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A Divide Right At King’s; the Communicative Breakdown in Student Politics

Source: Wikimedia Commons, Katy Ereira, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kings_College_London_Sign.jpg

Comment Editor Ben Evans and News Editor Daisy Eastlake share their thoughts on the state of KCL student politics, sparked by the dampening of relations between political societies and themselves as media representatives.

24/07/2023 Update: After a complaint from Liberate KCL, we have corrected some inaccuracies in the first version of the article. Please see the details of these corrections below.

‘Populism, Post-Truth and Polarisation’. The ‘Three Ps’ that listeners of The Rest is Politics will be all too familiar with. These three words provide a succinct assessment of what has grasped and degraded our politics internationally over the previous decade.

In Moises Naim’s book The Revenge of Power, the Venezuelan journalist and writer details the motives and methods of the populist politicians that seized office during the 2010s – Johnson, Bolsonaro, Orban, Erdogan and, of course, Trump. These figures may seem a world away from KCL’s protective nursery of student politics and so comparison could seem pointless, if not impossible. Yet many of our current crop of politicians sharpened their skills and realised their instincts by practicing politics at universities just like King’s, before being released into the vicious gladiatorial arenas of their respective legislators.

Many Members of Parliament (MPs) began as hard-headed and determined members of the student body. Thus it unnerves observers such as ourselves when we see the same adversarial and divisive ills in our student politics that we have fallen victim to at a national level. The past year – dogged by a slew of scandals – has witnessed an emergence of a merciless cancel culture which has contributed to a rapid retreat of any constructive dialogue or debate between our political factions. Two organisations that have become the epitome of our new regime of radical, echo chamber politics are diametrically opposed in their ideology, but undeniably similar in methodology: Liberate KCL (Liberate) and the KCL Conservative Association (KCLCA).

Liberate KCL

Liberate have rapidly become a famous – or rather, infamous – name on campus. This was partly propelled by their campaign tactics in the KCLSU elections; they used a system of endorsements much like a political party, with a set of candidates for almost every role. While their endorsed candidates were ultimately unsuccessful, Liberate achieved their main aim of brand exposure, which came with applause partnered with a storm of thunderous discontent.

Recently, the Liberate KCL has been the victim of their own hurricane of prejudices and harmful half-truths. In recent weeks, Roar attempted to interview members of the organisation, with the intention of uncovering the truth about Liberate, and shedding light on some of their most important causes (such as their recent student housing campaign) as well as the justification behind some of their most divisive tactics. As student journalists, the pursuit of free and fair information – coupled with some unabashed, cat-killing curiosity – is why we ended up here in the first place. A society such as Liberate, whose work is admirable but street reputation is mostly formed of outside opinions, is gold dust to those enthralled by the idea of seeing behind the curtain.

Roar reached out to Liberate on 16 June and an interview was rapidly arranged for 22 June, with both sides enthusiastic to learn and share respectively. Less than 15 minutes prior to the scheduled interview time, Roar journalists were asked to sign a contract promising to not “disparage” Liberate KCL in our write up and requesting “informed consent” prior to publishing. This implicitly meant monitoring our work and asking us to relinquish editorial independence. After consultation, the decision was made not to conduct the interview since Roar intends to uphold a degree of journalistic integrity which would only be damaged by these compromises. Roar is editorially independent of the Student Union or any other organisation. Allowing interviewees editorial control would severely damage the value that student-led media has for the wider student body.

This attempt to shackle Roar’s press freedoms runs contradictory to the openness that should guide our student politics. Journalism relies on the ability to conduct a fair assessment and collect the facts without condition, something necessary in order to provide the full picture to the readership. An interview is an opportunity to set the record straight, not conduct a political party broadcast. In this case, unless the interview conformed to Liberate’s conditions, it was made clear that it would not go ahead, despite Roar offering to confirm all verbal quotes prior to publication to ensure that there was no miscommunication of interviewee comments. The communicative bridge was burned right from the outset.

KCLCA and the ‘Wrong Way’

This issue is not unique to Liberate. Over the previous year Roar has seen its ability to critique and investigate certain student political movements restricted in a multitude of other facets. To reiterate, the sole purpose of student media is to provide necessary scrutiny of the organisations that represent our university and empower students who wish to report or comment on issues close to their heart. Any student is free to write for Roar and is subject to the same editorial standards.

