GENERAL ELECTION INTERVIEW: Hitchin and Harpenden Liberal Democrat candidate Hugh Annand
- Credit: Archant
Read Layth Yousif’s exclusive in-depth interview with Hitchin and Harpenden’s Lib Dem candidate Hugh Annand.
First of all, Hugh, can we get your response on the terror attacks?
These are becoming depressingly frequent. Any loss of life is a matter of great sadness for those affected. It is also a matter of great sadness that people feel compelled to do that sort of thing through a particular ideology or through being brainwashed. My thoughts are with all those affected. In terms of our democracy, our best response is to keep calm and carry on.
Absolutely. Can I just ask, were you in Brussels at the time of the attacks there?
I was. I was only a few miles away from the airport. My office was halfway between the airport where the first attacks happened and the city centre. Although I was safe ,it felt pretty close to home – even if I grew up in the time of the IRA bombing campaign in the UK.
Just out of interest, would you say the response from Belgium compared to the British response has been the same?
No. For British people of my generation we all grew up with the Troubles, and Belgium had not experienced this type of thing before. It was a real shock to people, and I’ve seen people months later who are still shocked and appalled – as indeed they should be – but on a kind of emotional level that I don’t see in Britain from many who have become slightly hardened by it.
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I think that chimes with the response to the New York Times article and CNN broadcasts that say Britain is reeling – and then many in this country take to Twitter and Facebook to say we’re not reeling, by employing withering irony, and using humour and sarcasm. As a regular social media user yourself, what’s your take on that?
I don’t think the foreign press fully understand the resilience of Brits in the face of such things. Some people sensationalise things – look at Donald Trump and his team and the Hollywood nonsense ‘London has fallen’, which had more holes in its plot than a piece of Gruyère. But yes, people make of it what they make of it – what we need to make of it is that the best response to terror is to refuse to be terrorised.
On the subject of social media you’re a compelling Twitter ‘follow’ – but some of the things you have posted have been sailing close to the wind...
I don’t mind that. I like to keep people entertained. I like to show people that I’m human. Other politicians have been criticised for not putting anything on social media other than the party line and bland repetitive statements. I want to get away from that and be frank to people and respond to them. If someone asks me a question that is ‘close to the edge’ I will respond accordingly, as long as they’re not downright offensive and don’t deserve an answer. For example I gave a couple of fun facts about other candidates when I fought South Shields in 2015. Other people took umbrage to that.
The way [a BNP candidate in South Shields] looked on her leaflet was what made me stop and do a double take because when I first her I genuinely thought the BNP were putting up a black candidate – which of course would be wonderful news, if rather surprising. And that’s all that I was saying about that particular aesthetic. I met her face to face and she wasn’t orange. She really did look like a very dark-skinned person in a blonde wig. It has nothing to with race. The BNP has everything to do with race, I just thought it was a surprising aesthetic. Just like if I turned up in a Nazi uniform and jackboots, then that would also be a surprising aesthetic as a Liberal. That’s what I was driving at.
And the League of Gentlemen Royston Vasey references...?
This is a question that gets asked a lot. ‘Are you local?’ And of course it is good to have someone who has local knowledge, and cares about the area and those sorts of things. But there is a lot more than that to being a parliamentarian. You need to be able to listen without your prejudices, then go and articulate those views to the right authorities – whether that’s in parliament or doing local casework with local authorities, or talking to local businesses. A too-narrow focus on whether someone is ‘local’ or not doesn’t necessarily give you the best indication as to whether they’ll be the best parliamentarian.
What do you do in Brussels?
I translate things.
Mostly for the European Commission. Most of it is incoming correspondence from member states. It’s their response to proposals and to the infamous audit reports. One of my specialisms is agriculture and everything to do with the Common Agricultural Policy, fisheries, transport. The member states keep us updated on how they’re implementing the environmental targets, for example.
Remain is one of the core policies of the Lib Dems...
Yes, it is. We think leaving the EU is a daft and damaging idea. Yes, people voted for it, but they voted for it on the basis of a pack of lies. Secondly, they voted for the departure – they have not had anything to say about the destination. And that’s what concerns us. Even Theresa May has refused to say what the destination looks like for a post-Brexit Britain. That’s worrying, and we think people should have a vote on the issue again once the destination becomes clear. And it’s because of my very obvious pro-European ideals the local party headhunted me as their candidate and wanted somebody in stark contrast to the previous Conservative incumbent.
