Simon Hughes: The party animal with a taste for grass roots

As the Lib Dems head for Liverpool for their first conference while actually in power, their deputy leader urges restraint, in a radical sort of way

Simon Hughes is unexpectedly happy. The deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, polishing off a sandwich in his constituency office, admits he did not anticipate going into the the party's annual conference feeling so upbeat when they first "signed on" to form a coalition with their arch enemies in the Tory party.

But he heads to Liverpool with a long list of Government policies which he believes would never have happened if the Conservatives had won power outright, and is relishing his role as a voice of the party, independent from the government machine.

He makes bold claims that the Lib Dems have made the coalition more pro-European, more liberal and greener, and he heaps praise on the Tories for going further than expected in many areas, but he is ready to stick both boots in to defend his party's treasured hopes of electoral reform.

Hughes is spearheading a plan that the Lib Dems –including their government ministers – must be "really robust" in campaigning for a "Yes" victory in the referendum on adopting the Alternative Vote at the next general election – even if it means being rude to their coalition partners.

"It is an entirely winnable campaign but only if we are really clear that people defending first-past-the-post are Neanderthal," he says. "Now, they may be our colleagues in government, but it's an indefensible, unfair, illogical minority activity to defend the first-past-the-post.

"We have got to go in really hard. It's no good pansying round the edge and saying 'oh well the Tories have got a position ... it is perfectly understandable'. If you can't support the idea that preferential voting and voting positively, not negatively, and getting a majority of support in your area is progress, then really you haven't arrived in the 21st century."

His strident remarks, which are likely to raise the hackles of many in the Tory party, betray his own preference, and that of many of his centre-left colleagues, for an alliance with Labour. Looking back, Hughes admits he was "disappointed" that Labour "weren't collectively up for it". He also "had to come to terms with the fact" that after the general election the numbers did not add up for the much-longed-for coalition of the progressive left.

Instead, he says, the Lib Dems had two options – enter government with the Conservatives or let David Cameron go it alone. "We had said working together is a good thing and you should expect there to be coalition governments. For us to have marched everybody up to the top of the hill, arrive and say 'ooh, no, it's too dangerous' and walk back again, would have been hopeless."

Now they are entrenched in the long slog of a five-year term, having to both appear distinctive and collegiate. This week's conference will have a clear focus on countering the perception that the Lib Dems are simply making up the numbers for a Conservative administration. Some predict rebellion, with policies on free schools, NHS reform, Trident and Royal Mail privatisation high on the list of grassroots concerns. The looming spending cuts have sent shivers down liberal spines.

Reiterating the long-term nature of the coalition, Hughes insists his party should not be "overly pre-occupied" about how difficult this year will get when the cuts come. "Labour, if they had been elected, would be having a rocky year because they would have had cuts. They are never popular."

As the party faithful head to Merseyside, it has not yet "dawned" on many of them that the "motions we pass and the things we say at conference can have an influence on the laws and policy of the nation". Hughes clearly hopes this novelty will suppress the mood for revolt, though he also reminds delegates that they must be "aware of our responsibilities" and "rise to the occasion". In other words ... don't embarrass us.

Despite misgivings – "I thought 'this is really hairy, this is really nervous, this is a real tightrope' " – he has been pleasantly surprised by the Tories' willingness to "move much further and faster than we had ever expected" on core Lib Dem policy areas, including a more liberal prison policy and opposing Asbos.

While Nick Clegg has shied away from publicly heralding policy victories over the Tories, Hughes reels off things which he believes would "certainly" not have happened had the Lib Dems not been in power: the re-linking of pensions to earnings; the raising of the income tax threshold for low earners; a capital gains tax rise; more power to local councils; and, probably, the bank levy.

He is especially proud of the pledge to reform the House of Lords. "People have faffed around but it has never been committed to. Now 100 years after the whole thing started, it is going to happen. We will have at least an 80 per cent elected second house, starting this parliament. That is a phenomenal democratic achievement. That wouldn't have happened if we weren't there."

He even claims that the Government is significantly more "positive and constructive" about Europe – seen as one of the key dividing lines between the two parties. Heaping praise on the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, Hughes also hails David Lidington as an "entirely enlightened, modern and progressive Europe minister". Some Lib Dem colleagues strongly disagree, but with the right-wing lobby strongest in the Tory party it seems reasonable to claim that, without the Lib Dems, "foreign policy would have been a different beast".

