Portsmouth University Reader in Film Studies and media expert Deborah Shaw talks to Mark Wright about the significance of Brexit in this election, the options open to progressive voters and the suspiciously cosy relationship between the tabloid press and the Conservative Party.
Mark Wright: With the General Election coming up, what do you think are the important issues and who do you feel is best placed to tackle them?
Deborah Shaw: I remember when Tony Blair said his priority in 1997 was ‘education, education, education’; I feel that this time it is, ‘Brexit, Brexit, Brexit.’ I think the landscape has changed completely with Brexit, and that has to be the number one issue. Then you have the perennial concerns: education, the health service, other public services. And there are different answers for who is best to deal with each issue. In terms of Brexit, I would say the Liberal Democrats and the Greens are the best to reverse the damage Brexit has done by challenging whether we need to leave the EU. For the question of public services and the NHS, I think it’s Labour.
MW: Do you think the current electoral system is fit for purpose, and do you think it properly represents the will of the people?
DS: I don’t. I think that we are being lied to at the moment, that there is a lot of manipulation by the media. As long as you have the tabloid press effectively run by people that support the Conservative Party, I don’t think people will be given enough information to vote in an informed way. They are whipping up anti-migrant feeling, anti-immigrant feeling, rather than holding the government to account. I also believe that the current first past the post system favours the Conservatives in this media climate, although it has been good to see Labour doing really well in this campaign so far.
MW: The Greens and the Lib Dems have a policy proposing a second referendum on Brexit with the possibility that Britain could remain a member of the EU. What are your views on the prospect of a second referendum?
DS: My view is that we shouldn’t have had the referendum in the first place. I feel that people – myself included – weren’t educated enough on the issues. I think we were misinformed, to the extent that I’d question whether the result is even valid. I do agree with a second referendum but I would ensure it was very strictly run and that all information given to the public was fact-checked. In the referendum last June, there were lies about the NHS, lies about Turkey joining the EU. Confident statements were made without backing. Do people really think that with Brexit there is going to be more employment, or the economy is going to be better? If our largest trading bloc is taken away from us I don’t see how we can maintain our status in the world, or our economic health.
MW: Do you agree with plans by Labour and the Green Party to abolish tuition fees for university?
DS: That’s a tricky one. I am a university lecturer and I broadly agree with abolishing tuition fees, or at least bringing tuition fees in line with the rest of Europe. There is no reason why we should have the highest fees out of all the European countries. But we have to make sure that that doesn’t mean massive cuts for the sector. We must make sure that education is properly funded to give our students the experience they deserve. Germany abolished tuition fees in 2015 and they have an effective education system, and other European students elsewhere have a very good experience for a much lower cost than they do here. We’re going more down the American path; there are people in their fifties in the US who have just paid off their university loans. That can’t be right.
MW: The Conservatives are still slightly ahead in the polls right now. Why do you think that is?
DS: Well, they have the tabloids in their pockets. Or the tabloid owners have them in their pockets. I think they are creating a false patriotism which says that if you’re anti-Brexit you’re not patriotic. They have tapped into anti-immigrant feelings in communities that have been under-invested in for years. Theresa May is also taking the Labour Party’s language in order to appeal to a broad mass of people, especially that Labour pro-Brexit vote, but I don’t believe she is going to implement policies that will genuinely help the working class. I don’t believe she is going to adequately fund the NHS, or provide new jobs for areas with high unemployment. There are a greater number of people on the streets, and I have never seen so many homeless people in Portsmouth. Food banks are being used more than ever. The Prime Minister is coming across as a strong woman, but I don’t believe she has people’s best interests at heart. I think she will promote any policy to get herself in power.
MW: We have already touched on this quite a bit, but what do you think about the way that the media currently reports on politics?
DS: I think some of the tabloids are appalling and need to be held to account. They are guilty of outright racism, and they don’t hold the government to account. That is a problem. I generally find Channel 4 news to be much more balanced, and I listen to the World Service, which has more of a global approach. I’ve heard the criticism of the BBC but I don’t really watch BBC evening news as it is too “little England” for my tastes. We like to be able to trust the BBC, and I hope we can continue to do so. I have heard people I trust say that they are too unquestioningly pro-government, perhaps because they’re frightened of losing their license.
MW: Are there any contemporary politicians or political thinkers that you admire?
DS: The first people who come to mind are Nicola Sturgeon and Mhairi Black, who are both SNP politicians. I admire them; I think they are strong, articulate women. Wouldn’t it be great if we had someone like that running the Labour Party in Britain? I like Yvette Cooper, Harriet Harman. I think it’s a shame that David Miliband didn’t have his chance at the Labour leadership. He seems to be someone with integrity who is quite media-friendly, and could have a broad appeal. The same is true of Andy Burnham who is very articulate and comes across as genuine.
The Greens don’t get enough airtime; I think Caroline Lucas is very articulate, very good, and it always upsets me that UKIP get so much coverage and the Greens get so little. I did like the Greens’ approach in proposing a progressive alliance, and I really would support that. They have had some success in forming alliances using tactical voting, but I would have liked to have seen a new political formation with elements of the Greens, elements of the Liberals, and elements of the Labour Party. I thought that was worth looking at, especially with Brexit. I think such an alliance has missed its chance, though. A lot of my friends were feeling uncomfortable about Labour’s position on Brexit. It has been good to see their stance on protecting the rights of European nationals in this campaign, and a relief. I have European friends who have spent years working here, contributing to our society, and have felt let down and genuinely betrayed by the Tories, and were worried that Labour wouldn’t stand up for them.
MW: The Green Party have presented a policy to decriminalise the purchase and sale of sex; the Lib Dems are talking about raising £1bn a year in tax through legalising cannabis. Do you feel either of these policies should be considered by other parties?
DS: Yes. I think sex work and drug-taking are always going to happen, will always be with us. If we decriminalise the sale of sex and cannabis, we can regulate them. We can make sure that those women are safe, and we can make sure the drugs that people are taking are not lethal. I don’t advocate drug-taking. I have a son, and my biggest fear is that he will take drugs. But if people are going to be doing it you want them to be buying drugs that are as safe as they can be, not drugs that are cut with toxic elements. I’m against drug-taking but it is always going to happen and we need to be able to keep people safe. We can conduct proper studies at how it has been legalised in other countries, adopt an intelligent approach to drugs. There is a confusion that if you want to legalise something, you’re in favour of it. That isn’t the case at all. Regulating and legalising the sale of sex and drugs will help to stop criminal gangs. It is only the criminals that benefit from sex work and drug sales being illegal.
MW: Lastly, where do you see British politics going in the next five years if the opinion polls are correct and the Tories win?
DS: People always say that if you’re anti-Brexit you are all about doom and gloom, but you don’t actually want things to go wrong. You really don’t. You want things to go right for your country, but if we go ahead with Brexit and we leave the single market, I’m worried we’ll have a recession, and I’m worried that we’ll make foreign policy deals with countries with very unethical policies such as Saudi Arabia or the Philippines. We will have to align ourselves with some extreme Republican Americans. We could end up becoming an ethically bankrupt country that isn’t doing very well economically. That’s my fear.