LSE Tories, Labour, Liberal Democrats talk General Election

With the General Election campaign underway, our Features Editor sat down with the leaders of LSE’s Conservative, Labour, and Liberal Democrats societies for a wide-ranging discussion on Brexit, climate change, capitalism, workers rights, and more. 

Transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

 

The Beaver (Colin): So, obviously, it’s general election season – that’s just a little over a month away. How’s that going? Are your parties canvassing, or is it still pretty light at this point? 

Labour (Melissa Pittman and Chloe White): We’ve been really, really busy. We’re trying to go to all the marginal seats, there’s a lot around London, like Chipping Barnet and Chingford. We’re just working with all the constituencies around London to make sure we go to the ones that we really need to win. We have a lot of safe seats in London, luckily, like Holborn St Pancras and Hackney seats. But it is quite stressful, we’re out on the doorstep everyday pretty much.

Conservatives (Hamish Mundell): Yep, we’ve been doing the same, getting out canvassing in these key marginal seats. Obviously, we’ve got a lot less safe seats in London, which is fair to say. We’ve also been doing some work on the phones, trying to reach people in the whole country.

Liberal Democrats (Aadil Khan): We’ve been really big on targeting, and that’s the key priority for the national party as well. It’s finding a seat and winning it, and we’ve been really focused on the Cities of London and Westminster, which is LSE’s seat that we’re sitting in right now.

Beaver: What are your thoughts on etiquette between parties? A couple of people have mentioned that the cross-party pub crawl, for example, has gotten kind of racy. Is cross-party dialogue moving in a good direction, or do you think we should try to scale it back?

Tory: It’s fair to say that there are different scenarios. Today, I had Neil Coyle, who’s the [Labour] MP for Bermondsey knock on my door, and we had a nice little chat. That’s all fine, and most people are completely fine just having a chat. Obviously you do get flare ups, which aren’t really that productive – nobody really wants that. At the end of the day, when there’s not an election going on, you do want to have politics working quite harmoniously, with people getting on and actually finding solutions. So I don’t see a future in shouting at each other.

LD: On student politics at LSE, I think that LSE is probably one of the nicer campuses to do politics on. If you look at other universities across the country, the attitude towards politics is much more hostile, and there’s not the kind of places where you can have three different societies in a room talking to each other.

Labour: I would say that debate it really important, and for us four to be sat around together is important and productive. But I’d also say that what’s often overlooked – especially in this general election – is that these are people’s lives that we’re talking about. In this election, if there is a Conservative or Liberal Democrat government, people’s lives are going to be genuinely affected, people that do not have settled immigration status, homeless people, people who rely on state benefits, people who rely heavily on NHS and social care. So, there is an element where, yeah we need to talk to each other and there’s no point shouting. But at the same time, I don’t have a lot of interest in trying to build bridges and make friends, because that’s not what we’re here for. We’re here to try to build a government that is going to genuinely protect people, and work for the people it needs to work for.

Tory: I’d completely agree from the opposite perspective. We all agree that we want to talk about the issues and play to the issues, because we all want a government of our own party. At the same time, I’m sure we all agree that ad hominem attacks are not the way to do politics and generate a healthy, democratic environment.

 

Beaver: What is this election? Is this the Brexit election? Is this an election on climate change, on the economy? What is the defining feature of this election?

LD: I think that the defining feature of this election will be Brexit and the willingness of different parties to talk about it. I think you have an issue where some parties are going to have incredibly clear positions – the Liberal Democrats, who say we want to unequivocally remain no matter what happens, and the Brexit Party who are saying ‘we want no deal, we want to build a wall in the middle of the channel’. Then you have other parties struggle to get their messages across, perhaps they have more nuanced positions on Brexit, and maybe they’re sitting on the fence. But I think that’s where you’ll see a bit more of a squeeze and a lot of media pressure to speak up on what they actually believe.

Tory: I think the Tories have quite a concise position. They have an oven-ready deal that’s ready to go as soon as they have a parliamentary majority. Whether you like Brexit or not, it’s clear what their position is. I would say that there’s a second aspect: it’s sort of a bifurcated election. Brexit, get that done, resolve it however you might – revoking Article 50, or going through a 9-month delay process and renegotiating. Once that’s done, there is a discussion to be had about the future of Britain after Brexit. There’s obviously two different camps here with Labour and the Tories’ vision of how we’re going to grow as a country going forward. But, you can see that there are two strands to the election, so it will be interesting to see how they play off of each other.

