The Student in conversation with Christine Jardine, Liberal Democrat candidate for Edinburgh West

The Student speaks to Christine Jardine, the Liberal Democrats’ candidate for Edinburgh West, about why she is standing for election.

When, and how, did you first get involved with the Liberal Democrats? 

Christine: I was always a Liberal when I was at university. I wasn’t sure of my politics at university, but I always remembered that when we had classes (I was a politics student), everyone was committed to the Conservatives or to Labour. I wasn’t committed to them. Studying politics more and more, I became more interested in liberal ideas, in liberalism.

Charles Kennedy was a big influence in what I thought. To be fair, Charles was not a liberal, he was in the SDP. That kind of social democratic liberal approach to politics, that was always one that I liked. Then I became a journalist, so politics was off the table. Being a journalist you can’t be involved in politics. I was quite pleased that I never joined the political party because of that. But the things I saw, as a  journalist, made me convinced that I did want to get involved.

I had a happy and reasonably successful career. One day, I was just frustrated about something on the television, and by that time I had been voting Liberal Democrats since I was about twenty. I had been covering the Liberal Democrats’ campaign in Aberdeen and Grampian when I was a journalist. I phoned Nicol Stephen, the leader at the time and said, “You know what Nicol, I’ve had enough of this standing on the sidelines. I want to get involved.” He gave my number to Jo Swinson; she hadn’t long been an MP at that point, she phoned and came to see me and said “Yeah we’d like to get you involved,” and I was thinking I’d like to sort of advise on media and be helpful. She got me more and more involved in before I knew where I was. I was thinking I’d just get involved in all this candidate approval and vetting. But my motivation for really getting involved was what I had seen as a journalist and my background too.

What party values do you resonate with the most? You come from a working class background, which is interesting as a lot of people would have thought that meant a vote for Labour. Was it the centre ground of the Liberal Democrats that appealed to you? 

Christine: Yeah, people talk about the centre ground, but for me it’s not really the centre. There was a time when Charles Kennedy was leader of the Liberal Democrats and we were for the left, with Tony Blair’s New Labour Party. Those ideals don’t really sit anywhere near what we consider the traditional spectrum. You know, you’ve got Labour and Conservative, and anything else is somewhere in between. Going right back to university, socialism didn’t appeal to me: I didn’t like a planned economy. I’m not an economist, but the idea that you control companies and business in the way that you do, and that socialism does, as well as studying socialist countries; I wasn’t impressed.

Capitalism is not necessarily evil. You have people like Joseph Rowntree, and the Quakers, that basically support capitalism like liberals do, but a capitalism that is for a purpose. Capitalism that is for a better society, not for the production of wealth. That I think is where I think that I saw Liberalism being different from Conservatism, and is what attracted me to the Liberal Democrats. Because yes you should be able to achieve your ambitions, yes you should encourage entrepreneurship, yes you should support your business community; but you need to do it for a reason. For me, liberalism is about supporting that in order to build a fairer society.

You were elected in 2017 for Edinburgh West. At the time, what were some of the key concerns of your constituents, and what have you done to address them? It wasn’t Liberal Democrat before, so it was a change for the constituency. 

Christine: No it wasn’t really; Edinburgh West has been Liberal Democrat since 1997 except for two years it was SNP. If you remember in 2015, the SNP had a massive win. But it went back to being a Liberal Democrat constituency. We also have the MSP and the five councillors.

A lot of what we do is founded in the community, working with the community, for the community and making sure that is our priority in every part of government: local, national, Scottish. That’s what we do.

Since I’ve been elected, the main things people have come to me with is WASPI woman, universal credit, immigration issues and medicinal cannabis. Those are the things that can be dealt with at Westminster. Locally, we have the same issues as everywhere else: we have a lack of community facilities in some areas, we have schools that need investment (for the sake of the staff if nothing else), we have a health service which I’m fed up of hearing the SNP say that is better than the rest of the United Kingdom, which a) depends on how you measure it and b) isn’t really a high bar at the moment. We should want to be better, we should want to be improving it all the time.

The problem with universal credit it’s not the intention; it’s the way it’s done and the money that’s been taken out of it which makes it difficult for it to succeed. We think it needs £6bn of investment. If we try and scrap it and come up with something else, or scrap it now and go back to the old system, we’re just creating more problems. To help people get back into work so universal credit should be trying to help people do that, but at the moment it’s not and making life worse for people, and that’s not unacceptable.

