In the run up to the 2015 General Election, Wessex Scene are interviewing the candidates running in all three Southampton Constituencies. Here, I interview Labour’s candidate for Southampton Test & its current MP, Alan Whitehead.
1. What will be your number one priority for students if elected?
That we stick to the idea that there should be a reduction in tuition fees to £6000 per year from the present £9000, and accompany it with changes to the grant system. That’s the commitment that the Labour Party has made and the task now is to ensure that it works properly over the next Parliament so that the next generation of students across the country can benefit from this, knowing what the issues are regarding payments and how the debts accrued can really affect people’s life chances.
2.So what message do you have for current students who will be unaffected by this proposed reduction in fees?
Well I feel desperately concerned that this is coming in 2016 but of course a number of students now will be leaving university with a large level of debt hanging over their heads. I think that additional work needs to be done regarding present debt for the future; for example ensuring that present student debts are exempted from consideration for mortgage applications, making sure that the arrangements for repayment are better arranged than they are currently; so it’s not just a question of reducing the fees, but making sure that the deals people are anticipating for the future don’t have some of the consequences that we fear they might under the current arrangement.
3. Opinion polls are currently showing that Labour and the Conservatives are virtually neck-and-neck. Is that due to the fact that the coalition haven’t been as bad as you party has suggested, or Ed Miliband’s incompetency in delivering the Labour Party’s message?
Well, if you look at previous elections where a party has lost power, it’s extremely rare for that party to be anywhere near parity in the next general election. So I would reverse the question; how is it that David Cameron managed to lose an election in 2010 that everyone pretty much thought that he was bound to win, having then been in power with a coalition, he’s in the dire position that he is in considering the likely outcome of the polls at the moment, where Labour could be the largest Party in a hung Parliament? That is virtually an unprecedented situation, and reflects what a mess the previous government made of their five years in power.
4. You mentioned that Labour look like they could be in a position to be the largest party. What are your personal views on any potential collaboration with the SNP?
Well, clearly the idea that there should be any formal coalition if there isn’t an overall Labour majority is wrong, as of course in England you cannot even vote for the SNP! Clearly, the ‘fluff’ around this has been based around a false premise, and manufactured scare stories. If you want a Labour government, and you’re in England, vote Labour. It’s as simple as that; and indeed there’s no magic formula which suggests that Labour cannot win a majority of seats in England, even if the results don’t go as well as they could do in Scotland. In any event, there would be no prospect of a Labour/SNP coalition after the election.
5. Of course, the SNP are anti-austerity, and Labour are, to an extent, pro-austerity. What are your personal views on Britain’s debt problem?
Well, I don’t think it’s fair to characterise Labour as pro-austerity, or even partly pro-austerity. The Labour programme clearly sets out an end to austerity as we know it that the Conservative government has been putting forward; for example regarding the recent budget discussions concerning £12 billion cuts in welfare and a further £3 billion in local government, which are Conservative economic programmes. This is not in the Labour programme at all. We would make sure that the current account is balances, but would achieve it through a combination of efficiencies and taxes in areas such as an increase in the top-rate of tax and the mansion tax, as well as an increase in spending on the NHS. Under Labour, we would have a different trajectory of how the books are balanced. Lastly, we would also invest in the future in areas such as infrastructure and the services, where appropriate.
You would accept, however, that whether David Cameron or Ed Miliband gets into No. 10, cuts in public spending would have to be made.
There will be some cuts.
Which is Austerity.
So you are a pro-Austerity party?
Well, the definition of austerity is not just a question of what any government ought to be doing right now, although apparently the Conservatives don’t buy into this, which is making sure that the books are balanced in a fair and equitable way, and that the books are balanced over a period of time using a variety of fair and equitable instruments, none of which is in the Conservative programme; and if you do that, then that by definition means that you’ve actually moved away from what are the austerity politics of this present government, which is a very different scenario to what has been painted in front of us by the Conservatives.
6. Moving on, you’ve been an outspoken critic of the Channel 4 programme Immigration Street, created as a response to the rise of immigration as a political topic. What was your main objection to the programme, and do you accept that there are some people, especially those who are going to vote UKIP, who are concerned about the level of immigration to the country?
My main objection was the idea that the programme-makers (who had previously made the widely-criticised Benefits Street) had essentially stuck a pin in a map and decided they were going to make a programme called immigration street. They highlighted Derby Road as the location for this programme, with no indication that they were going to make the programme in any different way to Benefits Street. Even worse than this was the final programme didn’t at all reflect what the programme was going to be about. I actually did a door-to-door visit and 95% of people were against the show, with a main idea coming from the residents that because you weren’t white, you were victimised as ‘immigrants’ who had just come to the road, where in fact many of those on the street were in fact 2nd, 3rd or even 4th generation residents.
Of course, it’s quite right that people should be concerned about immigration, it’s also right however that the discussion you have on immigration has to represent all sides of the process, also the proper facts of immigration have to be established – we have substantial controls on migrants who are coming from outside the E.U, and 1 million British people are living within the EU itself. However, we don’t yet have a system that effectively counts the number of those coming in and out of UK so one thing that needs to be done urgently is to fund border agencies properly – which is something that a Labour government would do – to pay for additional staff in order to have proper border checks at border agencies, so you know who’s coming in and out of the country. This would help, amongst other things, the debate over immigration in this country in a factual way. Also, we know there’s exploitative gang masters who utilise migrant workers for cheap labour, thus depreciating wages in this country. We would also ensure that benefits are not paid to those who come over to this country to work for two years. This I think would make a lot of difference to what the contours of immigration would look like, but it would be based on a proper recognition of the complexities of the immigration debate, rather than a knee-jerk response.
Finally, I would just like to add that any ‘closing of the borders’ reaction would be met with a reciprocative gesture of 1 million emigrants being returned.
7. Finally, are you confident of being re-elected?
Yes, but it requires hard work – we have to win it, not just assume that it has been won, you have to win it vote-by-vote and person-by-person.
A full list of all the candidates running in Southampton and Winchester can be found here.