Labour: I do agree that Brexit is really important – we are going to renegotiate a deal and put it back to the people, and it’s going to include protections for the environment, workers, freedom of movement, and put us back in a new customs union which protects the people of this country. But it’s very easy for us to sit here and say ‘oh yeah, this election is about Brexit’ in this nice university with nice facilities. But, really, people have been suffering under austerity for so many years, and the NHS is failing without the funding that it needs. There have been so many cuts to schools. This country is literally dying. I don’t want to make it over-dramatic, it’s not, but people are dying because of Tory austerity and the cuts. We can sit here and say that it’s about Brexit, but for a lot of people like this, it’s so much more important than that.

 

Beaver: A little more than two-thirds of LSE are non-British. About 50-percent are non-EU, non-British. How will this election affect the average student at LSE, who is not from this country, and likely cannot vote? 

Labour: First of all, it’s important to say that Labour is a party that is pro-immigration. Especially under Corbyn’s leadership, we care immensely about immigrants. With immigration, you’ve got skilled immigrants and you’ve got immigrants that are slightly more vulnerable… Under the Tories, all immigrants have been affected by the hostile environment – which has really negatively affected people’s lives. I’m sure lots of international students and British students have received emails from LSE, part of Home Office rules that if you miss two classes then you could have your visa taken away. That is a hugely detrimental thing to send to a student who might be ill or suffering with their mental health – even at the level where LSE students are going to deal with the Home Office. We cannot trust a Conservative government with any sort of immigration. That is clear from the fact that their party – and their leader – is blatantly racist, calling black people “‘piccaninnies”’ and women in burkas “‘letterboxes”’. [Immigration] is hugely important in Labour policy, and our manifesto next week will be hugely pro-immigration – not just European immigration, although there will be a conscious effort to protect that – but also those from outside the Union.

LD: The reason why I keep bringing this back to Brexit and our policy with the EU is that Brexit wasn’t seen as a signal that ‘we need a fairer immigration system, we want fewer from Europe but more from the rest of the world’. It was taken as a vote that the people don’t like immigration, that we don’t want a country that is accepting immigration. There was a consensus that we need fewer people entering the UK. I think that, if this election were to show losses for the Conservatives and potentially gains for the Liberal Democrats, it might show that people have changed their minds, and that this country has woken up to the value that immigrants have brought to this country. Not just high-skilled immigrants that are going to LSE, but also those who are picking our fruit and working in our hospitals.

Tory: If we’re going to bring it back to Brexit, the fact is: we had a referendum, the majority of people – including many Labour voters – felt that they needed to leave the EU. But the result of the referendum hasn’t been honored. I think it’s somewhat farcical to say that you can have another referendum before you’ve actually implemented the results of the first one. It’s about faith in our democratic system, if nothing else. For many people who aren’t the most powerful in our society, who don’t have the capacity to use legal and economic means to implement their wills on Westminster as the Remain alliance has done, want the referendum delivered. Else, we’ll see the rise of things like the Brexit Party, as they did very well defeating the Lib Dems, Tories, and Labour in the last election. We have to ask: why is that happening? We should listen, rather than talk at them.

 

Beaver: Apart from your individual parties in power, what is the fundamental thing thing that Britain needs at this moment?

Tory: Get Brexit done, move the country forward. Start focusing on the priorities that people care about.

Labour: I don’t think that getting Brexit done will necessarily make us focus on the priorities that people care about. I don’t think that we need to do Brexit and then everything will be fine. We need to focus on, right now, the second referendum and the process of that. As soon as we get into government, our party could reverse austerity and things like that. That’s what we need. We don’t necessarily need to get Brexit done, that’s not going to solve anything. The country is still going to be divided.