In terms of ‘local issues for local people’, I thought it was very instructive there was a massive groan when the issue of Brexit was raised to more than 350 people at the Hitchin hustings on Friday night – people don’t care about Brexit anymore do they?
I think the opposite is true. The reaction from the audience showed that people were very concerned. The question asked was: ‘What are you going to do about the people who will suffer from Brexit?’ Namely, the many people from other EU countries who live in the constituency and many from elsewhere too. I even came across an old colleague from my time in France in the 1990s, who became a British citizen and works in a local school in Harpenden. So people who come here to this country and pay their taxes to prop up the NHS should have their rights guaranteed. And the Conservative Party is equivocating about that. Human beings are not bargaining chips.
Absolutely. I interviewed your ‘boss’ Tim Farron, who is also a university contemporary of mine, in an exclusive one-one-one interview – and he was very concerned about the same problem. It was a topic raised by many at the Hitchin hustings?
Yes. And rightly so.
In terms of the hustings, Bim [Afolami] voted Remain – so that’s your trump card gone, isn’t it?
No, not at all. He is standing on behalf of a party that wants to move headlong into a ‘hard Brexit’. Theresa May voted Remain – or at least she supported the Remain campaign during the EU referendum. She’s doing nothing of the sort now. I just don’t think any Conservative with the possible exception of Ken Clarke can be trusted to defend the rights and freedoms that British people have enjoyed for the last 40 years, against Theresa May’s ‘hard Brexit’.
How did you think you did in the Hitchin hustings?
My performance went remarkably well, I think. Because of the heat on Thursday night I got about seven hours’ sleep after having seven in the previous 48 hours. There was also a lot of jet-lag from my US trip with my in-laws. So my brain was sort of trying to function and deal with the debate – so in those circumstances I think it went a lot better than I expected. It was a very lively discussion. Most of the hissing and the opprobrium seemed to be reserved for the Conservative and Christian People’s Alliance candidates. It was quite nice not to get hissed at – at all – during that debate!
Why do you think that was though?
Because of the answers I was giving. There are a number of concerns that have been raised from constituents. The number one issue is fox hunting of all things – that is the single issue that I’ve had the most emails about. The second has been care for the elderly, the third education. These are all issues our manifesto reflects – it reflects the concerns people are expressing. So being in tune with what people want in terms of our manifesto may explain why I’m getting a relatively easy ride.
To specifically refer to the hissing. I’ve covered General Election and EU referendum hustings before and I can never recall a Tory candidate being hissed before. Why do you think that was?
The hissing specifically was because the chair asked people not to boo or jeer or heckle, and that was the agreed way to express disapproval. But I think here in Hitchin, which is very politically mixed – more so than the south of the constituency – you have people who are very concerned with the way things would look under another five years of a Tory rule. There is a perception that the Conservative Party, and by extension Bim who is their candidate, are not being entirely truthful about what their intentions are. And certainly they’re not being entirely transparent with the information they’re giving – which is incomplete. For example the cap on costs for elderly care. They’re not saying at this stage – which is quite an important piece of information.
What’s your view on fox hunting?
The unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable.
Good line. Who said that originally?
I think it was Oscar Wilde. It’s a view that I share. I don’t know why Theresa May has suddenly raised it. The polls indicate 84 per cent of people in this country don’t want a return to fox hunting. There are far more important things to spend parliamentary time on at the moment than repealing the hunting act. I must have had 100 emails from constituents expressing opposition to fox hunting. Not a single one expressed an opinion in favour of it.
In terms of education and the NHS, I thought Labour’s John Hayes spoke movingly and passionately on those issues. But I thought you did as well. There seemed to be quite a lot of common ground between your two parties on those major issues...
The two parties are quite similar but there are slight differences in how we intend to fund it. If you look at the independent analysis from, say the Institute of Fiscal Studies, that essentially says what my gut says as well – which is that there are question marks about whether their funding proposals are realistic. The IFS thought while our spending proposals are not that far different, the way we intend to fund them is far more realistic. Which means we are more able to keep the commitments and promises we make on education and health.
