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Labour Party Conference 2016: Four Days that Shook the Wirral

The Labour Party conference has come to an end and the HE wonks that were there have headed home. Despite the awkwardness, Martin McQuillan stayed in the house during the family domestic to get a grip on The World Transformed.
This article is more than 7 years old

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

Not since Willy Russell’s Educating Rita has Liverpool witnessed such unconvincing scenes from the world of higher education. This week the Labour Party conference rolled into town but many in the university sector did not.

Over the summer months, during the Labour leadership contest, there were rumblings amongst HE wonks as to whether it would be worth turning up in Liverpool this year. After all, this is a city that has banished The Sun newspaper and so how else were they to keep up on the latest news about the comings and goings at the top of the sector? In the end, a few of the usual suspects made it to a city that can boast four universities as well as specialist colleges in the arts.

At one point there was a question as to whether Labour would turn up themselves, as a dispute about security contractors threatened to derail the event. However, what was repeatedly, and cloyingly, referred to all week as ‘the Labour Family’ did make it in the end. As did their brooding offspring Momentum, the movement dedicated to harnessing ‘the energy and enthusiasm’ of Jeremy Corbyn’s annual leadership elections.

A family day out in Liverpool can be both fun and educative: taking in the Tate at Albert Dock, the Metropolitan Cathedral, or, The Beatles Story. However, when the storm clouds gather, and a gale blows across the Mersey then a happy day out often ends acrimoniously with wind-swept family members shouting at each other in cagoules.

With the leadership question settled until at least next summer’s contest, the Labour Party tried to be on its best behaviour for the week, but few observers were convinced by the display of unity. No outsider likes to be in the house during a domestic dispute, so predictably there were slim pickings on the conference fringe for dedicated followers of HE policy.

The think tank Demos organised a session on ‘TEF vs. REF’, with one of our learned societies The Physiological Society, who had clearly not got the memo about Britain’s new found lack of respect for experts. On Monday afternoon MillionPlus, the NUS and LabourList asked ‘What Does Brexit Mean for students and universities?’

During the session NUS President Malia Bouatta spoke movingly about the rise of xenophobia following the Brexit vote, recounting the ‘endless drip feed’ of accounts of international students being ‘spat on’. If a week is a long time in politics, then a year is an eon. Last conference season such treatment would have been the privileged preserve of delegates and media at the Conservative Party gathering in Manchester.

While we learned this week from his pre-recorded interview for Radio 4’s Today Programme that Jeremy Corbyn was ‘not a morning person’, Gordon Marsden, the Shadow Minister for Higher Education, Further Education and Skills showed that he certainly is. The next day breakfast meant Brexit for the University and College Union with a reprise of EU-related discussions at 8.30am.

Marsden called for the Higher Education and Research Bill to be abandoned in light of post-referendum uncertainty. That appeal seems as good a strategy as any at the moment given the Conservative MPs on the Public Bill Committee’s refusal to engage with any amendments.

NUS also organised a session on Prevent that was almost prevented from happening when the chair, Assed Baig, the Channel Four journalist and Muslim, was stopped from entering the conference zone. One of the scheduled speakers, Rahmaan Moh, an A Level student, was denied security clearance for the conference and contributed to the meeting via speakerphone. He had been reported to the Home Office for going to school wearing a Free Palestine badge.

In the main hall we had a speech from Angela Rayner, the break out star of Labour Leadership Election II. Universities fall under her brief with the recent split of higher education between BEIS and the Department of Education. Some have sniffed at a non-graduate (like her Leader) holding such a position.

However, she spoke convincingly about early years provision and her experiences as a single mother. Her speech pledged a return of two Blairite policies, Sure Start and the Educational Maintenance Allowance. She won applause by declaring this coming Saturday a day of rage against Grammar Schools.

When it came to universities she pledged a return of maintenance grants for ‘low and middle income’ families but said nothing about fees except that higher education should be ‘affordable and accessible’ to all. Given that this is what Lord Browne thought his report into student finance was doing, that is to say very little indeed.

There were several sessions on higher education at the Momentum gathering, ‘The World Transformed’: a suitable changey-hopey title for the city of John Lennon. The duplicitous mainstream media would have us believe that the Momentum event took place ‘just next door’ to the official party conference. In fact it was a challenging 18 minute walk up a hill.

Exhausting, as it was to move between the two events there was as much discussion of universities at the top of the hill as there was down below in the docks. The problem was that much of it was quite, what’s the word, ‘undergraduate’. There are few moments in my professional life when I attend an event and actually raise the average age of the room. Dear reader this was such a time.

The event in a disused church in Liverpool’s Chinatown bore more than a passing resemblance to society night in a students’ union. The talks were of varying degrees of quality with ample time for testimony from the floor. There were many long statements disguised as questions, while no Blairite was left un-stoned.

In fact the Labour Party in general got it in the neck from most speakers. The two events were not just separated by a modest taxi ride, but were in reality a world apart: one an octopus’ garden, the other the cavern club.