Tory: Our political system is pretty paralyzed while Brexit is hanging over it. Have we been able to pass much legislation? Things like the Ag Bill, Environment Bill – these are really good pieces of legislation and they’ve been pushed back because they need to get Brexit through. The whole legislative session is being taken over by Brexit-related debate. We just need to find an end to this issue – my position is to push through this nice deal, it’s very moderate and will take back control over all those things that people voted for, and it moves us forward. Then we can start thinking about compromise on how we can go through with a set of progressive legislation, which I think the Tories are outlining.

LD: What we need is to stop Brexit and start decarbonizing capitalism. That’s something that the Liberal Democrats started whilst in government, and in fact the UK is one of the greenest countries in the G7 because of the Lib Dem record. 

 

Beaver: Have we lost time on combating climate change?

Labour: We’ve lost time because the Conservatives have not been radical enough on climate change. We’re still unsure whether [Environment Secretary] Theresa Villiers actually believes in climate change. If you want to speak about the environment bill, the environment bill is not progressive. Ask any climate academic: the environment bill is not progressive. You cannot have a progressive vision on the environment while supporting capitalism. Neoliberalism will always put markets ahead of people, and will not protect people the way it needs to, i.e. against the global catastrophe of climate change.

Tory: I’d definitely say – I’ve always been a big one on climate change – over the last couple of years, we’ve seen a massive acceleration of public policies on climate. If you went to the Tory Party conference this year, I’d say that a third of all fringe events were related to the environment. It’s incredible: there’s so much energy in government towards doing stuff on the environment. See the Michael Gove environment bill speech a few months ago; that was such an aggressive and ambitious attempt to move the country forward on the environment.

LD: I think that when it comes to environmental issues, there is generally a consensus across parties that climate change exists – thank God – and that we need to do something about it. The issue that people should be thinking about when they cast their votes is: who do we trust to decarbonize the economy. Do you trust a party that you suspect may actually be decarbonizing as a way of implementing their radical vision of what the economy should look like? Do you trust the party that is closely tied to vested interests that don’t want what’s best for the country? Or do you want the party that has a proven track record in government of actually cutting CO2 emissions?

Tory: [Net-zero carbon emissions by] 2050 was actually a Tory policy, and that was really progressive.

Labour: 2050? 2030!

Tory: 2030 is mad. What are you going to have to do to decarbonise by 2030?

Labour: So it’s mad to try to decarbonise a country? It’s mad to try to stop the biggest issue facing the world? What are you going to do, put markets before people? Or people before markets?

Tory: People are inherently tied into markets, that’s the thing. If you ban diesel cars in a week – which I guess the Tories are actually doing, they’re banning diesel cars, it’s a progressive action – 

Labour: It’s a good policy!

Tory: But you’ve got to do these things over time, gradually. You can’t just pull the rug from underneath people’s lives.

Labour: But we haven’t been doing enough gradually, and things are getting worse.

Tory: We all know the environment is bigger than any one political party. The idea of the environment bill is to take environmentalism as target-setting and kick it out of the realm of politics. Because let’s be honest, there is a consensus, especially among people our age, that climate change is such a big deal. We need to take the football away, move it out of politics, give it to an independent regulatory agency, and let them hold future governments’ toes to the fire on it. That sounds like a really good idea in my view.

LD: We can set the UK’s carbon neutrality target to 2050, 2030, 2025, but what is more important than that is Britain’s global voice. Can we become a world leader in showing countries and encouraging our friends and allies across the world to take action on climate change? Ultimately, we could go net-zero tomorrow, and it wouldn’t do a huge amount to impact climate change. We need our partners to follow suit. The reason why stopping Brexit is so important [is] because it diminishes our voice in the world. We can be stronger as part of the European Union, ensuring that we can take global action on climate change. I know some parties have some really radical ideas – and I’m sure the Conservatives are going to do an adequate job on combating climate change – but if we’re doing it alone, I don’t really see the point.

 

Beaver: What is Britain going to look like in five, ten, twenty years, if your party wins a majority in December?

Labour: Well, we’ve got two choices: disaster capitalism and Boris Johnson, or we have socialism for the many and not the few under Jeremy Corbyn. I think I know what the majority of people in this country need. I see a Britain that welcomes and values refugees and migrants from all across the spectrum. I see a country that would have comprehensive state schools at a comparable or similar level to private schools, a country with less inequalities, better welfare, less mental health issues. Because at the end of the day, the mental health crisis we’re seeing is a direct result of the fact that the Tories have given us ten years of awful austerity – may I add that the Lib Dems did that as well, they were part of that. I would see a country where people got a better deal for the work that they did, and were recognized for that, and we weren’t giving bankers in the City of London million pound bonuses for work that they didn’t really do.