Wouldn’t it have been better to sit down and have a chat with someone from the Labour Party six weeks ago and come to some sort of agreement as to putting forward a single candidate in fighting the Tories, to avoid splitting the vote?
No. We did consider that very carefully. If anyone’s interested there is a very long lead on the Hitchin and Harpenden Lib Dems Facebook page as to why we didn’t do that and what our reasoning was...
And what was the reasoning?
Essentially we feel the Labour Party is too far removed from us on this key issue of how we go forward with the EU from here – and they are pretty much identical to the Conservatives on that. And to withdraw from the race and leave it to two parties a cigarette paper apart on the defining issue of this election would be a travesty of democracy.
I’ve asked Bim this and John too. Bim was able to take time off to campaign and John wasn’t. It’s more a sad indictment of the way our democracy is structured than any inherent criticism of them as individuals – but do you think you could have done more in terms of your campaign in this seat?
I would have loved to have done more. In November last year Theresa May was saying: ‘I’m not going to call an election until 2020. There will not be an election because I’m strong and stable, yadda, yadda, yadda.’ So I thought: ‘Well, 2017 is the year I’ll be able to make plans for my private life’. So I booked this trip with my elderly parents-in-law to take them on their first-ever long-haul trip aged 68 and 69 – in what turned out to be slap-bang in the middle of the campaign. But I was not going to say to my mother-in-law sorry, I’m going to cancel because Theresa May can’t make up her mind.
So there was lots of cursing Theresa May in your family then...?
I don’t like cursing people as such, but yes Theresa May is possibly one of the people in this world I like the least. Every time I have to queue up through passport control in this country I mutter about her through clenched teeth. I don’t want to say anything too rude about her...
Fair enough. I think it’s quite ironic in the run up to the election and in its early stages the whole focus was on Jeremy Corbyn’s supposed lack of leadership – yet Theresa May hasn’t been much of a leader has she...?
This is something that has just dawned on me over the last few days. People have been banging on about how Jeremy Corbyn is ‘unelectable’ – but Theresa May, unlike Corbyn, didn’t even win a leadership election. She was unelected and might also prove unelectable. It would be very interesting if she did. I think it’s unfortunate Tim Farron has had so little media exposure. When people see him and hear him and learn about our policies, then unless they are arch-Eurosceptics they will like what they hear.
What do you think of Tim Farron?
He’s a nice guy. If he has one fault it’s that he’s too humble.
What about his views on gay marriage and gay sex?
There is a whole level of complexity. Tim is a lot more sound on LGBT rights than some make out. He did vote in favour of the legal marriage bill. There was one particular reading which he abstained on over a technicality, but on the crucial first and third readings he voted in favour of it if I remember correctly. People are obsessed with idea of sin. I am myself married to another man.
But he said only recently that he was in favour of gay sex, as he’d only mentioned gay marriage prior to that – how does that make you feel as a gay man?
I’m fine with it. I understand where he’s coming from in terms of this idea of sin. Sin is anything that stands in the way of somebody’s relationship with God. So if you’re an atheist then it doesn’t matter if something is a sin or not, as if you don’t believe in God you can’t have a relationship with him in the first place. People perceive sin as being some terrible thing that means we disapprove of it, that we are judging people – but that’s not what we believe by it. That’s why Tim tried to dismiss it as a non-question, as a non-issue, which really it is. What matters is what role we think the state should play in our private lives. And we believe it should be minimal as we believe you should be able to do what you like as long as you’re not harming others.
Absolutely. I’ve got to ask what you think of Sid Cordle, leader of the Christian People’s Alliance. It seems to me the people who bang on the most and the loudest about being Christian and having Christian values are the most uncharitable people? Some of the things he was saying on Friday night were...
‘Interesting’... Somebody from the local party put something up on Twitter making fun of one or two things that he’s said. About gay sex. And the weather...
Meaning that he thought the storms the UK suffered a year or two ago were God’s response to the Equal Marriage Act being passed...
And what do you think of that point of view...?
[Deadpan] The only sin that is affecting the weather is mankind’s greed in terms of using fossil fuels and their lack of care for the environment. Climate change is a real and serious issue. I don’t think that people’s sex lives is what’s driving climate change...
