Michael Mullaney is a Liberal Democrat Borough and County Councillor in Hinckley, Leicestershire. On the Borough Council he is currently the Execitive (Cabinet) Member for Housing and Community Safety. On the County Council he is the finance spokesperson for the opposition Lib Dem group. For four elections, 2010, 2015, 2017 and 2019 he was also the Lib Dem Parliamentary Spokesman/Candidate for Bosworth, before stepping down from that role at the end of last year.
MH: Michael, thanks for doing this interview.
MM: That’s fine, happy to take part.
MH: Let’s start with the present situation, how is COVID-19 affecting you?
MM: Well I am currently having to do the day job from home. Traditionally it was calling on people’s homes but that is obviously out of the question at the moment, so I’m doing phone calls with people from home. There are no council meetings obviously due to the lock down. Residents are still contacting me on social media, e-mail and by phone, so I still have issues to take up for them. Also concerns for family and friends who are at risk from it but thankfully nobody I know closely has contracted it. Though, sadly, some people I interact with on social media have.
MH: How do you think the UK government is handling the crisis?
MM: This is an awful tragedy and whilst we should seek to minimise political disagreements at this time there are still legitimate questions to ask over the government’s handling of the crisis. The change in strategy on how to deal with it, the delay on announcing support for the self employed and other workers, the lack of testing and medical equipment available. All are legitimate concerns and questions and, after the worst of the crisis has passed, there does need to be a serious inquiry into how the situation was handled and how mistakes can be avoided if unfortunately such a virus outbreak happens again. There are also serious questions about the lack of testing ventilators and personal protective equipment for healthcare staff dealing with this problem. All legitimate questions and concerns regarding how the government has handled this situation.
MH: And there’s at least two parts to this, isn’t there? The current situation and all that involves and then the aftermath…when life might return to some semblance of normality but we’ll have had the biggest shock to the economy in most of our lifetimes, sadly many thousands of lives lost, and public services perhaps forever changed.
MM: Yes, there are real concerns when this is over about the hit that the economy will have taken. For the moment the main attention is rightly on minimising the spread of the disease and ensuring that people who contract it recover and the number of deaths are minimised. After the lockdown and the worst of the virus is over there will then be the question of how the country recovers financially from this.
MH: You hold executive office on a local council. This must mean quite a big set of changes for how local authorities operate. Especially in providing services for those most in need.
MM: Yes, with coronavirus being such a major impact on everything, including many council workers having to work from home, it does mean some things happening not as soon as they normally would. So, non-urgent housing repairs being delayed; thankfully tenants who’ve contacted me about them understand this. One of the other things that’s been happening is the council providing emergency food relief to some people who are self isolating and can’t get out. I’ve delivered some of these myself, as has council leader Stuart Bray and others. It’s good to be able to get out of the house, while remembering to socially distance, and help people in need during these difficult times.
MH: Finally on this, you mention there how the Council is doing its bit to help. How is the wider community responding?
MM: The wider community is doing its bit, I hear of many people looking out for people in need, helping with shopping etc. Also it’s great to see many people have volunteered locally to the NHS volunteer scheme and to the scheme being run locally through Next Generation (a charity in Hinckley.) We often hear negative stories of people behaving badly during these events but we should remember all the people doing good too. As well as volunteers, there’s also people working for the NHS, as well as bin workers, lorry drivers, care workers, shop workers, social workers and the whole variety of people who are doing work that helps us through these difficult times.
MH: Absolutely, they are all stars. When did you first become interested in politics?
MM: When I was quite young I realised I believed in things and the main way of advancing them was through politics.
MH: Was that as a result of a particular local issue? Or in relation to national politics?
MM: It was mostly just due to a general following of national politics. I joined Labour at fifteen, before later joining the Lib Dems.
MH: Yes, we’ve both been in other parties before finding a home in the Liberal Democrats. What’s most appealing to you about the party and its philosophy?
