2018 Labour/Conservative Debate: Politics or Power Play?

“We’re students, not professional politicians. We need to respect each other”

Current Events Reporters Isa Betoret García and Anna-Leah Gebühr attended last week’s Annual Labour/Conservative debate, put on by the KCL Politics Society. After 90 minutes of fiery debate, these are the conclusions they have drawn.

Labour Debaters: Meg Hall, Osian Evans-Sharma

Conservative Debaters: Emily Slatter, Ayush Joshi

Every year, the King’s Politics Society hosts a debate between the Labour Society and the Conservative Society, which took place last Friday, the 12th of October. Two members of each society discussed about Brexit, Education, and Foreign Policy in an occasionally heated debate. This was moderated by Diego Rodriguez, President of the Politics Society. The debate allowed for statements by each party, a debate between the panelists, and questions from the audience. The importance of this debate to student politics was clearly shown by the high attendance of the event.  

Prior to the debate, the Politics Society received a complaint by the KCL Liberal Democrats accusing the Politics Society of exclusion. Briefly afterwards, the Politics Society published a response, stressing that they think it to be an inclusionary event, as 82% of the electorate are represented through the parties present. The Politics Society furthermore offered to host another event with all parties present. However, this invitation was apparently declined under the threat “To suffer the consequences”. The KCL Liberal Democrats have been inactive for some time and were not present at Freshers Fair. Interestingly, they were not visibly present at the debate. The Labour Society also invited them to co-host their Event “People, Power and Politics”, which was rejected, as Meg Hall who is co-chair of the KCL Labour Society, told us. Emily Slatter, President of the KCL Conservatives, deemed the behaviour of the KCL Liberal Democrats as “deeply childish” and “unprofessional”.  

There was a general air of optimism even before the start of the debate. Panellists from both sides expressed their hope for a productive, civil debate. Aware of the fact that “politics will always have disagreements”, Hall believes that it is important to talk about the differences, but also about the similarities of the two parties. But above all the panellists wished for everyone to have fun. Although a “little nervous”, Diego Rodriguez expressed similar wishes when introducing the debate. He emphasised that even though the KCL Politics Society planned for this to be an interactive event, interruptions of any kind would not be tolerated: “We’re students, not professional politicians. We need to respect each other”. The reality of the debate, however, did not live up to these expectations.  

The first topic addressed was particularly contentious:  Brexit. In their opening statements both sides echoed the rhetoric we have grown used to hearing from the Conservative and Labour parties. From the start, the debate was largely dominated by Conservative voices. They began by emphasising they will not “bow down” to the European Union, there will be no second referendum, the country needs a coherent policy for economic stability. Labour countered by stating that there is more division now than before the Brexit vote, the government has treated the EU as the enemy, and Theresa May is quite simply trying to appease her critics. Osian Evans-Sharma, one of the Labour panellist stated that Brexit would “never be over”, wondering “what went so horribly wrong?”. He added: “We’re not leaving Europe, we’re leaving the EU,” when referring to the resentment towards the continent and isolationist fears.  

Claiming that Labour “obviously doesn’t have a clue”, the Conservative panellists opposed a second referendum while Labour aimed to remain “flexible” and could not rule it out. Ayush Joshi on the Conservative side affirmed “We will never support the people’s vote.” Hall – the other Labour panellist rebutted by reminding everyone that the European Union did not ask the UK to leave, while Slatter (Conservative) stressed that Brexit had been an exercise in democracy. Conventional rhetoric returned as Labour finished by declaring that Brexit had been a too simple vote for a too complex issue, while the Conservatives repeated that “people voted to take back control of their country”. Though this was one of the most extensive sections in the debate, it was often a back and forward of familiar arguments and attacks to the other side that would set the tone for the rest of the debate.  

Education was the next topic, though Labour’s opening statement dealt with a wide variety of topics from primary school to higher education, the debate it quickly split up into three main areas: student debt, striking, and the KCL Safe Space Policy. Once again, the panellists had clashing views on each of these issues, but the tone became even more aggressive. “There is no such thing as student debt”, said the Conservatives, but rather a “graduate contribution scheme.” Your fees “keeps universities living,” they added. Joshi furthermore described free education as “long line of chaos”. At this point in the debate, it was very interesting to observe the panellists, their behaviour and tone. It was easy to see that Joshi leaned heavily into the microphone, waiting and attempting to speak instead of listening closely. He quickly declared the strikes of the lecturers last year “a national disgrace” and that people “are paid to work, so work”. The aggressive rhetoric only continued with the statement: “I think everyone who strikes is absolutely deplorable.”  When Hall from the Labour side offered the reasoning that “no one strikes for the fun of it” and that it had been striking that brought about the Equal Pay Act of 1970, Slatter interrupted – “Times have changed, Meg.”