For those who are interested there is a Twitter account called UKIP Weather which lampoons these sorts of views which is rather entertaining.
Excellent. I’ll have to look it up. OK. In terms of the environment, if you’re a floating voter concerned with what is happening to our planet, why wouldn’t you just vote Green rather than Lib Dem?
There are a whole series of other policies. The Green Party is very well-intentioned, but I don’t think it has a proper handle on the law of unintended consequences. They are in favour of scrapping HS2. But if you look at the M1 and M6, admittedly not in the constituency, those roads are consistently congested. If you go along the West Coast Main Line, it’s not just about speed, it’s about capacity. We need more capacity along the West Coast. We need to get people off roads and onto more environmentally sustainable forms of transport. So there are policies like that – meaning somebody like me, who passionately cares about our environment, means I can’t live with that.
But the Lib Dems are irrelevant these days aren’t they?
No, not at all. In the coalition we had nine per cent of the seats but we managed to get 70 per cent of our policies through. During the last parliament we won eight seats, which went up to nine when we won the Richmond by-election. We have candidates in pretty much every constituency in the country. If people want to take a serious look at where we want to take the country, to look at our policies and to vote for us, they will see that we are ready to form the next government.
Do you the party has ever recovered from Nick Clegg’s betrayal of students...?
In some people’s eyes, no. Our membership went down after that. But it’s now at its highest level in the history of the party. We are also doing well in terms of the number of seats in local elections. OK, we didn’t do as well as we wanted at the local elections, but in terms of the percentage vote it did go up. And that is what matters in an election.
You’ll need a 24-per-cent swing in Hitchin and Harpenden. Is that achievable?
If I could make an appeal directly to people who have voted Conservative in the past – because they’re concerned with the economy, because they want an environment where enterprise can flourish, where they can trade, and all those type of issues – I’d ask them to think seriously about whether they should continue to cast a vote for a party which is putting us at a risk of a seven per cent drop in GDP. A risk of losing privileged access to our biggest market, to losing a number of jobs in the City of London, which are already starting to disappear.
One of our biggest banks in the last week has already moved 1,000 IT jobs to Portugal. Do you want to vote for a party putting all those things at risk – or do you want to vote for a party that believes in freedom to trade, that has policies in place for a strong economy? Then I would make a plea for those people to switch to us, because they’re the type of people who I’ll need to get to vote for me if I am to win.
Have you always been a Lib Dem supporter?
I’ve always voted Lib Dems since around 2000...
And who did you vote for before that?
Before that I always voted for the best candidate...
So. On one occasion I voted Labour, on another occasion I voted Conservative – I think I may have even voted Green once. But after the very disappointing first two years of the Labour government in the late ’90s, that kind of cemented my support for the Lib Dems...
You and a lot of other people! Describe the essence of a Lib Dem voter?
We are a very broad church. Essentially we are about freedom – not just freedom to do things, but freedom from things. Freedom from poverty, freedom from ignorance, freedom from conformity. Which means investing in education – but we’re also a broad church in terms of differences of emphasis in how we interpret that. For example how much emphasis you put on economic freedom. How much you intervene in helping people to be their best. Among our voters, they’re even more of a broader church than the party itself. People who don’t want the raw capitalist Thatcherite approach, nor the heavy overbearing top-down synchronised approach of socialism.
So it’s a lot to do with social justice?
We certainly believe in social justice, yes. We don’t necessarily believe in it being achieved exclusively by the state taking away money one place and giving it to another. But yes, there will always be an element of that. Social justice is achieved by this scenario for example: If Norman Tebbitt implores people to get on their bikes, social justice ensures the roads are not full, that its not full of potholes, that there are enough police around to ensure that bike doesn’t get stolen, and that the Jobcentre is properly staffed to make sure the applicant searching for a job can actually get a job they have the skills to do. Getting people into work is important, but so is giving people the tools to do so is also a big part of that.
Absolutely. I completely agree with that for what it’s worth. So why are the Lib Dems polling at eight per cent?
I don’t think we are getting as much media exposure as other parties..
It’s too easy to blame the media surely?