MM: It’s about balancing the importance of individual freedom with ensuring that everyone has a reasonable standard of living, opportunities to get on in life and quality public services that they, their families and communities can depend on. It’s about making pragmatic decisions based on evidence and data rather than rigid ideology or dogma (whether that be left, right or any other kind.) It should be about being open to ideas and differences of opinion, whilst defending the rights of all individuals and groups of individuals. As a party we have many people who campaign in their local communities doing good work to improve the areas in which they live. The party has many people who selflessly give huge amounts of time and effort to it and their areas, knowing that in the Lib Dems unlike some other parties there are no ‘safe seats’ or ‘MPs for life.’
MH: You were quite critical of the party and its strategy after the last general election, right?
MH: What were/are your main concerns? And how do the Lib Dems bounce back from what can only be considered a reverse in fortunes, following success in local and European elections last year?
MM: I disagreed with the revoke policy as it was very easily perceived as being an extreme and undemocratic one by many members of the public. Our main selling point in that election was that we were a party of moderation against a hard Left Corbynite Labour Party and a hard Right Boris Johnson Tory party which was pushing a destructive hard Brexit. All these reasonable people who’d left Labour and the Tories because of their old parties move to the left and the right and because of there being so much antisemitism in Labour, such as Luciana Berger, Chuka Umunna, Sarah Wollaston and Heidi Allen. By abandoning the People’s Vote position, which had broad support and embracing revoke we (ourselves) appeared extreme and it undercut what should have been our key message as a party of moderation against the two extremes. The revoke policy was seen as going to far and it was also a double rebuff of many voters; firstly the majority who voted nationally to Leave but then, secondly, look at the constituency votes…outside London about 8/10 seats in England and Wales voted Leave, so we weren’t only wanting to overturn the national verdict but in most seats the local verdict too. The party went into the election ar about 18% and fell back to 11.5%. That’s really exceptional. People have said it’s the usual two party squeeze, but that’s (just) not the case. Just before the 1979 election we (the Liberals) went in with about 8% in the polls and emerged with 14%. That was against a union dominated Labour Party having been seen to move to the Left and a Thatcher led Tory party. The party fought as the party of moderation against two extremes and nearly doubles its vote in the campaign. In 1983, against a more left wing Labour Party under Michael Foot and a Thatcherite Tory Party we (the SDP/Liberal Alliance) moved from 19% at the start of the campaign to 26%. This was the case for every election bar two, 1987 and 2017 both in which Labour fought strong campaigns which shocked and surprised most people. This time round (2019) Labour fought a poor campaign, yet still we saw an unprecedented loss of support.
MH: Not enough focus on bread and butter issues as well, do you think? Health, education, the economy and so on.
MM: Yes. We must be the party that is seen to care about the issues most people care about. Which are the NHS, policing, education, the environment, supporting services in the regions. When the party made large scale breakthroughs in the 1997, 2001 and 2005 elections those national campaigns stuck strongly to the big issues that concerned people. The average person in Hinckley or Market Harborough or Northampton or any other place needs to see us as the party speaking up for them, speaking up for the issues that concern them. Every publicity opportunity we get, political party broadcasts, (traditional and social) media we need to focus on the everyday issues that concern most people. Then they will see that the Liberal Democrats are a party relevant to their lives and then they’ll consider supporting us.
MH: The election to replace Jo Swinson as leader won’t now happen until next year. I appreciate not all of the expected candidates are yet declared, but who is likely to get your vote?
MM: At the moment I’m open to be convinced. To follow up on the previous answer, we need a leader who will take up the big issues that people care about in our communities. Someone that will make the Lib Dems look as in touch with the average person in Chesterfield or Hinckley as we are with whatever’s most fashionable on Twitter. We win local elections by concentrating on the issues that matter most to local communities; in our Focus leaflets and other local campaigning. At a national level we should replicate that approach. I fear we have become much too obsessed with issues that only concern a small percentage of the population-we should keep our policies on these issues; it’s a question of what we choose to emphasise, rather than necessarily changing policies.) And we need a leader who is as committed to winning seats in rural and small town communities and in the North and Midlands and Wales as they are about winning in metropolitan, degree-heavy areas. In the past we have won large numbers of seats in the north and midlands and in rural and small town seats in England and Wales. We can do it again but we need a leader who will speak about the issues that concern people most and being seen to care about them. I want a leader who, in short, will speak with as much passion about, say, delivering the best possible health service for every community, the best possible education for every student, the best possible services and infrastructure for our communities, as they would speak (previously) on staying in the European Union. Then and only then will the average person in the UK believe that the Lib Dems care for them, their families and their communities.