Tory: I have a somewhat contrasting vision of what the world would be, rather than this socialist utopia. I think, over the next few months, we’re going to see Brexit come to a head. If the Conservative government is returned to power with a majority – as I hope it will be – we will see a deal go through, and we can head towards negotiations that I expect will be something like a Canada-plus type deal. Which is a quite progressive compromise, a softer compromise than the Farages of this world want. Once that’s done, I see a period of compromise. We have a lot more in common than you think on these policy issues. We talk about the environment, there is obviously a lot of common opinions to be shared here. I don’t see a huge amount of difference, after Brexit, between members of the Lib Dem and some members of the Conservative party in its current form. The Lib Dems have nailed themselves to the mast of the European issue – but after that, is there a massive amount of difference? Not really.

LD: I think there are some really fundamental differences on social issues. For example, in 2017, the Liberal Democrats were the only party to put a minimum quota on the number of refugees and asylum seekers we wanted to take into the country, whereas other parties were scared, feeling that that sort of quota would alienate the white working class– basically presuming that those workers are racist. The Liberal Democrats are a party founded on standing up for minority rights. Things like equal marriage for everyone, are things that the Liberal Democrats will pursue that the Conservatives will not. Because as much as you’d like to pretend that you are a sort-of cuddly, free market party that is becoming more socially liberal, I don’t think that that’s the case, especially with Boris Johnson as your leader.

Tory: You are a national political party. Apart from these very niche causes, which I personally support, you’re a national party: what are your views on the economy? Do you want to see a socialist-style economic system, or a progressive, centrist economy?

 

Beaver: Workers, cleaners, security guards at LSE – many of them are migrants to the UK and could be considered more economically vulnerable than the average student. They’ve fought very hard in the last few years for improvements in their working conditions and sick pay and wages. Why do your parties deserve their vote?

Tory: In terms of ‘if you work hard, you get the rewards of your own labour,’ – I think the Conservative party has really been pushing that. Raising the minimum wage to £10.50 an hour within the next five years is a great policy. We’ve been trying to make tax cuts from the bottom up, which I think is fantastic and I am a really big advocate for that. If you’re not one of the biggest earners in society, then you shouldn’t have to be paying vast amounts of tax. Furthermore, making changes to national insurance – I think that is a really good policy. You have to remember that there is not only wealth redistribution in the world, there is wealth creation, and you have to make sure that people feel empowered to create wealth, as much as they feel they can. I don’t think that wide promises of a greener tomorrow without a huge amount of costing or realism is actually going to benefit society.

Labour: We are definitely the party to protect workers’ rights – I don’t think there are any questions about that. Our whole culture of improving the welfare state, having things for people there when they need them. We are raising the minimum wage. We support the unions; you can look at the postal workers’ strike, which Jeremy Corbyn has come out in support of… [The Tories] have been in government for so long, and so many workers have suffered, why didn’t you do anything then?

Tory: Workers and unions are no longer the same thing. This isn’t the 1980s; it is no longer the same thing. For example, South Western trains are going on strike for seventeen days in December: that is not a good thing for workers. That is actually going to make a lot of people’s lives hell.

Labour: And train workers shouldn’t be allowed to strike? Maybe if the trains were nationalized then that wouldn’t happen in the first place.

Tory: Look at the history of nationalised trains in this country and you’ll find that that is not quite true.

 

Beaver: Is LSE a fundamentally different environment from the rest of the UK in terms of how we talk about politics, how we engage with politics?

LD: I think the LSE is probably a better place to do politics than a lot of other places. I know at King’s they have a big culture of demonstrations and banners. In some aspects, that can be really positive. In other aspects, I’ve seen some of the things they wrote on the banners and they’re not particularly great. I think at LSE they tend more towards collaborating with societies, or an effort from groups to draw in different societies. For example, the Global Climate Strike last year, there was a huge effort to make sure that was cross-party; lots of societies were getting involved. I think that’s one of the perks of a small campus; everyone knows each other more or less. Maybe it is in part to do with the culture of LSE and the slightly different way in which we do politics. 

