Fringe Box



Dragon Interview: Richard Wilson – Guildford’s Prospective Parliamentary Labour Candidate

Published on: 28 Jul, 2014
Updated on: 28 Jul, 2014
Richard Wilson in Guildford's Labour Party Office in Martyr Road

Richard Wilson in Guildford’s Labour Party Office in Martyr Road.

Some might feel that standing as the Labour party candidate in Guildford would be a demoralising task, but its new parliamentary candidate for our constituency remains optimistic that support can grow. In an interview with The Guildford Dragon NEWS, Richard Wilson gives his views on some local issues. The interview was conducted by Martin Giles…

Tell me about your background.

I was born in Hamilton, just outside Glasgow. I lived there until I was about 16. Bothof my parents were teachers and my father went on to be a college lecturer and then a professor. I have got a younger sister who now works for Channel 4 News in Washington DC and a younger brother who works in finance in London.

I went to Strathclyde University in Glasgow where I studied electronic and electrical engineering. After that I got a job for about four years in Glasgow as a cable TV and telecoms engineer, working outside, pulling cables out of manholes when in the winter it could be minus 20 degrees.

After that I moved to Liverpool for about a year to be a telecoms project manager.

All the time from university onwards, I had been taking flying lessons, financing it myself. After about a year in Liverpool I applied to British Airways to take part in their cadet pilot scheme. It felt like I had won the lottery when I heard I had been selected. It was very competitive as under the scheme BA paid for all the training which took place over 13 months in Michigan, USA. There was then a further six months training that qualified me to be a co-pilot.

I have now been a pilot with BA for over fourteen years and have lived in Surrey for the same length of time. Currently I am a captain on Airbus aircraft.

How did you become involved in party politics?

I joined the Labour Party in the mid nineties. The reason I became active politically in this area was that I did and do a lot of community campaigning, for instance supporting planning applications for community buildings such as a dance studio or supporting community opposition to certain green belt development.

But I came to party politics from an ideological direction. People often say that the main political parties are all the same but I do not believe that is true. There is a fundamental difference. I believe that there is a human instinct to be responsible for each other and I think that is a stronger human instinct than just grabbing what you can for yourself.

The Labour Party and other progressive political parties have got the advantage: our moral position of caring for each other is stronger.

But politicians from other parties would say that they care too. I am sure if Anne Milton, our current Conservative MP was here, she would say that she cared about her constituents.

Yes, but the Conservative policy seems to be driven by the belief that if everybody strives harder for themselves then that is good for society. I don’t believe that. They want to have freer markets but we all found out a few years ago what happens when markets are too free.

To give a local example, if we don’t regulate letting agents in Guildford they are going to charge hundreds of pounds to tenants for agency fees, in addition to the rent, and there is no market mechanism, such as competition, to drive down these fees.

Another example is capping the increases to gas and electricity bills. That would be ideologically incompatible with Conservative beliefs; they said that would be a return to old style socialism. But if we let the market run away, uncontrolled, then people will have to pay higher electricity bills. When the green levy was cut the utility companies did not pass the savings on to the customers because they didn’t have to. So that is the ideological difference.

There was once the old style, one-nation Toryism that existed in the post-war period, when they were prepared to intervene. But now the ideology of neo-liberalism seems to hold sway.

If Anne Milton were here I don’t think that she could agree to regulating letting agents or capping utility price rises because that would be an untouchable and impossible break with the ideology.

Don’t you think that some voters might agree with you on some things but with the Tories on others? How are they meant to vote?

It’s a good question. You have to vote for an MP to create a government. There are 650 MPs so a voter has to decide which government they would rather have Labour or Conservative.

But I also take the point that a constituency MP has to stand up for his or her constituency.

Why did you want to be the Labour candidate for Guildford?

I wanted to have the authority and the leverage to carry out community campaigning more effectively, for one thing, and to represent the community and Labour’s ideology. That is why I wanted to be a parliamentary candidate.

Guildford is the first place I went for selection. The Labour Party here is fantastic, they have got huge membership, several hundred paid up members, and they have got great people involved. There is a fantastic opportunity for Labour to do well in Guildford, which has not always happened in the past.

There is a university in the constituency too and I think that the key to politics for the next few decades is to involve younger people, and by younger I mean anyone before retirement in practical terms. The energy we can get from the student group is fantastic. So that is why I went for Guildford even though I live in Windlesham, a few miles into the neighbouring constituency of Surrey Heath.

You must realise that you won’t get elected here, so what is the point? Is this just a stepping stone to standing in a seat where being elected is a possibility.

Well in 2010 the Labour candidate got 5.1 per cent of the vote. However, it is up to the voters who gets elected here not anyone behind closed doors or smart pundits. I don’t know who is going to win in Guildford any more than I know who is going to be the next prime minister.

