Inequality is the worst thing about Britain today, Andrew Smith says. He is quick to point out that food bank use has increased from 41,000 annual visits under the last government to over one million in 2014, and criticises the “economic recovery” seen under the Tories that has seen “tax cuts for millionaires” at the same time as “hundreds of thousands of people cannot afford food”.
A former student of St John’s College, Smith has represented Oxford East since 1987, when he took the seat from the Conservatives in a victory which, according to The Guardian’s Michael Tempest “heralded the start of Labour’s comeback among the southern working-class voters which had been lost to them in the Thatcher years”. He also served on Oxford City Council between 1976 and 1987, and became Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in 2002.
Smith tells me that the most pressing local issue in Oxford East is housing. “Oxford is now the least affordable city in the country for housing”, he says, “many residents – including of course students – are being ripped off, and I am very pleased that Labour’s housing review has recognised Oxford as one of the cities that should have the ‘Right to Grow.”
On the topic of students and young people, Smith reiterates Ed Miliband’s policy to cut tuition fees to a third by September 2016, as a “first step toward a fair system of student finding”. “I signed the NUS’ pledge to vote against any rise in tuition and have kept it, unlike Nick Clegg who spoke to students in Oxford two weeks before the last General Election, promising to scrap tuition fees altogether.”
Discussing the hot-button issue across university campuses, Smith describes freedom of speech as “extremely important, in an academic or in any other context”, though he does not see freedom of speech as under threat here in Oxford. “A University should remain a place where all kinds of arguments can be heard, and if some wish to protest against those arguments that is also an exercise of freedom of speech.”
As has been widely commented upon, this election is not like others. With no party predicted to gain an overall majority on 7th May, national attention has turned to the potential coalition-arrangements, with the Liberal Democrats, SNP, UKIP, and DUP all considered potential coalition partners. Andrew Smith does not think there should be any deals with the SNP, and supports Ed Miliband’s claim that the only way to ensure a Labour government is to vote for one.