Balancing elections and exams: Student politicans
An interview and a pint with Kieren Brown, a student candidate in the upcoming local elections
On the 5th of May, the local elections for Southampton Council will be held. A lot of you will already be eligible to vote, but a few students are even standing as candidates. What is it like to balance University work and an active political campaign? What sort of issues does a student face when compared to locals? What sort of pubs do they drink at? We spoke to Kieren Brown of the local Green Party to find out.
Joe: Hi Kieren! Thanks for meeting me.
Kieren: No problem!
J: So, Kieren. You’re a second year student, and you’re hoping to stand in the upcoming local elections too. Where exactly are you targeting?
K: I’m the local Green Party candidate, and I’m targeting Portswood.
J: Cool. So is there a particular ward in Portswood, or…? I don’t really know how it works!
K: No, Portswood is just the one ward. Southampton is split into eighteen different wards, spread across three parliamentary constituencies.
J: That clears it up! Right, so. Obviously it’s a bit more unusual for a student to stand for the council than a local. Do you think your status as a student is a disadvantage in any way? Like the locals may feel you’re less likely to understand their issues?
K: That is actually where it differs from me – I’m born in Southampton, I’ve lived here my whole life, so I think I’d represent the local people quite well. Plus, I’d bring in a younger voice to the council, which is primarily made up of people in their thirties, forties, fifties… I think a young, passionate voice would make a real difference to everyone.
J: That actually leads onto my second point! As a second year, you’ve got to be, what… nineteen, twenty at the most? Do you think your age could potentially hold you back?
K: I don’t, even though I think young people are the most under-represented group in politics pretty much everywhere. I mean, in Parliament, the youngest MP ever was elected at the last General Election, Mhairi Black for the SNP in Scotland, and she’s done a fantastic job representing all her constituents. [Mhairi is 21.] So I don’t think… I think my age gives me a different perspective on issues that a lot of other people won’t have. And it’s an opportunity for young people to feel less disadvantaged in politics – look at George Osborne’s latest budget and it’s all geared toward pensions, very little to do with young people. And that’s because we’re one of the smallest voting blocks. I think that I could help start to address that problem.
J: Just out of interest, do you see the older residents of Portswood voting for you?
K: I think they will. As I said, I’ve lived around Southampton for the last twenty years, I think I know the area and its’ problems quite well. So people of all ages face the same issues with things like transport, people being marginalised in the city – they affect everyone. And I think I understand these problems better than someone who could be, say, forty or fifty, and have moved to the area quite recently. And that is important – it’s not just about my age, or about improving diversity in terms of age. I know the area, and have done for a while.
J: Fair enough. Moving slightly away from the political side of things. You’re a second year, what subject do you? And if you don’t mind me asking, how many hours a week is it?
K: I study environmental science; it’s about forty hours a week, including the reading.
J: Forty!? I do History, I barely do four. Right, well… I think a lot of people, they can sometimes find it hard to balance that work life at University. There’s the old adage, you’ve got University work, social life, and going to the gym, or part time work or whatever, and you only have time for two out of three. But you’ve got to keep up a political lifestyle outside of this, as well. Do you think your political activity has taken much of a toll, or has it been quite easy to balance?
K: I think it’s been reasonably easy to balance my uni, my social and my political lives, because a lot of my friends follow politics quite closely. I develop my politics alongside my peers. But it does get challenging, I mean I’m the co-chair of Southampton University Young Greens, on the committee for the South-East Young Greens, and I’m the co-ordinator for the Southampton Green Party, so… I do cover quite a lot of political roles! So it does have a bit of an impact, I’ve left it quite late on certain deadlines… but no, not huge overall.
J: Obviously you’re standing as a representative of a much larger party. Have many people backed you up on this, or is it possible to run a campaign largely by yourself?
K: You definitely receive a huge amount of support coming from a larger political party. You could stand as an independent but I don’t think you’d receive anywhere near the number of resources or personal backing I got. Sometimes it gets quite challenging, establishing yourself, putting yourself out as a young politician, and it really helps to have people behind you, some of whom have years of experience being councillors. It’s so much easier when you’ve got people who know what they’re doing!
J: Fair enough. Bit of a tough one, here… you’re standing for the Green Party, which is traditionally seen as being quite far left, and very diverse. Do you think you would serve well as the face of the party despite being – if you don’t mind me saying – a white lad? Would you be able to bring that stated aim of diversity if elected?
