This article is more than 8 years old

Labour Pains: Corbyn and the University

On Saturday Jeremy Corbyn was elected as leader of the Labour Party. He campaigned on a promise to abolish university tuition fees and fund higher education through direct taxation. Martin McQuillan looks at what it all means for higher education and the previous consensus on HE funding.
This article is more than 8 years old

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

Things have just got interesting in the world of higher education policy. On Saturday Jeremy Corbyn, the veteran left winger and former North London Polytechnic student, who first entered parliament in 1983, was elected as leader of the Labour Party. He campaigned on a promise to abolish university tuition fees and fund higher education through direct taxation. This turn of events will present something of a challenge to the polite consensus that has settled over the question of student finance.

University leaders and other players in the sector will be looking aghast at what has happened in this Labour leadership contest. Not only has the most leftwing candidate assumed the leadership of the official opposition but his opponents, recognisable names from Labour’s recent history, representing previously mainstream opinions, were soundly beaten.

Having baited Labour for years about the power held by trade unions in the electoral college, the British press have been surprised to find that a system of one member one vote to elect the leader has resulted in the victory of a candidate who would not have made it past the first round under previous rules. The incredulity around Corbyn’s election is wide spread, as is the view that Labour has gone through the looking glass.

However, it is all not so very hard to understand. The years of so-called austerity have divided the nation, as they were supposed to do. Austerity is the wrong word for what George Osborne has done as Chancellor. He has increased the national debt by 50% and ran a budget deficit no less than 5.7% of GDP for the entirety of his tenure, while selectively cutting back on state expenditure in a way that has disproportionately disadvantaged those least likely to vote Conservative. We might call such a spread between borrowing and public services cynical and unfair but it certainly is not austerity, as understood by the International Monetary Fund.

The student loan book is a case in point. The rise in fees and removal of the teaching grant was driven by a faith in market economics, not a need to save money. As Anthony Seldon and Peter Snowden recently reported in their new book Cameron at 10, an account of the Coalition years, Osborne offered Nick Clegg a way out on the difficult and embarrassing question of tuition fees because the proposed change was ‘not imperative’.

The collapse of the Liberal Democrats as an electoral force and Lynton Crosby’s appropriation of much of the Labour manifesto has resulted in the Conservatives occupying the middle ground of British politics against expectation. Few in the Conservative Party imagined returning to Westminster in a majority government. That leaves everyone else on the left of that territory as confused as the Westminster commentariat, looking for someone and something to blame for their lack of electoral success, despite years of selective hardship and the oligarchical politics of Cameron and Osborne. As recent events show, expressions of democracy can be confounding.

When angry and frustrated we tend to say and do things we later regret and take it out on those closest to us. In Scotland this has manifested itself in traditional Labour voters abandoning the party for the SNP, despite their own mostly unchallenged track record on privatisation, proposed spending cuts and educational outcomes. In England and Wales this now takes the form of the annulment of the New Labour project. Combined, this represents a significant swing to the left amongst a sizeable section of the UK electorate.

There are long-serving Labour Party members who have wanted to find their lost voice of radicalism ever since the Blair years. There are also new members, especially amongst the young (students and recent graduates) who are transforming the grass roots of the Labour Party and who, if they stick with it, have the potential to dominate decision making for years to come. With so many centrists abandoning Labour under Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband, this coalition of lifers and new entrants (seeking an alternative to the neo-Liberal consensus that has piled so much on their generation) have brought Corbyn to the position of Leader. As long as intergenerational fairness remains a blind spot for policy makers, the appeal of Corbyn’s principles should not be so surprising.

Jeremy Corbyn has been in politics a long time and his views ought to be well known, even predictable. However, the size of his election victory suggests that there are diverse hopes invested in him by heterogeneous groups that go far beyond the persona of this softly spoken Islington MP. There will be those who imagine this is Labour’s Syriza moment. However, the political and economic situation in the UK is nothing like that of Greece, where Syriza were first elected by a desperate population as a last resort against endemic corruption and economic ruin, and later discovered the limits of their mandate.

Jeremy Corbyn is more Bernie Sanders than Alex Tspiras or Pablo Iglesias (the thirty-seven year old leader of Podemos in Spain). His ability to carry Labour to electoral success will need to depend upon something other than youthful vigour and the promise of a new start in politics. Greece, like other European countries, has a system of proportional representation. But Westminster is democracy with one hand tied behind its back. The task for any party in a ‘first past the post’ election in the UK is to persuade 40% of the audience of Top Gear to vote for it. In general elections, any electable party must command broad support. It’s what Marxists call ‘hegemony’.

Rather than Labour’s Syriza, this might all end up more like its Ian Duncan Smith moment. His time in charge may have been reassuring to the right wing tribe that elected Smith to his short-lived tenure as leader of the Conservative Party, but this base could never be enough to lead to electoral victory. Eventually, the parliamentary party saw the writing on the wall and moved against their Leader with alacrity. However, the constitution of the Labour Party is very different as is the size of Corbyn’s victory. He has every chance of making it to a General Election. Incidentally, Duncan Smith was the last leader of a major UK political party to call for the abolition of tuition fees.

There will be a temptation on the part of vice chancellors to ignore Corbyn as a dreamer, and to write off the chances of a Labour victory in 2020. However, with an unnecessarily zealous spending review, a EU referendum, a possible second Scottish Independence referendum, a Westminster pedophile inquiry, and a likely global bond market crash all to come before then, it is not obvious that Corbyn’s Labour will be unelectable in 2020.

For universities, a Corbyn leadership will look to change the terms of debate and so will present a headache for lobbyists, trying to preserve vested interests or work out where the money is going to come from. The default position of many in university leadership will be to take refuge in the fake centre ground constructed by George Osborne and to cling to it even as a deregulated and under-funded sector subsides all around them. There is no shelter to be found under this ideological mantle.

The task at this moment for everyone who wants to see a credible alternative to Osborne economics is not to run away in horror at the prospect of Corbyn’s leadership but to contribute vigorously to the policy review that will follow his election. It represents an opportunity to develop a genuinely alternative set of higher education policies in a way that was never possible under Ed Miliband as he endlessly deferred articulating an offer on university funding.

This policy discussion is too important to be left only to those who instinctively agree with Corbynism. There would be just as big a danger of the sector being misunderstood by apparatchiks of the left as it has been by the ideologues of the right. There is a world of difference between a summer of energized rallies and the long slog of opposition towards a complex and costed manifesto at the next election, let alone enacting any policy in government. Corbyn supporters would do well to remember the fate of Nick Clegg and Alex Tsipras and recall the wisdom of Jeff Goldblum’s Dr Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park II: “Oooh, ahhh, that’s how it always starts. Then later there’s running and um, screaming.”

Under Corbyn, Labour will continue to be a coalition of socialists and social democrats. The election of born again Brownites, Tom Watson as Deputy, and Sadiq Khan as candidate for Mayor of London, is a significant outcome of this process. As any vice chancellor knows, a complexly composed institution can find numerous ways to frustrate the will of its Leader. If the party membership cares enough to undo the damage inflicted on British public life, including higher education, in the last six years, all members will need to work together to present credible and popular alternative policies.

It is of course possible to agree with many of Corbyn’s positions and yet be able to recognise an electoral liability when you see one. Just as it is entirely possible to disagree with the headline positions of the leadership and still contribute to a greater project of social justice. The Labour left has been doing that for years. The election of Jeremy Corbyn may be as much a remarkable opportunity for Labour as it is an extraordinary puzzle. It will be up to party members now to take responsibility for their decision and contribute to shaping the new platform as it unfolds.

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