 35% of the vote. 65% of people voted for somebody else, and yet Flick won. That is not a system that reflects the will of the people. I think it is a hugely bad system that forces us to ask people to do things they don’t want to do. The current system favours the Tories, and if people don’t want a Conservative MP then we have to think about asking them to vote tactically. That means asking people to vote against some of their strongly held beliefs, but it is the only way under the current system that people can exercise a powerful vote.

Here in Portsmouth South, Labour has come third in every Parliamentary election since 1984. Even at the height of the Blair government they came third, and yet people are being asked to vote Labour when they know that it only gives the Tories a better chance.

The electoral system is so unrepresentative. If you look at the number of voters that are needed to get an MP elected it varies hugely by party. The SNP do best: I think it is 24,000 voters to get one SNP MP. I think it is around 30,000 for a Conservative, around 300,000 for a Lib Dem, and it is 3.8 million for UKIP. That is insane. And it means we ask people to vote in a way they don’t particularly want to do. But that’s how the system is rigged by the Tories.

MW: How did you come to represent the Liberal Democrats?

GVJ: I moved here because my dad had died, I needed to be closer to my mum to look after her. So I came to Portsmouth, and got elected on the council. The Lib Dems went from being the smallest party on the council to the biggest, and we actually ended up running the council. I had been deputy leader in another council in Newbury, and they needed somebody in Portsmouth with experience. I ended up being deputy leader here and, after a year, the leader of the council. I ran the council here for 10 years. Then I was asked by local people to stand, which is what I did.

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?

GVJ: I think it is clear that people voted to open negotiations for us to come out of the EU, to find out what the deal was like. It was departure, not destination. I think it is right that we, as the people of the country, have started that process, but we should also be the ones who finish it. Once we know the terms of the deal, who is going to judge if it is a good or bad deal? Is that going to be Parliament, is that going to be the Prime Minister, or is it going to be the people? The Conservatives have already said they won’t allow Parliament to make that decision. And therefore they are going to leave the Prime Minister to make that decision, to decide if her negotiations have been a success or not. I think it is the only democratic thing to do to allow the people of this country to have the final say on whether they think the deal is the right or wrong one.

MW: The Conservatives are just about in front in the polls right now. What do you think are the reasons for that?

GVJ: The Conservatives are leading the polls, I think, for three potential reasons. The first is the collapse of UKIP, and because Theresa May has taken on so many of the UKIP policies. Strangely, here in Portsmouth, when we talk to UKIP voters a lot of them realise that UKIP is sunk but they tend not to want the Tories.

I think the second reason is that Jeremy Corbyn is unpopular with many voters, particularly traditional Labour voters. He is popular with others: some younger voters really like him. But older voters are uncertain.

And I think the other reason is that Tories get so much money to throw at elections that effectively they buy elections. The amount of direct mail, letters that have been coming through people’s letterboxes in Portsmouth from the Tories is enormous. And that has an effect. The Tories have found a way to buy elections.

MW: What do you think of the way that the media currently reports on politics?

GVJ: Different media report in different ways. On the whole, I think the broadcast media do a pretty good job. The newspapers take a very partisan view in most cases, and seem happy to peddle things where there is little or no justification. And social media is different again. I think my worry is, if you look at both the Trump election and at Brexit, it looks as if you have mechanical bots posting online, and these automated accounts give the impression that lots of people hold a particular view. They often try to influence people with opinions that bear little reality. That is worrying for the future of democracy, as are people who are happy to peddle complete myths. Our UKIP candidate has said that a doctor at QA who is Greek, who doesn’t speak any English, has a translator paid for by the hospital walking around with him. Total rubbish. No truth to it at all, and yet he said that and it has appeared in print. He also doesn’t think climate change exists. In a flat city, on the coast, that is dodgy.

MW: The Conservatives have a policy to scrap free school lunches, albeit by replacing them with the subsidised breakfast, as a measure to cut costs in the latest in a long line of public service cuts. Do you feel like the government is squeezing too hard, or is this simply the reality of running a country?

GVJ: No. It is ill-thought through and barking. And it has come out that they have based their entire funding for this on a pilot run by volunteers with food that was donated. So they are expecting every breakfast to cost 89p, including staff costs, and it won’t. I don’t disagree, it’s a good thing to do to give kids breakfast, but it is probably a better thing to give them lunch. I think stop messing around with things, leave schools to settle down and do their own thing. It is gimmicky, and I think it probably shows politicians at their worst.

MW: The Lib Dems lost a lot of voters over the tuition fee increase. What would you say to reassure voters that your policies for this election would be honoured? 

GVJ: The first thing to say is that I think that the decision that the leadership of the Lib Dems came to over tuition fees was wrong. I told them it was wrong; I will still tell them that it was wrong. I’m pleased that our party leader, Tim Farron, voted against raising tuition fees.

I find it a little rich that Labour criticise the Lib Dems for this. In the 2001 Labour manifesto they said they wouldn’t bring in top-up fees and then, in 2003, they brought in top-up fees.