K: I don’t think I’m the most diverse person in terms of, the traditional, you know, those ways… but as someone who is bisexual, that does give me another view on life, as I know many of my friends as well as myself, do not identify as straight. So my friends and I, we’ve gone through some very, some… things personally, some of my friends have been very personally affected by it. I think I’ve got a perspective on diversity, not necessarily in the traditional, “I come from a minority background”, but through my sexuality I certainly think I can understand things, discrimination and prejudice that say, a straight individual might not get.
J: Awesome. Bit of an easier one now, I’ll give you a minute! What would you say is your favourite club or pub in Southampton?
K: You say easier, but I don’t really go to many clubs, they’re not really my thing haha! My friends and I are more the stay-at-home type, but of all of them… probably the Hobbit, is my favourite.
J: I do like the Hobbit. So you say you’ve got the local contacts side of things down, but would you say you’re particularly in touch with students outside of, say, environmental science? Have you held many meetings, surveys, anything like that to find out their opinions?
K: Well, I’m the co-chair of that Green society, so I’ve got a lot of contact through that, as well as I’m a member of the Debating Society, which pulls in all kinds of people across all political spectrums. No surveys or anything like that, but I have informally talked to quite a lot of people. You know, see how they feel about certain issues, see what issues they really, sort of bring home to students… one that I found that was extremely common that people mentioned is the issue of homelessness within the city, and the fact that the council are trying to punish the homeless, the police are able to fine those caught begging up to £100, move them out of areas. It’s an attempt by the council to try and crack down on con-artists, but homeless charities, even ordinary people think it’s too wide-ranging a solution to deal with a very specific problem, taking a solely criminal law approach to a very diverse issue. It’s completely inappropriate and a huge overreaction, and people, students have really hated that. The people I spoke to are pretty disgusted, and that’s the sort of thing I’d fight.
J: This one I’ve got to be very careful with my wording. I’ve got friends who have voted all across the political spectrum, and for all that students are stereotyped as being quite left-wing and progressive there are definitely people who are staunchly conservative, or at least quite right-of-centre. Your party is very left-wing, so are there any big policies or issues you can think of that all students can get behind?
K: Yeah, I think a big one is multiple occupancy homes. They’re in a very bad condition nationwide, never mind just Southampton, and there isn’t a huge amount being done to tackle that. Obviously there’s not a lot I can do on the Council, I’ll only have so much influence, but it is one of the things I’d do everything I could, that I’d fight about. That and trying to protect things like local, small businesses. Like when that big Sainsbury’s opened up, it really hurt a lot of local businesses like greengrocers, local shops, that kind of thing. I think most students would rather shop locally, but, well…
J: It’s just too convenient. I’m definitely guilty of that.
K: Yeah, haha.
J: Moving onto student politics. We had the big SUSU circus pretty recently, and obviously student politics is a good way for people to cut their teeth before potentially going onto proper politics later in their lives. What was it that persuaded you to… jump in at the deep end, without first experimenting with student politics?
K: Well I’ve been into politics since I was about 16, like really following it. I was captivated by my party, I really liked their platform. I voted in the last General Election when I turned 18, and I remember just sitting there and thinking ‘I’ve been talking about politics every day’. A lot of people were interested in the run up to the General Election, but I realised every time I spoke about it I was speaking in favour of Green politics. The best way I saw, to really push those issues and make sure the stuff I cared about was implemented, was to get involved myself. So I started working with the local party, and by the time I was ready to start getting involved in student politics I was already a candidate for the local party anyway. And, fingers crossed, maybe a councillor haha!
J: Yeah, that’s interesting, it’s certainly not the traditional path. Just to wrap up – completely irrespective of how you do in the election, do you think you’re likely to want to go into politics when you’re older? Or do you think you’re more likely to follow something more directly related to your degree?
K: I think, knowing what I know right now, I’m probably more likely to follow the environmental science route, with politics as a side thing. More like a passion. The reason you go into politics shouldn’t be because you want a job in politics, it should be because you want to represent your local community as well as possible. I’d love to be an MP, or an MEP, but in the future. I think I’d rather get a more normal job first, and then if I start again in politics it would be because I want to represent my community, my friends and family.
J: Sounds like a plan. Thanks for meeting with me Kieren!
K: No, thank you, it was fun!