Councillor Lucy Nethsingha is leader of the Liberal Democrat group on Cambridgeshire County Council.
She served as a Lib Dem Member of the European Parliament (MEP) from July 2nd 2019 to January 31st 2020 (when the UK left the European Union.)
Whilst an MEP Lucy chaired the Parliament’s Committee on Legal Affairs (JURI.)
Towards the end of last week I conducted a socially distanced with Lucy.
We talk COVID-19, local government, Brexit, youthwork and more!
MH: Lucy, thanks so much for speaking to me for my blog.
LN: It’s a pleasure.
MH: For readers who may not be aware, please give us a brief bio of your political career so far.
LN: I’ve been a Lib Dem Councillor for about 20 years, first in Gloucester and now for over 10 years in Cambridge, where I’m the Leader of our County Council group of 17. Last year I had the huge privilege of being an MEP and Chair of the JURI committee. I’m also the Lead Member for children on the LGA.
MH: We’ll get in to some of that a bit more shortly, but first the issue which is affecting just about every human being on the planet right now; COVID19. Firstly, what impact is it having on you personally? Obviously in lockdown right now, as we all are.
LN: Yes I’m at home with my family. I have 3 children who are all feeling the impact in different ways. Emily is having to miss her last term at university and doing revision for finals with no access to libraries. Peter’s A levels are off, Helena has loads of online school. I am shopping for several elderly neighbours and trying to keep up with Council work. It’s all quite strange!
MH: Yes, it’s the weirdest experience I can remember. Is your Council coping well? I take it, just like my parish council, that it means online meetings etc? And lots of added demand for already stretched services?
LN: The County Council has moved to on-line meetings. I’m not impressed with their format as they have chosen to limit public speaking almost entirely. As an upper tier Council their main focus is keeping the social care system functioning and making sure that people can leave hospital as soon as possible. My local district councils are doing an amazing job of supporting residents.
MH: Let’s turn to the national picture. I wonder if you feel the same as me, lots of sympathy with Ministers and civil servants having to deal with this crisis…but also mounting anger at the needless delay to the start of lockdown and the apparent inability to get PPE to frontline and key workers?
LN: I think more anger than sympathy I’m afraid. I’ve seen what the Conservatives have done to our public health system over the past 5 years, along with the massive cuts to Councils providing social care. The NHS has done an incredible job to try to get into a position to cope with this pandemic but the failings in the system were there for all to see before this came along. I’d also like to add that the huge cuts to Universal credit mean that there is no safety net there for thousands of people who are going to lose their jobs. On PPE, that was clearly flagged as a major issue in the investigation in 2016, but the government was so focused on Brexit they did nothing and let our stocks run down.
MH: Yes, I admit my sympathy is very thin now. And I agree I think lots of Tory chickens are now coming home to roost, if I can put it that way. Do you think this will lead to fundamental change in how we think about our economy, public services and so on? And, if so, what would you change if you could?
LN: I hope so, I think there are a number of factors, which combined with Covid-19 mean it is time for a fundamental review of the way our social safety net works. It is clear that Universal Credit has been cut to the level where it no longer provides any security for people moving in and out of work. As the IT and on-line revolution continues, combined with advances in Artificial Intelligence, it seems to me that the whole way we work is likely to change. We are seeing more and more people working multiple jobs, sometimes through choice and sometimes because the income from one simply isn’t enough. I was really pleased to see the level of cross party support for a Universal Basic Income. This may be the way we can offer people security in the future. There is a lot of discussion to be had first though, as UBI means different things to different people. I also think we urgently need to see a major transformation in our energy use, and the amount of carbon we burn. This Covid-19 enforced working from home is likely to lead many more people to want to work from home more in future, and that may be a very good thing. We may have a short time to make big progress on climate change which is urgently needed!
MH: As you say you’re our children’s lead on the LGA and, I know, have a long association with the Lib Dem Education Association, what do you think this will mean longer term for education and, a passion of both of ours, youth services? In terms of how services are delivered but also the lasting impact on mental health etc?
LN: I think that’s a really interesting question. There will clearly be a big move to more on-line learning, which could be a good thing in many cases, but also risks increasing the already wide educational divide in this country between those with good internet access and those who don’t. We need to be very wary of an increase in educational inequality as a result of this lockdown. I am concerned that Youth Services will continue to be the poor relation. I had been hopeful that some of the messages about the importance of youth services in helping with mental health issues were getting through. I am now worried that this important story will get lost in the urgent need to get the economy back on track after this lock down. I hope I am wrong on that. Youth services have so much to offer in helping young people not only to stay strong and healthy, mentally and physically, but also to support them into sensible career paths.