Of course, it is also in the interests of societies to be open – the truth normally calms the prejudices of others, and the publicity increases their engagement, platform and sometimes even membership. Once upon a time, debates such as the now infamous ‘This House would restore the British Empire’ event or the ‘Port and Policy’ event centred around a two-state solution for Israel-Palestine, were openly discussed and reported on to allow people to form their own view. It was only after the informed student body formed a negative opinion of both these debates that the KCLCA decided to duck for cover behind the shield of Chatham House Rules – a code of debate with the basic premise of what’s said in the room, stays in the room. The use of Chatham House rules has been long employed by the KCLCA for their debates. It only became a barrier to the openness of Roar‘s reporting, and by extension a degree of necessary scrutiny, after it was suddenly used as a justification for preventing Roar reporters at the KCLCA ‘debates’ that were ever-growing in their ridiculousness.

This change of policy is a serious mistake for the Tories. Their ‘debates’ now risk being comprised of a homogenised blob of right-wing viewpoints, void of any opposition or constructive criticism. This is an ultimately futile practice that achieves very little apart from the re-enforcement of their views. For a party ideology espousing individual responsibility, freedom of speech and democratic accountability, they appear to practice very little of what they preach. One would think those so sure of their views would aim to share their enlightenment with others, and in doing so defeat opposition with the superiority of their arguments. Instead the Tories, unsure of their own ideas’ strength, have placed protectionary tariffs on the free market of ideas which – as their own doctrine tells us – will lead to a stagnation of thought and ultimately little progress. A stronger Conservative Association would be “not for turning” and open themselves up for scrutiny and debate. Our former Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher, would be disappointed.

Of course the KCLCA have had their faults, but they aren’t the sole perpetrators in what is our collective problem of political retreat. The sharp knife of cancel culture has become a restrictive barrier to healthy opposition. Of course, individuals who incite violence or cause direct harm to others should be silenced – but the response following the ‘British Empire’ debate was the wrong path to take. The subsequent responses by KCL Labour and Liberal Democrat Societies to pull out of the following week’s KCL Politics Society Debate was not the strong-stance of opposition they viewed it to be at the time. In fact, when reflecting on the events, former Chair of KCL Labour, Paul Spence, claims to “regret it a little”.

Speaking to Roar, he further went on to say “I was carried away by frustration at the time (I think rightfully) but we should really have challenged them outright”. With the dust now settled, this is the lesson we must learn. The topic of returning the borders of the long dead British Empire was insensitive, unfeasible and imperialist at its root, and therefore those who espoused it should have been scrutinised. But their exile from the wider political space at King’s simply gave them ample room to hold their own private debates on a plethora of other questionable topics. Freedom of speech is crucial and its integrity must be maintained, but with it comes freedom of opposition – when combined these are a societal good.

Rebuilding Bridges & Opening Eyes

Our student politics has great potential, with King’s attracting some of the greatest young minds from across the globe and from all corners of society. We should celebrate this through championing our individual opinions in a respectful and constructive manner. No side ever holds the monopoly on the truth. Thus, for us to uncover any form of consensus and find the answers to the questions that we are all asking, we need to build an environment in which all can contribute – one in which all are free to challenge and be challenged. This may be hard to find but our current toxic arena, in which opponents are branded as “Neo-Nazis”, is a lightyear away from where we should be.    

The radicalism of student politics has always been an exciting asset and useful engine for developing new ideas that ultimately fade into the mainstream. Historically, we have seen these ideas rigorously tested in colourful debates, underpinned by intellect and a mutual respect. Now, the extremes are authoritarian in method; restrictive of press freedoms and actively opposed to scrutiny. The political horseshoe has been firmly fitted to KCL’s hooves. Ultimately, this means that the once dynamic ideas-factory of student politics has been shut down, and in its place a series of closed and entrenched camps have been established. The result: many important issues just aren’t receiving the representation and debate that they need and people’s political range is being restricted.

We may all voice our opinions in our different tones, but together a sensible harmony can be formed.

Hear more from Ben and Daisy on their podcast ‘The Politics of It All’, available on Spotify and Apple Music.

Corrections:

  • Liberate KCL were NOT the first society to issue endorsements for KCLSU Elections.
  • Liberate KCL also did NOT issue endorsements for all the officer positions; there were no endorsements made for Student Trustee or VP Postgraduate. They also did NOT endorse candidates for student group elections.
  • Roar was asked to sign a contract 14 minutes rather than just 5 minutes before our scheduled interview earlier this year.
  • There were also 36 hours of silence, NOT “days”, before the interview

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