LIBERAL Democrat Member of Parliament, Lembit Opik, in Majorca yesterday welcomed the British local elections results which saw his party knock Labour into second place. Opik, MP for Montgomeryshire, told the Bulletin in a wide ranging interview, that Britain needs to start taking his party seriously, because if there was a hung parliament, which now seems a real possibility after Thursday's local election results, then the Liberal Democrats would hold the balance of power. Opik will be spending the weekend in Majorca to help raise money for the Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital as part of the Pirates gala event tonight.
Q.How does it feel the morning after (the local elections)?
A.“I am relieved and pleased to see that once again the Liberal Democrats have beaten the party of government with a greater share of the vote and this comes after a high water mark four years ago which we were really trying to beat. “During that time our target has been to continue growing and every time there is a local election it gets harder for us because we keep getting better results. “We've now got about 4'700 councillors which is not bad for a party which Labour and the Tories claimed was dead not that many years ago. But crucially we've pushed Labour into third place again and that is proof that people in Britain take it for granted that the Lib Dems are part of three-party politics in Britain. The two old parties have been trying to squeeze us out. “Instead we've gone up. We've got another council. The results show a little increase, it's no Lib Dem revolution.” QBut the party has not had an easy six months.
A.“The future didn't look that bright in January so the new leader Sir Menzies Campbell will be satisfied that the party's on the up after the big-dipper ride through January.” Q.Are you satisfied with the new leader and results? You weren't a great fan of Campbell?
A.“To be precise I opposed the stepping down of Charles Kennedy. I thought that he should have been allowed to continue but in the fight that followed I lost out, that's fair enough, as there was obviously a large body of opinion in the parliamentary party which wanted him to go...but that's all ancient history now. “The fact is that since then, we won an important by-election in Scotland, Dunfermeline, and that made it obvious that the public were much more mature about the leadership issue than the British media. “That result was a good omen and suggested that we would do OK in council elections and I think that we've done a little better than OK. If I was giving it a general progress report I'd say it was good.” Q.Is Menzies Campbell going to take you into the general elections?
A.“Yes, Ming Campbell got 58 percent of the vote in the leadership battle. That means that six out of 10 people in the party want him as leader and you can't argue with a majority like that.” Q.So the Lib Dems sound to be in solid shape as a party.
A.“At the moment we are, I could be giving you loads of spin but that's not how I operate, but what I'm surprised about is the healing power of the party. Things seemed such a mess in January and it looked like we were on the brink of an internal party civil war. Yet after Campbell was installed as leader things started to settle down. The party said: ‘right, the decision's been made and let's get on with it. Our collective interests are far more important than our internal differences.' “We're also democratic enough to accept that Ming got the vote, so Ming gets our loyalty and, despite my loyalty to Charles (Kennedy) and my gripes at the time, I have transferred my loyalty to Ming and I think I speak for lots of people. “There is not space for sulking and long term resentment in poltics - it's a tough game but all that's part of Lib Dem history. Charles may do a Hague (the former Conservative leader who resigned and then returned as Shadow Foreign Secretary), but I know he's quite happy now, I haven't seen him this happy in years - the pressure's off.” Q.Majorca has recently cast a dark shadow over your party in the form of Michael Brown (Brown donated 2.5 million pounds to the Liberal Democrats but was arrested in Majorca last month on fraud charges). Is the investigation into his donation still going on and will you have to refund the money?
A.“I'd like to claim that I've been sent here to speak to you to put the record straight on this..... “The other parties would love to see the Lib Dems mired in scandal like they are but actually the Michael Brown donation has been thoroughly investigated by the relevant commissions and they gave the whole thing a clean bill of health. I think the other parties need to lighten up a bit and recognise that if people are found innocent in an event, it doesn't mean that they're guilty. I personally don't think politics wins by mud slinging. I don't intend to indulge in running down the other parties. “They were up against the financial ropes when the Brown issue blew up and, as they sank into the quicksand, they threw two handfuls of muck at us. But it didn't stick. “My advice to Labour and Tory party activists is to consider how much good this really does for your party. To quote Tony Benn ‘don't wrestle with chimney sweeps because you'll end up covered in soot'. “It's better and more attractive to campaign positively, telling people why they should vote for you as opposed to why they shouldn't vote for anyone else. “When it comes to the Michael Brown thing I think it's a prime example of parties trying to campaign negatively against us with the help of some silly journalists who seem to be quite politically motivated.” Q.Was the Brown thing an embarrassment for the party?
