POLITICS
01/05/2018 11:29 BST | Updated 01/05/2018 18:11 BST

Lib Dem MP Wera Hobhouse Worries 'Toxic' Debate On Immigration Reminiscent Of Nazi Germany

'I’d say any community that is not, I don’t know, 400 years British, should start worrying about themselves.'

Wera Hobhouse moved to the UK from Germany in 1990. The 58-year-old took British citizenship in order to stand for parliament. After one year in Westminster, the Lib Dem MP for Bath is deeply worried about the “them and us mentality” in Brexit Britain.

Ahead of the local elections, the Lib Dem communities and local government spokesperson also speaks to HuffPost UK about the party’s lack of resources, Tim Farron’s ‘nonsense’ beliefs on gay rights and and why time is running out to stop Brexit.

“The tolerant, liberal, middle has been falling away,” she says. And warns about what is to come: “It has happened before in history and I find it very worrying.

“European migrants see what happened with Windrush and immediately think it’s us next. I’d say any community that is not, I don’t know, 400 years British, should start worrying about themselves,” she says.

“There has been this saying in Nazi Germany. ‘First they came for the Marxists, but it wasn’t me. then they came for the Jews.’ You can always say ‘it’s not me, it’s not me, it’s not me’. But you create a society where the people who feel part of it and included becomes narrower and narrower and that’s very damaging.”

Hobhouse is one of four newly elected Lib Dem MPs who entered parliament in 2017. The snap election saw the party’s contingent creep up from nine to 12. It was progress. But not quite the ‘#LibDemFightBack’ many had predicted.

“We were a very damaged party throughout the coalition government. We lost all our local government base and then in 2015 we lost most of our MPs so that was a shellshock and to recover from that takes a little bit of time,” Hobhouse says.

Jeremy Corbyn, she says, “got away with murder” at the election by promising young people he would wipe out existing student loans. “Labour made a lot of progress. To my mind on the basis on many false promises. But hey-ho. The public swallowed it.”

Labour, she argues, successfully made the election about austerity not Brexit. “It was very much about the magic money tree and all that Corbyn stuff,” she says. “And we Lib Dems had difficulties to cut through with our message.”

The promise of a second referendum was central to the party’s general election campaign. And another vote, or an “exit from Brexit” as new leader Vince Cable puts it, remains at the heart of the Lib Dem offer.

But Hobouse says while the pro-Remain argument is “gathering momentum” there is “there is very little time left to change public opinion” on Brexit.

And she concedes the party is not punching through as much as it would like.

“I wont blame Vince for that. Vince is who he is. We voted him as leader. I am very proud of Vince. I think he is a fantastic thinker. He is a deep thinker. And is always very well respected wherever he goes and whatever room he speaks in,” Hobhouse says.

“We also have got very reduced resources now. It’s very difficult to get our message out there.”

“We have limited resources in our press office,” she adds. The Lib Dem press office has seen many long-serving staff depart in the past few months. “It’s just a question of resources.

“The problem is how you cut above that in the general media and that is to do with the fact we are the fourth largest party now in parliament

Hobhouse argues press should pay more attention to what the party says and does rather than focusing so much on the government and Labour and then the SNP.

“We can only do so much from our side. But there is obviously an established routine for media outlets to say you go ’one, two, three... oops.. four.”

PA Wire/PA Images

An important test for whether voters are ready to forgive the Lib Dems for what many see as the sin of the coalition years comes this week. Local elections across England will put to the test Cable’s claim a surge in support for his party is the “well-kept secret” of politics.

The Lib Dems had a dismal night in 2014 when these seats were last up for grabs – including losing control of their flagship Kingston-upon-Thames council.

Just as the general election ended up not being a vote about the EU, Hobhouse says when voters go to the polls on Thursday they will be thinking about bins rather Brexit.

“The local government elections are not about Brexit. They are about local services,” she predicts.

Hobhouse adds: “The Tories will do badly. The question is much more the support that Labour will get. Or whether people will return to the Lib Dems in our traditionally good areas”.

That question, of whether voters will ever return to the Lib Dems, hangs over the party. And has led to calls, tentatively embraced by former leaders Nick Clegg and Paddy Ashdown, for a new centrist party to be created.

“We’ve got a perfectly good centre party sitting here. Why don’t we make the most of what we’ve got?” she says, but adds: “The renewal of the party itself is possibly necessary.” 

I don’t think its necessary to set up a new center party unless we were really that despised by the electorate that they couldn’t go to us.

Hobhouse says the “big gap” in the centre ground is not new, but was simply masked by the coalition government. “It has been opening up wide since 2010 actually. After Cleggmania in 2010 up in the North West we actually went backwards.

“We were already falling through the middle again after the financial crisis. You always see that. When people are becoming poorer they got to the extreme ends of the political spectrum and the middle falls away.”

PA Wire/PA Images

A former local councillor, radio journalist and professional artist, Hobhouse stood for parliament twice before successfully snatching Bath off the Tories.

She moved to the UK in 1990 and says she could see the seeds of Brexit even then. “I knew about the eurosceptic British press. And it was steadily going into one direction.

“Did I know we would end up here? I think in 2009 in the European elections they retuned a BNP MEP in the North West [Nick Griffin]. The toxic immigration debate, all that sort of stuff was all going into one direction.

Hobhouse, as a European migrant herself, says she has thankfully not “personally suffered any direct discrimination or any hate”.

As a local councillor in Rochdale, she says people were “quite happy” to have her as their representative despite not being born in the UK.

“When you break it down to the personal level, people are never in that sense really anti-foreigner or anti-European or anti-anything. It’s general atmosphere you create. It’s the ‘them and us’ mentality.

GEOFF CADDICK via Getty Images

Tim Farron’s 2017 campaign was largely overshadowed by the row over whether he believed gay sex to be a sin. He quit as leader after the election having decided his religious beliefs were incompatible with leading the party.

Hobouse is a Christian. “If you want to be liberal, you also have to include our inclusive liberalism to people who are of faith,” she argues.

But she describes her faith as “mixed Christian” and dismisses Farron’s religious basis for his approach to gay rights as “nonsense”.

“I believe what he says is wrong. Evangelical Christians pick from Leviticus that shouldn’t allow gays to be married. But ten verses further down it says we shouldn’t eat pork and we are happily eating pork,” she says.

“From a Christian point of view Jesus said we should be inclusive. We should look after our minorities. He was very progressive in his love to include everybody. So I don’t know what the Church is doing excluding people. So personally I think Tim is wrong. But I think liberals can definitely accommodate Christians. I am one.”

In Vince Cable, Hobhouse says the Lib Dems “now have a leader that I am perfectly happy with”. 

In the wake of the referendum, the Lib Dems saw a flood of new members motivated by a desire to overturn the Brexit result.

The influx has changed the demography of the party base, Hobhouse says. The “established” membership has been challenged by the new membership to change its ways.

“I’m not saying it’s easy. Because it means some sort of relinquishing of old positions. But I think it would be a good thing,” she says.

One change the party needs, she says, is to introduce all-women shortlists and all-ethnic minority shortlists.

“We have really been struggling with diversity,” Hobouse observes.

Returning to this week’s polls, Hobhouse adds: “I think we have a lot to offer and people will rediscover what we stand for.

“We haven’t disappeared.”