A continuation of the last post on the blog, click here to read the first part!
Lisa: A lot of the students we asked today said they didn’t know your vote on gay marriage.
Ellie: Yes, they asked ‘ask him why he said yes’, ‘ask him why he said no’. How did you vote?
I felt I couldn’t support the legislation as it was for a very simple reason, which is we’re signatories to the European Court of Human Rights, and my read of the legislation says it would make it more likely for a successful challenge for religious institutions being forced to marry. Any individuals could go through. I went from the starting point of, why would you not want to extend rights to every group? And I come to the position that is; it would be ironic that you would abridge the rights of religious institutions and individuals to extend them in another group. That’s a very difficult thing to square off. So I took the view that to not vote for the legislation was the right way through. That’s a bit of a nightmare because obviously it frustrates everyone. The hundreds of people that got in touch with me and said I want you to vote against this legislation. The handful- honestly the handful- who got in touch with me and said I want to vote for it. And ultimately this is politics right? You don’t do what is always popular, you do what you think is right in that situation. I appreciate it isn’t the right situation and it looks like you’re sitting on the fence. But for me, the right decision I felt to make was to say I’ll start from the position that if I can vote for this I will and I feel like I can’t, so I’m abstaining on the legislation. It’ll go through with a massive majority, go through to the Lords and probably get picked apart but it will be passed into legislation.
But I don’t want to be in the position 5, 6, 7 years down the line when Imams, religious leaders, church leaders are facing all sorts of challenges in the European Court of Human Rights and say actually I spent on that moment. Because although it’s really important that we have a view on what’s right and what’s wrong in terms of extending those rights I think actually it’s really important that we uphold the role of religious faith as well. It’s not about legal rights. I would’ve voted for civil partnerships, I think they’re one of the greatest achievements of the last labour government. Because it’s wrong to prevent people from accessing their legal rights but at the same time what we run the risk of doing is creating a hierarchy of minorities in which religious faith is right down the bottom and I worry about that, as someone of faith actually but of someone who represents a town of loads of faiths and of none. These things look really easy and simple when you come to them first of. There is an easy path through where people don’t shout at you but actually I think it’s really important to do what you think is right.
Ay: See, I thought you voted for it. I think you’ve met [a fellow student] Isaac Beevor in church and he said how he thought ‘If he’s a Christian how can he vote for gay marriage?’
What I would say to that is I know Christian MPs who voted for the legislation okay? And I don’t necessarily know their views theologically. But what we try and do in all honestly is a build a society where we think there’s the common good for people. I know Christian MPs who voted against it and Muslim MPs who voted against it and those that abstained. You know, this is a matter of conscience. What I will say that I think a lot of people don’t realise is that I was very instrumental in making sure that it remained a matter of conscience within my own party, at a great deal of cost to me personally. But I felt that was the most important thing. So there’s the freedom to decide for individual MPs as a result. You’re not going to please everyone all the time but at least you make the decision and try and justify it with what you know. So for me, not voting for the legislation is a big deal but I think it is the right thing
Q: One of our peers was wondering when you make decisions do you bring your faith into it, or do you try and separate the two? What do you think most MPs try to do? Bring them together or separate it?
I don’t think you can divorce any of your experiences when you become an MP from the decisions that you make. That the fact I grew up here in Luton, became aware of the world in the early 1990s, big Tory recession that we had which we’re responding to. I can’t divorce that. That taught me a lesson around when times are tough you can’t leave people to sink or swim. Equally, my Christian faith informs my view of everyone that I have met. I think people are made incredible. I think we’re great individuals, each of us whether we’ve got faith or not- regardless of our circumstance. It’s one of the reasons why I’m a socialist actually. But I know humanists, who say one of the reasons why they’re a socialist is that because they’ll walk away from that fact which is why I don’t think you can divorce it. Why is gay marriage considered a more faith relevant issue than child poverty. Why I get people of religious faith jumping up and down over abortion for example but will very rarely get in touch with me about some important horrendous changes in the benefit system. For me it’s all part of the same thing. It’s very very rare that you come across an issue and say ‘well obviously I will decide against this but because I’m a Christian I won’t’ It doesn’t work like that. I think some bits our problem in that we don’t communicate that very well. It’s really hard to give you an idea of the daily challenges that face an MP and the decisions to make. Some of it is just the challenge of the baseline perception that you vote the way you’re told. If you’re a Christian you must be a nutcase because we live in a secular society and you’re going to make all sorts of crazy decisions. I just don’t think from my experience that that’s the way it works. I think you bring in all the different influences that you’ve had and go on having. And that’s why for me it’s really important to be local, that you don’t become really disconnected and rarefied, you live amongst the group of people that you represent and hear their views day in and day out. I think that’s the biggest thing you can do to try and keep those views hopefully as relevant as you can. My faith informs my politics, but my politics informs my faith as well. The fact that we do it as a community together is a massive deal.
Q: What would say to voters who are so disillusioned on Labour’s policy on Europe that they would vote UKIP?
