Interview: DU Liberal Thinkers

DU Liberal Thinkers

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What are the ‘liberal values’ that you mention in your promotional material, that your society upholds?

Luke Hallewell, Deputy Chair of the DU Liberal Thinkers: The liberal values that we seek to uphold and support are tolerance for all economic groups, all races, in all areas of life. That’s tolerance and mutual respect for one another. Liberal values being also the principles of liberty and equality. So liberty being, freedom, freedom of speech especially. It’s a value we hold really dear and we believe that in a society one has the freedom to engage with one another, to be able to discuss their own opinions without feeling like they have to restrain themselves. Obviously some people have very different viewpoints from one another and it’s fascinating to be able to hear and understand such a broad spectrum of views.

When did the society begin?

It started this year, 2015, around the time of the election. The election really was such a major catalyst for our revival.

Did you have any particular motivations behind the foundation of your society?

We realized that there was no liberal society here in Durham. We understood that after the whole issue with the tuition fees, student popularity amongst the Liberal Democrats declined significantly just for one issue rather than all the other things the Liberal Democrats were fighting for. This includes increasing funding for mental health and free school meals for children but really the one issue was really blown out of proportion by the media. That unfortunately caused the former society in Durham to collapse. We decided there was still space for liberal voices in Durham. There’s a lot of people who are quiet liberals who are fearful because it’s a smaller party, it’s a smaller group. Why would people want to be affiliated with something that’s not part of the major establishment parties, such as Labour and the Conservatives? They have had a massive footing here amongst the students, so we felt there was a need for alternative voices. Especially after the elections (2015 UK General Elections) we saw the liberal vote absolutely slashed up here but also across the country. It was time to fight back. Sounds very corny, but liberal values cannot be allowed to disappear. It’s up to us to raise awareness of that, whether or not it’s a major society, just as long as people are aware. That’s vey important.

What does your society hope to achieve? What are its goals?

It’s still early days. I mean obviously, a lot of societies want bigger memberships. We also want more people to be involved with liberalism. Not the Liberal Democrats, liberalism, which is why we are the Liberal Thinkers, we seek to distance ourselves somewhat from exactly replicating the Liberal Democrats. We wish to cover more of the broad church that is liberalism. We want a greater membership purely to get more and more people involved. We want to be able to show people proponents of liberalism; we have some speakers coming up, this term: Sir Alan Beith, and Lord Shipley. I really respect them. All of this is so that people are aware that there’s more than just Labour and Conservatives. Eventually the aim is to have a consistent society set up, one that does not flounder after the original founders leave. We’re doing a good job already. We’re recruiting people in the year below. The ultimate aim is to have a North East alliance. Recently Newcastle and Northumbria universities have set up their own liberal societies. That has been partly inspired by GK, our chair, who’s been liaising with them quite a bit. This is all to bring liberalism back on the agenda and as part of the political debate.

What will this alliance between the universities bring?

It raises awareness of liberalism and the importance of liberalism in the country. There isn’t much of a liberal voice in the North East. The student body has been partially Conservative, partially Labour, and partially Greens, as politics has evolved, over the last five years especially. We want people to know that liberalism is also a valid school of thought. We’ll also give people space for free and fair debate, for conversation, without feeling that they’re going to be attacked by socialists, Conservatives, or even those who support UKIP. We want people to know that you can hold these values [of liberalism] and be proud of them.

Why do you think people are fearful to hold liberal views?

A large proportion of it is because of the Liberal Democrats and hence this is why we are the Liberal Thinkers, not the Liberal Democrats. A large proportion is also that liberalism has fallen into decline, not just here, across Europe. Nationalism is on the rise. People are scared. There is a lot of worry about immigration. It frightens me to know that if I want to say: “I’m a liberal”, people will associate it with radicalism. It’s not the case. It’s the case that, what is wrong with being tolerant, respectful, and having individual freedoms? There’s nothing wrong with that. There are so many liberals than there are understood to be but they’re just quiet because of the negative connotations associated with the Liberal Democrats. Also the party is small compared to the major ones, it pales in comparison. How is one voice going to change something? What’s the point? How is a small party going to change something? They can. They have done before and they can do again.

You mentioned the refugee crisis and immigration. Do you have a stand on the issue, as a society?

As a society, every single one of us holds internationalist principles. It’s David Cameron’s shameful response, of only allowing 20,000 [refugees] in until 2020, which accounts to about 12 a day. More needs to be done. These people are fleeing persecution. It’s such a terrible situation. Why more people aren’t being allowed in is astonishing. If this was happening here, you’d hope that other countries would want to support us. You know, we’re all humans on this planet. I think it’s such a no-brainer but obviously so many other people have diverging opinions. We want raised quotas but we also believe that the EU should take as many as possible. Germany is a fantastic example. It’s up to other countries to pull their weight.

