Richard Flowers is the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for Poplar and Limehouse
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Richard Flowers interview: Liberal Democrat candidate for Poplar and Limehouse

As part of The Slice Tower Hamlets’ coverage of the 2024 general election, we interview Richard Flowers, the Liberal Democrat candidate for Poplar and Limehouse. 

On Thursday 4 July, residents of Poplar and Limehouse will arrive at the polling station to cast their vote for their next MP. Richard Flowers, who has been a member of the Liberal Democrats since 1995, is one of the candidates hoping to win over locals and represent the constituency in parliament. 

From furthering the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals and immigrants to campaigning for clean air and transport, Flowers has spent his career fighting for social and environmental justice. With a focus on improving housing and education, he’s determined to give the residents of Poplar and Limehouse a fair deal and a brighter future should he be elected.

After attending Stockport Grammar School in the North West of England, Flowers studied Mathematics at Trinity Hall at Cambridge University. After working as a trainee accountant at Arnold Hill & Co, Flowers moved to Baker Tilly before working for a small IT company in Greenwich. In 1999, he joined Clarins UK where he’s still a Senior Group Accountant. 

Flowers has been with his husband, Alex Wilcock, for 30 years. A highlight of his political career was being a part of the successful campaign to make same-sex marriage legal in England and Wales, legislation which took place during the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition.

As a proud spokesperson of the community, Flowers was treasurer of LGBT+ Lib Dems group from 2016 to 2019. He was also treasurer of the Humanist & Secularist Lib Dems from 2017 until 2019, and was one of the founding members of the Lib Dem Immigrants group, a pro-immigration pressure group within the party.

He stepped down from those positions when he became Treasurer of the Party in England, a role he still occupies today. He was also chair of the Tower Hamlets Liberal Democrats in 2016 and again from 2021 until 2023. 

We asked Flowers for his opinions on the topics that matter most to residents in Poplar and Limehouse, from child poverty and housing to the Israel-Gaza war. Here’s what he had to say.

Why are you standing for office?

I’m standing for the Liberal Democrats because I believe that everybody deserves the chance to have someone to vote for, particularly if you want to vote for a Liberal Democrat. 

I’m standing in order to give people a fair deal. We’ve had years of Tory chaos, since Brexit and Covid and all of the scandals that they’ve had. We need to start making things better again. We need to heal our economy, we need to fix our relationship with Europe, and above all we need to mend our politics, we need to do things better.

What do you recognise to be the most pressing issues for residents in Poplar and Limehouse?

Housing is at the top of our list. We’ve got a lot of new build here on the Isle of Dogs, but there’s a lot of housing that needs improvement. People are trapped in leases that are seeing scandalous raises in their service charges, the leasing bill just failed to pass through the House of Commons. It wasn’t going to do what it needed to do anyway, it was stripped of so many things, so we’ve been campaigning a lot for that. 

Also on housing, there’s still the overhang from Grenfell. It’s almost 10 years, and just in the last year, New Providence Wharf at the top of the island had a fire again. Cladding is still a big issue, and again it’s leaving people trapped with huge charges for these all-night watches [a fire safety measure that involves 24/7 surveillance of a building by trained fire marshals].

You have left-leaning values but have decided not to join the Labour Party. Why the Lib Dems? 

Labour is obviously very strong around here, but they need someone to hold them to account, and that’s what liberals have been doing for all of my life, in fact for hundreds of years, it’s the very roots of the party. 

We believe that – and again it comes back to a better sort of politics – just letting winner take all, which our current system does, means that eventually, inevitably, you end up with the sort of corruption that can happen in Boris Johnson’s case, or sometimes, in some Labour councils we’ve seen.

Obviously, Tower Hamlets has a reputation for bad things happening. A better sort of politics is one where people get a fair vote and a fair voice in the outcome so that instead of having first-past-the-post – winner takes all – we get a mix of people. The coalition, for all its faults and problems, did at least have the support of people from across the spectrum, and it let us as Liberal Democrats try to mitigate some of the things the Tories did.