It’s a really good question because it’s got two parts to it. The first part is the reason why people are voting UKIP is about Europe and I’m not sure that’s true actually. I think if you look at the polling, there are three things going on, particularly from people who are switching for Labour to UKIP which isn’t a big deal in Luton at the moment but could be I’m free to admit.
Q: So do you think that’s linked to policy on Europe, so that they’re not separate?
I think they’re related but the polling certainly suggests that the group of people they’re most concerned about aren’t people moving freely from the EU but from other countries. Now I think there’s a job for us to challenge that and to say “now hang on a minute, there should be evidence around this?” because I think controlled immigration has a massive part to play and has always had a massive part to play – not just here in Luton but beyond. The third part is this general sense of “the three major parties don’t have a clue what they’re doing” and we feel upset about that and we feel frustrated about that and the political class that we have nothing to do with is remarkable the number of people that voted LibDem in 2010 – the most pro-European party in that election– are now voting UKIP, who are the least pro-European party. I think you have to ask what is going on there? I think it’s what people crudely call a protest vote and I think you have to take that seriously. You know, professional politicians are viewed as part of the problem and not part of the answer.
Q: Do you think people are entitled to this protest vote?
I think people have the right to vote however they want and I think, you know, for example I opposed the vote on alternative vote actually when that referendum came through. One of the reasons was the idea behind that is that it’s not you know… it’s a complex thing to put into words. It’s the idea that just voting because a way of expressing a preference instead of passing a vote. Who am I to judge the reason why people are voting in that way? We’ve got to respond to it and the way to respond to it is not the way David Cameron did by shifting further to right and you know, taking more and more of UKIP’s policies. The way to respond to that is to be a genuine centrist party and to fix the economy. So what would I say to those people tempted to support UKIP? First of all, it’s entirely your vote to vote however you want, but what I would say is, is this a credible party of government or is the biggest issue in British politics right now how you fix the economy, how you get growth going, and how you stop these stupid cuts that are coming through? If you believe that actually you’re into an economic argument. You’ve got an ideologically driven, thatcherite government that believes you cut away and you’ll get growth – well, we’re three years in and that’s not working and there’s no evidence that it’s going to. Firstly, you need a party that believes you can get growth going from the centre out and without hurting people in the same way, and that’s the Labour government. If you vote UKIP then you’re basically voting for the Tories on steroids, erm, you know, don’t believe the hype around this one issue.
Q: But don’t you think it’s linked to other issues too?
Yeah, absolutely. You’ve got a tory party, or certainly a tory leader that says I’m for an in/out referendum on Europe but I would campaign for us to stay in. Okay well that’s fine, but if one of the reasons we have pressure on school places and the like is because we have people coming in from Eastern Europe and you support that, what are you gonna do about it? You know, from a practical view, what are you going to do? Here in Luton, in terms of cohesion around school places, around the appropriate level of funding that we need? And there’s no evidence they have an answer to that right now. I agree these issues are linked but just don’t believe the hype. Cameron has said he’d vote yes. There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors going on and for me, the EU is a distraction from the primary job of politics right now which is to fix the economy and make it work for people whose wages are being depressed and whose cost of living is going up. As a result of these benefit changes, 200,000 children will be pushed into child poverty and we have child poverty in this town running at 27% – it’s a scandal and I see no evidence of any thinking surrounding “how do we fix that?” but I do see a lot of evidence around “we have to make these cuts there’s all these scroungers on benefits…”
Q: What would you say to the argument that Labour bred Welfare Dependency?
I don’t buy it, I just don’t buy it. If you look at the proportion of our welfare budget that’s spent on the Dole queue, on unemployment benefits, anyone know it? There are 2.5 odd million people that are unemployed and 2.5% of our Welfare Budget is spent on unemployment.
Lisa: Most of it is spent on public sector pensions…
Most of it is spent of pensions, actually, across the board, so the old-age pension would be about 50%. There is a proportion spent on Public Sector Pensions absolutely, but it’s not as high as you might imagine. Tax Credits are a big part of that but actually those are what have lifted so many people out of child poverty in the first place and the problem is the rhetoric doesn’t add up to the numbers. While I would always prefer an economy that is working well in the first place, when you’re not redistributing money, actually the idea that 2.5%, you know squeezing the crumb of people who are already struggling to get by, erm, is the answer to getting this thing going? I don’t think it is. I think getting people into jobs is the answer. I think that when youth unemployment is so high, the decision to scrap the work problem for example is crazy but that’s what they did because they thought it would just be alright, and now they’re having to introduce something again. You know, the jobs guarantee we had in place which said after six or twelve, or 18 months that if you didn’t have a job, you would have one is really short sighted but they did it because they thought it would get the growth going, and it hasn’t and people are paying the price for it. The answer to welfare is not, I’m afraid, to slash away and what’s already there. The answer is to get people into jobs and I just don’t think there’s any other way they know how to do that.