A.“As the donation was given the all clear, there's nothing to be embarrassed about really. I have to say I have a lot of respect for Michael Brown. He's a self-made man, calls a spade a spade. He's said what he's happy and unhappy about with regards to the party, it's a free country. The media reported it but some wouldn't drop it when no wrong-doing was found.” Q.Do you think it is time that the media, and to a lesser extent the British public, started taking the Lib Dems more seriously and recognise that British politics is now a three party race?
A.“Yes I do, I've always had a personal rule to tell it like it is about my own party and criticise when they deserve it and, in the same spirit of honesty, I think the other parties should start taking us seriously. “We've beaten the government in the local elections and beaten all parties in by-elections. “They'd serve the public better by recognising and accepting the reality of the British political situation.” Q. What do you think the future holds now for the government?
A.“I think that Tony Blair is unlikely to be ousted, he's very safe and people who speculate otherwise are just filling column inches or trying to make themselves feel better because Blair's still a political heavyweight by any measure and I hope all parties will recognise that. “But, his party, the government's, got troubles, as any government has after three terms. Some of those troubles will get better when Blair does retire and that will happen next year. I personally think Brown will take over and that he will give Labour a lift. “But what happens at the next general election is a good question. The straws in the wind suggest that Labour can't get an overall majority and I'm certain the Conservatives can't either. So that makes life very interesting for the Lib Dems.” Q.Are we talking about a hung parliament?
A.“Possibly, we came close at the last election. Had Labour done three percent worse they would have lost their majority. Labour didn't win the last election, two out of three electors voted against them. They only got 35 percent. “Labour got a third, the Tories got roughly a third and we got a quarter. It makes me smile when I hear Labour pretending that they've got a mandate from the people. “Based on that, the Lib Dems can claim we have a greater mandate than the government at local council level. “It's preposterous for Labour to think that running the country when only one in three people voted for you is a clear mandate to govern, it's nothing other than arrogance. “I've got a lot of time for some Labour ministers, some are doing their best, but others are not listening enough to other parties and the public. “They didn't listen to the people over the Iraq war. We were against the war, it was the wrong war, at the wrong time, in the wrong place, and we're all paying the price for that. They didn't listen to the people over the anti-terrorist legislation, hence now Clarke has gone, and we're paying for that. “Had it not spent all this time listening to itself, this government could have done a lot better.” Q.Where do you stand on taking military action against Iran?
A.“Attacking Iran would be even more globally destabilising than the Iraq War because it would be throwing a match into petrol and it's not how first world, developed countries should be doing business. Just because you've got the power and the muscle doesn't mean you can punch your opponent.
Q.Who's calling the shots? George Bush?
A.“Our prime minister has been too eager to follow Bush's lead. It's a judgement call, of course. We have to recognise that the world's got a lot to be grateful for in terms of America in the last 80 years. But supporting the invasion of Iraq was not Brirtain's finest hour.” QWhat would the Lib Dems do if they win the next election?
A.“We would repeal many of the civil rights restrictions which have been forced through all in the name of terrorism. “Abolish certain very unfair taxes like council tax and replace it with fairer income-based taxes, based on whether you can pay, not the size of your house. “We'd stop measuring every little thing that the health and education sectors do. We'd actually trust people in those professions. “Politicians don't always know better than the doctor on the ward or the teacher in the class and all these progress checks suggest a lack of trust on behalf of the government. “We'd also cut all the red tape that is restricting British business and consult our colleagues in Europe, like the French or Italians, on how to protect British business from overseas buyers. I believe Britain will pay dearly in the long run for selling too many companies overseas. “We need to do a better job at protecting our crown jewels.”