On March 8 URY invited representatives from each of the student political societies on campus to a debate ahead of this May’s General Election. Six different parties were represented in the debate with Thomas Turton (UKIP), Oliver Wilson (Conservative), Henry Winckle (Green), Megan Ollerhead (Socialist), George Norman (Labour) and Mike Green (Liberal Democrat) representing each of the respective parties. Each representative was given three minutes to start with to talk about their parties, the debate then moved to a set of pre prepared questions before a general interactive debate ensued.
Wilson was the first to speak for the Conservatives; he emphasised the importance of the strong economy created by the Conservatives. He mentioned the future plans of the Tories to cut taxes including income tax which could affect 30 million people and the increase in the number of apprenticeships.
Green spoke next for the Liberal Democrats; he too stressed the success of the incumbent government in creating a strong economy. For him the Lib Dem priorities were taking people out of poverty and ring-fencing the education budget. The Lib Dems, said Green, are dedicated to reducing the deficit and hope to eliminate it entirely by 2018.
Norman for Labour presented the party as a distinct alternative to the first two. He criticised the current government over a lack of job security and spoke of Labour’s promise to combat zero hours contracts, raise the minimum wage and alleviate the cost of living crisis. He emphasised that Labour was a party that could win the next election.
Then it was the turn of Turton for UKIP; for Turton UKIP’s main policy was to see an exit from the European Union which he described as “anti-democratic”. He spoke of the need for electoral reform and also proposed the abolition of fees for STEM students and the need to reduce the overall amount of students. He concluded by talking of UKIP’s belief in direct democracy.
Ollerhead then spoke for the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition; she noted that the group’s policies were flexible and differed across the country. She also mentioned the intention for a £10 per hour minimum wage, free education and the renationalisation of the railways and energy companies.
Finally was Winckle speaking for the Green Party; he emphasised that politics had the potential to be different mentioning the party’s interest in a higher minimum wage, free education renationalisation and the decentralisation of the EU. He mentioned how the Green’s saw Labour as having become too neo – liberal in their outlook.
Each candidate was then asked prepared questions. The first “What is the most important student issue?” quickly became a debate on whether Labour’s Ed Miliband was enough of a break from Tony Blair with Labour’s critics quick to denounce him as a copy of Blair. Other questions in this section of the evening concerned graduate jobs and unemployment, rising house prices and the perennial student issue; tuition fees.
On the issue of tuition fees Norman was quick to defend Labour’s pledge to increase maintenance grants whilst remaining critical of how his party had managed their policy to cut tuition fees. This increase was supported by Wilson who instead questioned the effectiveness in the decreasing of fees.
Particular heat appeared in the debate when it was highlighted that Megan Ollerhead was the only female on the panel on International Women’s Day. Ollerhead explained that the chair of the TUCS got her to take part as he believed there would be no other female candidate on the panel. She then highlighted the lack of women taking part in the recent YUSU elections asserting that there have been more joke candidates over the years than women. The panel then briefly looked at all female shortlists with Turton announcing that UKIP have 5 female MEP’s that were chosen without the need for such shortlists.
The debate then broke for 15 minutes before moving on to the open floor questions. I took the chance in this intervening gap to speak to some of the candidates about how the night had been going for them. Oliver Wilson said that he had found the debate to be lively and had been interested by the sorts of grievances raised. Mike Green was impressed with the amount of people who had turned out to the debate, he felt that the debate had been going well and encouraged people to get involved in the elections in general. Finally I spoke to Megan Ollerhead who told me that she was having a “whale of time” and that she loved the general atmosphere adding that the debate had been heated at times but it appeared that “no one was going to beat anyone up”.
The topics for the audience questions were wide ranging from cuts to essential services to the issue of rents, to increasing the electoral turnout. It was encouraging to see that each candidate seemed to have done their homework on their party’s policies which was important especially considering that URY had their own fact checkers sat beavering away at the back of the room. During this section I was able to pose my own question to the panel which provoked some fervour; I asked whether given recent events surrounding David Cameron’s refusal to debate on TV whether we should bother at all with the debates. Green responded by saying that people want an informed vote and that if Cameron does not want to show up then the channels should “empty chair” him. Wilson was quick to defend Mr Cameron saying that the debate were undermining as they focused on national rather than local issues. Debates amongst the panel on this question then centred around Mr Cameron’s insistence on a debate during the 2010 elections and whether the debate would simply become a personality contest.
At the end of the audience questions each candidate was allowed to sum up their party and why we should vote for them. Wilson started by saying that the Conservatives had created a strong economy that will have a huge impact on our lives. Winckle stressed that the Greens were focused on the future and the impact of global warming. Ollerhead presented the TUSC as an alternative to the inter party scrapping of the other groups. Norman reiterated that Labour were a party of opposition that could actually win. Finally Green emphasised the role that the Liberal Democrats had played in securing the recovery.
All in all the debate was a successful evening and a change from other recent pre-election debates on campus as it was left up to student societies to try and convince us of their party’s convictions.