MH: You backed Ed Davey last year. Do you see him as a safe pair of hands? Is that what the party needs right now?
MM: I did back Ed Davey, yes. I think the party needs to be in touch with the main concerns people have in their everyday lives and be seen to care about them. I think having a leader who can reflect on decisions and strategies and change them if they need to be changed, because they are going down badly, and to see this as an act of pragmatism and sense, rather than as some attack on themselves, would be positive.
MH: Hinckley and Bosworth has had a Lib Dem Council for much of the last twenty years, but that hasn’t yet translated into a seat at Westminster for the party. Why do you think that is?
MM: People have voted differently in different elections. On a local level we have councillors who campaign all year round and we take up issues that concern people; saving rural bus services, campaigning to get x-ray facilities back into the local hospital, campaigning to save SureStart centres in places like Barwell. Our Focus newsletters concentrate on issues that affect most people. In last May’s local elections I was elected with the highest vote of any candidate of any party in Leicestershire, but local votes don’t always translate to nationals. When it comes to general elections, in 2010 we came fairly close (getting the biggest swing against any Tory MP in the country.) Despite the national collapse in 2015 we kept second place and were closer to gaining the seat than a number of formerly held seats. 2017 and 2019 we were a heavily Brexit voting seat 60+%) so they were always going to be tough elections. We still got the highest Lib Dem percentage vote in the East Midlands in those two elections and were only 683 votes short of taking second place back last time. We haven’t been supported as a target seat by the national party since the start of 2015 but we have carried on. Had we been the target seat last time we would have almost certainly taken back 2nd. As it is the East Midlands is the only one of the 11 regions/countries in Britain not to have a Lib Dem either 1st or 2nd place.
MH: I say as a local member and Councillor that you’ve been an outstanding parliamentary candidate and if hard work guaranteed a Westminster seat you’d have been an MP years ago. As it is you’ve decided not to contest the seat again, why is that?
MM: Thanks, that’s very kind of you Mathew. Four times I think is long enough and the next general election is not until possibly December 2024. If I was to stand again I would want to go al lout for it. I’ve realised I need to find something else to do instead of keep standing in Bosworth. What that is I’m not certain yet. I am still a councillor locally and am carrying on with that. What happens next I’m not sure. We’ll see. But, as you know, when I’ve stood as the parliamentary candidate in Bosworth I’ve thrown life and soul into it, so I would want to find something new to devote myself to.
MH: Just a couple more questions. A friend asks what makes a great Councillor?
MM: Keep in touch with residents, take up the issues concerning people locally and report back using regular Focus newsletters, social media and other means. Take up individual casework. Being on social media is how I pick up quite a lot of casework these days, through direct messaging from residents. But being out in the local streets regularly talking to people (and) knocking on doors is still vital (though not during the current coronavirus, obviously.)
MH: And, from another friend, how do we get people out of their cars and onto public transport (when life returns to normal)?
MM: We need public transport to be good enough and regular enough for people to use. One issue I’ve campaigned on for some time is to get the electrification of the Midland mainline rail service through Leicestershire and up to Sheffield; meaning cleaner, greener, faster trains. Also more regular trains. (At the moment) through Hinckley they are hourly. I’ve lobbied for them to be half hourly. Also bus services are seeing huge cutbacks. I’ve fought at the County Council against this and along with excellent Lib Dem councillors in the rural areas, Bill and Joyce Crooks, Robin Webber Jones and Mark Shepard-Bools have so far managed to keep the 159 bus from Hinckley to Coalville that serves many local villages going. Until we get lots of regular trains and buses getting people out of their cars will be a challenge.
MH: Michael, thanks so much for talking to me for my blog. I really appreciate it. And, on a personal note, thanks for being a really brilliant friend. Stay well and best wishes.
MM: Thanks, always happy to help, and glad to be a friend of yours.
My guest next Wednesday will be LGBT+ rights activist Stephen Donnan-Dalzell.