By Bethany Dawson
Being the town where in the 2019 General Election, Labour lost 11.3% of their vote share whilst the Conservatives retained their long-held seat and Liberal Democrats increased their vote share by 15.3%, one might suggest that Guildford is an odd choice to launch a leadership campaign for the Labour Party. Nevertheless, on the 17th of January, Emily Thornberry officially launched her campaign in her hometown of Guildford, at the Guildford Waterside centre, stating that “when I thought about where I wanted to actually formally launch my campaign for Labour leadership, I just wanted to come home.”
Thornberry’s choice of venue and town can also be seen as a nod to the call for Labour to begin rebuilding the community relationships that once underpinned the core values of the Labour party. The room in which we were sat was, frankly, very unimposing, and in fact housed the The Samson Centre for MS, a Guildford based charity supporting people living with MS. Thornberry choosing this specific venue also meant her donating to the charity, as verified by Jackie Payne, the centre manager. There was an odd juxtaposition between the loud sound of cameras, either from local or national press, or from Thornberry’s campaign, and the weak microphones that donned the stage. This was a community event, with primary school style chairs and engagement with the local, and very dedicated community.
Reflecting on the latest General Election and the recent history of the Labour Party, Thornberry stated her pride to have “serve[d] in Jeremy Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet for the past four years, and to [have done] so with unwavering loyalty to him and his leadership, especially at times when he was under pressure.” She does also, however, describe the results of the General Election as a “painful and crushing defeat.” Moving forward, she emphasised the importance of further investment in our smaller towns and cities in England, Scotland, and Wales, and also unequivocally stated that “antisemitism in our party must be rooted out.” Adding on what should be kept the same, Thornberry said that “[The Labour Party] must remain radical when it comes to our plans to tackle inequality and stitch back together the welfare safety net.”
The campaign launch was, as assumed to be true for the vast majority of political events, not aimed towards students, and students – aside from student activism – were not mentioned by Thornberry until the mic was passed to Incite. Given that a significant amount of student support for Labour relies on their promise to abolish tuition fees, I was curious about Thornberry’s commitment to that policy, as well as about the ways in which this would affect international students. When the subject was raised, she said that she will “keep the commitment on tuition fees” as “we need to make sure the population is as well educated as they can be, and we cannot ever stop people being educated because they’re afraid of falling into debt.” She also referred to the matter of high tuition fees as a matter of “intergenerational injustice.” Taking a patriotic tone on the note of supporting international students she said: “as shadow foreign secretary, I’ve met people who in their most formative years spend their time in Britain at university and fell in love with us, and actually it does a heck of a lot of good when they go home and they continue to have that strong link with Britain.”
After the crowds had dissipated and Thornberry had formally launched her campaign with a speech closed by a standing ovation, I asked her two further questions on her potential leadership and commitment to students. The first question raised the issues that come with the growing marketisation of higher education, highlighting the fact that – in a profit driven sector – students at the University of Surrey face overcrowding that has now led to the University medical centre not taking more patients, and has once seen students having lectures in the nearby Odeon cinema. So I asked her about what she would do to support students in such situations. Her answer was frank, stating that “I didn’t know it was quite that bad, and my honest answer is I would like to know more.” Her answer both highlights the possibility for politicians to admit the gaps in their knowledge – something she stated was an important quality in a leader – and also the lack of discussion around the issues of our current marketised system.
The second question I asked Thornberry was on the commons refusing the negotiate the future relationship between the UK and the Erasmus scheme post-Brexit, and what her opinion was. Her five second long head-shake preceded her saying that it is “so short sighted, and reckless”, and she described the Erasmus scheme as a “great scheme, great for internationalism, and [The UK] get a huge amount from it, so do other countries.”
Having Thornberry come to Guildford was a gesture to state that the town – despite being strongly pinned as a Conservative stronghold in the past as well as for the foreseeable future – will not be forgotten by this candidate. The community is obviously special to her, and the sharp differences in socio-economic status in the area are highly applicable to the Labour ambition.
For all those tired by the constant unrest in politics, you should not expect a break anytime soon, with the Labour elections not concluding until the 4th of April, we’ve got a while to go until contest ceases.