Words: Ryan Child
It has just passed 10.45am and, for the first time in our interview, David Heath CBE MP lets out a sigh.
I had asked him why he voted to end financial support for some 16-19 year olds in training and further education.
For the first 45 minutes he had been open and direct, but the mention of his voting while in government brings out a more contemplative, reserved side. The thorough, balanced answers give way to a kind of resigned admittance of equipoise, in which he explains the catch 22 of moving from back to front bench.
The problem, he said, is that if you want to make things happen then you have to be in the government, which means that sometimes you have to compromise your own personal views for the bigger picture.
There were times when he found himself “in really difficult dilemmas that I was instinctively opposed to.”
However, remaining inside the government, where voting is compulsory, puts politicians in a strong bargaining position.
Those difficult dilemmas can, essentially, be cashed in. A vote for a vote.
This was the case when the Tories agreed to change the tax threshold, allowing poorer people to take home more of their earnings. The compromise, though, was that the Lib Dems had to agree to tax cuts for people earning more than £150,000.
This example alone shows the disordered, topsy-turvy nature of a government shared between opposing political parties. The Cookie Monster making dinner with Oakie Doke.
Or, as is more accurate, Oxford and Cambridge trying to row the same boat.
Heath, educated at St John’s College, Oxford, was Deputy Leader of the House of Commons and then Minister for Food, Agriculture and Rural Affairs.
The latter of the two ministerial roles was one of “constant pressure,” with national outcry about the Horsemeat Scandal replicated on a local level towards the culling of Badgers.
And, while they were the toughest days of his 18 year career in politics, Heath said it was raising tuition fees that caused the most heartache.
But, he says, pausing to collect his thoughts, “there has to be a huge amount of compromise in a coalition. What you must do is try and find common ground if you can.”
I say, then, that it follows that a party’s manifesto can’t be taken seriously anymore, considering that 2015 is likely to see another coalition. He agrees.
“You simply can’t do everything you promise,” he says. This type of quote, presented as a soundbite, could be taken as a confession. However, as with many of the issues we spoke about, David Heath was simply being forthright.
The notion of two opposing political ideologies being merged to form a cohesive government, in which both honour their core values at all times, is ridiculous.
And the people holding them to account on this particular issue are fantasists.
The truth is that ruling administrations should be held to account on their policies and governance, something Heath says is one of the three things an opposition MP can do.
Another is combing through new legislation and offering amendments that favour their constituents, while the third is representing the local populace by sending letters and having meetings with stakeholders in important regional issues.
An example being the recent proposal to stop the Bath bus passing through the local village of Rode. Potentially stranded locals fought against the idea and Heath sent a letter to the bus company in support of the village’s residents.
He said the letter would have helped put pressure on the bus company, “because people tend to listen when MP is at the end of a name,” but essentially it was the people involved with protesting that made the difference.
Apart from the three aforementioned powers, though, Heath says an MP outside of the government can do little else.
He gives Green Party MP Caroline Lucas as an example.
“I have a lot of time for her and think she is a good person but, hand on heart, I doubt she can say she has changed anything at all in Westminster.”
Heath points out that he had the same problem for years while sitting outside of the government with the Lib Dems, constantly campaigning for better flood defences in Somerset but to no avail.
“Something that holds true,” he says, “ Is that all politics is local, and I believe in that strongly.”
During his time in governance, including more than a decade leading the county council before becoming an MP, Heath oversaw the building of Frome’s Library and bypass, two things that have substantially changed the town.
He says he has written countless letters supporting local people and that, undoubtedly, the largest amount of his time has been spent talking with local constituents.
With all this in mind, then, I say that the energy of a politician is something voters should be looking for as much as their policies, considering that there is an 80 per cent chance that the next MP of Somerton and Frome will be in the opposition.
The people need someone who is prepared to make a huge effort on the ground in Somerton and Frome.
Heath’s own efforts for Somerset, after all, have been described as ‘formidable’ by Lord Paddy Ashdown, the former MP for Yeovil.
“The next MP has some unfinished business in the area,” Heath says, energised by the thought.
“Particularly with flood defences and the A303, while we also have one of the most underused rail mainlines in the UK. Re-opening stops at Somerton and Langport would help improve things in a big way.”
So what other issues will the new incumbent face straight away?
“Rural Broadband is going to be a huge issue in the coming years. At the moment we are at 80 per cent but that still leaves a good amount of people that do not have the access they need across the area.
“Then you have the task of using the land efficiently. Building the houses people need but still preserving the special stuff in this rural area. I’ve stood in the House of Commons and spoken about farm house cider, thatched houses and Somerset carnivals, because if I didn’t then who would?”
However, with things that actually effect people in their daily lives, such as housing, jobs and bus fares, there is only a certain amount of influence an MP can have. The responsibility really lies with town and county councillors. Heath recognises local councils as ‘extremely important’ and says people should find out who their local councillors are and hold them to account.
And if you want change, Heath says, then go out and ask for it rather than sitting around complaining.
Rather quickly an hour as passed and we are about to wrap up the interview when I ask what he thinks his biggest achievement was.
After a long pause, he says it was during Tony Blair’s premiership when, essentially leading the opposition in the House of Commons, he fought, and won, against a proposal to allow the 28 detention of citizens without charge.
“That was a good day’s work, expressing very liberal ideals.”
And finally, I say, walking back out into the open plan office, do you have any plans for after you step down?
“I’m not sure yet,” he smiles. “But I reckon I’ve got one more big project left in me.”
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