One of the Liberal Democrats’ main policies is to stop Brexit, without calling a second referendum and immediately revoking Article 50.  52% of people voted to leave, so this would be undemocratic for a lot of people. What would you tell them?

Christine: Well hang on a minute. We would revoke article 50 if we had a mandate to do it, that’s the key that people keep missing. That’s not your fault, that’s the media!

Democracy is not static. You don’t have the same government all the time and you don’t deny people the right to change their minds. What we had was a referendum which was voted on a principal on leaving the European Union. The European Union means lots of different things to different people: it’s the customs union, the single market, the institutions, the common agricultural policies, the common fisherie policies. What part of the European Union did you like?

We didn’t know the details then. There are lots of questions about the way the campaign was conducted and some of the ridiculous claims that were made, and that were simply lax. So you have those different things, the campaign itself, the fact that people voted on principal for different things, and the fact that we don’t know what the deal will be. Although Boris Johnson and Theresa May managed to negotiate deals, the details of the impact of leaving the European Union is only now becoming clear. According to the Institute of Fiscal Services, the economy will only be 1.8% bigger if we leave the European Union and it would have a massive impact: it’s going to cost £90bn. If we leave with a deal, which is still a danger, then we’d have problems with medical supplies and food shortages.

We didn’t know all of this in 2016. We deserve the right to say that now we have the full picture: to say “no we don’t want to do it” or “yes we still do.”

The manifesto states that there will be a “remain bonus” of £50bn. Where does this figure come from and how can you guarantee that the country will receive this money if Britain stays in the EU? 

Christine: The £50bn is calculated. It’s the difference between the growth in the economy if we left the EU and the growth of the economy if we stayed in. The growth of the economy is taken from the Institute of Fiscal Studies which is 1.8%. Now not that’s massive growth, but it’s growth, and it’s much bigger than it would be if we left the EU. If you calculate the difference between the two it’s £50bn. The Institute of Fiscal Studies have called that (and it’s a prediction) cautious. They said we’re not being outlandish, we’re not plucking figures out of the air; we’ve made a calculation and we’ve erred on the side of caution. We don’t say that we’ll invest all the money and that the growth doesn’t happen.  That’s where that figure comes from.

There are other things that we would do to raise money to invest in the NHS, education and all of that. The difference of GDP between leaving the EU and staying in the EU would allow us to invest more in defence, in foreign police, in foreign aid and international development.

The Green Party aim to cut greenhouse emissions by 2030, and Labour want to be “on track for a net-zero carbon energy system within the 2030s.” Is there a reason the Liberal Democrats are not aiming for sooner than 2045? 

Christine: We’ve got specific measures that are aimed at climate change. Everyone’s talked about the sixty million trees. That’s because trees absorb carbon better than any scientific method of carbon capture at the moment. But also, we need more wood in the country, and once you have more wood it takes more time for the trees to mature. What we want to do is switch to more energy efficient housing: we want to build 300,000 houses but we want these to be more energy efficient. If we build them from wood, they’ll be more energy efficient than bricks.

We want 80% renewables to replace fossil fuel industries, ban fracking and also reduce the number of international flights that we take needlessly. People say it’s going to cost them more, but actually if you go on holiday once a year, you visit family in Australia, you’ll actually take a discount if you only take one flight a year. It doesn’t suddenly go up the second time, it goes up incrementally. And the reason for that is, firstly to invest that money in the climate change measures we want to take, like the house building and renewable energy, but also most of those international flights are from business people. You can do these meetings via the internet, so it’s an incentive for them to take less flights and make more of the technological advances.

People from BAME backgrounds are over-represented in jail; how have the Liberal Democrats promised to improve this?

Christine: It’s part of a bigger approach to crime. It’s about looking at why people get involved, why they get dragged into it – going back to those people I was at school with, I know that one or two of them ended up in jail. They didn’t choose that life – they didn’t think when they were eleven or twelve “Oh, I’ll be a criminal.”

