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KCL Politics Society’s Annual Debate Ends in Sparks: The Full Debrief

Isaac Farnbank, KCLCA, and Rosie Kurnaz, KCL Labour, engage in debate.
14 November 2023. Photography courtesy of Emma Carmichael.

Staff writer Daisy Eastlake reports on the proceedings of the annual KCL Politics Society debate.

Hosted in Waterloo campus – much to everyone’s dismay – the time for the KCL Politics Society debate had finally come around. The event allows two members of the KCL Conservative Association (KCLCA), KCL Liberal Democrats, and KCL Labour to come together only to drive themselves apart for two hours over five pre-determined topics. Every year is nothing short of chaos, and this year was certainly no different.

The event was set to begin at 6:15 but was delayed for a short while as the society and Roar set up. One disgruntled member of the crowd hastened the proceedings by cutting through the mumbling chat with a loud, “Get on with it!” – and with that, the debate began. We’ll hear much more from our loud friend in the audience throughout the event.

Each party were given a short 90-second slot to introduce themselves and their politics, setting the tone their arguments would take throughout the debate. From left to right, the KCLCA spoke first: represented by Isaac Farnbank and Rishit Harsh. Isaac began by thanking the KCL Politics Society’s new committee for re-establishing relations after the communication between student politicians broke down near the end of last year following the KCLCA’s controversial “This House Would Restore the British Empire” debate motion. They first argued that the KCLCA believed in the student body as individuals and criticised the “politics of irrelevance” sat alongside them – motioning towards KCL Labour and KCL Lib Dems. Their speech raised a decent selection of ideas, and fit the tone of an MP speaking over the Dispatch Box at PMQs – with the expected amount of laughter when Isaac argued that “the Conservative Party is the only party which is getting things right”.

Onto the KCL Lib Dems, Joep Lahaije and Toby Harvey, who seemed to remain the calmest and most collected as the evening went on. Joep began by explaining that liberalism meant gay rights, economic freedom, achievement and social mobility and that we in the audience deserve a “fair deal” that cannot be promised by the Conservatives. Pretty much from the get-go the KCL Lib Dems announced their support for the legalisation of weed, officially due to the wrongful incarceration that they argued stems from marijuana’s illegal status. This one was clearly a student vote-winner if the cheers from the audience amount to anything.

Last to speak were KCL Labour. They were represented by Rosie Kurnaz and Nathan Widdowson. The only woman on the panel, it was Rosie who spoke first. She confidently argued that this time next year Keir Starmer point-blank will be in power and the role of their student society, in contradiction to the blind confidence a few seconds earlier, is to make sure that he gets there. She pointed out that KCL Labour represented the change in government that the UK needed to create a “fairer Britain”. The debate moved towards the topics.

The Economy & Cost of Living

The first topic was the economy and the cost of living. Each party were given a slot to propose their policies before moving towards a three-minute debate period, in which each party had a total of 60 seconds of speaking time – in an attempt to stop one party (I’ll point no fingers here) from hogging all of the debate period.

Labour identified the key economic issue halting growth as housing – an interesting choice when a later debate topic already focused on the housing crisis. They spoke to the crowd’s experience, stating that if anyone understands the rental crisis, it’s students. Mortgages are pushed out of the question and saving to join the housing ladder is impossible when all of your income goes into rent. They promoted that Labour’s plan is to build upwards of 300,000 new houses, solving the supply problem driving the crisis.

The Liberal Democrats began by admitting that “[they] are quite boring, because [they] are sensible”. But they propose it is about time for some sensibility. Their policies centred around the ideas of re-joining the EU single market (not the EU, they hastily tacked on), legalising weed to make it taxable and generate £3.5M for the UK economy, and a clamp down on tax avoidance and banker’s bonuses. Their speech was short and sweet, sticking to their promise of “sensibility”.

