Chris Smith recently became the chair of Greenwich Liberal Democrats. In the first of a series of political end of year interviews, Greenwich.co.uk spoke to him and put a selection of readers' questions to him.
With the party no longer having any councillors in Greenwich, but being part of the coalition of government, what's it like being a Liberal Democrat in Greenwich at the moment?
Chris Roberts [the leader of Greenwich Council] says we're vile. That's how he refers to us. [Spencer] Drury [the leader of Greenwich Conservatives] hates our guts as well. There was a meeting when Roberts turned around and looked at me and said, "and the vile Liberal Democrats are destroying our country blah blah" and Drury stood up and said "that's the only thing I'll agree with the Leader on." The hatred is visceral.
So, you're like the Millwall of local politics?
Yep, they absolutely hate us. And there are people, the sort of Guardian reader types in Greenwich... I mean, I've been chased out on to the pavement several times. The hatred is absolutely extraordinary. You'd think we'd murdered their families!
I'm under no illusion. With the help from the national party, we've lost all our councillors. Now, apparently, people would rather vote for satan than us. If you promise something to somebody, which is what we did [over tutition fees] and then are perceived to have gone back on that in certain areas, that's quite a difficult thing to come back from.
And what's that done to your membership base?
Ummm.... yeah, it's not been good.
Are you planning yet for the next council elections and do you have wards you are targetting?
Do you know what, we haven't chosen them yet. Actually I've got a theory about this. Targetting is what all political parties do but obviously you run risks. If you put all your eggs in one basket and it doesn't come off, you know. I'm very much of a view that I'd like to build the party irrespective of electoral success.
I think there will be an enormous explosion in independent candidates. It's happening in Greenwich already. As a party, we're being approached. There's no way that our leading people are going to stand as independents, they'll always stand as Liberal Democrats. But there are people who want help. Say you're a small "l" liberal and you're a democrat and you're a brilliant candidate who'd make a fantastic councillor, but a lot of people, certainly in Greenwich, hate the Liberal Democrats.
Because of what the electorate perceive they've done, these people are never going to get in so obviously there's a temptation for them to stand as independents.
But the problem for independents is the whole structure. Getting it all together, the cost of it - not that we've got much money ourselves.
Are you trying to appeal to independent candidates to stand as Liberal Democrats instead?
Yes, but they're saying to me, they stand a better chance as an independent. They're probably right.
Do you think the benefit cap that Lib Dem MPs helped pass is, in the words of Sarah Teather MP, "immoral and divisive"? (question via Twitter)
I personally agree with Sarah, although the problem of housing benefit costs in London has to be tackled. In my view the best way is to build more affordable housing, not cap benefits to the poor. In fact only a minority of claimants are at the very high levels and thus it is unlikely that this policy would help reduce rents at all.
To what extent have the actions of the Lib Dems in coalition at national government level demoralised local activists? (question via Twitter)
Coalition action has not affected the number of activists locally, although it is fair to say that the more hostile reaction on the doorstep has put some of them off going out. I am immune I am afraid!
Contrary to popular opinion we are not a weird adjunct to the Labour Party but are a distinctive liberal and democratic party with social justice at our heart. There are many government actions that I disagree with, tuition fees in particular, but I believe that what we did in 2010, by going into coalition, was best for the country and that is what the local party feel as well.
Do you agree with Clegg that we must 'build our way out of recession' and how will he ensure affordable homes remain a priority? (question via Twitter)
Yes I do agree with this policy but I also oppose the free-for-all planning approach such as mega conservatories that the government have been keen on, which will just promote neighbourly disputes.
In Greenwich we have a terrible record on waiting lists and delivering new affordable homes thanks to the Labour council, although finally a number of housing estates are now being upgraded - not before time. The governments affordable rent and the end of mandatory life tenancies and the new financing arrangements should all help provide more housing to those in need. The welfare benefit cuts have to be less draconian for Londoners though.
What do you think of the DoE spending money on opening secondary free schools in the borough, when we need primary schools? (question via Twitter)
The baby boom is presenting a need for more primary places, a trend the Labour government failed to provide for, but at the same time there has been a long term problem in Greenwich secondary education. It is improving but we are still in the bottom three in London. I am personally in favour of the Greenwich Free School as a way of helping to address this, although many in my party are against free schools.
Will Liberal Democrats oppose the proposed Silvertown Link tunnel? (submitted by reader)
In principle we are in favour of more river crossings to the east of Tower Bridge. However a crossing which would merely provide alternatives for long-distance and orbital traffic as the Silvertown crossing would do, rather than benefit local areas, is madness.
The Kidbrooke pinch point would turn into a car park and the need to toll both Blackwall and Silvertown would present real problems. The Council's "Bridge the Gap" campaign is insulting to local residents in its naivety. Other crossing solutions are not easy but a crossing further east would make more sense.
Thanks to Chris Smith for answering questions from Greenwich.co.uk. Thanks especially for answering some of them twice after an earlier audio recording file became corrupted.