It’s about investing in society, health, education, social work, facilities for young people. We need to look at how the way you live affects your opportunities in life. The model to look at is the crime prevention unit that was set up in Glasgow. The way they did it was to take a holistic approach, to look at the things I mentioned, and encouraging people away from crime. Crime in Glasgow dropped over 40% in a decade, and it’s now 62% fewer admissions to A&E with knife wounds. It’s about improving people’s lot in life.

The other big thing that affects Black and Ethnic Minorities, is stop and search without suspicion. It’s inconceivable in the 21st century, but you’re still more likely to be stopped and searched if you’re from an ethnic minority. That is just fundamentally wrong. Stop and search, with a reason, fine. But stop and search without suspicion, that’s wrong. There’s also still a disproportionate number of people in prison who come from deprived backgrounds and housing estates; and that’s because they get drawn in to crime.

The way to tackle that is the holistic approach. The last thing is legalisation and regulation of cannabis. I know it’s a cliché, but you have to look at what happened in prohibition in America. Why have we not learnt this lesson in this country? Canadians have, and it works in Canada. It works in Canada because it’s regulated, and it makes a big difference.

If we legalise cannabis, where do we stop and how exactly would you regulate it? 

Christine: We wouldn’t just say overnight “right that’s ok, it’s just cannabis, it’s now legalised.” We would have to take time to set up a regulatory body, laws on how it could be controlled, what the actual substances used could be, how it would be licensed, all of that. It’s not something that you would do simply. But the main benefit one is a health one. There is a criminal aspect as well and there’s god knows what out on the streets. If we stop that, there’s the worry of it being a gateway drug and all the rest of it. If you regulate that, you help to prevent that. Do I ever see crack cocaine legalised? I don’t know about that! But I think what we have to do is recognise that we have a problem, and what we have tried so far has failed. So we need to take a different approach, and that’s why I think the legalisation and regulation of cannabis is the way ahead. We have to think about the other drugs and substances available and how they’re regulated, for example alcohol and tobacco, and the difference it makes to what’s available; the health risks, all of that. That’s how we need to look at it.

The coalition government damaged the Liberal Democrats’ reputation.  After the party failed to stop the increase of tuition fees, why should young people trust you again?

Christine: The mistake we made was in promising something we could only deliver if we had a majority government. We could only deliver what we wanted to deliver if we were a majority. We managed to get the Conservatives to move considerably more to a position; which is also better than what the Labour party was offering.

I’m not saying that we were perfect or we were right, yeah we made mistakes. But I think what we have to do is look at how the situation is now and how we can improve. The weird thing about tuition fees – and no one has really explained to me how this has happened – that in England and Wales, the gap between those going to university from a higher socioeconomic background and those from less well-off circumstances has closed; not completely, but it’s closing.

That hasn’t happened in Scotland. One of the problems in Scotland is that the universities have been starved of cash. They’re taking more and more international students who have to pay fees, reducing the number of places for Scottish students. Because it’s also free for everyone from the European Union, apart from English students – which I find appalling – you know those places are being taken up. I’m not defending tuition fees, but we have to look at how we improve the situation, how to make it better and seeing if there’s something from it that we can work with. I’m a great believer in life that you make sure you know what you’re doing before you change.

In an ideal world, I would go back to the situation that I had when I went to university. The contract then was you went to university, you got a grant and you paid higher taxes because you would have a better job. That was the theory and you paid for the next generation’s education; in an ideal world, that’s what I’d go back to.

Is it possible? I don’t know, but I’d like to get as close to that as we can. I can’t sign a pledge to say that we will do that in government, because we’ve done that before. That would be my ideal, but I don’t know if that’s possible.

I think my generation let this generation down by changing the system. I remember at university there was this resentment that students got everything free, and my defence was that I’d pay that back. It wasn’t specifically the coalition, the Conservative party, the Labour party, any of us; it was that change in concept in the contract of what somebody going to university in society was.

The other thing we got wrong, and this was actually Tony Blair: yes more young people should have the opportunity, and not just young people, everyone, to go to university. But only if that’s what’s right for them and that’s what they want. And what we’ve done is put pressure on an entire generation that if they don’t go to university, they’ve failed. That’s wrong. They can choose a different path. Schools have become test passing factories rather than somewhere you grow and develop your skills, intellect, approach to life. There have become certain levels for you and the school to attain, certain levels and certain numbers of those attending universities, and schools get praise for these numbers. That’s where our education plans moves away from that type of education.

