How to lose friends and alienate politicians

Back when Wonkhe was just my side project, one of the jobs I had was working as Chief Policy Adviser to Shabana Mahmood MP, then Shadow Universities & Science Minister.

If you cast your mind back to 2013, you may recall that Ed Miliband looked quite likely to win the next general election. Work was going on behind the scenes to develop a policy platform and an agenda, ready to move from opposition to government.

Shabana’s job was made harder than it should have been, as two years previously, and in response to the Coalition’s hike in fees, Ed Miliband had promised to cut the new £9,000 fee to £6,000 in a political stunt aimed at giving the party a boost ahead of a conference season. Unfortunately, it had been calculated and announced at breakneck speed, without consultation in the party, let alone the sector. The shadow universities minister at the time, Gareth Thomas, was even caught off guard by the announcement and made his displeasure widely known before being sacked.

So Shabana was brought in to the brief, but it was made clear that £6,000 is staying… “Ed really likes it”. The problem was that the policy was hated in the sector because universities feared that the £3,000 gap wasn’t going to be made up from public funding sources (sound familiar?), plus there was the regressive impact on the repayment of lower fees that tends to mean richer graduates pay less overall – a fact that is so counterintuitive many MPs cannot seem to get their heads round it.

The truth was that it was a policy aimed at getting through a news cycle, not a fully worked up, costed, Whitehall-ready plan. Mood music, if you will. Our job wasn’t made easier by the slightly vague answer we’d been given about how the money would indeed be topped up (something about reversing a planned future cut to corporation tax and spending that money based on a hypothetical set of accounting principles that the Treasury will have adopted… maybe). The reality was that the detail didn’t matter – an incumbent Labour Treasury would have found a way of doing it and the sky wouldn’t have fallen in. This is not an easy sell to vice chancellors though, but that’s politics. People just make stuff up to get through the week, and figure out the details later – a fact so counterintuitive that many vice chancellors cannot seem to get their heads round it.

So with that in mind, we started our policy review into universities and science with a tour of the higher education sector, and began to meet the big names of the day. And this is where I quickly picked up some lobbying rules to live by.

1. Listen, as well as talk

At the start of every meeting with a university, sector agency or other sector stakeholder, Shabana or I would say something to the effect of “look, Ed really likes 6k, we know it has problems, the intention definitely 100 per cent isn’t to cut funding to universities, we’re not able to put this on the table today, but let’s work together on making the policy better if we win the election”.

Roughly seven times out of ten, the next 43 minutes would then be a seminar about why £6,000 fees would be bad for universities if the funding wouldn’t be made up. Which is stuff we knew already, and flagged at the start of the meeting that it would pointless to rehearse. This sends us a message that you’ve got nothing to offer on issues like student experience, quality, regulation, staff conditions or anything else we’re thinking about. You’ve counted yourself out of a genuinely wide-reaching conversation that we want to have about the future of universities and the role of a future Labour government because you came armed with one message, didn’t listen to what we said at the start and don’t have the creativity to adapt to your circumstances. In other words, it was a pointless meeting for us and so you’re not going to be invited back.

2. Be useful

You know that Labour Party policy review into universities and science I mentioned? Well, that was basically just me. I like to think of myself as basically intelligent with a rough sense of what’s what in UK higher education. But was I really going to be able to develop a complete universities and science policy platform for the Labour Party by myself? Clearly not. Simply navigating the shifting intellectual foundations of the party’s leadership on any given month was hard enough, let alone Everything That Happens in all of the UK’s universities, science and research infrastructure, and where it’s all going. (In fairness, we did get some help on the science policy side of the brief towards the end of time there thanks to a donation from a wealthy benefactor).

So we need help. Like, lots of it. So, why not use this lobbying opportunity to be helpful as well as impactful? If you’d like your ideas featured in future government policy (or just raised to the forefront by a mainstream political party), why not write them down in a way I can use in say…. the form of a speech, or an op-ed. You never know, it might actually be used and the idea might really happen and that seems more than a fair quid pro quo. “We’re playing with live ammo here” in the immortal words of The West Wing’s Sam Seaborne.

