Invited by the University of Birmingham Conservatives, controversial backbench MP Jacob Rees-Mogg visited campus on Friday 9th March, speaking about his views on free speech, housing, mental health, Russia and tuition fees to a packed lecture theatre of around 300 students.Written by Erin Santillo & John Wimperis on 16th March 2018
Selly Oak Hustings Take Place At The Guild
On Wednesday 31st May, the Guild of Students hosted a husting with Selly Oak’s four General Election candidates
The husting was an opportunity for students to hear from and question the contenders of the Selly Oak seat. Unfortunately, the current MP, Labour’s Steve McCabe, was not in attendance but was represented by the Brandwood Councillor Dr Barry Henley. The other candidates standing for Selly Oak were in attendance, with Sophie Shrubsole for the Conservatives, Julien Pritchard for the Green Party, and the Liberal Democrat candidate David Radcliffe.
The debate was chaired by Guild President Ellie Keiller. The format allowed each candidate to open with a five-minute speech. This was followed by a discussion of topics directly affecting students, the Higher Education and Research Act, how Brexit will affect students, and the student housing crisis and housing policy. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, housing was not covered by a full debate but was addressed by some questions.
The Labour Party
Dr Barry Henley, representing Steve McCabe, opened proceedings by apologising for McCabe’s absence and then reading a speech presumably prepared by McCabe. He claimed Theresa May had only called this election (having promised not to call one) because the polls were ‘as good as they get’ for a Conservative victory. Illustrating the current crises due to cuts within neighbourhood policing, the NHS, education, and the impending prospect of Brexit, Henley went on to describe how McCabe has been tackling issues in Selly Oak specifically.
“'it would cost £11.2 billion to remove tuition fees and restore maintenance grants'
On Higher Education, Henley spoke passionately, saying that free education from nursery to university should be right, just as it is in other northern European countries. He quoted Labour’s estimate that it would cost £11.2 billion to remove tuition fees and restore maintenance grants, and justified it by saying that the economy benefits from university educated individuals.
On Brexit, Henley said Labour accepted that the UK was leaving the EU, but differed from the Conservatives in how they would approach negotiations. He warned against May’s use of empty phrases such as ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and said her claim that no deal would be better than a bad deal would be disastrous.
The Green Party
Julien Pritchard of the Green Party spoke second in the opening speeches. A UoB graduate and former student officer, he has lived in Selly Oak for over ten years and said he feels ‘proud’ to be a candidate for the area. His opening speech emphasised the need for political reform, noting that many people feel politics is not relevant to them. He closed by saying the three main things the Greens would tackle would be inequality, the NHS, and political reform.
“'free education for all would be possible under a progressive tax system'
Pritchard contributed to the debate on higher education with an assertion that ‘the Green Party has been the only party that has been consistently against tuition fees’ and would abolish fees and current student debts if they came to power. He also argued that free education for all would be possible under a progressive tax system, where the poorest contribute less.
In the debate on Brexit, Pritchard cited the uncertainty of what Brexit will entail as a reason for a second referendum on the terms of the exit deal. He also said that the EU was problematic and that he could sympathise with those who voted to leave because it was a chance to voice dissatisfaction with politics. He painted the Leave vote as an indication that people want political change and reform, one of the key Green policies that he also emphasised in his opening speech.
The Liberal Democrats
The Liberal Democrat candidate David Radcliffe also used his opening speech to stress the need for political reform, arguing that over 60% of votes in the Selly Oak constituency were effectively wasted in the 2010 election ‘because they were cast for candidates that didn’t win.’ In addition, Radcliffe also endorsed the lowering of the voting age to 16, arguing that one should be able to vote if they are able to get married and pay taxes. More controversially, and perhaps with his student audience in mind, Radcliffe said ‘something I strongly sign up to’ is the Lib Dem pledge for the legalisation and regulation of cannabis.
“'one should be able to vote if they are able to get married and pay taxes'
Discussing the Higher Education and Research Act, Radcliffe criticised how quickly the bill moved through parliament. He also criticised the cutting of maintenance grants and the introduction of fees to nursing courses. He said the Liberal Democrats were committed to reversing these enacted policies but did not state any figures.