The now rapidly moving debate turned to the Safe Space Policy. Joshi opening statement set the tone very clearly: “the Safe Space thing is a joke. I feel pretty safe.” Slatter was more reserved, arguing that the policy hinders discourse and that “Safe Space marshals are the one of the worst things to come out of King’s”. In a quick response, Evans-Sharma from the Labour side assured him that even though he feels safe as well, perhaps not everyone in the University does, and referred to the violent Antifa incident at Strand Campus in spring, stressing that the Antifa has no place at King’s.   

The final section of the debate was Foreign Policy, though the tone remained much the same as it had through the debate. The Conservative panel focused more on the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s personal views rather than the Labour Manifesto. Joshi went as far as declaring: “We are not debating the Labour party, we are debating a sort of cult.” Beyond this, the conservative stance was that Labour hindered their progress on Foreign Policy by their opposition to bombing. The attacks on Labour quickly became personal, however, accusing them of not being able to protect the country as they cannot protect their own colleagues, likely referring to Jo Cox.  

Labour attempted to prove that not everyone in their party was a follower of Jeremy Corbyn, even if they did respect the party’s democracy, by stating “we’re a pretty broad church”.  After, Evans-Sharma stated that he believes the Conservative government’s position on missile launches was merely a tool to stand alongside US President Donald Trump. His position remained firm that the government should be “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” This reinforced their idea that their policies were based on compassion, and that the country’s security could not rely on the misfortune of others. The Conservative’s position remained unchanged, that is that they need to show strength and that it “standing by and doing nothing is not okay.” When the debate turned to attacks on domestic soil such as Salisbury Labour conceded that Jeremy Corbyn had been “overcautious”.  

The foreign policy debate gave way to a debate on military spending and on President Donald Trump. President Trump has stated before that he wishes for other NATO nations to increase their spending. The Conservative panel agreed to this, conceding that while it was a significant increase the United states should not be forced to carry the economic weight of NATO. Labour, following the same pattern of their earlier points, was more cautious in suggesting that we ought to wait for the budget to make such decisions. Joshi was convinced that Labour wants to “scrap the military – these are facts!” The audience reacted promptly, as many gasped and asked loudly “what?” He reassured his belief repeatedly. The reporters were not able to find any evidence that this is, or has ever been, Labour’s plan. (https://labour.org.uk/manifesto/a-global-britain/#third).  

When the questions turned towards Donald Trump’s presidency and the “special relationship” between the countries, disagreement persisted. Labour was adamant that they should not have a relationship with Donald Trump as he is “misogynist, racist, homophobic” and more. On the other bench, the predominant view was to “salute the office, not the man.” An uncommonly light-hearted common for the tone of the debate came from Labour’s reference to the film Love Actually, where Hugh Grant plays the Prime Minister who stands up to the United States President after he attempts to bully the country. He stated “Frankly, America has become a bully […] We should tell Mr Trump to take a hike.” With regards to other domestic policies instated by President Trump, the Conservative panel emphasised that it was not their place to disagree. This statement stands in contrast to the earlier support for interventions by the Conservative bench, intervention based on liberal values.  

Throughout the final stages of the debate, the increased use of aggressive and judgemental rhetoric became obvious. Many statements by the conservatives included the worlds “disgusting” and especially “disgrace”, while interruptions of other speakers rose dramatically, in a manner that disrupted the course of the debate and caused Diego Rodriguez to interfere.

The audience participated widely in the debate, and their interactions both with the reporters and the panel reflected a very similar tone to the rest of the night. Some audience members lectured the crowd and the panellists rather than asking a specific question, and one in particular was asked to sit back down. Another believed that the Labour panellists had not answered his question, however others perceived that he simply disagreed with the answer and disregarded it. Esther Endfield the President of KCL Labour Society was surprised by the “unprecedented” number of interruptions. Another audience member was “shocked” at the tone of the entire debate. This stands in stark contrast to the opinions of the panellists post-debate, who thought it had been a friendly and civil occasion.  

Student politics do not exist in a vacuum, this much is clear. However, we must ask ourselves after this debate how much they should be influenced by wider UK politics. The rhetoric used throughout the debate was reminiscent of the polarising rhetoric used in the media or by the respective parties. The disregard for the opinions of the other side that has become increasingly prevalent in politics over the past few years has left many frustrated. That this is now being echoed in student politics is a failure of civil discourse, and a betrayal of the open-minded spirit that should prosper in a university environment.

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