The Liberal Democrat candidate for Manchester Withington talks Brexit, budgets and who is telling 'big fat lies'

I’m sure this gets said every time, but this election really does seem to be a strong contender for the worst election ever. Voters feel depressed and alienated with the torrent of, frankly, bullshit that comes our way on a daily basis. And though the coverage has mainly focussed on the death throes battle between Labour and the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats are hoping to sneak up on them in marginal seats that voted remain. One such seat is Manchester Withington, where one prospective parliamentary candidate is not too keen on the bullshit either.

John Leech was the Lib Dem MP for Manchester Withington, where he campaigned on gay rights, refugees and cancer services, up until 2015, when his seat was taken by the Labour Party. Then in 2016 he was elected to the Council as the sole member of the Opposition. In 2018 a further two Liberal Democrat councillors joined him and he became Leader of the Opposition. Since then he has seen his campaign to have Alan Turing vindicated by seeing the wartime hero as the face of the £50, supported LGBTQ+ rights and strongly opposed the introduction of the controversial PSPO policy by Manchester City Council.

There is no point in feeling bitter about decisions in the past. We need to decide what is best for the future

Fairly late on in what has admittedly been a shotgun election, Leech announced his intention to run again for Manchester Withington with a video shot in the McDonalds where he used to work, showing a wicked sense of irony after an angry voter told him to “f*** off back to McDonald’s”. Here we ask him about the Liberal Democrat's fiscal policy, his views on Brexit and what happens when he and his party don't see eye-to-eye.

You voted against entering a coalition with the Conservatives in 2010. How would you approach a hung parliament this time around?

JL - I did not vote for the coalition in 2010 because I disagreed with some of the compromises that were negotiated, even though they were agreed with the best of intentions to try and tackle the mess the country had been left in by the Labour Government. The Liberal Democrats have made it very clear that they we will not go into coalition with either Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn because neither of them is fit to be Prime Minister, and both will deliver a damaging Brexit to the country. In the event of a hung parliament, we would look at every proposal on an issue-by-issue basis, and certainly support legislation that delivered a People's Vote, so that we have a chance to stop Brexit.

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The Lib Dems are clear that they want to stop Brexit

It must have been bitter that the coalition was one of the main reasons the Lib Dems did badly in the 2015 elections, and you lost your own seat, after you essentially advised the party against it?

JL - Most people in the Labour Party wanted to be in opposition after 2010 so that they could avoid taking the blame for having to try to balance the books, and the parliamentary numbers simply did not stack up, so there was only one option for a stable coalition. Had there not been a coalition, a minority Tory Government would have called another general election within six months, and we might have been equally damaged for refusing to go into coalition. There is no point in feeling bitter about decisions in the past. We need to decide what is best for the future.

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The Lib Dems want to get rid of petrol and diesel cars by 2030

You also spoke out against the bedroom tax and voted against increasing tuition fees. What other policies (of any party) can you see becoming especially harmful or unpopular?

JL - Most of the Tories’ policies are unpopular – unless you’ve got yourself a hedge fund or a couple of offshore bank accounts. A lot of what the Conservatives are promising people is as fanciful as the Labour manifesto, and I’m not really interested in giving any coverage or validation to more of Boris Johnson’s blatant lies. Ultimately Brexit is going to be the most harmful and damaging, and people will quickly realise that there are years of economic misery and endless negotiations to follow before Brexit is anywhere near "done". Labour's policy is equally as damaging. They claim they will renegotiate a deal, but will not even tell us if they will then support it!

The Liberal Democrats have a clear plan to build a brighter future. We will properly invest in our NHS, fund our police and fire services to make our communities healthier and safer. We will tackle inequality like never before and make sure no matter where you’re from, who you love or pray to, you get the opportunity to thrive.

We will give every single child the best possible start in life no matter their background and extend free childcare so being a parent doesn’t mean ending your career. We’ll end the North/South divide and make sure the North is connected before investing in London any more.

And we’ll finally take the climate crisis seriously by banning fracking and ending carbon emissions and the sale of diesel and petrol cars by 2030 – 10 years sooner than the Conservatives.