A key promise in the Liberal Democrat’s manifesto is a pledge to hold a second referendum on the terms of Brexit, something that Radcliffe justified by citing the ‘simplistic’ yes/no style of the original referendum. Radcliffe said he would ‘paint quite a negative picture’ of how Brexit would affect higher education, saying it would result in a less diverse university and create holes in research funding. Birmingham universities received £25 million of funding from the EU over the last year, the bulk of which, Radcliffe highlighted, went to UoB.
The Conservative Party
Last up in the opening speeches was the Conservative candidate and another UoB alumni, Sophie Shrubsole. After a little bit of background about her experience in running two businesses, Shrubsole focused briefly on her aims for Selly Oak, saying she wanted greater investment to ensure job creation, and excellent funding for mental health provision locally. Shrubsole then emphasised the choice between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, reminding the audience that eleven days after the election the Brexit negotiations will begin. This narrative was familiar from May’s own campaigning for her ‘strong and stable’ leadership in Brexit negotiations.
“Shrubsole claimed that more people from disadvantaged backgrounds are going to university than ever before
Perhaps defending the Conservative’s record on higher education, Shrubsole claimed that more people from disadvantaged backgrounds are going to university than ever before after Henley had argued that applications were down. Neither Shrubsole nor Henley had supported their claims with figures, but according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, the proportion of students at Russell Group universities from poorer backgrounds had indeed risen from 19.5 per cent in 2004/5 to 20.8 per cent in 2014/5, but overall applications in the 2017 cycle have fallen by 5 per cent for UK students, according to UCAS. Shrubsole said she didn’t think having ‘free tuition is the right thing’ and said she didn’t think it was right that the system relied on ‘the poorest people in society subsidising my children.’
In the debate on Brexit, Shrubsole said she thought ‘being more positive’ about Brexit would be a good place to start. She did admit that it would be difficult, but that we need a ‘strong’ leader for negotiations. Arguing that Britain has a strong reputation for higher education, she disputed the fact that Brexit could alter this. Shrubsole also stated that the Conservative government have pledged to match EU levels of research funding up until 2021. Shrubsole also disputed the notion that Brexit was about ‘pulling up the drawbridge.’
Following the opening speeches and discussion of each topic, the audience then had the chance to ask questions.
One of the most heated question and answer sessions was over the absence of Steve McCabe. The student who asked where McCabe was, highlighted the fact that he had not been present at the 2015 general election hustings either. Dr Henley defended McCabe’s absence by saying that they were all frantically busy and that they were having to ‘split up’ what they could all do and get to, yet never said what it was that McCabe was doing instead of being at the Guild. Whilst answering, Henley was subject to some heckles of ‘where is he?’ from the audience.
Another interesting question from the audience was addressed to Shrubsole, and it questioned her ‘positive’ outlook on Brexit when the Conservative government has been promoting the need for austerity and cuts. The member of the audience asked, what would be different over the next five years, should the Tories remain in government. In answering, Shrubsole used the phrase ‘magic money trees’ to describe what she saw in the other manifestos, a phrase also used by Amber Rudd in the televised debates. She claimed that the Conservative manifesto was realistically costed, a claim met by heckles that it is ‘uncosted.’ Shrubsole also claimed that the Conservatives do not like to make these cuts, but that it is about being realistic. Henley argued against this by saying that Conservative cuts was part of an ‘ideological obsession’ to scale back the state.
“(Pritchard argued that) it was in Labour’s and the Conservative’s interests to make an election a two-horse race
In a question addressed to the Green and Lib Dem candidates, one student asked why we should vote for them and not vote tactically if this election is only about two people, May and Corbyn. Pritchard answered by saying that the problem is with our current electoral system, and that it was in Labour’s and the Conservative’s interests to make an election a two-horse race, which is why, he argued, that neither of them support electoral reform. He then used the example of Caroline Lucas’ record in parliament as for why one should vote Green, as it would offer stronger accountability. Radcliffe also said that a vote for the Lib Dems would offer a ‘radically different and strong opposition’ as compared to the current one offered by Labour.
The husting was an opportunity to hear from and challenge Selly Oak’s potential representative in parliament. That said and done, it is now up to the people of Selly Oak to decide on June 8th if they want to re-elect Steve McCabe for Labour, or opt for someone new.