There was anger and hostility towards the Lib Dems in 2015 from people who had voted tactically in the past and who felt let down. Those people refused to vote tactically again, and the outcome was that we have had a Conservative MP here for the last two years who has been happy to vote to reduce taxes on big business but to cut benefits for people who have got disabilities. I don’t think the people who used to vote Lib Dem to keep out the Tories, and in 2015 voted Labour or Green, wanted that to happen.

When I now talk to people, that anger has gone. I think it is probably the Brexit vote that has done that. Last time, two years ago, I would walk down the street and people wouldn’t look me in the eye, and I should have realised that that was a bad sign. Now, people stop me on the street to talk all around the city and are pleased to see us. People realise, in our bad and corrupt voting system that, here in Portsmouth South, if you don’t want a Tory MP the only people who won here, ever, are the Lib Dems. The question is whether people would prefer a Tory MP or a Lib Dem MP. There won’t be any other result. This time, we are not going to coalition with anybody so that people don’t have that fear.

One of the things that has worried me most in regards to tuition fees is that students from the poorest families used to get a maintenance grant to make sure students from the poorest families weren’t put off going to university. That has now been taken away by the Conservatives. I would love to promise that we could get rid of tuition fees, but I am not sure that millionaire’s sons and daughters should not have to put something into paying for their university. I think that that money is better spent investing in primary schools in Portsmouth, in keeping the NHS going, and in providing maintenance grants for students from families with the lowest incomes.

MW: Are there any contemporary politicians or political thinkers that you admire?

GVJ: Yes, for different reasons. I think Chancellor Merkel took a very principled stand about preserving life from Syrian refugees, and I’m disappointed that our government hasn’t. There are 10,000 unaccompanied child refugees from Syria and nobody knows where they are. Our government was so cold-hearted that it wouldn’t take any of those kids in. Our council was so cold-hearted that they passed a motion saying none of those kids were welcome here. I admire Ms Merkel for standing up against that right wing popularism.

I think Macron is interesting as a liberal to have won the French presidency. And in British politics? I like Hilary Benn. He is an interesting man. Even though Nick Clegg and I have fought a bit over the years, he thinks deeply. He doesn’t get everything right, but I would admire him. As the Conservatives have moved so far to the right, I find it difficult to see anyone there, but in my job in London, as vice-chair of an organisation representing the councils of the country called the Local Government Association, I find it extremely easy to work cross-party with people. For people running councils most of the problems are the same, most of the solutions are the same. Party politics don’t come into it if you are just trying to make sure that your area thrives and succeeds.

MW: Where do you see British politics going in the next five years if the Tories win an outright majority?

GVJ: It depends on the size of the majority. I fear for an enormous Tory majority because I think that will mean various things will go backwards. I think we will see the rolling back of environmental protection, the rolling back of animal rights protection, so hunting with hounds could return. I think we will find a continuing war on people on the lowest incomes, whether those are pensioners, working families or people living on benefits. Those at the bottom of the pile will be squeezed out, and areas where we currently have provisions for people will disappear.

The Tories are very clear: they don’t believe in social housing for rent. They are not interested in the people who live in those properties because they don’t vote for them. That will be under severe pressure, if not disappear altogether. Those right-wing Conservatives who have always wanted to see the demise of the NHS will use gradual privatisation and the financial crisis in hospitals to weaken and dismember it.

If the Tories have a small majority, it is less likely that some of those things will happen. But I have spent my life fighting Tories. They have a worldview that I don’t share.

MW: Where do you see Portsmouth in five years’ time should you be elected?

GVJ: Things in Portsmouth could be very different in five years’ time. We just don’t know which way things will go. On the one hand, the economy could be under serious pressure and we might lose major employers like Airbus and Pall Europe if they can’t get access to export their products at a cost their buyers will pay. We could see a big cut in the number of teachers, the NHS in crisis and social services in a state of collapse because no one wants to do the jobs. Finally, we could see even more people living on the streets.

I hope that we would see a different Portsmouth. A city well-connected with our export markets in Europe and the rest of the world. A city where the Conservative cuts to the NHS, schools, and council housing have been stopped and our schools, hospitals and social services have the resources they need. A city where the council has been allowed to build homes on derelict sites, such as Tipner, for local families.

The choice is ours, and I hope voters choose the Lib Dems to get us to a better future for the city.

MW: Lastly, where can people go to find out more information about the Lib Dems?

GVJ: We have the Portsmouth Lib Dem website, or geraldvernonjackson.org.uk. There is our Facebook page, and the national website. I think people should look for websites run by people who are independent of politics. There are websites that will tell you how to use your vote in the most powerful way you can to get rid of a Tory. I have worked with people in the progressive alliance to make sure that we maximise the anti-Tory vote by directing people to support the major challenger. So in Portsmouth South, they say vote Lib Dem; in Portsmouth North, they say vote Labour; on the Isle of Wight, they say vote Green. If people don’t want a Tory MP, don’t ask politicians how to vote! I would recommend looking at third-party sites that aren’t run by one party to find passionate advice about how to make your vote powerful.

Photography by Moshe Tasky.