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Labour Party Conference: won’t someone think of the wonks?

From Labour Party Conference in Brighton, where HE policy is decidedly not on the agenda, Martin McQuillan asks 'won't someone think of the wonks?'
This article is more than 8 years old

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

Labour Party Conference, Brighton, September 2015

The Jeremy Corbyn experience is a curious thing. This was his first speech at conference since being elected leader of the Labour Party last month. He looks and sounds like a kindly headmaster of a secondary school on founder’s day. He started his speech thanking his supporters and opponents from the leadership campaign. It was like a prize-giving for the upper school, ‘well done Andy, Yvette and Liz, and well done to Jenkinson in 6c for his project on the Romans in Britain, excellent use of visual resources’.

The odd thing about Corbyn speeches is that this mild delivery is interrupted by thunderous, enthusiastic applause causing him to shout the end of his sentences making whatever he says sound like the passionate cries of Cicero ‘…and many thanks to the PTA for laying on the tea and biscuits, their hard work really is appreciated’.

The applause comes at any mention of ‘Labour values’, as leader of the Labour Party it is reassuring to discover that he is for them.  He is against bad values, like running in the corridor and not holding a door open for another pupil. One suspects that anyone letting themselves and the school down by displaying contrary values will be sent to the Deputy Head Mr. Watson to think long and hard about their behavior.

There was a lot on values in the speech and little in the way of substantive policies. We learned that there is to be an extensive policy review. Members of the Shadow Cabinet were thanked for the speed at which they had set up the administrative apparatus of thinking about what had to be thought about, ‘Lucy at Education is ahead of the game, she has written up an agenda for the first meeting, John at the Treasury has drawn up broad terms of reference.’

Consequently, there was not much for Corbyn to announce and the valuing of value and jokes about the Conservatives as the party of the hedge funds would not have been out of place in any Labour leadership speech of the last twenty years. As has been reported in The Spectator, not only would it not have been out of place in an Ed Miliband speech, much of it was in fact an Ed Miliband speech from 2011.

Corbyn wants the party conference to decide policy rather than the leader or shadow cabinet.  Presumably, that means we will need to wait until the conference after the next conference before he can report back on the progress being made towards coming up with some policies.

There were a few oblique references to higher education in his speech.  He said that Labour would work in every university to ensure students did not drop off the electoral list.  He criticized the SNP for cutting student numbers in Scotland, and declared that the Labour Party ‘said no’ to putting graduates in ‘massive debt’.

However, he did not reiterate his pledge made while running for the leadership to scrap tuition fees at a cost of £10bn per year.  Instead, those who attended the Million+ and National Union of Students fringe event on Monday learned from the shadow universities minister, Gordon Marsden, that there would be a policy review in which ‘nothing would be ruled in or out’. That presumably includes the status quo of £9,000 and rising fees.

I have a feeling that this might be quite a long drawn out review given that not having a cabinet level brief means Marsden will not have a specialist policy adviser to help cover his wide brief. The science brief has been split and Marsden is keen on the skills agenda, evincing less passion for universities as an issue. Unless Angela Eagle can remind Jeremy Corbyn about his fading summer love for free higher education, the sector may find it difficult to put universities on the radar of this Labour Party.

The estrangement seems to be working both ways. This year the fringe programme is notable for the absence of events about HE.  There were only two and they were scheduled at the same time. This has left HE policy wonks muttering into their late night biryanis about being thrown on the scrap heap of ideas, before departing on a train to London. It is ironic that Jeremy Corbyn’s first conference as leader has resulted in high levels of under-employment in a once thriving industry. Won’t anyone ever think of the wonks?

As Corbyn left the stage to the rather pleasing soul sounds of ‘Working on a Building of Love’ by The Chairmen of the Board, he was mobbed by paparazzi and well wishers, like a prize fighter struggling to make it to the ring at Madison Square Garden. The enthusiasm was palpable but an odd way to greet a prize giving speech on good versus bad values, in which he quoted Maya Angelou and Ben Okri, telling you something about his taste in reading if nothing else.

He left behind a stage emblazoned with the new slogan ‘Straight Talking, Honest Politics’. A more cynical sketch writer might add ‘good luck with that’ but the Jeremy Corbyn experience has been confounding commentators for months, there is probably still some gas left in that tank. The eternal policy review will keep us all in ‘wait and see’ mode for a while to come.

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