We didn’t always succeed, and if this became our politics, we’d get better at that, but it needs something where it brings people together rather than divides them. 

When you mentioned bad things happening in Tower Hamlets, are you referring to the history of the corruption with the Mayor?

Obviously, our current Mayor has done his time. And so he’s perfectly entitled to be elected again. But bad things did happen, and he was called to account.

In other councils up and down the country, just through the sheer inertia of having a long time in power, people stop caring about the people they’re supposed to be serving, and start thinking just about themselves.

To a certain extent, this can happen to any party, even ours, although there are fewer times when we’ve had the opportunity. But when we can see things like the splits in the Labour Party that are showing at the moment, where Keir Starmer is trying to purge himself of his left-wing members, all of this comes from having too much power and not being held to account. 

The Israel-Gaza war has been a particularly divisive topic in Tower Hamlets. What’s your position on the conflict and what are you going to do to unite this fractured borough?

It’s a terrible thing that’s been happening. Obviously, Hamas’ initial terrorist attack was appalling, but that in no way excuses the behaviour of the Netanyahu government. The Liberal Democrats have had Layla Moran, who has Palestinian heritage herself, leading on this, and have been long calling for a proper ceasefire. We need to make an end to this terrible, terrible conflict. 

I have Jewish friends, I have Muslim friends, I have friends who are neither, and all of them are frightened.

richard flowers

As a person in England, there is not a great deal I can do. In fact, we have a history of sticking our oar in in that region and making things worse. All I would do is call for calm, and peace, and remember that we are all ultimately living here together.

I have Jewish friends, I have Muslim friends, I have friends who are neither, and all of them are frightened. They’re frightened at the moment because people are taking advantage of this. Right-wing domestic terror groups are using this as an opportunity to attack both groups, and people on the internet are using it as an excuse for spreading hate. 

It needs to stop. I am not an expert on the subject, I will defer to Layla Moran, who is our foreign affairs spokesperson, and I will follow that line, but I definitely want to call for a ceasefire. 

On social media, you’ve come out in support of the gay and trans community. Where do you stand on the Tory government’s recent ban on puberty blockers and the discussion of gender identity in sexual education following the Cass Review?

It’s terrible. Absolutely terrible. I’m a gay man, and in the 80s I remember Section 28 coming in and newspapers whipping up hate and saying gay men were out after our children and trying to get into our private spaces or into our toilets.

It’s all happening again. It’s a repeat of the same old attack lines. Trans people are a tiny minority of the country, and they just want to live their lives, and we should let them. 

Liberal Democrats believe very strongly in freedom of the individual. If someone tells me they are a woman, I’m going to believe them. I’m not going to do a DNA check on them to check that, I will take their word for it, and I think that’s just common decency. 

I was able to marry my husband thanks to the Liberal Democrats, that makes me very proud.

richard flowers

You are running against Apsana Begum who has been the Labour MP for the constituency since 2019. She has faced criticism for her lack of visibility and productivity on behalf of her constituents. Are these fair criticisms of her?

I don’t want to get into personality politics. I think Apsana hasn’t actually been selected as the Labour candidate yet, so she may have more problems with the Labour Party than with me. Whoever is Labour’s candidate, I will talk to them about the issues.

Questions over whether Diane Abbott and Faiza Shaheen should be allowed to stand have recently plagued the Labour Party. Do you feel that our political landscape is still unwelcoming to women of colour? 

Yes, very much so. There are far too few people. I’m terribly proud to be able to stand next to Rabina Khan, who is going to be our candidate in Bethnal Green and Stepney. She’s been a councillor there before, and she’s a wonderful, wonderful representative of Liberal Democrats.

I think we need to see more faces like that. I’m delighted that we have Hina Bokhari, who we’re lucky enough to say is also president of our local Liberal Democrat party and she’s now our leading member on the London Assembly. 