The floor then went to the KCLCA. Isaac began by forgiving KCL Labour – one of their representatives had tripped over their words and said the phrase “forgive me” – because “he thought [they] were talking about the economy and not housing!”. He then shifted into talking about how the conservatives promise to give people opportunities in this country, “regardless of where they come from”. Now, it wouldn’t be a conservative speech about the economy if not for a mention of Liam Byrne, chief secretary to the Treasury under Gordon Brown, leaving an infamous note for David Cameron’s incoming government reading ‘I’m afraid there is no money’. The attacks didn’t focus solely on KCL Labour, however; they were quick to quip the Liberal Democrats for having “cheek to criticise austerity when they enacted cuts in government with us”. When finally approaching their actual policies, the KCLCA were at least aware that their economic plan was unpopular, but that the conservatives were about what was “right”. They proposed a reform to trade union legislation that would ensure working people can get to their jobs. They rounded their speech off with a clean cliché mention of the conservatives securing the fastest economic delivery in the G7.

Labour began the following open debate. Rosie from KCL Labour retaliated to the “unpopular” conservative economic plan with “yes darling, you’re right, it is very unpopular”, before segueing into comments about the rich and privileged backgrounds of the KCLCA’s committee members. This received a lot of vocal backlash from the audience, with the KCLCA and KCL Labour descending into an inflamed game of oppression-Olympics, which was only cut through by our loud friend from earlier taking on the role of John Bercow and yelling “ORDERRRR!” from the crowd.

The Climate Crisis

Much to my surprise, this topic was relatively uneventful. All parties recognised that climate change is one of the most pressing factors in modern politics – with each speech providing a mix of policies and jibes at their opponents. The KCLCA argued that “there is no conservatism without conservationism”, and stated that external dependence on oil supplies is harmful to people and the British economy. They still got a nice punch to the Lib Dems when they quoted Nick Clegg as saying “there is no point in investing in nuclear energy because it won’t come until 2023”.

KCL Labour was quick to criticise the conservative restrictions on onshore wind and solar panels on farmland. Nathan spoke of his own personal worries as someone who lives in a coastal town in the UK. They argued that the costs of not dealing with climate change are a lot higher than the costs of tackling it now; a sentiment echoed by the KCL Liberal Democrats, who raised a number of policies they would put forward to tackle climate change; most notably, bringing back the Green Investment Bank, which was a Lib Dem policy which invested in green projects, with the dividends being returned to the public. When the KCLCA said they would exclude the years from 2020-onwards from their analysis of conservative action on climate change because of the pandemic, Joep from the KCL Lib Dems comically remarked, “easy, then I will exclude coalition!”.

Education, Social Mobility, and the Housing Crisis

This topic provided more fireworks. Labour spoke first, criticising the Tory removal of the EMA – the Education Maintenance Allowance, which consisted of a £30 a week allowance for college students to pay for costs such as taking public transport onto campus, so long as they had an attendance of over 90%. They spoke of the current maintenance loan being drastically out of line with inflation and of the conservative policy of expanding Maths and English to 18. Isaac was quick to retort on behalf of the KCLCA, joking that “it’s probably a good idea that people can talk and write, that’s probably a good idea”, which resulted in laughs from the audience. This was in the latter half of this focus, and as the debating descended into backpaddling and arguments from both the KCLCA and KCL Labour, our loud friend in the audience decided this was unacceptable and screamed for the panellists to “have a bit of backbone!”.

The KCLCA spoke of being the party of home ownership and social mobility. They spoke of the Thatcher days, which, while controversial, delivered some of the highest spikes in home ownership amongst groups of the public who would likely have never succeeded in doing so on their own. Isaac also deemed education to be a “conservative success story”, criticising Labour for the Blair years. They told the tale of Tony Blair attending the most exclusive school in Scotland and then scrapping Thatcher’s Assisted Places Scheme as soon as he made it into power. They finished with a shot at Labour; “so don’t give me lectures about taking stuff away from people who deserve it”.

