Global Directions at Merton College, University of Oxford, held an election debate for parliamentary candidates running for the seats of Oxford West and Abingdon and Henley on the 11th of March. The debate, chaired by Dr Sergi Pardos-Prado, featured candidates Layla Moran (Liberal Democrats), Sally Copley (Labour), Alan Harris (UKIP) for Oxford West and Abingdon, and Mark Stevenson (Green Party), candidate for Henley. Notably, Conservative candidate and the incumbent MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, Nicola Blackwood, did not attend the debate. Topics of discussion were immigration and the economy from the perspective of European Union membership.

The Candidates

Layla Moran (Liberal Democrats) is the daughter of a Christian Arab from Jerusalem, and a British EU Ambassador. She has lived across the world in Belgium, Greece, Ethiopia and Jordan. She is a physics and mathematics teacher. Currently, she works in delivering exam preparation courses for International Baccalaureate students with an Oxford-based social enterprise.

Sally Copley (Labour) currently works for Oxfam, having spent most of her career campaigning for charities such as Stonewall, Shelter and Save the Children. She also co-chaired the End Child Poverty Coalition and led the Enough Food for Everyone IF campaign this year.

Alan Harris (UKIP) was adopted as prospective parliamentary candidate by the party’s Oxford West and Abingdon branch in July 2014. Thereafter, he was elected as Branch Chairman.

Mark Stevenson (Green) was the candidate of the Green Party for Henley in the 2005, 2008 by-election, and the 2010 General Election. He also ran as a candidate for Witney in the 2001 General Election. Stevenson is a former educator, having taught mathematics and ethics. Currently, he works as an organic farmer.

Immigration and the NHS

The debate on immigration focused on EU migrants and their access to welfare benefits. Harris (UKIP) claimed that immigration is causing major problems, from schools to hospitals, and especially housing, despite the £20 billion net contribution the UK has received from the EU migrants between 2000 and 2011.

Moran (Liberal Democrats) contested Harris’ view, stressing that the movement of labour is not the equivalent of benefit claims. Recalling that automatic eligibility for benefits was a mistake made by the Labour Party administration and corrected by the Coalition, which added a three-month work period that must preclude claims. ‘Blaming EU migrants is, frankly, fantasy’, added Moran.

Copley (Labour) stressed that ‘UKIP is not taking the heat of this debate’, adding that EU migrants are being exploited in the UK. She added that a Labour administration promised more control over private landlords and a higher minimum wage.

Stevenson (Green) argued that ‘immigration is a symptom of a more fundamental underlying problem’. He quoted a report by University College London, demonstrating that between 1994 and 2011, EU migrants made a net contribution of £4.4 billion to the UK economy, while that of British residents was £591 billion. Stressing the importance of freedom of movement, ‘all of us could become migrants; the way we treat migrants should be determined by how we wish to be treated if we become migrants’, he added.

These points were extended on to the NHS. ‘The NHS would collapse if we pulled out of the EU. We are sleepwalking our way into an NHS crisis’, said Moran (Liberal Democrats). In direct opposition was Harris (UKIP). He argued that exiting the EU would curb ‘benefit tourism’, and £3 billion from the EU budget would be transferred to the NHS.  Harris added that UKIP is not against doctors and nurses coming from the EU, but that the UK should train its own.

The Economy

The debate on the economy stressed that the EU is Britain’s greatest market. Copley (Labour) stressed that business associations are scared of leaving the EU.  Harris (UKIP) objected, claiming that a Britain outside the EU would be able to make trading deals similar to the Commonwealth that would be hugely advantageous. He also argued that Britain would not be disadvantaged in Europe, as the European Trade Agreement would remain in force.

In strong opposition, ‘how do you know?’ asked Moran (Liberal Democrats). Harris claimed that Britain has far more influence than it did over the last thirty years. Pointing to the examples of Norway and Switzerland, ‘if we left the EU, of course we would survive’, he added.

However, Moran was not convinced; ‘we do not know what happens when you leave the EU. Nobody has done it before’, she said. She highlighted the red tape that would come with renegotiations with the remaining 27 members of the EU, as well as the amount of uncertainty that British businesses would endure.

Stevenson (Green) added that although the fiscal aspect of an exit would be neutral, the costs of negotiating new trade deals, as well as the loss of trade that would result would make the effect of exit fiscally negative. Nonetheless, he was sceptical of the lobbying ability of multinational corporations, as well as the EU commission, the unelected part of the union. ‘There tends to be a bit of a revolving door between politicians and businesses. One week you’re one and the next week you’re the other’, he added.

Stevenson also touched upon agriculture, stressing the benefits of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). He argued that the removal of benefits received under the CAP would lead to a 10 per cent increase in the prices for food produced in Britain.

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) agreement was also debated. While Moran (Liberal Democrats) claimed that TTIP brings more benefits than costs to the UK, Stevenson (Green) argued that TTIP benefits large multi-national companies, whereas trade agreements should benefit people living in countries, not companies. He also highlighted the dangers of the independent judiciary that comes with TTIP, given that companies are able to claim loss of profits due to national legislation, and receive compensation for those losses, as the current case of Canada shows.

Finally, with regard to tax dodging, Stevenson reminded the panel that the Green Party was the first to sign the Tax Dodging Bill that is being suggested today. He warned against closing one loophole, only to open another. ‘What is happening with these loopholes? They are looking for these loopholes, seeking to find ways of avoiding tax. This is very much a cultural thing. We are a part of it’, he added.

Moran (Liberal Democrats) objected to the view that the Coalition has not tackled tax dodging, stressing that closing loopholes has been a priority of the current government. Copley (Labour) criticized the Conservative Party for receiving a £10,000 donation from a tax dodger. ‘George Osborne doesn’t remember where the tax dodgers are and who funds the Conservative Party’, she said.

Britain’s Power in the EU

Moran (Liberal Democrats) claimed that the decline in Britain’s positions in the EU was due to the rightward move of British politics over the last ten years. ‘UKIP has not done service to Britain. Neither have the Conservatives by moving to the ultraright’, she said.

Copley (Labour) agreed, questioning UKIP’s behaviour in the European Parliament. ‘There is not much correspondence coming from the EU. We have to do a better job of holding our MEPs to account’, she added. Defending his party; ‘most of our MEPs are in Europe every single day’ responded Harris.

Election Forecasts

Oxford West and Abingdon is a marginal seat, which was won by the Conservatives with a difference of 176 votes compared to the Liberal Democrats, their closest rival. The most recent Lord Ashcroft poll from September 2014, shows the Conservative Party leading with 38 per cent compared to the Liberal Democrats’ 30 per cent in Oxford West and Abingdon. Henley, on the other hand, is a very safe Conservative seat. In 2010, the Conservatives won with 56 per cent of the vote, compared to the 25 per cent gathered by the Liberal Democrats, who came second.

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