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La La Land: not a normal by-election, not a normal university town

As UKIP surge in Labour heartlands and a by-election is called in Stoke, Martin McQuillan makes a plea to the town he worked in not to send Paul Nuttall to the UK Parliament.
This article is more than 7 years old

Martin McQuillan is a former Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Innovation) at Kingston University, London.

The first column I ever wrote for Wonkhe, back in November 2014, was entitled UKIP and the University. It was about the Rochester and Strood by-election in which the Conservative MP, Mark Reckless, resigned his Westminster seat to stand again under the colours of UKIP.

In that inaugural blog, I quoted Louis MacNeice’s epic poem ‘Autumn Journal’ in which he recounts his experiences of campaigning against an Appeasement candidate in the Oxford by-election of 1938. At the time it looked as if Nigel Farage’s UKIP might do electoral damage to the Conservative Party in southern seats but leaving the European Union was still on the distant shores of political speculation.

I closed my article with these words: ‘There may be a few more elections to fight with UKIP, which like Louis MacNeice in Oxford may be jobs that will have to be done ‘without success or glory’, but the interests of our universities are inextricably linked to turning the tide on the political agenda that gives UKIP is momentum’.

This month sees two Westminster by-elections caused by the resignation of Labour MPs, in Stoke-on-Trent Central and Copeland. Both are scheduled for 23rd February and are being targeted by UKIP as potential wins. UKIP’s latest leader Paul Nuttall is their candidate in Stoke.

These by-elections are significant for Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party, but they are also important for higher education in this country. Stoke Central is a university seat, containing the main campus of Staffordshire University and its student body who live in the rented terraced houses that spread out behind College Road.

Let me declare an interest; my first academic job was as a lecturer in English Literature at Staffs. I know the city well and when I worked there in the late-nineties local government consisted of 40 councillors (39 Labour and 1 Independent Labour). It would have been hard to imagine a more secure Labour stronghold outside of Scotland.

Twenty years later, Stoke poses an existential threat to the Labour Party, following the resignation as MP of Tristram Hunt, a biographer of Friedrich Engels, a former academic, and one time Shadow Secretary of State for Education. He has decided that his future lies in a museum, the Victoria and Albert on Exhibition Road in South Kensington.

In his early forties, Hunt is retiring from front-line politics, imagining that there is little prospect of a Labour government anytime soon and no career to be built on the backbenches in a Brexit parliament. The chances of making a difference are limited.

Jamie Reed in Copeland has opted for something less toxic than the Parliamentary Labour Party and re-joined the nuclear industry at Sellafield.

Their departures present a stiff test for Labour, already hopelessly divided over Brexit and increasingly irrelevant to the national conversation. To lose one or both seats may send Labour into a death spiral with a resignation-prone, deselection-angst PLP impotent to act against a divisive leadership shuffling towards electoral disaster.

There will be those who write to me about my alleged repetition of ‘mainstream media’ myths about Jeremy Corbyn. However, when it comes to the Labour leader’s claims of wide popular support we should heed the words of Marx in the seminal text, Duck Soup, ‘who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?’

An ICM poll for The Guardian on 23rd January put the Conservatives on 42% and Labour on 26%. At this point in the last parliament, the same pollster had Ed Miliband’s party on 39% and David Cameron’s on 35%. Mr. Miliband went on to lose the General Election.

However, now is not the moment to quibble over the inadequacies of Corbyn. They are as plain as the award-winning beard on his face and those who chose not to see them are unlikely to be persuaded by a Wonkhe column. The bigger issue is what defeat for Labour in these by-elections would mean for politics in the UK.

We no longer live in normal times; we have entered into La La Land. Last week the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly to pass the Brexit bill despite an obvious majority of MPs know it is not in the national interests.

This was on the back of the Prime Minister’s toe-curling visits to Presidents Trump and Erdogan, prostrating the UK in search of any kind of a trade deal. Think of this threesome as an axis of awful.

Donald Trump has decided to rule by Executive Order, rushing through a programme of banning immigrants, attacking universities, defunding PBS, selling off national lands, building pipelines, undermining healthcare, outlawing reproductive rights, reversing LGBT advances, promoting military adventurism, tearing up international treaties… The list goes on.

There is a word in the political vocabulary for such a situation, beginning with a ‘d’, and it’s not democracy. The US President is behaving like an imperial potentate with disregard to the American constitution and international law. Perhaps, his aeroplane should be renamed Rogue One.

It puts the unpopularity of the TEF in perspective. However, it is indicative of the state of our own nation that a British government is actively seeking to present itself, with unseemly haste, as the Trump administration’s best friend.