The Liberal Democrats, again, were the best at presenting an actual policy portfolio to the audience. They proposed building 150,000 new council homes a year and restrictions on the amount of second-owned homes so local people can’t be pushed out of their communities. They also spoke of a £10,000 grant for students to spend on education throughout their lives and increasing the funding per pupil to combat school backlogs created by the pandemic. When the debate began, it followed the typical pattern of a quip-war between the KCLCA and KCL Labour; when KCL Liberal Democrats were finally able to get a word in edgeways, they began with “I’m gonna leave these two to it, because, you know… whatever”. They addressed the problem with university funding and recognised that Labour would likely raise it with taxation. Still, Toby admitted he doesn’t think this is fair on non-university-educated workers. They recognise that the low repayment rates amongst graduates are a problem for the sustainability of university funding, and acknowledge a graduate tax rate of 2% or so on top of university-educated workers’ earnings could make a more efficient system. To them, “it’s the liberal thing to allow whoever they want to go wherever they want in life”.

Foreign Affairs & Immigration

Expectedly, the rhetoric that commenced throughout this topic was very, very angry. The current context of the UK is only getting more and more hostile against migrants and immigration – that’s something recognised even by the government after they sacked Suella Braverman from her position as head of the Home Office.

I’ll start with the Liberal Democrats. They argued in favour of immigration, and hammered home the importance of opening up legal routes into the UK, because “illegal immigration is only illegal because there are no legal routes to get here”. They criticised the Conservatives for abolishing the Department for International Aid and thus giving away the UK’s position as the most powerful nation for soft power post-Brexit.

The KCLCA’s pitch and the KCL Labour pitch were less based upon policy and more upon squabbles. The KCLCA were quick to reassure that they “are not anti-immigrant”, but they believe in the rule of law and they see many communities up and down the country where integration has failed. Labour’s pitch focused on the importance of immigration to this country, and London especially, in terms of the hard work put into building Britain; with Nathan importantly adding that “immigrants make our country richer”.

In the debate that followed, much of the floor was taken up by Rosie from KCL Labour and Rishit from the KCLCA, who engaged in a back-and-forth about the legal routes and the boats, as well as the importance of immigrants to the UK. Rishit accused Rosie of “shadow-boxing a ghost” in her argument that the immigration system into the country is not fair. When KCL Labour incredulously asked, “what legal routes?”, Rishit angrily refuted “the way that I came into the UK and became a citizen!”, to wide audience applause. As per usual, the slightly-meeker KCL Lib Dems struggled to get a word in edgeways, with the KCLCA and KCL Labour arguing over the Liberal Democrat argument that illegal immigrants are only illegal due to lack of other options – to which, loud Lady Justice in the audience screamed, “LET THE MAN SPEAAAK!”. I believe at this point his interjections were not going well, as a member of the crowd near me shouted back, “stop screaming!”.

As the Liberal Democrats continued, Joep struggled to get his words out over the noise of the crowd and the arguments of KCLCA and KCL Labour. A member of the audience heckled, “stuttering!” and was immediately told to “shut the fuck up!” by another audience member.

Constitutional Reforms, Dirty Money, and Honesty in Politics

Liberal Democrats were happy to take the floor here, as Toby made clear that “the only thing the Liberal Democrats ever talk about is constitutional reform”. They argue that the current constitutional set-up of the UK is inherently built against fairness, liberty and justice. Neither party can “claim to be for change when there are only two real options”. They promoted the Liberal Democrat policy of abolishing the House of Lords and replacing it with an elected second chamber. They acknowledge that proportional representation, as proposed in the AV Referendum, doesn’t have to be a party list and that it can operate similarly to the Irish system, which means “allowing people you disagree with into parliament”.

Labour agrees that the political processes aren’t working and that the UK needs to go even further than a House of Lords abolition – but interestingly, they don’t believe that toying around with the electoral system will practically do much. They argue there are many more things we can do to increase trust in politicians, including hard and fast restrictions on lying in parliament. The people need honesty, as well as increased devolved power for local communities.