I don’t blame individual journalists. But what is true is that most major newspapers in this country are in the hands of Conservatives...
But the Guardian is the biggest liberal news website in the world?
Liberal with a small ‘l’. They mention us from time to time, but mostly it’s about Labour. Interestingly, The Economist – of all publications – has recently endorsed us as the best party for the British economy. Unfortunately it’s not the most widely read. What is interesting is Theresa May refuses to take part in TV debates with Tim Farron. I think she is terrified of her policy being exposed against ours, because if people got to hear that, she should be in big trouble.
Do you genuinely believe you can win?
I believe anything is possible. There are an awful lot of variables in this seat with the incumbent stepping down, with Tory people angry with the Conservatives – especially in the south of this seat, with the whole Brexit fiasco.
But any uplift over Brexit in this particular seat is a dead cat bounce with Bim being a Remainer surely? People haven’t been listing Brexit as their number one issue in Hitchin?
There is some truth in that in Hitchin. But if you go to the south of the constituency people are absolutely fuming over Brexit.
And you’ll be talking about that tonight at the Harpenden hustings?
Yes, and about the fact we are the only party that can be trusted to take Britain’s economy forwards and upwards over the next five years.
What would be the first thing you did if you did get voted in on June 8?
Look for somewhere to live in the constituency.
And if you didn’t get in – like your failed campaign in South Shields. You got beaten by the BNP up there...?
That was good fun. I did it because my great-grandfather had been the Liberal candidate up there and indeed the editor of your local counterparts up there, so when it came up I thought it was a bit of family business! The great thing about fighting a seat like that is that there’s no pressure on you to win, so no-one expects you to win.
Have you taken that experience into campaigning for this seat then?
Not really. South Shields was Labour facing, this is Tory facing...
Which has been harder to fight?
I suppose they both have the similarity of both being called at short notice. The two seats are so very different in terms of the demographic, in terms of the political composition. It’s impossible to make a fair comparison.
Fair enough. Bim thinks he can win. As does John. Does Hugh?
Because I can appeal to voters in the south of the constituency and here in the north in ways that I don’t think Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party can.
In which way?
In that we have responsible economic policies. We are not going to charge headlong into a Brexit that will harm the economy and put up taxes that will eventually drive more businesses overseas. We will make some adjustments and tweaks to the tax system that we think will raise enough revenue to rebalance our public services without causing too much pain.
What have been the main issues when you’ve been campaigning on the doorstep in Hitchin and Harpenden?
Have you actually been campaigning in Hitchin?
Because of this trip with my in laws, I’ve not personally been out on the doorstep yet. I’m just about to, and I’m running late!
OK, we’ll wind up and I’ll let you get on! Thank you for your time. What is your message to voters in this constituency?
If you’re staunch Lib Dems, then thank you for your support – and don’t forget to vote on Thursday. And if you’ve voted Tory in the past because you’re worried about enterprise and business and the economy and trade, please take a good look at our policies and vote for us.
One last question, I thought you gave a good, positive response at the Hitchin hustings as to whether 16-year-olds should vote. But what do you think about engaging youngsters to vote on Thursday as it’s so important?
I would say it is so important to vote. As a result of not voting, young people have often got a raw deal. I would say to youngsters: ‘I want you to have the same opportunities as I did when I was your age. I really benefitted from Britain’s involvement in the EU in terms of freedom of movement, and I want you to as well’. It actually makes me genuinely upset to see young people denied those opportunities today that I had.
Excellent. And your the two big issues not covered yet – your favourite Hitchin coffee shop and favourite pub?
I have to say I’ve been to a number of coffee shops in Hitchin including this one [Coffee Lab on Sun Street], and I have to say it’s hard to pick out a favourite as they all have their own excellent qualities...
I have to say I didn’t think you’d sit on the fence with that one Hugh...
[Dryly] No, I think it’s grossly unfair from a commercial point of view to pick out a favourite coffee shop...
Favourite pub then?
The Sun Hotel. Because that was the first one I went to on my recent visits to Hitchin, and Sharon and the whole team gave me a warm welcome. And the food is nice. Other pubs are also available...
Thanks for your time Hugh.
Follow Hugh on Twitter using the handle @Hugh_Annand.
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