However, the coalition cannot be "just a tick-box" exercise of Lib Dems picking off policies to keep the grassroots happy, and there are still major differences to overcome. Hughes is backing a conference motion that will directly challenge David Cameron's proposal to end lifetime council house tenancies and is leading talks with Labour to oppose a clampdown on housing benefit.

Hughes insists he is just doing his job as a Lib Dem, and ministers in all departments have been responsive to his ideas. But his reforming agenda is not just aimed at Whitehall. He is also proposing a radical shake-up of the party machine, including the way it chooses candidates. The party's MPs must be more typical of the communities they represent, he says, after being overtaken by both Labour and the Tories for the number of women as well as black and minority ethnic candidates. "None of us have done as well as we should".

Constituencies who want target-area status – and the funding that that can bring – will have to present to a Dragons' Den style panel of party officials and non-members, setting out who their candidate is and their plan to get elected. "We will have the most radical, open way of selecting candidates but we will guarantee balance, a 50 per cent women team, and we'll guarantee an appropriate number of ethnic-minority candidates in winnable seats."

A quick glance at the opinion polls suggests that far from winning new seats, hanging on to the existing 57 Lib Dem MPs might be a bigger priority. Hughes insists that in areas where they have formed coalitions – Scotland, Wales and some of the biggest local authorities – the party has held its own or gone on to make gains. Clegg's pre-election ambition to reach 100 MPs within two parliaments remains "do-able" but is not a formal target. "The one great difference will be that next time, whether people have loved us or hated us, nobody can use the argument – that Labour and Tories always, always, always use – that it's no good voting for them because they are never in power. That's gone forever now."

He hopes to go to the country with a record which includes a substantial increase in social housing while arguing that Britain is fairer and more liberal. He also believes they can change the Tory party. "For us, the intriguing implication is that we could have made the Tory party a much more enlightened party after five years, collectively, which must be in Britain's interest. If you are a Liberal there is no interest in having the risk of a very right-wing party in government."

With many Lib Dem ministers swamped by their new departments, there is a perception that the coalition is already too right wing. Frontbench Lib Dem stars in opposition have all but disappeared. Hughes denies it is an issue, but admits the workload on entering government has been "phenomenal". However, he made clear it was "absolutely essential" that all ministers attended the conference, "not just coming to make a speech and go away but to listen and to hear and to be the people they always were, so that they can actually be part of the grassroots as well".

They have also been given orders to visit Freshers' Fairs to drum up support – and new members – among the intake of university students, highlighting their civil liberties agenda on detention without trial and ID cards. Hughes's own civil liberties were infringed in 2006 when he discovered he had been targeted in the News of the World phone-hacking case. The editor at the time, Andy Coulson, is now director of communications in No 10 – something which seems not to faze Hughes. "I didn't quiz Andy about what he had or hadn't done. I have to assume that the PM did so and was satisfied. Clearly if, in the end, the evidence stacks up and he is proved to have known about things, the whole game changes."

He insists he may yet take legal action, and has spoken to his solicitor. "People who break the law need to pay the price ... by getting convicted or by paying the damages and they will learn a lesson," he said, adding: "I haven't ruled it out but I hope my eagerness not to rush to the courts has shown I didn't regard it as the biggest priority, getting the issue sorted was for me a bigger priority than Simon Hughes getting more money to pay for leaflets in Southwark."

From doing a deal with the Tories to having his privacy invaded, nothing it seems can get Simon Hughes down. It remains to be seen if his sunny disposition can survive the stormy months ahead.

Curriculum vitae

1951 Born in Cheshire and brought up partly in Wales. After education at the Cathedral School, Llandaff, he goes on to study at Selwyn College, Cambridge, from where he graduates with a 2:1 in law.

1972 Joins the Cambridge University Liberal Club.

1981 Moves to Bermondsey in south-east London after being called to the Bar at the Inner Temple.

1983 Elected Liberal MP in the Bermondsey by-election, right. Hughes takes the seat for the Liberals with 57.7 per cent of the vote. Condemned by gay rights campaigner and Labour candidate Peter Tatchell for allegedly capitalising on a campaign marred by homophobia.

1988 Becomes an education spokesman, going on to environment, health, and home affairs, all by 2003.

2004 Stands as Lib Dem candidate for Mayor of London, coming third with 15.2 per cent of the first-preference vote.

2006 Confirms his bisexuality to The Sun newspaper. Takes a central role in the campaign to win asylum for Mehdi Kazemi, a gay Iranian man facing deportation to Iran, where he will almost certainly be executed.

2010 Replaces Vince Cable as Lib Dem deputy leader.

Pavan Amara

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