Last Saturday students occupying the library at Tremough Campus asked Truro & Falmouth MP Sarah Newton to come in order to receive a petition with over 1,000 signatures which condemned the cuts. Students used the opportunity to question her about the rise in tuition fees and the £81bn in spending cuts being made by the government.
Though the visit obviously did not lead her to denounce the cuts, it did present a clear idea of the scale of opposition among her constituents toward the government’s economic policy. Around 50 undergraduates and a couple from Truro College came to challenge her about everything from EMA to Cameron’s FIFA visit.
Her responses at the beginning were standard Tory arguments. ‘The cuts are necessary’ (myth), we need to ‘rebalance our economy’ (myth), we have ‘ran out of money’ (myth), just a few of them. But when asked about EMA, her response was both disturbing and ludicrous. I asked how the scrapping of EMA fits in with her vision of so-called ‘compassionate conservatism’, to which she replied that it was not being scrapped (when it is facing over a 90% cut) and that most people on EMA abused it and shouldn’t be receiving it. She claimed it was ‘very poorly means tested’ – a claim that students who have tried to apply know is completely false, as applications have to be checked by the appropriate tax agencies. EMA helps thousands of students go to college, and without it, many from poorer backgrounds simply won’t be able to go.
She also said she ‘didn’t have an opinion’ on Trident funding, despite being an elected MP with a responsibility to at least have a vague idea about appropriate spending.
As the debate went on, she became more defensive, and somewhat patronising. Of course, MPs have time constraints, but by the end her constantly looking at her watch gave an indication that she could not handle the discussion, eventually leaving because she ‘had to be somewhere’. When she said she would respond to any unanswered questions via email, I had to add that she had not responded to my email sent on the 18th November asking her to vote against the rise in tuition fees.
Ironically, the Tory society’s ‘counter-protest’ against our meeting only served to boost our numbers, and the false-conscious, pompous remarks they occasionally interjected with from the background were dwarfed by the overwhelming indignation in the room about the cuts to education and the rest of the public sector.
The discussion was a valuable exercise in scrutiny and accountability. The Sarah Newton visit was invaluable, because now the action over the next few months against fees and cuts is wholly justified – because when MPs ignore the concerns of ordinary constituents, the argument must be taken to the streets.