Under normal circumstances, it would be a risky strategy for a UK Prime Minister to court such an ally, but we do not live in normal times. As Home Secretary, Theresa May gave us ‘go home’ vans and illegally deported tens of thousands of students.

She was initially relaxed about Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’ before belatedly realising what a bad look it was to be seen figuratively and literally holding hands with an administration that seems to understand The Handmaid’s Tale as a blueprint for government.

The residual moral outrage in parts of the British press, not a functioning opposition, forced a partial volte-face by the Prime Minister. As an indication of how dysfunctional that opposition is, the most likely outcome of Copeland, according to the bookies, is a Conservative victory. UKIP are outliers at 10/1.

It would be the first time a sitting UK government gained a seat in a by-election since 1982. Everyone knows what happened next in the 1983 General Election.

In Stoke, the bookmakers have UKIP and Labour running neck and neck. You can imagine what an addition to human happiness it would be to have Paul Nuttall join this Brexit Commons. Nuttall like the current MP for Stoke is a historian, of sorts.

During the campaign for the UKIP leadership, his LinkedIn profile boasted of a PhD in History from Liverpool Hope University in 2004. The institution did not become a university until 2005 and did not award doctorates until 2009. He put the news of the completion of an unfinished degree on his page as the work of ‘an over enthusiastic researcher’. It is just a pity he was not such an eager researcher himself.

Although we are all now supposed to have had enough of experts, there is something curious about the average Brexiteer’s yearning for academic credibility. Ian Duncan Smith famously claimed a non-existent degree from the University of Perugia. Boris Johnson likes to impress with Latin. Dr Liam Fox using his title surely isn’t just to avoid confusion in the event of a medical emergency on a UK trade visit.

This is in sharp contrast to the intellectual vacuity and dishonesty of the Brexit project that started in an alliance with xenophobes and nostalgics and now places itself in proximity to the homophobes and racists of the American ‘alt-Right’.

By aligning the UK with Trump in search of the crumbs of an America First trade policy, Theresa May risks separating the Anglo-Saxon political sphere from the universal values that come from the European Enlightenment and underpin our global institutions. This may be a deliberate choice; it is, however, a disastrous one.

This is not to dismiss the result of the 23rd June referendum or to refuse ‘the will of the British people’ a phrase so disingenuous a first-year political science undergraduate could unpick it. Democracy is complex, and as Oscar Wilde said, the truth is rarely pure and never simple.

Democracy always has the potential to produce undemocratic results. The election of a well-known dictator in the 1930s is just the most sensational example of this phenomena. Democracy must be a representation of the views of the majority over the minority, but simultaneously it must also defend the minority from the oppression of the majority.

When this later point is forgotten then democracy can become as undemocratic as its alternatives. Rule by Executive Order is an attempt to bypass the institutional checks and balances designed to protect the minority from the majority.

An unrestrained media and guarantees of academic freedom are similarly ‘institutions’ of a functioning democracy. The Supreme Court Ruling in the UK on executive overreach was a reminder to Theresa May that this is also the role of a sovereign parliament.

This truth having been necessarily re-affirmed by a legal ruling, Labour MPs then sold their votes in the Brexit debate for fear of losing Stoke and Copeland to their political opponents. Their intellectual dishonesty is then hardly worthy of our support.

However, despite what one thinks of the present Labour Party, it is essential that they hold the seat of Stoke Central.

One unexpected outcome of the June referendum has been the withering of UKIP, sidelined by a government now dedicated to an extreme form of Brexit. However, their Faragist politics now bask in the halo of Trump’s golden elevator, and in Stoke, has the opportunity to gain a parliamentary foothold in Labour’s heartlands.

They will hope to rage like wildfire across the north of England just as the SNP demolished the Labour edifice in Scotland. The outcome for everything that matters to universities (intellectual inquiry, tolerance, openness, autonomy, cross-border collaboration) would be ruinous.

Labour is not a party of the ‘metropolitan elite’; this is also a dishonest and vacuous phrase used too long without proper challenge. However, there is one thing worse than being a champagne socialist, and that is being a champagne fascist.

The future of universities in the UK depends not upon the technical difficulties of whole staff inclusion in the REF or the reasonable aggregation of a subject-level TEF but in the political environment that results from an unchecked government of hard Brexit pursued ever rightwards by a newly electable UKIP.

These are not ordinary times, and as they say in Portugal, there is no situation so bad that it cannot get worse. Just as we would expect university leaders in the US to show stout hearts and serious intent in speaking truth to the Trump administration, so in the UK we need to stop pretending that Brexit is a normal policy debate.

It is not equivalent to changes in reporting requirements or the latest UCAS figures. It cannot be resolved by lobbying officials or running pilot studies. It is now about the fate of Western democracy for the next decade, as the UK extricates itself from its nearest allies and trading partners, to make its home with a basket of deplorables.

