Even after 32 years as a Member of Parliament, Simon Hughes seems far from finished.
Deep into his eighth General Election campaign, he is not ready to hang up his yellow tie or park his famous cab just yet – despite persistent retirement rumours.
“I’ve been asked this question at every election. Labour love to say ‘Oh, Simon, is this your last election?’ I will fight for as long as I want to fight, as long as I feel energetic and well enough – and I feel as energetic and as well and as fit and as keen as ever.”
While the Liberal-Democrat candidate for Bermondsey and Old Southwark refuses to offer a definitive answer on the rumours – “I’ve always fought one election at a time” – he certainly doesn’t seem to have lost any of his old vigour, especially at election time.
“I’m enjoying it,” he says as he settles down in a quiet corner of a pub near his Bermondsey office. “I always enjoy election campaigns.”
Whether or not that is strictly true, he’s certainly had enough practice. The veteran MP was first elected to parliament in 1983 and has successfully navigated a further seven campaigns since. In terms of results, at least, he has definitely enjoyed himself – and he wants his Labour opponent Neil Coyle to know that.
“Every single Labour candidate I have fought against has only ever fought one election and then gone away,” he says with a smile. “One has gone to the Greens, one to the Trade Unionist alliance and another has become a Tory peer. Of eight candidates, three have disappeared.”
Whether Mr Coyle will face a similar fate remains to be seen, but what is certain is that this election will be different from any Mr Hughes has taken part in yet. In 2010, for the first time in his career, the Lib-Dems entered government as part of a coalition. This is therefore the first campaign in which he has had to defend his record in power rather than opposition – and that might not necessarily be a good thing.
Backing the bedroom tax and tuition fees while in government proved controversial to say the least, but Mr Hughes – and perhaps this is only natural for such a long-standing MP – is quick to switch the focus back before the most recent administration.
“Labour as a majority government introduced tuition fees. Then they said they wouldn’t increase them and they did. They didn’t have to battle anybody, it was their own party. Twice they’ve broken their own promises! We had to do a deal because we didn’t have a majority. I am sorry we didn’t have a majority.”
This response is indicative of his self-appraisal: he is more than happy to apologise if necessary, but these apologies more often than not come with a qualifier.
“I’m really sorry we haven’t been able to deliver all the things we wanted. Because of the economy we haven’t been able to,” he says. “I’m really sorry we haven’t been able to deliver – due to reasons outside our control – more affordable housing in the country, all sorts of things. But we were less than 10% of all the MPs in the House of Commons.”
He refuses to accept that his role in the government should be seen as negative and is frustrated at the criticisms he and the Lib-Dems have faced for going into a coalition with the Tories.
“Don’t tell me everything’s gone wrong! We’ve had the biggest economic crisis since the Second World War. Labour left us and said ‘there’s no money left’. I could have run away from the challenge, I could have said to my colleagues ‘we’re not going to go into government’. What would people have said to me? They would have said: when it came to the fight, you ran away. But I didn’t! I went into government. And now the economy has the best growth rate in Western Europe.
“In this community there are thousands of people who have had the benefit of our biggest contribution, which is lifting the tax threshold – the average saving in a family budget is nearly £1000. We’ve put more money into primary schools to help youngsters from difficult backgrounds in a way that has never been done before. We’ve made sure that we have kept pace with the investment needed for the health service, so I’m proud of our record.”
He points to other results of his time in government – from the planned Bakerloo Line extension to a reduction in women prisoner numbers, to helping people with criminal records from their youth get jobs in later life – with genuine pride.
In truth, Mr Hughes will likely not be judged solely on the record of his political party. The tens of thousands of people who have backed him over the decades are clearly not all Lib-Dem supporters, but instead are fans of the man himself. While he denies trying to distance himself from his party – “look at my office, look at my cab” – he is still aware that it is his reputation, not his party’s, that attracts voters in the north of the borough.
“There are people here who vote for me who are Labour party supporters – but they will vote for me. I had a Labour councillor canvassing with me the other day because they think I am the best person to get elected. There are people who are Greens, or Tories, or UKIP supporters who understand the score: in the end you have to choose the best person.”
Whether or not voters still see Simon Hughes as the best person, after a turbulent debut in government, remains to be seen.