You talk about how your generation let the next generation down. Labour and the Green Party say they will write off student debt and abolish tuition fees. A lot of students would look at that and decide to vote for them. What would you say to that student? 

Christine: The SNP promised to cancel student debt in Scotland and they haven’t done it yet. What I would say is to look at the overall picture, look at what else is involved and how they’re going to pay for that. You might think this contradicts what I’ve just said, but if you think about what I said when I was at university; it has to be paid for by somebody. There is no such thing as a free lunch and there is no such thing as a free education. It has to be paid for. So if you wipe out student debt, you’ll still pay for it, but you’ll pay for it with your taxes.

I would say look at the bigger picture. There’s a lot of things in the Labour party manifesto that you look at and you think, and would understand why voters think, wow that’s great. But is that possible? What are the implications of it? Like the free broadband. Free broadband, provided for everyone by the state. How on earth are they going to do that? Yeah that’s a great idea, but where will the money come from? Look at the bigger picture, and look at what the implications are. What will be the cost of that thing that, on the surface, that sounds like a brilliant idea?

The Liberal Democrats call themselves the party of “fiscal rectitude.” Labour promises to increase the minimum wage to £10 an hour for workers over sixteen. The Liberal Democrats have promised to the salary of those working on zero-hour contracts by 20%. How would this be delivered? Does the party have plans to raise the minimum wages, and to improve working conditions for young people? 

Christine: We’ve always talked about the living wage.  The difference between what it really costs and the minimum wage. I was a freelance, so I used to pick my hours, especially when my daughter was young.

There are actually people out there who like zero-hours contracts. People in these contracts have the same employment protection, the same wages as everyone else and you’re not being paid a pittance when you’re twenty-four and sacked at twenty-five. Those are the ways we protect people because the employment protection is there.

When we used to work with the Tories, they used to say they’d get rid of the red tape and we’d say no, that it was employment protection. That’s protecting us. We have them because of the EU. I hate the word minimum, because people shouldn’t be earning the minimum.

The manifesto states that it will increase cooperation tax from 17% to 20%. Do you believe that this 3% increase will make a significant difference to large corporations? Labour have promised more and so have the Greens. A lot of people see companies like Apple and Amazon and think 3% is really nothing; what would you tell them?

Christine: That’s a lot of money. If you think of a 3% increase of what Apple brings in every year, that’s a lot. I’m not an economist but you have to strike a balance between raising money and stifling growth. That’s why it’s important you cost everything properly: you know where the money is coming from and you know what it’s going to bring in. Three doesn’t sound like a number but when you think about what that 3% can bring in, it’s massive. Yes you can bring in more by putting it up more, but what damage does that do to the economy in terms of stifling business? You have to find a balance.

I don’t think you should always be driven by what’s best for the business over what’s best for the individual, but there’s a balance to be drawn. I think that’s a reasonable, responsible figure that will allow massive change; whereas if we leave the EU and the economy isn’t growing, where on earth are the Labour and the Conservatives going to get the money from?

We’re saying the economy will grow more, that 3% will make a big difference, there’ll be more growth, more money, and that will allow us to invest in the sort of measures that we need to create a society that gives us all a brighter future. Too many people at the moment are just working hard to get by, and they need to get more out of life than that. I think it’s incumbent on us as politicians, to make sure we do everything that we can. That goes back to being a liberal, that’s why I’m a liberal.

One of these policies is freezing the train fares. How would you go about delivering this? It’s important to a lot of students.  Labour have promised to nationalise the entire railway. 

Christine: It’s a lot simpler than nationalising the railways. That’s quite a difficult question actually because you just tell the train companies that’s the limit. That’s basically all we need to do. If you want to improve services you invest in network rail. One of the things that Grant Sharps has said – and this hasn’t really been picked up on – and shows the difference between our policy and their policy; ours is realistic and theirs is just nonsense. Grant Sharps has said they’ll invest £500m in reopening lines that Beeching closed.

We can’t just keep putting prices up and expecting people to use the railways. If I, for example, lived out in Queensferry, Kirkliston, and it was a country bus service which costs twice as much as the city bus service; how many people do you think, if they had a family of four, that they’re going to spend twenty pounds going into the city – or am I going to take my car? That has an impact out there on the air we breathe.