Stoke-on-Trent might not be the constituency that first springs to mind when you think of a university town. However, a great burden now rests on the shoulders of the student and academic residents of Shelton and Fenton, alongside their fellow Stokies (a more readily used term than ‘Potters’) to prevent the return of the UKIP virus that has left our body politic in such poor health.

I have faith that the people of Stoke Central might vote for Brexit in a referendum to kick a Conservative government, but they will not send a UKIP MP to Westminister on their behalf.

In Tom Stoppard’s 1977 play, Professional Foul, two academics are sitting on a flight to Prague on their way to a philosophy conference. One is a professor of ethics at Cambridge; the other is a self-identifying Marxist who teaches in Stoke.

‘Stoke, an excellent university’ says the Cambridge man. ‘You know perfectly well you wouldn’t be seen dead in it’, retorts his companion. The professor replies, ‘even if that were true, my being seen dead in a place, so far as I know, has never been considered a condition of its excellence’.

While many in the academy would still not be seen dead in Stoke, academically or geographically, the by-election provides an opportunity for that excellent place of which I am extremely fond, to provide an exemplar to the rest of the UK by saying no to equating the referendum result with the ambitions of the Trump administration.

10 responses to “La La Land: not a normal by-election, not a normal university town

  1. As someone who also lived in Stoke at one stage in the late 90s too I can remember the city producing some quirky election results at a local level. They had one of the first elected Mayor’s – an independent from the Mayor 4 Stoke campaign. Sadly, it also has had a history of representation by the BNP (9 Councillors at one stage) – all of this through the New Labour years. This coupled with an unconventional Stoke Central MP (prior to Tristram Hunt) does give a slightly more febrile atmosphere to change than Martin suggests.

  2. As a born and bred ‘Stokie’, I agree with the sentiment here and it is heart breaking to see the damage being done by right wing of politics to my beloved home town. Just a quick note, it will be the residents of ‘Shelton and Fenton’ and not Felton that will need to do their bit in this election.

  3. “it is essential that they hold the seat of Stoke Central”

    Essential to whom? Maybe, if Labour lose, they might finally act on some of the concerns articulated by Tristram Hunt (an English parliament, for instance). You can’t make an omlette without breaking some eggs, as Hunt and Jamie Reed (who was also concerned by Labour’s perceived anti-Englishness) realised.

  4. Let’s face it, Labour are now a spent political force in this country. The sooner they are finished and make way for a new representative party the better.

    Hunt is the epitome of how Labour have paid lip service to the North. He was parachuted into the seat at the expense of dedicated local candidates by the Labour NEC despite his only link to the area being his Clarice Cliff collection. It caused such a stink that the secretary of the local Labour party ran as an independent against him.

    It was always been about him and his career and never his constituents. He threw his toys out of the pram as he wasn’t savvy enough to put together a coherent leadership campaign in 2015 and now he is quitting instead of having to slum it on an ordinary MPs £75k a year salary (unfortunately no chance of a ministerial or shadow minister pay boost on the cards). There haven’t been a lot of tears shed about his resignation and I can’t find many people who would describe him as a good local MP.

    If I still lived in Shelton then I would vote for Nuttall. If that means the left call me poisonous, narrow minded or play the race card then so be it.

  5. I got about half way down your article which I will say is very well written, before I realised that you either do not check your facts, you are deliberately misleading by omissions or falsehoods or you actually wish to be hyperbolic. At which point I stopped reading to make this comment. “banning immigrants, attacking universities, defunding PBS, selling off national lands, building pipelines, undermining healthcare, outlawing reproductive rights, reversing LGBT advances, promoting military adventurism, tearing up international treaties… ” This is the quote which adequately demonstrates your failure to portray reality honestly or successfully.

  6. It’s this know it all attitude and disdain for half of the British population that is turning most of the general public towards right wing views. You and Tristam Hunt are the problem.

  7. To Peter…

    The last time I looked there were at least 7 other candidates standing. If you feel that strongly over Labour that doesn’t automatically mean you have to vote for UKIP. And, Snell is not Hunt, why make him pay for Labour’s past mistakes or Hunt’s actions.

    It seems very much an ‘up yours’ to the establishment on your part but give it a week or two and no one will care and you may be stuck with an MP who cares little for Stoke other than how it fits into his “poisonous, narrow minded” Brexit agenda.

  8. I agree with most of the sentiments expressed – just a pity Martin that you have so spectacularly failed to defend academic freedom on your own turf and contributed to and participated in the ongoing commodification of higher education with no discernible resistance.

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