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Pragmatic politician’s continuing journey to make a difference

As the election campaign begins to heat up the Gazette is continuing a series of interviews with the main candidates vying to be Herne Bay’s next MP. This week our reporter Aidan Barlow went to Sandwich to meet George Cunningham, the candidate for the Liberal Democrats

ABOUT THE CANDIDATE

George Cunningham is 59 years old and is originally from London. He served as an army training officer for four years from 1975 to 1979. In 1981, he walked from Alexandria in Egypt to Cape Town in South Africa to raise money for charity – a trek that lasted more than 27 months. Later he worked in marketing for BT and BP, and set up his own charity called Pace to educate young people about international affairs. For 17 years, Mr Cunningham worked as a senior diplomat for the European Union in several roles, including as Charge d’Affaires in a delegation to New Zealand. He currently switches his time between London and Brussels, and has been working for the European External Action Service head of division for the Far East since 2012.

Tell us about your experience walking in Africa
I was living a comfortable life in London, but I wanted to challenge myself. I wanted to see how people lived at the other extreme. I walked through the continent over two-and-half years, meeting presidents, prime ministers and lots of ordinary people. Coming home was very difficult to readjust. I had seen people basically living for survival, and we had so much materialism. It created a deep impression on me, one I still carry in terms of campaigning for social justice.

YOUR POLITiCS

How did you get involved with politics?
During the 1970s I believed in the notion of ‘One Nation Conservatism’ put forward by Ted Heath. I believe in one United Kingdom with everyone helping each other and working together. I was in the Young Conservatives in Mitcham and Morden by-election campaign during 1982. I suppose I was on the left of the group. I think Mrs Thatcher swung the party quite a long way to the right. In the 80s I joined the old Social Democratic Party. I’d say it is the political parties which have changed, while I have remained fairly constant in my beliefs. As a diplomat I’ve been away for a long time, but am now returning into politics.

Why are you standing in North Thanet?
I’ve always believed that if you don’t like something then you should fight for change. I have stood up in this critical moment and chosen North Thanet to challenge Ukip, who I consider to be a threat to our nation.

But do you know enough about the local area?
My children went to school in east Kent so I know the local area. But I also want to be heard in deepest Ukip territory. I’ve been staying with party volunteers in Sandwich and visiting the constituency every weekend for about a year. In Herne Bay I have been very impressed by the changes to the Clock Tower, which looks brilliant. I think something I’d like to argue for is that Herne Bay as a town often isn’t getting what it deserves. Whitstable and Canterbury seem to get more resources dedicated to them. I think with the transfer of NHS services to Estuary View, Herne Bay has lost out. But I pledge to fight very hard for Herne Bay to bring services and keep services here.

YOUR CHANCES

Is your party heading towards a bloodbath?
No, I think we’re a party of pragmatism, and we’ve shown we can be good coalition partners who put the interests of the country ahead of our own interest. I think we’re the party which is most likely to be in government after the election. I’m hoping the British people realise we have worked for the good of the country.

But what are your chances?
We’ve had councillors elected in Herne Bay, so I hope to campaign hard in the town centre. I think the effort will be to make this a four-horse race, then be ready to stand again if there is a second election in a few months time.

ON THE ECONOMY

Has austerity really worked?
At the last election we had a 9% overspend on our annual income, with the second largest deficit in Europe. We had to be part of a government to bring the country back to a reasonable solvent state.

How are your policies any different from the Tories?
Our message is stronger economy, fairer society. We’re a party of pragmatism, compared to the ideological approaches of Labour and the Conservatives. So I don’t support socialist ideas to spending, but neither do I support the idea the private sector has all the answers. We are trying to moderate the two parties and bring them to the centre ground. We want to balance the budget by 2018, to reduce the deficit as a percentage of national debt from 78% to 72%. It’s a slow process. The critical thing is that we don’t spend more than we earn. As an economy we are perhaps too reliant on financial services. But it is important to keep that sector healthy. That means staying in the European Union. To leave would be a recipe for disaster.

What about the local economy here?
Locally I want us to be open to the world and to investment. This is one of the most deprived in Kent. I don’t think that while Sir Roger Gale has been an MP people have been pulled out of difficulty. And this is where I think Euro scepticism really doesn’t work. We’re really close to the Continent here and there are grants and funds which could be acquired from the EU. But we have politicians who aren’t prepared to use this proximity to boost economic growth. They don’t have a political interest in showing that Europe can work for us.

ON IMMIGRATION

What are your views on immigration?
Immigration has been blown out of proportion as a populist issue but I do realise there are issues for constituents. However, when we’re challenged by competitiveness from abroad we shouldn’t be putting up the barriers. We are best off with openness and free trade. We need apprenticeships and retraining schemes to give British people the chance to compete in the global market. The message we need is that Thanet is open to the world.

At the last election your party supported an amnesty for illegal immigrants, but changed policy in 2013. What do you think should happen to Illegal immigrants living here?
I think the key critical is for them to be contributing to the economy. If they are here and in work they should stay. I don’t believe in a blanket amnesty or a blanket ban.

YOUR PARTY’S RECORD IN GOVERNMENT

What has been the LibDems biggest failure since 2010?
I think it’s a tragedy we have been unable to change our political system, either as the House of Lords or the voting system. We need a system which is reflective of the will of the people. But it was the will of the people to vote against reform. The campaign should have been fought far better.

Not the rise in tuition fees or VAT tax rises?
Of course hey have had an impact. But I think we’re over that now. I have students working with me in my campaign. But when you look at our manifesto before the last election we didn’t think we would be in government so it was left in our manifesto. Tuition fees had to be looked at because of the financial crisis we were in. Now no party is suggesting to go back to the old system.

Surely it was naive not to expect a coalition last time?
Nick Clegg sacrificed the party on this issue for the good of the nation. It was a difficult decision. But we couldn’t just reverse policy, as it was decided by our party conference.

Herne Bay Gazette, April 9th 2015

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