I was being flippant when I said that freezing train fares would be a lot simpler than nationalising the railways, but nationalisation will not be easy and very expensive.

Do you think freezing train fares alone will be enough to tackle issues such as short staffing and waiting times? 

Christine: No. We need investment in the railways and growth in the economy, the more people using the railways; and if we stay in the EU, and your economy grows more, then we will have the opportunity to do that. Get people off the roads; it’s a circular thing. The more you do, the more you will achieve. If we leave the EU, everything – absolutely everything – that any of us want to try and do will become more difficult.

While the Liberal Democrats have increased in popularity, Labour is still the main opposition party, and the SNP hold the majority of seats in Scotland. Therefore, why should voters – especially Scottish voters – choose to vote for the Liberal Democrats? Why not vote for Jeremy Corbyn who leads the bigger party, or why not vote for the SNP who have the majority in Scotland? 

Christine: The fact that a party has a majority is not a reason to vote for them. It’s what they want to do it, and how they want to use that influence. For me how the Labour party would want to use their position in government would be completely irresponsible. It’s undeliverable, what they’re saying. We don’t know what they would do about Brexit, which is the biggest single issue outside climate change; Brexit makes it more difficult to tackle climate change. So I wouldn’t vote for the Labour party and I wouldn’t put Jeremy Corbyn in Number ten.

As for the SNP, there’s one single reason I would not vote for the SNP. And that’s independence. Independence is exactly the same as Brexit. I can’t see how the SNP fail to see the contradiction in their argument. I agree with them that Brexit is bad for this country. But if Brexit is bad, and if it’s bad for us to leave a big trading group that allows us to have a louder voice on the international stage, why is it good for us to leave the United Kingdom that allows us to have a bigger voice within the EU and elsewhere? There’s a contradiction in their argument. There’s also the fact there’s been eight and a half years of a constitutional argument which has been divisive, bitter and nasty at times.

I don’t like the politics of identity, which labels you and I and everyone else according to some predetermined thing. I’m Scottish, and I’m proud of being Scottish, but I’m not just that. I’m also British and a European. And like a vast number of people in this country, my family did not originally come from Scotland. I don’t have a single identity, I’m a complex mixture of different identities, we all are. To label people and say that’s what you are – I don’t like that. Politics shouldn’t be about your identity, where you come from. As soon as you start doing that, you separate people up, you have racism, anti-Semitism, all of that. It’s all rooted in this politics of identity. That’s why I could never vote for independence. It’s all about identity politics – as is Brexit.

I’m an internationalist. I don’t want to put up borders, I want to bring them down. That might sound idealistic, but I think sometimes it’s important to be idealistic and be ambitious. I grew up in a family with three girls, I never actually thought I wasn’t equal. I was brought up to believe that you aim high, and that you dream big. That counts for individuals, but it counts on the world stage. We shouldn’t just sit back and say that’s my wee corner here. How small do you make that wee corner? Do you keep making it smaller? Or do you have an outward looking approach and embrace the rest of the world? And that’s the way we solve problems, we make improvements and we have progressive politics. So that’s what important to me.

It’s really interesting you mention identity politics as it’s a big issue for many students.  What would you say is really restrictive about identity politics; when does it go too far for you? 

Christine: There’s nothing wrong with being proud of who you are. In fact, there’s everything right about being proud of who you are. That’s the difference between patriotism and nationalism. A patriot is proud of who they are, but who loves their neighbours and works for their neighbours. A nationalist is only about themselves and about their own country or group. We should all be proud of our identity but identity is a complex mixture of things.

We’re all a mixture of different people; I was brought up in Glasgow. If you look at Glasgow, it’s made up of Irish immigrants, Italian immigrants, there’s a huge Punjabi community, and there’s also a lot of Ugandan and Kenyan Asians who came here. Glasgow’s a mixture of different people: they’re all Scots, but they all come from different places. You shouldn’t narrow your identity to one thing.

Charles Kennedy used to say “I’m a highlander, I’m a Scot, I’m British and a European. All of those identities are important to who I am and I don’t want to lose that.” And I think we should all be like that. Our identity can be made up of lots of things, but it shouldn’t restrict you. You can be patriotic and love your neighbours, and you don’t need to restrict yourself.

Image: via Christine Jardine

 

 

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