The Conservatives, surprisingly, also agree to a point that the House of Lords needs to reform. They recognise it as an “archaic system”; but the answer is not to abolish it. They swiftly transition into criticising Labour for their donation scandals and refute Labour’s “the Tories are the corrupt ones, we’re angelic” rhetoric. Isaac criticised the major donations Labour receives from trade unions and when asked what was wrong with that by Labour, he stated “what’s wrong with trade unions? Blimey, where to start”. He ended his impassioned rant with, “and [Labour] have the audacity to talk to us about dirty money, get off your high horse”.

When Labour raised Braverman’s letter – at the time of the debate, this was only a few hours old – which accused Rishi Sunak of lies and U-turns, Rishit claimed it was a “sob story from a sacked individual”. To the tune of the rest of the evening, the KCL Liberal Democrats initiated a return to actual policy; “Labour and Conservatives are just throwing stones at each other… but where are their actual proposals?”, “We agree that honesty is an important thing in politics: what are your policy suggestions and what are your solutions?”. For the Liberal Democrats, constitutional reform is an integral issue – the marked annoyance at its descent into petty comments and stone-throwing is on theme.

Closing Remarks & The Q&A

The debate, every year, ends with closing statements from each party and an open Q&A with the audience. The KCLCA gave their closing statement first, beginning by commenting that the debate had consisted of “a load of nonsense from two parties, and some sense from another”. Perhaps a very misjudged comment, as the Liberal Democrats had laid the groundwork as the “sensible” party right at the start of the evening, leaving the floor open for Joep of the Lib Dems to smile and raise his hand, resulting in wide laughs across the audience. Isaac finished his closing statement with “the Conservative party is your party… I would suggest that this is a testament to our ability to represent, to listen, and deliver”.

The KCL Liberal Democrats spoke next. They began with an observation; “the reason the Conservatives are getting so annoyed at us for having policies is because they have none”. They reassured that they strongly believe in what they say and that the only way things can ever actually get done in the UK is with deep structural reform.

KCL Labour closed the final remarks, but their speech was arguably lacking in substance. The most significant was a slip of the tongue from a KCL Labour speaker, who accidentally claimed that KCL Labour was “removing honesty”, which made everyone laugh.

Many of the questions asked by the audience related back to points made at some point during the debate. Our loud friend in the audience asked what everyone was asking for from Santa this year, which was a bit rogue. Our Editor in Chief asked, “What is one policy your party currently runs on that you disagree with personally?”, which was popular with the audience and raised interesting answers. Isaac said the cancellation of HS2, which he termed an “act of national vandalism” and condemned that “history will not judge it at all kindly”. Toby from the Liberal Democrats argued that he disagrees with an overnight abolition of the House of Lords and believes it should be phased out slowly by increasing the number of elected representatives over 10 years or so. Nathan from KCL Labour finished with the argument that he believes the high criminalisation of drug use in the UK is a mistake, and that rehabilitation is the answer, not throwing people charged with drug offences in prison.

The last question changed the tone of the whole evening. A member of the audience asked how the panellists felt about their party’s stance on the ongoing conflict in Gaza. The KCL Liberal Democrats affirmed that they support a ceasefire, and agree with the larger party, who they state are the only UK parliamentary party who have publicly called for a ceasefire. KCL Labour seemed somewhat critical of their party, stating that “Starmer has been weak on Gaza. He hasn’t condemned Israel’s acts on Gaza quick enough”. They took a humanitarian stance that although both Hamas and Israel have committed atrocities, it is the innocent civilians on both sides who need protection now.

