In anticipation of an imminent general election, the KCL Politics Society arranged a start-of-term panel debate in the Nash Lecture Theatre on the evening of Tuesday 8th October. Student politicos from Labour, the Lib Dems, and the Conservatives battled it out in the topics of economics, the environment, and Brexit.
The opening question asked the panel’s response to Chancellor Sajid Javid’s pledge to phase out austerity. Labour’s Kira Lewis gave a powerful personal testimony of the visible effects of austerity in her hometown. She and Francis Bell argued that these cuts to services exacerbated of persisting regional inequality and social immobility in Britain. Lewis said to the Conservatives, ‘120,000 died but you got your 5p plastic bag charge, right?’
A finger-pointing what-about contest ensued about the causes of the financial crisis and pre-2010 government expenditure, which was likened to ‘fiscal diarrhea’. Before the panel’s political metaphors could stray any further away from the Overton Window, Lib Dem Louis Triggs criticised the fiscal ‘zero sum game’ conjured by Labour and the Conservatives, whilst next to him, Jacques Meldrum, from the Conservatives, cracked open a can of Strongbow.
In the environment debate, Lib Dem Atyab Rashid gave a thoughtful and refreshingly non-ideological insight into the ‘auction of promises’ as parties compete for votes, linked to the limited impact of 2008 Climate Change Act and 1992 Kyoto Agreement. The drawbacks and benefits of nuclear and fracking were outlined. Jo Swinson’s record was attacked (‘she was in the [coalition] cabinet!’ protested the Lib Dems). All the panel accidentally implicitly agreed that the UK should lead the way internationally by example in using greener, more sustainable practices, even if mega-economies such as China and the US emit the most.
Important and interesting points were raised about the relative powerlessness of international negotiations, especially due to economic dynamics. One audience member said that the third world industrialising and growing made climate change inevitable. The Tories spoke up international cooperation, but the Lib Dems’ Louis Triggs couldn’t resist quipping ‘wouldn’t it be nice if we had a continent-wide trading bloc…’ One Conservative audience member later sounded dismayed at the lack of positive solutions in the debate, which left some big questions unanswered.
Yet Brexit remained the elephant in the room, and the best was saved till last. The dynamics of the already lively debate changed. Melissa Gurusinghe and Jacques Meldrum from the KCL Conservatives gained the front foot. They toed the line about getting Brexit done to deliver the referendum, the importance of properly preparing for ‘no deal’ to get a good deal (‘to show you’re in the game’ as Meldrum put it), and reaching a more equitable and efficient migration policy by ending EU freedom of movement. Meanwhile Labour became the centre ground, whilst Atyab Rashid emphatically summed up the Lib Dems’ Brexit position as ‘just don’t do it’, with Louis Triggs adding that ‘the Tories will crash their reputation for economic responsibility upon the rocks for a bizarre ideological passion project’.
Melissa Gurusinghe exposed the anti-Brexit split, saying that the Lib Dems getting into power is ‘mathematically impossible’. ‘Not mathematically’ retored the Louis Triggs. As one exasperated spectator observed after the debate, the ad hominem blame games of the Cameron-Clegg years from 2010 to 2015 (what Labour’s Kira Lewis earlier dubbed ‘coalition nostalgia’) could appear somewhat obfuscatory.
The final question came from a student from Armagh in Northern Ireland, about how the rejection of the ‘backstop’ has brought into question what is currently an open border with the Republic. In response, another audience member pointed out that Lord McCloskey, a Northern Irish judge, had declared that Good Friday agreement was not dependent upon EU membership. However, these Northern Irish concerns were sympathised with all of the panel. Labour’s Kira Lewis concluded that given Stormont is dormant and that the ‘DUP fell out with the Tories’, guts were required to co-operate and extend abortion and gay marriage rights in Northern Ireland.
After the debate, one spectator studying for a master’s in Department of War Studies spoke of the need for civil conversation to find agreement amidst the apparent chaos. One international history student remarked that she admired the passion and devotion of UK deliberative politics, traditionally more publicly combative compared to the more technocratic parliamentary culture of mainland Europe.
KCL Politics Society President Katharina Sharrow, who hosted the event, told Roar News, “We were thrilled that so many people turned up to the debate. Brexit is a rather polarising topic but at least it’s making the population more politically active. The fact that all the seats in the room were taken is evidence of this. We live in a politically divisive time so it’s even more important that there are fora like the politics society that enable discussion. We were therefore delighted that there was such a high turnout and such a passionate audience participation, because it proves that students are engaged, they want to be informed, and they want to have a voice.”