Student Protests and the Election

In response to the recent General Election results, students at the University of York arranged a protest campaigning against the proposed cuts by the new majority Conservative government, as well as for electoral reform. A heated debate ensued as the decision to conflate the issues of austerity and electoral reform was called into question. Such a decision was, undoubtedly, a poor one.

Electoral reform is one of the most pressing political issues facing us today. There is no denying that it is ludicrous for UKIP to gain the third highest share of the vote, and yet only have one MP. Similarly, the Green Party gained a little under 4% of the vote- under Proportional Representation this would have merited 24 MPs, but under the current system they possess only one. In short, a five-party system is attempting to be born in a system designed for two.

However, to achieve electoral reform, or any wide-ranging reform, requires a mass movement. Sadly, the York protest did precisely the opposite; in conflating anti-austerity and electoral reform, the protest lost rather than gained support. Electoral reform is a cross-party issue, and those who voted Conservative or UKIP would have understandably felt alienated. Indeed, even I, despite believing in both its anti-austerity aims and electoral reform, felt as though I could not attend because it did not offer representation to all those who believe in electoral reform but identify with the right wing.

I spent a long time debating with myself as to whether I had made the right decision. After seeing a short video of the protest on Facebook, I realised I had probably made the right choice. One of the speakers argued that we should expand beyond our left-wing bubble and appeal to UKIP and Tory voters. Such statements are essential in order to achieve the mass movement required for change. Unfortunately, the very nature of the protest, with its conflation of two issues, seemed to me to have already defeated that sentiment. His sentiment was also lost due to his subsequent remarks that “it starts by hating the Tory scum”. This kind of rhetoric, shouted in the middle of a busy street, is completely destructive. Such inflammatory comments merely make those they attack feel alienated- a feeling which is not conducive to engagement in constructive debate and discussion. Respect should be shown to all groups, no matter how different their ideologies may be; it is the only way support can be built to achieve change.

A distinction should be made here- working with others is not the same as capitulating to opposing ideologies, or compromising your own opinions. Rather, it is about remaining open to alternative views so they can be engaged and tested in a clear and open debate, and it is about working together to achieve common goals. If some Conservative and UKIP voters, for example, want to change the electoral system, then those on the left who share that aim should unite with them to achieve that common aim. If we want change, co-operation, but not capitulation, is the key.

Unfortunately, it seems as though, on all sides of the protest and election debates, things have become increasingly inflammatory. There was recently an article in The Telegraph describing “the Left” as “bad losers”. These assertions do not help the debate. Firstly, it is incredibly homogenising to describe all left-wingers as “bad losers”. Left-wing is a broad term which denotes a wide range of beliefs; many on the left may not have even regarded a Labour victory as a victory, and certainly many would not regard Labour as a “left-wing” party in its current incarnation. Furthermore, not all left-wingers are advocating condemning those who voted Conservative. It is also important to remember that hurling insults at those who disagree is not simply some sort of epidemic confined to the left-wing. For example, J.K. Rowling received abuse on Twitter attacking her ideological position because the Conservatives had won the election. All sides have blame to take for precipitating conflict.

To those who supported Labour, or at least would have preferred them to win, we must accept that they have lost the election. Of course, it was an unfair contest in the sense that there was unfounded scaremongering about a Labour-SNP coalition, and there were certainly press attacks on Ed Miliband. However, ultimately, Labour lost through their own faults. They failed to offer a radical alternative and did not maintain a clear position.

Many will argue that radical policies are the path to destruction, but according to the polls, the British electorate were, in many ways, more left-wing than the Labour party. 70% believe in re-nationalisation of rail, whilst Miliband gave a half-hearted offer of the state competing against private service providers. Similarly, 68% believe in bringing energy back into public ownership, but Miliband pledged only an energy price freeze. Ed Miliband should be congratulated on being an improvement on previous leaders Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, because he was more reflective of the views of the electorate; however, he did not make his position clear enough.

The appetite for an alternative exists, but it is a question of engaging in a constructive and open debate, in which we work with other groups to achieve change.

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2 thoughts on “Student Protests and the Election

  1. I think the problem with this line of argument though is that there are two ways in which one can argue for the same position and in these cases the forms of argument will be incompatible despite having the same outcome. Take the example of the EU. UKIP wants the EU to disappear because they don’t like migrants being able to freely move, sanctity of the nation blah blah. Many many leftists want the EU to disappear as well, but on the basis that it is a way for international capitalism to move capital around easier, thus eliminating the certain pragmatic problems that had inhered in the global capitalist system beforehand in terms of nation-state legislation etc. Now, without getting into a discussion on the EU in particular, it is obvious that UKIP and parties like ‘No to EU Yes to Workers Rights’ are categorically not going to be able to form some kind of alliance. It’s just not possible, and really, that’s the kind of structural relation the politics of this demo has to right wing calls for PR.

    There are arguments to be made for the Left in favour of PR and arguments for the Right, but there is a fundamental disjunct; the Left argument calls for PR as a road to fighting austerity given the current political landscape, whereas the Right (UKIP, here) call for PR so that they can carry out horrid things. Yes, we call for the same thing, but that does not mean that a platform organised by one will be a reasonable platform on which the other can express their views. Did we want it to be open to UKIP supporters? No. It’s a PR march, yes. But it’s a PR march which is raising arguments for it in fundamental opposition to austerity and that is not a platform UKIP can get behind. Should we have broadened it to include UKIP? No. Arguing for PR is worthless if one’s arguments do not betray what one wants it for. It was explicitly stated by speakers that PR is a stepping stone in the fight against austerity and there is no shame in getting up and saying that in the knowledge that UKIP might feel a little miffed that they weren’t able to say something too.

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    • I understand that there is a clear difference in beliefs of parties of the Left and parties of the Right (for example, UKIP and the Conservatives). However, I do feel that if two groups come together over a common aim (regardless of the motivations behind such an aim), it constitutes a very powerful message that two ideologically opposed groups are able to co-operate over a particular issue. Therefore, I regard that form of co-operation as being something which is far more likely to grab the attention of the government, policy makers and society as a whole. We live in a democracy, and democracy works on the basis of numbers. For instance, a party gets a majority and forms a government. Thus, the way I see it, the larger you make your movement the better, hence why I think including those who believe in an issue, regardless of their motivations is of great importance. As for PR being a stepping stone to austerity, I see it more as an extension of democracy. It’s perfectly possible that this extension of democracy would result in ending austerity, however, for the precise reason that PR offers the chance to reflect the views of the electorate more adequately than FPTP I believe that the electorate should be properly represented in any campaign for electoral reform. Also, it must be said (and I did neglect to mention this in my post) that UKIP supporters aren’t necessarily pro-austerity; polls have found that 8 out of 10 UKIP voters want nationalisation of energy, and this is also the case for the railways.

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