3. Politicians like people, not things

Most politicians, Shabana included, came into politics because they like, care about and enjoy interacting with people. It’s basically a prerequisite of the job. So it always amazed me when we visited universities and we spent the majority of the time we had there being shown square buildings and state of the art lecture theatre seats that had just been installed at great expense. I know Shabana’s eyes have glazed over, past everyday tedium, and gone straight to questioning her life choices, though as a great people person she would still be smiling and nodding enthusiastically, as I desperately searched for questions to fill the dead air: “is the green seat colour new as well or have the seats in this theatre been another colour…. in the past?”

Examples of things that might work better: a town hall style meeting with a group of students, staff or both, lunch with the senior team or anything else that involves human interaction and the use of one’s critical faculties. Food and drink is a plus.

If you really want to show us your kit, you better make sure it explodes dramatically, we get to fly it, drive it, chase it, ride it, or something else spectacularly fun, useful or memorable. The rest gets lost in the oddly-shaped cladded building of my mind.

4. Don’t patronise

The chances are if you’re you a white man in your sixties earning over a quarter of a million pounds a year (plus), running a £300m university with thousands of people working for you, a driver and all the rest, you need to at least accept the risk that you might come off as patronising to a female, Muslim politician in her thirties. This was a hugely damaging mistake I was sorry to see repeated on multiple occasions. And patronising isn’t something you can do a little bit of and get away with either. Even a little whiff of it can really stink out the wood-panelled joint. Putting aside Shabana’s profile, the recent spate of university ministers have all been young and far more inexperienced in the world of universities than a vice chancellor. I would bet any money that they have been on different occasions deliberately made to feel inferior in some way. Treat the person you are lobbying as an equal or risk killing dead a relationship before it even starts.

Incidentally, I also saw it work well, where senior people interacted with a high degree of emotional and political intelligence and knew how to build a lasting relationship. They got results and all it cost them was an ounce of self-awareness, a dash of humour and the price of being a decent human being.

I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe

It has often been said that universities are their own worst enemy when it comes to the world of politics, and I tend to agree. They do so much good in the world (my love of universities is why I founded Wonkhe), but they can also be maddingly alienating. Some of the pompous and grandiose behaviour I witnessed from “the other side” was a real wake up call about how the sector needs to get its act together when it comes to its political engagement. And since, we’ve had the Brexit referendum, the culture wars have ramped up and an era of genuinely more radical and hostile government policy than the sector ever would have imagined in 2013 has dawned.

It’s probably time to rewrite the rules of engagement. Join us for a one day conference on universities’ interaction with the world of politics on 16 May.

6 responses to “How to lose friends and alienate politicians

  1. A well-informed reader with a great memory has today reminded me of another occasion I just want to add here as it doesn’t fit in to any of the four lessons neatly but stands out as one of our most stupid interactions with the sector and something I had blocked out…the memory being so painful.

    Shabana and I were invited to a dinner in Central London with a group of vice chancellors – around 15-20, part of an organised grouping of them, in fact. One would assume this would be an opportunity for a valuable dialogue and we liked to use these opportunities to test ideas and get feedback, as well as build relationships. It’s not rocket science.

    Anyway, we arrive, sit down, Shabana introduces herself and the host of the evening (the head of the organisation that runs this group of vice chancellors) welcomes us and asks everyone to go around the table and introduce themselves before we get started. So far, so good.

    But then each vice chancellor took at MINIMUM five minutes, talking about all their various partnerships and new buildings etc. I watched as starters were brought and taken away… vice chancellor Y still talking about their new nursing school, mains brought and taken away… vice chancellor X now talking about their strategy for the REF… deserts came and went, introductions still going on.

    How does anyone think that we could have retained all this information, or thought that we would find it interesting or useful to hear it in this way??!

    All I could think was “please someone pour me some more wine”.

    And then finally, at the end of this marathon, we came full circle and had run out of time. Yes, the organisers new what time we would have to leave and it was about 90 minutes from arriving. But they allowed the night to be entirely dominated by the introductions bit! That’s only meant to take 2 minutes! There was no dialogue, no interaction, it was a totally pointless night that could have been really valuable with just a little bit of active hosting. But leave a room of c.20 vice chancellors to talk uninterrupted and YOU’LL NEVER GUESS what happens next….

  2. Yes, very familiar…now, just imagine what it is like for us staff at the coal face when our great and good – the VC and his entourage and disciples – visit the department; and all this without the wine to wash it down with. At least we get to play bull***t bingo once a year.

  3. Great article!!!! Also heard the frustrations of sector agencies and Govt with the over used “That’s institutional autonomy” without answering any questions at all.

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