One was the domain of grown up politics, where the suits struggled over control of one of the few institutions capable of exercising power in government in the world’s fifth largest economy. The other was distancing itself from that institution, entirely absorbed with the personality of its unexpected leader.

If Jeremy Corbyn moved on tomorrow, so would this improvised coalition of activists and idealists. They have little interest in the structures of the Labour Party or negotiating the corridors of Whitehall.

Sitting in session after session, listening to one ropey account of political economy after the other, the pedagogue in me struggled to resist the urge to intervene. Quite why Momentum is considered to be such a threat is beyond me. They appeared in Liverpool to be a cross between a freshman cultural theory seminar and the Woodcraft folk.

When Deputy Leader, Tom Watson (now officially the Ringo Starr of the Labour Party) called Momentum ‘a bit of a rabble’ he was being kind. The organisational powers of Momentum’s unpaid volunteers have been greatly exaggerated, but that does not mean they are not an interesting phenomena.

There was much talk of an NUS boycott of the National Student Survey in order to disrupt the TEF. It will be interesting to see how much support that musters in January. The risk is that NUS leadership is currently writing cheques that their wider membership will not be prepared to cash.

However, even a partially successful campaign could spell trouble for the government’s plans. Along with a commitment to non-cooperation with Prevent legislation, it marks a shift towards a less biddable student body and is certainly not the market of savvy consumers envisaged for the Office of Students.

Back at the docks, Jeremy Corbyn made his second speech, or perhaps his first, as leader. It was like an indoor version of one of his much-visited rallies. Sadly, Corbyn is a poor reader of an autocue but this does not prevent wild applause breaking out at every miss-timed punch line.

Hearing Corbyn speak is very much like going to a Morrissey gig these days. No one can really make out the words but the audience is transported into raptures by the memory of how good they felt the last time they heard something that sounded similar.

He pledged a future Labour government would raise research and development spending to 3% of GDP (it is currently 1.67% and the lowest of the G8) and to introduce an ‘arts pupil premium’ for schools in England and Wales. He spoke of an ‘investment in human capital’, which might be a better name for Labour in the age of globalisation, The Human Capital Party.

Mr. Corbyn also alluded to his plans for a National Education Service that would be ‘an essential part of the 21st century welfare state’ and would be paid for by rises in Corporation Tax. There was no mention of what the role of universities would be in this or how far Corporation Tax would have to rise in order to pay for it all. We can be confident that our vice chancellors will warmly welcome the opportunity to contribute to this socialist vision.

The biggest HE news of the week came from Wales with the Diamond Report on student finance, where the minority Labour administration will actually be raising tuition fees to £9,000. That is an indication of the compromises forced on real governments and how far Mr. Corbyn’s position on funding for higher education is from facts on the ground.

The party, however, is as far away from success in a national general election than it has been since the 1930s. The problem with Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is not necessarily the ideas that he offers but that he lands them so badly that he ruins the idea in the process. Having a policy associated with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour means that it is less likely to happen not more. Theresa May is probably banking on this for her Grammar School plans.

For example, Mr. Corbyn said in his speech that ‘access to the single market’ would be a ‘red line’ for Labour in Brexit negotiations. This is to misunderstand or deliberately obscure the problem: anyone can have access to the single market, it is membership of the single market that is the issue and membership requires the free movement of people. Such carelessness is difficult to accept after Corbyn’s lack of interest in Europe handed on a plate the biggest victory ever experienced by the far right in this country, and continues to make life easy for Theresa May’s Brexit cabinet.

Similarly with tuition fees and promises on grants, it is not enough to want to restore the past, it is necessary to have an ambition for the future that is credible with those who would deliver it and costed for those who would pay for it. Unicorns and rainbows are best left to the theorists and idealists at The World Transformed. The case for the abolition of tuition fees will be sunk for a generation when it goes down with Corbyn’s inevitable electoral defeat.

It was Marx who said, of his brother Chico, in Duck Soup, ‘he may look like an idiot and sound like an idiot but don’t let that fool you, he really is an idiot’. Sometimes things are just what they appear to be; there is no media conspiracy or plotting Blairites. The Labour Party is simply in a mess.

The left have captured, not the Labour party itself (that survives and resists in committees and the parliamentary party) but the membership of the party. The result is a stand off between an incompetent leadership incapable of communicating its vision to the electorate, and an even more incompetent PLP who in attempting to remove the leader has in fact strengthened his position.

Their abject failure is the best guarantee that Mr Corbyn will make it to a general election before he is put out of our misery.

The Labour family could do with some friends just now, and they will be grateful to those who engaged with it during the wilderness of opposition. But I fear it will be a while yet before the higher education sector, like so many others, returns en masse to the Labour Party conference in search of credible interlocutors.

4 responses to “Labour Party Conference 2016: Four Days that Shook the Wirral

  1. Very sneery article. Thought WonkHE might deliver an alternative to the THE establishment view. Clearly not. Will watch out for your coverage of the Tory conference.

  2. I liked the Morrissey reference myself – encapsulates the issue rather well I thought.

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