The KCL Tories did not take such a reasoned stance. I’ve included his full speech, quoted word-for-word: “I thank the Lib Dems for their ambivalence and diplomacy on the matter, but I have to say that all it takes for evil to succeed is for good people to do nothing. Hamas have committed the most awful atrocities and anyone who stands with them is an awful human being. I agree with the former Home Secretary that the marches that we see are hate marches”. It was at this point the crowd became noticeably angry, with hecklers shouting out towards the stage. He continued, “a ceasefire is a terrorist charter, Israel has every right to go in and destroy the military, just like we did…”; it is at this point Roar‘s recording becomes unintelligible for the chants of audience members. At this point, a member of the crowd chants “Free!”, to which Isaac responds, “well you can say that, but you’re a teenage girl – what do you know about foreign affairs?” and the crowd erupts in anger. “It’s time to inject a bit of realism into this country, the crimes against Israel”, he attempts to continue, before he is stopped by a Politics Society representative who demands that he apologise for his comment about being a teenage girl, following with “everyone here is a teenager/young adult, we came here to listen to all of you speak, and just as we respect your opinions as a teenage boy, you should respect our opinions. Being sexist has no place in this debate”. She is widely applauded, Isaac apologises for his “ill-advised remark” (all the while insisting that he isn’t a teenage boy, he’s actually 20) and he continues. “The point I was going to make was that there are an awful lot of people who think they are experts on this matter, it is an incredibly complex conflict and we cannot just take naïve conceptions about what we want the world to look like. Of course, we don’t want civilians to lose their lives, but we must also be clear on the fact that if Israel does not wipe out Hamas, the attacks will continue, the hatred on both sides will continue, we have to wipe these people out. I’m sorry, it’s a complex topic, and I get it, but a ceasefire is not the answer and we have to stand with Israel”.

To say this was not a popular stance would be an understatement. Heckles from the crowd consisted of “11,000”, “5,000 children”, and “Free!”. Many seemed surprised someone would even take such a controversial stance so proudly on a stage, on record might I add, in front of more than a hundred politically-minded students. Backing a Home Secretary who has since been sacked for similar remarks seemed an interesting political move at the very least. An attendee Roar spoke to after the event claimed that they “couldn’t believe he’d be allowed to say that, and get away with it”; referring to the Politics Society making him apologise for his misogyny, but not the actual content of his remarks about the conflict. With that, the debate came to a close, and members of the audience approached the stage to speak to panellists – following that, I’ll give you no clues what about – and were reminded that the post-debate social was taking place five minutes away in Waterloo’s Thirsty Bear pub.

KCLCA explicitly asked Roar to comment on our official coverage of the debate.

“In my opening statement, I stressed the importance of debate, and welcomed the return of these events. I therefore regret deeply that attention has been directed towards one crass and unbecoming remark made in the heat of the moment. I have apologised personally to the individual concerned, and consider the matter closed. The closing vote is testament to the wider and overwhelmingly positive reception that Rishit & I secured. I look forward to future collaboration and engagement with a broad range of political perspectives whilst continuing to stand up for what I consider to be right and true.”

Isaac Farnbank, President of the KCLCA

This year, like years before it, was widely attended and provided strong, clashing opinions on a range of topics. Student political commentary is very important, as I have argued in the past and will argue in the years to come. But part of me can’t help but wonder if giving microphones to undergraduates to comment on situations as intensely personal and traumatic as conflicts such as the one in Gaza is wise. Perhaps, and you’ll likely never hear me say this again, Isaac has a point: what do we know about foreign affairs? Without the clear misogyny and arrogant self-assertion, I think it comes to a point where some issues are too sensitive and too complex to be weighed in on this publicly by inexperienced people, in a relatively unvetted situation. Accountability is low, considering, but comments like Isaac’s cause real harm to real people who can and do attend debates like this. The teenage girl comment proves that student politicians like Isaac Farnbank do not know enough to comment that strongly on situations as complex as the Israel-Hamas conflict. While pointing the finger elsewhere he showed himself in his remarks to know little about professional diplomacy. We should instead approach issues like this from a position of inexperience, and recognise what is factual; civilians on both sides are dying and that is what needs to be solved as soon as possible. There are no qualifications required to recognise that as a moral fact.

Thank you to the Politics Society for hosting yet another annual political debate; they are always one of my yearly highlights and I am sad that this’ll be my last. I hope students for years to come get just 90 seconds to weigh in on some of the broadest political topics for our entertainment, and I hope future members of the audience continue to pretend to be John Bercow when things get a bit too rowdy.

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