The more we get voices from different parts of the diverse communities of Britain, the better things will be. As Liberal Democrats, I’m standing here as a white gay man, I’ve got a Muslim woman standing next [to me], and I’ve got a young person in Janey Little standing next to me in the seat in Stratford and Bow. And I think it’s great that we can try and show diverse faces and represent different aspects of our community, because as I said before, the more voices we can hear from, the better things will be. 

There are over 23,000 people on the housing waiting list in Tower Hamlets. How do you balance the housing shortage with your pro-immigration stance? 

Immigration and housing are two completely separate problems. In fact, one can help solve the other, because if we let more people in to work to build more houses, they can build more houses and solve the problem. We have a problem with housing because for decades, governments have refused to address the shortage of housing.

We need a good mix of housing, we get so many of these rabbit hutches, just built for two-bedroom flats. Very small compared to European standards here in London, across the commuter belt they’re building two-up two-downs or semis, they’re not thinking about the diverse range of the community. 

We need houses for older people so that people can live their lives and then trade down when the family moves out, and at the moment, people are getting trapped because they are treating the house as their main financial asset as well as a place to live. 

So we need to think about our economy better, how we’re going to be sure to look after people in old age. The Liberal Democrats were in fact responsible for bringing in the triple lock back at the start of the coalition, which the Tories now claim credit for a lot. But we need to be careful because it isn’t going to be sustainable forever.

At the time it was brought in, the pensions were way below European averages, they need to be brought back up, to a sustainable level, so that nobody suffers from poverty in old age, but we also need to think about the generations that are coming that are going to have to pay those. Young people today don’t think they’re ever going to get to a pension, let alone get to a house. So our economy needs rebalancing and that means building more homes, and the right sort of homes. It means building them in constituencies across the country, not just massive numbers of flats here in Tower Hamlets.

Tower Hamlets is one of the most deprived boroughs in London, with the highest rate of child poverty in the country. What will the Lib Dems do to tackle this wealth inequality? 

The first thing that we would always do is look at education because we want to try to help people to help themselves out of poverty first. 

Education is the foundation of improving anybody’s life, we would look at Free School Meals for all primary school-aged children, which I think we just announced, because an important part of the school day is having a meal at lunchtime because it gets people set up to carry on learning in the afternoon.

I remember Rabina has proposed in the past that we should have a life-sciences learning centre here in Tower Hamlets, to try and develop both career opportunities and new sciences that would develop new jobs as well. 

Tackling poverty is about redistributing the wealth as well. We are coming to the end of an economic cycle, that started when Mrs Thatcher came into power, and we’re seeing pretty much the limits of what rampant free market economies can do, and it’s falling to bits now. 

We need to think more about how we can bring people together in better, new ways of working. Look to other countries – look to successful countries like Germany and the Continent, and how they have much more worker participation in their management and try and build an economy that’s much more cooperative, rather than a management-worker divide. 

What’s the proudest moment of your career so far?

I think it has to be this [pointing to ring on his finger]. I was lucky enough to be part of the campaign, led by Lynne Featherstone and Ed Fordham, that saw during the coalition, legislation to make same-sex marriage legal. 

And it’s been a revolution that has swept across the country, it was a wave going around the world at the time, we were part of a zeitgeist. But it’s a change that does not seem to be rolling backwards, and I’m really grateful. So I was able to marry my husband thanks to the Liberal Democrats, that makes me very proud. 

What’s a guilty pleasure TV show that you like to watch?

Oh that’s easy, it’s Doctor Who. You can see a lot of Doctor Who on the shelves behind me. And we’re lucky enough to be having a new season of Doctor Who going on now, and if you watch it at midnight on the iPlayer, it doesn’t interfere with your campaigning either. 

For more of The Slice Tower Hamlets’ election coverage, read Will Apsana Begum stand as the Labour Party Candidate for Poplar and Limehouse?

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