Standing here is not a deliberate stepping stone to another constituency for me. It is not part of a plan. The reason I am standing is to advance community campaigning and try to create communities, to try and protect the environment, defend the NHS and, stand up for people who don’t have a voice.

If you were an MP how would you balance representing your constituents and obeying your party whip?

People are entitled to expect their MP to vote in accordance with the party manifesto on which they were elected, however, they also entitled to expect them to vote according to their personal conscience and in the interests of their constituents. I would have to balance those influences and I wouldn’t be doctrinaire about always voting in line with just one of those duties.

So when you are balancing these duties how much weight would you give to local issues as opposed to party loyalty?

Well I don’t foresee them coming into conflict because Labour does have answers to the local issues here. It is possible. For instance, let’s take the issue of assisted dying. Normally MPs would vote on such a subject without a party whip and personally I am opposed to euthanasia or assisted dying and I would be hard to persuade otherwise.

But what would you do if you knew that, overwhelmingly, Guildford constituents had a particular view on an issue that was contrary to a whipped Labour position? For instance building on the green belt?

Labour does want to build more houses rising to 200,000 per year, all over the UK, by the final year of the next parliament because the country needs more houses. Labour’s position on the green belt is to leave decisions on the green belt boundaries to borough councils. But Guildford needs more housing, Labour policy would be to ensure that developers who already have planning permission use it and not just store it, knowing that the land, now more valuable with permission, will appreciate in value.

I want to see developers forced to get on with it and if they don’t build where they have permission it is Labour Party policy to remove the land from them – with compensation, of course. It is something that should have been addressed before. You have to have proper infrastructure, including houses, to build communities.

I am a member of the Campaign to Protect Rural England because I do not approve of any reduction of the green belt. I have come across many inappropriate claims of “exceptional circumstances” to obtain permission to build on green belt. They are not normally exceptional in my view and I have yet to see a case for developing any green belt land in Guildford Borough. There are enough brown field sites.

Bear in mind permission has been given to the university alone to build something like 3,500 units which they have still not built out. The introduction of a mansion tax could also help properties being left empty, especially in London, for so long.

So coming back to Guildford, what are the most important issues or decisions facing the town, other than green belt development, in your view?

The National Health Service and social care. They are closely related. Many residents complain about how long it takes to see their GP. Someone told me yesterday it took them ten days. The direction of travel in the NHS seems to be wrong at the moment and needs to be changed. It is a combination of health services and social care that is important though. If social care is cut then older people with multiple conditions can end up at A&E or in hospital wards. I can see this problem increasing in Guildford. We need an holistic approach to health and social care, “whole person care”.

Then there is sustainable transportation. Squeezing more cars on to Guildford’s roads is not the answer. We need to make the streets safer by reducing the number of cars and people’s need for cars. We need usuable public transportation, usable buses, cheaper train fares and safe cycle routes as well. Transportation has been a big issue in Cranleigh recently featured heavily in a by-election there.

I do use buses myself and the park and ride facilities at Spectrum. It is £2.40, not great value really.

Isn’t pressure from increasing population, largely caused by migration, going to cause never ending demand for more houses in Guildford?

Well nowadays people are not just born in a town and stay there. People move, populations move, in all directions and it is one of the reasons that economies are much more successful than they were. Culture is much more diverse than it was and we are more socially mixed. This is not a bad thing: it is a good thing that we have the freedom to move. It brings economic, social and cultural benefits to Guildford.

When people move they will need housing whether they have come from outside or from other places within the borough and constituency.

But don’t you think that there can be problems if too many people go in to one area, even if there is sufficient infrastructure in place, because of the pressure on space.

I don’t see it as a pressure on space in Surrey just yet. I do see the pressure on infrastructure certainly. Some people say you can’t see your GP because of all the immigrants. But the reason they can’t see their GP is because there are not enough GPs. Others say you can’t get a council house because of all the immigrants but that is not correct. It is because there are not enough council houses. People have been told to fear outsiders but they should welcome them.

How can you square protecting the green belt and not deter more people from coming in?

Well there is already natural property market deterrence. But we do have enough brownfield space, we have got potential to reform our infrastructure as well, so the case has not been made to use the green belt yet. Although the green belt does not mean no building. You can build on it but it has to be in exceptional circumstances and for the benefit of those living in the green belt. But I don’t believe it is necessary to change the green belt boundaries.

So do you have no concerns about the level of population nationally or locally?

I don’t think that there is this massive problem with immigration coming from the outside the UK. People will move within the UK and there is a problem with that because there are areas within the UK were people are being economically transferred. For instance some are being forced out of London because of housing benefit being capped and the problem with house prices caused by the broken housing market in London and the South East. So that’s a problem.

Do you foresee population continuing to rise at the rate we have seeen it rise over the last decade?

I wouldn’t be able to guess, I don’t expect it will fall but demographically new immigrants are really helpful because they reduce the average age of the population, they are a self selecting elite, they come here from other countries, they have got the get up and go and they contribute to the economy; so to turn them away would be harming us even more. So we have to find space.