What happens when a member disagrees with this position in the society?
We absolutely encourage debate. We’ve had people disagree with us on other issues so we debate and discuss. We don’t want to be aggressive. Something I was fearful of when helping to set up the society was that we would put people off because we were pushy or forceful. So we’ve made sure to encourage people to speak. Freedom of speech is liberalism. Even in the Liberal Democrat party, there are some traditional liberals who don’t support membership of the EU and are still there. We still hold internationalist principles, it’s just slight disagreements on bureaucracy of international organizations or the way that funding is allocated, rather than the idea of wanting to be immersed in multiculturalism.

How do you foster this debate?

So far we’ve had an official meeting amongst the exec because we were only ratified in June. For this term we have socials – events not just about frequenting bars. We’re looking into ‘Pizza and Policy’, where we can sit and discuss ideas of liberalism. I’ve always been fearful that in other societies, the exec is quite domineering. I want to be as inclusive as possible. We have speaking events, speech competitions, where people will be able to speak for three or four minutes at a time with a speech so they can say why they’re so passionate about liberalism, and certain specific areas that they care about. These speeches will diverge and we’ll discuss that but it’s all going to be within the general broad spectrum of liberalism. The hope is that the more people we’ll have speaking, the more people we’re listening to, the more we’ll understand.

You seem to have a negative opinion of David Cameron, but what do you think about Jeremy Corbyn and his values?

Corbyn is interesting. It’s far too early in his leadership for me to determine exactly what he wants to stand for. His support of certain things like Palestinian statehood is something that we also, as a society, share. Every state should be allowed to have self-determination provided it’s done in a fair and peaceful way, in a negotiated manner, with the support of other international players. We understand the oppression of Palestinians in places like Gaza and we can comprehend [Corbyn’s] point of view. Also prior to his leadership he supported, to some extent, electoral reform. We want proportional representation. The petition that was signed in support of this has gone unheard. In 2011 there was a referendum on the alternative vote but that’s not the same.

Let’s go back to Durham University. What is the biggest issue you see here that you think you can fix?

We definitely want more of a liberal voice. It’s frightening to think that some people here share the same opinions as Nigel Farage. It’s wonderful that they can express those opinions but we hope that with discussion they will amend them, even if slightly. Unfortunately their narrow-minded dogmatic views have the potential to hurt other students. Some of us (members of DULT) are affiliated with the local party and we go around Durham and we see racism, intolerance, xenophobia. It’s horrible and more should be done to prevent it. We’re still early on, we need to have our first meeting to find out what exactly we want to try and change.

You think UKIP is narrow-minded, but do you see yourself cooperating with other societies?

It will be great to just sit round a table and discuss where we stand on things. Labour and Conservatives are very broad parties and there’s bound to be some overlap. There will be members of those parties who have very similar views (with DULT) but will identify with them because of their parents, or their geographical area, or they are planning on being an MP. We’re looking forward to having multiple party meetings, socials, and time for debate. We have quite a few friends in Labour who we’ve been talking to. We want to bring political interest back to Durham for those who remain oblivious or wish to remain so with politics. All the parties need to work together to bring political interest out of people.

How are you planning to get students involved who have never cared about politics?

When we were at the Fresher’s Fair in Queen’s Campus, we were the only political party there, we were able to discuss a lot with people who weren’t genuinely interested in politics. We want to have a large presence in different events, at different colleges, to come around and talk. Often just by having a friendly conversation people realize their views affiliate with a party. I really like the idea of political awakening through discussion, just by being inclusive. This includes meetings in the streets, discussions on social media, Facebook, and we’ll soon be getting a Twitter account. You think one person can’t make a difference but if I get one more person to vote, one more person to want to be elected to a council or JCR, then I’ve made a difference to their lives. That’s huge.

How is the exec committee organized and run?

We have eight people. We have the Chair who sets the overall vision for the society and is due to manage the major issues within the society like membership, discussing the groundwork for meetings. The Deputy Chair is more involved in the day-to-day running, and smaller issues. I bring things to the discussion that maybe the Chair doesn’t quite see. We have an Honorary President for someone who has been involved in championing liberalism. They are appointed by the exec as a whole. We have a Communications Officer who is in charge of advertising the society, being the admin of social pages, but also tries to get speakers in. In the future we’d like Nick Clegg to speak and that would hopefully attract members of other parties and broaden the forum for debate. We have the Treasurer and the Social Secretary. There is also the Secretary who deals with the general administration of the society, and the constitution. This was so important when the exec met during summer over Skype. People keep their roles for one year and the next elections are at the end of the second term.

If you feel you want to get involved or even become a member then make sure to look for the DULT society on Facebook, Twitter, and around campus.

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