MH: Absolutely. And I look forward to continuing to campaign with you and others on that issue. Turning now to Europe, do you think our response to this crisis would have been better, certainly in terms of PPE, had we still been in the EU?
LN: I think this is a crisis where the whole world needs to work together to make sure that knowledge is shared and things like PPE get to the place they are most urgently needed. All international institutions help with things like this, and one of the tragedies of Brexit is that it damages not just the UK but the EU as well. The rise of nationalism everywhere has left us less able to tackle this crisis. It is really shocking that the UK government chose not to take part in the EU procurement scheme because of Brexit, but in the long view it is the weakening of so many of our international institutions which will be more tragic. The weakening of the World Health Organisation, the weakening of the UN, and the weakening of the EU all lead to countries fighting each other rather than working together to tackle issues like this virus. Brexit is part of that, but so is Trump, and the nationalists in Italy and Hungary. It is hard to know how much of that comes from Russian intervention and fake news, but there are certainly big issues with both.
MH: Give us a flavour of your time as an MEP.
LN: It was the most amazing experience. The European Parliament was an incredibly inspiring place to work. Seeing close up politicians working together in their various political colours, rather than sitting as nations, was really wonderful. There is nowhere else in the world that happens, and it is amazing for building relationships. I now have wonderful friends from so many different countries. I was also incredibly lucky to Chair a Committee while I was there. Through that I got to work closely with politicians from all the other political parties in the European Parliament, and with ministers from across Europe, attending the Conference of Justice Ministers in Finland. The EU institutions are very complex, which I think is one reason why they are so badly covered by the British press, but they are complex for good reasons. There are lots and lots of detailed conversations about any change, which makes the EU seem slow to respond, but also means many voices are heard and problems are seen early. It is very different from our adversarial politics, and people hear find it hard to understand, but I think we have a huge amount to learn from the way the European Parliament works! I think the most inspiring things about being there were the people I got to know. The other Renew Europe MEPs were wonderful people. Katalin and Anna from Hungary are two who I found particularly impressive. They are part of a new political party there, trying to hold Victor Urban to account. That is a risky job at the best of times. Katalin is also a qualified doctor, and has gone back to work in a hospital at the moment. Very very brave women!!
MH: What are the prospects longer term, do you think, of us rejoining? And how do we keep close links in the meantime?
LN: I think keeping close links now is crucial, and am utterly horrified by the government’s determination to push ahead and not ask for an extension in June. It is madness and will leave many more jobless next year. I feel sure we will re-join at some point in the future, but the question really is how much damage will be done to our country in the interim. If the Conservatives push forward with a very bad deal or no-deal in January the break-up of the UK seems increasingly likely, with some parts re-joining sooner than others. I am still so angry about the Brexiteers like Farage and Rees-Mogg who have EU passports, and have led us down this path, but kept their own route back clear.
MH: I absolutely agree. The Lib Dems didn’t reap the rewards of being the most pro-Remain party, however. Why do you think that is?
LN: We did in the EU elections, which are proportional, and perhaps give a better idea about how people would like to vote in a different voting system. The December election was the most presidential election the UK has ever seen, with the first TV debate with only two leaders. The public felt they had to choose between Corbyn and Johnson, however much we tried to persuade them otherwise. Changing our voting system has always been a key Lib Dem aim, and failing to get any change to our political system during the coalition must be regarded as one of its biggest failings.
MH: And finally, within the system we presently have (which, I agree, needs to change) what can/should the Lib Dems do to re-connect with voters?
LN: I think we need to re-build our local government base, which we probably always needed to do. We did well in local council elections last year, and the Lib Dem run councils I am connected to are doing an amazing job supporting their residents in this current crisis. I know a huge number of Lib Dem councillors are supporting their communities in so many ways now, and I hope they will be recognised for doing that in elections next year. The next General Election is a few years away now, so we need to take the time to re-focus on delivering for people locally, while also working with other opposition parties to hold this government to account in Westminster. Covid/Brexit aftermath is going to dominate in Westminster, and we will need to work with others to make sure Boris Johnson and his cabinet take responsibility for their actions not just now but since 2015.
MH: Thanks for your time, Lucy.
LN: My pleasure, thanks Mathew.
My next interview is with the former leader of the Green Party of England and Wales, Baroness Natalie Bennett.