Guildford, despite being one of the most affluent towns in the UK, still has pockets of deprivation. We have three food banks. What should be done to improve the lot of the poorest sectors of our fellow Guidford citizens.

I agree. Inequality, economic and social inequality is a real problem. I see it in Guildford and it is a blight on the town and we need to take steps to address that definitely. The food banks you mentioned, on the one hand, and how the wealthiest in Guildford live on the other, is a stark contrast.

We have also seen recently county councillors using public money and paying themselves 60 per cent increases*, much higher than those recommended by an independent panel, while, at the same time, asking the very poorest people, families with no extra money, to pay more council tax.

This kind of inequality is caused by an inequality of power. Surrey is run as a one party state and that’s what people in Surrey cannot stand any longer. I meet this problem on the doorstep all the time and I am not happy with the way it is being run. To see this inequality… well I think most people realise that it is not sustainable. We cannot have families unable to feed their children so that they can pay their council tax to wealthy businessmen who vote themselves pay rises. That is totally unacceptable.

Putting aside the unfairness of the situation, what do you think are the consequences of it?

We know children do a lot worse if they are raised in poverty. They suffer educationally and they don’t have the same social mobility. Your salary and earning power as an adult in England is closely linked to the education levels and salaries of your parents. We need to break that link. We need to give all children a chance.

We have got a problem with the school system in this country. We have rising class sizes: that’s a big problem. Meanwhile seven per cent of the population is going to private education to be isolated from the rest and that seven per cent produces 40 per cent of MPs, makes up the majority of barristers etc, This is a big problem and this social inequality needs to be addressed.

One thing we could do straight away is to remove charitable status from private schools, so that we try to attack this entrenched privilege. I don’t have any children but, if I did, I would not send them to private school. I attended a state school and I think that helps me understand people from all backgrounds. But then I was educated in Scotland.

Regarding the application to review the Boileroom’s licence, do you stand by your letter published in The Guildford Dragon NEWS and the Taliban reference it contained?

The Boileroom is a unique venue, so if we say that we are not going to have this sort of venue in Guildford we are moving away from the modern world. People will have to seek this kind of entertainment out. they will go out in the evening with their friends and if they have to go to the Bridge Street area where they will be less safe and they will not be having the same cultural experience they could be having at the Boileroom.

The application for the review of the license being sought states that, at the very least, the licence should be suspended. But if it was suspended at this time of year, probably their busiest, then the business ends, it is as simple as that. The fact that the objectors have thrown everything into this application means that this is an application to close this business.

The reason I compared it to the Taliban is because they say: “No singing, no dancing, no negotiation.” I have come across this sort of opposition to community facilities before. It is a common thing but it can be resisted.

I get the impression that quite a lot of the neighbours have worked with the Boileroom in the past. In 2007 a complaint against noise was upheld. After that the Boileroom fitted complicated double doors which are totally sound-proof and, from what I can gather, those nearby are now satisfied.

When I was there some neighbours walked by and they told me that they loved the Boileroom and they were glad it was part of their neighbourhood. I understand where the complainants are coming from, but the problem is with the way the application is written. Not with every single neighbour.

What are the three things you like best about Guildford?

I like the people. I always get a great welcome on the doorstep. They will say: “I am not really interested in politics,” and then we will have a discussion about education or the green belt. Of course these subjects are all political issues with a small p and people are always happy to talk about these things and that is great.

I like the social mix here: we have got the university which is a great source of energy for the town and a great many small businesses and residents who have been here a short time or a long time so it is a great mix.

I like the contrast between the town and the country as well. When I lived in Scotland one of my hobbies was Monro bagging, so I love being out in the fresh air.

*This interview was conducted before the announcement that the Surrey County Council leader and his deputy would only take the 30% rise recommended by the independent panel.

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Responses to Dragon Interview: Richard Wilson – Guildford’s Prospective Parliamentary Labour Candidate

  1. Mike Davis Reply

    July 28, 2014 at 11:59 am

    Go for it but sorry I don’t think I will be voting Labour locally or in the general election. However, best wishes.

    I believe local people who were both born and have lived in the area should be the ones who should represent us.

    Secondly, as normal, we only see people like Labour and the Conservative party candidates at election times. Over the past four years we have seen one party working with local people and that’s what I will remember came election time.

  2. Bernard Parke Reply

    July 28, 2014 at 1:40 pm

    They should live in the area.

    But surely, like councillors, they should also have to show some aptitude and commitment to do what is a very trying job.

    Unfortunately, people tend to vote simply for the party label rather than the person.

  3. Jules Cranwell Reply

    July 28, 2014 at 5:52 pm

    Interesting that, unlike his party (remember Prescott), Richard is a friend of the green belt, and a member of CPRE [Campaign for the Protection of Rural England]. Are any of our councillors CPRE members, I wonder?

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