Q: Okay, so one final question. I just had John before we came here [our politics teacher, and Gavin’s former politics teacher] and he loves you but the only thing he disagrees with you on is, and he said to ask you “How much worse does the Euro crisis have to get before we decide ‘okay, let’s get out of here?’”
Well, I’ve been having this argument with John for 15 years now so I doubt I’m gonna settle it in one answer. What I would say is, there are two distinct feelings going on. The first is a kind of generational thing right now. Clearly, we would have been wrong to join the Euro and I’m sure if you trawl back you’ll find me saying that I was quite open to the idea. I probably wrote an essay along those lines for John in A-Level Government and Politics, and that would have been the wrong decision. In terms of what having a seat at the table in Europe gets us, beyond this crisis right now, I think it’s masses, I think it’s loads. I think frankly, our country has to decide where it wants us to stand in the world. Is it with America? Well I don’t think we would sit very well as the 51st state, and I would have problems, particularly with their foreign policy, it’d be a real issue for me. Do I think it’s part of the heart of Europe where we can shape it? I think you can look at the stuff on climate change for example which people don’t realise is done in blocks, together. We’re part of a block that’s going to go out and sit with many of the Asian and African countries, you know, there is a massive issue in the Euro zone to which we are not part. If you look at the crisis economically though it’s begun here. The tories and Libdems say well obviously we’re part of the Euro crisis and there’s a demand crisis there and you’ve got unemployment over there well that’s fine but in that first year they came into power the economy was growing, they introduced massive cuts, all the confidence went and we went back into recession and then a year in the euro crisis kicked in and was a problem there. In other words, if we were not part of the EU right now we would still have a crisis of demand which is hurting our people really really badly, because of the economic policies across there. Now in the long term, if there’s a referendum on the EU, if there’s a majority Tory government next time apparently we’re going to have one – it’ll be interesting to see if that happens. I’ve got my doubts if I’m honest, we’ll have the argument on if we should be in or out but if you really ask someone on the dole aged 18-24 what their main concern is they’d say “I want a job” and I’m sorry, you can’t blame Brussels for that. The crisis that is there is one that’s made in the UK under successive governments. We didn’t regulate the banks properly and actually that led to a massive problem for us, but then we didn’t respond the crisis well under this government. One final thought because I think it really links in, if you are over 60 right now, you know times are tough for you and you face economic problems and standards of living being squeezed and the salary you had before is the one you have right now. If you’re a young person, your health and pregnancy grant is gone before you’ve even been born, at primary level our needs £76m across the town, we got £4m and that’s just basic needs across the town. Every secondary school is going to be rebuilt and that’s been scrapped which has a massive effect on education and on construction, at 16 your EMA’s gone, at 18 your fees are at £9,000,000. At 21 when you come out of university how certain are you that you’re going to get a job?
Ellie: Not at all
Okay, so I guess what I’m saying is two things. First of all, to say that if you pulled out of the EU that would be the answer or if you slashed away at regulations as the right-wing Tories are saying, that would be the answer, or, if you cut the benefits that would be the answer, right, is for the birds. The answer is to get people back to work and to get the economy growing and we know how to do that. We’ve done it before, this has been the slowest recovery in 100 years and this is very nearly the first triple dip recession ever and that’s not a recession made in Brussels, that’s a recession made in Downing Street. One thing to say is that young people have been disproportionally hurt under this government and there’s a very clear reason why. It’s because we don’t vote. One in four people under 24 vote; 3 in 4 people over 60 vote. There’s a responsibility on politicians to reach out and be accessible and make politics as real as possible for people, but there’s also a responsibility on young people to get involved. It’s why I get involved and it’s why I encourage other people to get involved. I believe the future belongs to those people who turn up.
Lisa: Do you believe lowering the voting age would help that?
Yeah, I do. I really strongly do. I think you should be able to vote at 16 and, I was quite agnostic on it. The thing that made me change my mind was when they cut EMA because that was such an easy cut for them to make. “They don’t vote, and they’re not going to vote for us anyway, so let’s cut it.” It’s a cut which will cost 5 times as much as keeping it in place would do, they’ve even done an economic analysis on it, decided it would cost that much in terms of people who wouldn’t go to Sixth Form or College, plus the cost of additional support would be five times as much in the long run – but it was a short term solution, and they wanted to have a bit of a pot shot – Michael Gove. The belief that we need to stop showering these young people with money that they spend on, you know, beer and cigarettes or whatever. Actually, when I went to Sixth Form one of the reasons I probably didn’t do as well as I should have done was because of my attendance. You had to get 98% attendance to be on EMA and so you get a better experience out of it as well. You know, it’s frustrating. You see all these stupid cuts coming through causing trouble in the long-term but this government thought it would be fine in the short-term and I just don’t think it will be. We’ll see what happens next election but I’m going to be standing again and asking people to put their trust in me and, if nothing else, hope they’ll think I’m trying to do the right thing under difficult circumstances. So yeah, that’s me.
Thank you so much.