On Tuesday 3 May, former Foreign Secretary and Labour leadership contender, David Miliband, met with University of Sussex students and staff for a question-and-answer session. The event, held in Arts A, filled a lecture theatre to capacity.
More than 200 people filled the Asa Briggs 1 lecture theatre and many people who turned up for the event were asked to leave due to overcrowding.
Since losing the contest to become the leader of the Labour Party last September, Miliband has visited several universities including Staffordshire University and the London School of Economics, where he lectured on the reasons why centre-left political parties are currently losing elections across Europe.
The discussion was chaired by Tim Bale, Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex.
Miliband spoke on world affairs for around 15 minutes. He was then asked questions that covered a wide range of topics including the Alternative Vote (AV) referendum and student tuition fees.
The event was held the day after the shooting of Osama Bin Laden, which Miliband said should be “rejoiced.” He added that Bin Laden’s assassination provided a massive opportunity for Obama and that it would now be difficult for his Republican rivals to call him soft.
This led Miliband to discuss the relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan. He acknowledged that the war in Afghanistan had failed to deal with international terrorism and that, in fact, it had “incubated al-Qaeda”.
He also spoke about Libya and agreed with a member of the audience who suggested that western intervention in the recent ‘Arab Spring’ had been inconsistent.
The Labour MP went on to discuss a number of other topics including Britain’s relationships with both India and Russia, human rights in China and the ascendancy of right-wing groups in Europe. In regards to the latter, he described some work he had been doing with a group called ‘Searchlight’ who have been important participants in the anti-fascist campaign.
David Cichon, who will be replacing Cameron Tait as President of the Students’ Union later this year, asked Mr Miliband about his thoughts on raising university tuition fees to £9,000. Miliband responded saying: “I think it’s right that graduates pay towards some of the cost of their education. But it’s in the national interest that we have a strong higher education sector and the proposed fee is being driven by the obliteration of the teaching grant.” Miliband himself is an Oxford graduate who studied Politics, Philosophy & Economics – as did his brother after him.
Miliband went on to answer further questions from students on various issues. One question concerned the viability of political decisions being outsourced from Parliament.
Miliband agreed that it was wrong for MPs to vote on the conditions of their own pay but insisted that, despite current scepticism surrounding British MPs, it was vital for the democracy that politicians retain responsibility.
He rejected the idea of transferring powers to the Bank of England or the Office for Budget Responsibility.
The most confrontational question he received came towards the end of the session when a student, angry about the lack of support for interns, challenged the current trend of “slave labour”. Miliband suggested that he didn’t want to see the formalisation of all areas of employment and argued that the current system enables interns to be taken in with the minimum of fuss. He did concede that any placements that lasted longer than three months without pay were unfair.
When asked about the future of the coalition government in Britain, Miliband predicted that the union “will last at least another four years.” He added: “The thing about the coalition is that the internal divisions have overshadowed the discussion of real issues.”
When questioned about AV he alluded to his defeat during the Labour Leadership contest, saying “I’ve got more reason than most to be sceptical of some of the drawbacks of AV.” His younger brother, Ed Miliband, defeated him in becoming party leader last year under the AV system.
However, Miliband urged all those present to vote in favour of the proposed changes to our electoral system. He argued that “AV allows you to vote with your heart and your head.”
Miliband finished the hour by asking all those who were considering a career in journalism to create an intelligent debate. He told the room that what the British press are currently doing is turning our politics into a soap opera and that what the public really crave is a proper political debate.
After the session, Miliband told the Badger that he was delighted with the response he had received saying “the turnout was excellent and so were the questions.”
According to Miliband, the large turnout last Tuesday proved that “Enthusiasm in politics is alive and kicking at Sussex.” On whether he was expecting a more confrontational occasion, he said, “I am aware of Sussex’s reputation as a radical university but I think students are more polite these days.”
When asked about whether he thought this was to do with students taking less interest in politics than when he was at university he said “I don’t think there is any evidence for that. When I was at university, the Labour or Conservative clubs weren’t the centre of peoples’ lives and I don’t think they are today either.”
Before leaving campus Miliband met with students in Library Square and was interviewed by UniTV.
David Miliband recently announced that he was going to step back from frontline politics and concentrate on his constituency, South Shields.
Speculation is rife about his possible return to frontline politics in the future. In the mean time, however, he has been looking to follow the path of some his contemporaries, such as Michael Portillo, and has suggested going into television presenting.
Watch the video interview with Miliband at: www.unitvlive.com