Tory: I completely agree, I like the consensus-based model of discourse, I like having a chat. LSE, because there’s so many clever people, policy specialists and such, it means you can get into quite a positivist debate about how, well, ‘we all agree there is this problem, how can we fix that’, and come to an understanding, which I think is really nice. I don’t really like this sort of normative, name-calling style of politics which I think has come into the UK as largely an American import. I don’t like that among student politics. LSE is better in some ways, but at the same time has polarization for the sake of polarization, which I don’t think is very productive.

Labour: University politics in general is not very reflective of the rest of the country. Back home, the way you talk about politics is so different from here. A lot of the issues – you know, workers rights, it’s great that we’ve had a conversation about that today, but that doesn’t get brought up. I feel like it’s so much economic and Brexit policy, very to-the-script. People don’t talk about emotions enough, and how this affects people’s lives. Benefits are definitely not spoken about enough, because a lot of people here have never met anyone who has needed benefits. Our society is trying to make people more aware of that, and we have a lot of working class students, which is great. It’s great that there’s such an international environment, but a lot of people here have loads of money, and that is obviously going to skew the way we talk about politics.

 

Beaver: How do you think the average LSE student will vote?

LD: I think the average LSE student is fundamentally quite liberal. I think that – I may be a bit biased – but from the conversations I’ve been having at the Fresher’s stall, people who tend to be less engaged in politics tend to intuitively place themselves, not necessarily on the left-right spectrum, but feel quite strongly in their libertarian views on social issues. Particularly when you study things like international institutions, things like Brexit become key factors when you vote, particularly if you have a lot of family or friends from abroad. I hope, at least, that the student vote is moving towards the Liberal Democrats. We have seen really encouraging signs that that is happening.

Labour: I’d like to say that I thought the average LSE student would vote for Labour. There are a lot of great policies for students: we’re going to remove tuition fees for British students. I’d like to see more protections for international students in our manifesto. We can definitely win people round. I’m not going to say every student at LSE is left-wing, obviously that’s not true. But I think we’re going to have a good manifesto, we have a really good cause, and hopefully we can convince a lot of people to vote for us.

Tory: A lot of people in this election will go, ‘there’s a clear choice’. Jeremy Corbyn as the Prime Minister, running the economy, running the City, running their future employers… do they want to be run by Jeremy Corbyn, or do they want to be run by a responsible Conservative government, which has managed this economy for quite a long time and will continue to do so in a far more proficient manner, without the politics of the 60s and 70s pervading it.

Labour: One thing I would say is that we have a choice. A lot of people at LSE have a lot of money, so I would say to them directly: whatever happens, you are going to be okay, you’re not going to lose your home, your family, your healthcare. What would be a really encouraging thing to do is to vote to protect the people who, under a Conservative government, that would happen to them.

 

Beaver: Final thoughts?

LD: For those of you who aren’t bored of Brexit and would like to remain: vote tactically. Have a look, not just at the 2017 election, look at what happened in the Euros and look at some of these tactical voting websites. See who actually deserves your vote. But remember: voting Lib Dem is the only way to show you want to stop Brexit.

Tory: When looking at this election, you’ve got to look at two issues. Do we want Brexit done and being resolved as an issue in the next year, or do we want more delay, another referendum, and even more divisiveness? Do we want to move on in some sort of consensus? I think there is only one option, and that is a clear majority Conservative government. We can start dealing with the issues, which I think there is a consensus for if you look past the tribalism.

Labour: If you want the choice between a sensible Brexit deal and remain, and on top of that you want to ensure protections for workers, investments in education, investments in the NHS, green policies, carbon-neutral goal by 2030, Labour is the party for you. I think that is a broad-encompassing manifesto that a lot of people would really like to see.

British, Irish, and Commonwealth citizens are eligible to vote in the General Election. You must register by 26 November to be eligible. Voting takes place in-person on Thursday, 12 December 2019, but can also be conducted via postal ballot. Get registered at https://www.gov.uk/register-to-vote. 

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