Debating Society: Question Time with student political leaders

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On Friday, the University of Exeter Debating Society organised a Question Time event with a panel of student political presidents. The questions asked by the audience ranged from fossil fuel extraction to trans healthcare, but the evening began with a voting intention poll of the attendees showing a clear majority for Labour. Though by the end of closing statements, attitudes had shifted in an unusual way.

The panel consisted of the presidents of four of the five student political societies. The Socialist Students Society (SocStu) were invited but declined to partake, which led to an empty chair being put in place to represent them. The panel was ordered in an ideologically convenient manner: to the right of SocStu’s seat sat president of the Labour Society, Marc Sukumar; along from Sukumar was Lily James, president of the Liberal Democrat Society; on the other side of the Chair sat Alfie Carlisle, president of the Exeter University Conservative Association, as well as William Yarwood, president of the Libertarian Freedom Society.

The event began with a question from the president of the Debating Society asking the panel about the atrocious state of trans healthcare provision. The two left-leaning society representatives blamed years of Tory austerity for decimating the NHS into its current state, whereas the right-leaning panel members used this as an opportunity to call for a radical overhaul of the state health service and the introduction of free-market reforms. Whilst making one of his arguments, Carlisle exclaimed: “Human rights aren’t real — they’re a Blairite invention!”

Another question came from the audience, this time about what the panel would use any additional public funds to improve. Yarwood passionately argued that the money ought to be given back through a tax break and that almost all public services should be defunded — even proposing the privatisation of the police service because “it wastes time arresting people on Twitter.” Sukumar echoed a former leader of his party when he said that his priority is so important that he’ll say it thrice: “Education, education, education.”

The next debate concerned that very institution and included some interesting thoughts from across the panel on how to improve higher education in Britain. Carlisle argued that the Student Loans Company should be abolished and that tuition fees should be set at markedly different rates for different universities and different degree subjects. Meanwhile, Sukumar argued that tuition fees ought to be abolished entirely and that the rates paid are extortionately high — especially for international students.

Later on in the evening, a question came from the audience that asked about the fundamental dividing lines of the panel: the role of government in society. Yarwood predictably argued strongly against all government involvement beyond the bare necessities to protect individual freedom. James countered him by arguing that in order to be free, one must possess basic social provisions: “You aren’t free when you’re going hungry. You aren’t free when you’re homeless.” She continued to champion government and claimed that it can empower individuals. On the issue of equity and social justice in society, Carlisle argued that “Life is unfair — get used to it!”

Other topics debated by the panel included the environmental crisis — during which Yarwood claimed that environmentalism was “socialism through the back door” — and the persistent scandals of sleaze affecting the Conservative Party. The final question was on monetary policy, it came from a member of Freedom Society and was so niche that only Yarwood was able to both understand and answer it. It was met with a response that called for the abolition of the Bank of England and a return to the gold standard.

The evening ended with closing statements from the panel members, which was an opportunity for them to promote both their society and their party. Yarwood advised attendees to direct hate mail at his Twitter account (@YarwoodWilliam). The post-debate audience voting intention poll showed some remarkable shifts that haven’t been seen in British politics for many years: Labour and the Tories were tied, with both receiving fewer votes than before the debate; SocStu and Freedom Society remained largely unchanged; while the success of the night was the Liberal Democrats who climbed from seventeen votes to an astounding forty-three, thereby clearly winning the debate.

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