I don’t know about you, but I think that’s something to vote for.

During your time as MP you were considered one of the most rebellious in parliament, going against your party a total of 51 times in the 2010-15 term. Should voters be voting for you because you agree with all Lib Dem policies or should they expect you to stray from the fold?

JL - It is important people remember that they are electing a local representative. I will stand up for people in Manchester no matter what. If that means voting against the party whip, I think that I have proved that I am prepared to do that. However, I would not expect to be at odds with my Lib Dem colleagues very often, because we will not be in coalition. But the people I represent always come first.

In contrast, my Labour opponent (Jeff Smith) is a Labour whip. This means he has forced Labour MPs to vote with the Conservatives on more than 25 occasions to deliver Brexit, including blocking a second referendum six times. I know which I’d rather have on my conscience. Note - Jeff Smith voted against the Notification of Withdrawal bill, which triggered article 50, despite being whip.

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Lib Dems pledge to take on the climate emergency

The Liberal Democrat economic plan is to run a permanent budget surplus. This is a policy associated with George Osborne and seems like this could create yet more wealth inequality. Do you agree with it?  

JL - Actually George Osborne actually never ran a budget surplus, but the deficit was reduced during the coalition. There is no doubt that we are living in tough economic times, and they will get tougher with Brexit. Families are struggling, and hardworking families are not seeing enough support in return. What the Liberal Democrats have done in our manifesto is to put forward spending plans, but also to show how these spending commitments will be paid for.  

We have spending priorities to support the most vulnerable and least well-off, but we will be honest about raising taxes to fund spending priorities such as boosting welfare, health and social care spending, putting more police in every community, tackling the climate emergency and reversing education cuts.  

By contrast the Tories and Labour are promising to spend, but have no credible plans how to pay for it. The IFS have roundly condemned Labour and Tory spending plans as undeliverable without other tax rises. We have been open and honest where the money will come from - 1p on income tax for health and social care, reversing corporation tax cuts, changes to Air Passenger Duty so that frequent flyers pay their fair share, the abolition of the separate capital gains tax free allowance, along with increases to the Digital Services Tax and anti-avoidance measures. These changes will raise billions to fund our spending plans.

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John Leech campaigns for trans rights in the workplace

What are the Lib Dem plans regarding Universal Credit?

JL - The introduction of UC has been a complete shambles, and it has been completely underfunded by the Tory Government. We will reverse Tory cuts to the Employment and Support Allowance and the Independent Living Fund. We will scrap the bedroom tax and calculate the Local Housing Allowance on actual local rents. We will scrap the benefit cap and the two-child limit, and we will make sure that UC claims take five days rather than five weeks. This will be an extra £6 billion into the welfare budget, which will help to resolve the problems with UC.

You described Brexit as ‘daft’. What do you think you offer leavers in Manchester Withington?

JL - I still think Brexit is ridiculous. But I’ve never said that Leaver voters are. No one could have expected the torrent of misinformation, or the lies that politicians like Boris Johnson come out with time and time again. It is the very worst example of economic vandalism by the Tories and Jeremy Corbyn. As a politician, you need to be straight with people, and sometimes you will disagree with them and they will disagree with you. But one thing is sure, people know what I stand for.

I have no doubt that leavers in Withington want the best for our schools, police, fire and NHS. By voting for me, stopping Brexit, and accessing the £50 billion Remain Bonus, we can fund our vital local services with real money, rather than big fat lies painted on the side of a bus. But aside from Brexit, they will get an MP who has a record of standing up for local people for over 20 years. 

Read: Can Labour keep marginal Bury South red?

Lib Dems in Manchester

Other local seats the Liberal Democrats are hoping to reclaim ground in include the now ex-Labour MP Angela Smith in Altrincham and Sale West who goes up against Sir Graham Brady, Tom Morrison in Cheadle and Lisa Smart in Hazel Grove.

John Leech runs agains Jeff Smith (Labour), Lucy Bannister (Green), Stephen Ward (Brexit Party) and Shengke Zhi (Conservative) in Manchester Withington.