This article is more than 7 years old

Lost Labour’s love is not higher education

Martin McQuillan argues that with an HE White Paper and a Bill heading to Parliament, the Labour party's opposition has never been more important. But they've been nowhere on HE in quite some time.
This article is more than 7 years old

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

Next week should see the publication of a White Paper on higher education and a Bill to follow in Parliament. It is the most significant thing to have happened in the HE policy world since the publication of the Browne Review in 2010. The wonks and commentators are lined up to pour over every line. But where is the Labour Party?

What does the official opposition have to say on this topic? If you are currently holding your breath waiting on Labour’s response, my advice would be to exhale now because you might do yourself an injury. Jeremy Corbyn came to the leadership of the party with a populist promise on the abolition of university tuition fees. Since then there has been a resounding silence on higher education, as the party passes through an almost Cistercian period of contemplative ‘policy review’.

During the Coalition years and after the student demonstrations, great efforts were made to keep HE off the legislative agenda. Now, in the absence of an effective opposition, the Conservative government feels emboldened enough to complete the market reforms first started by David Willetts. The White Paper will abolish the Higher Education Funding Council for England, legislate for the influx of private providers and finance capital into the university sector, while introducing a Teaching Excellence Framework that links tuition fees to quality assurance, and will re-engineer all research funding.

In the meanwhile, Labour is yet to begin thinking about what they think about universities. A quick look at the Twitter feed of Gordon Marsden, the Shadow spokesperson on FE-HE and skills, will tell you about the present priorities of the Labour Party. Since the start of the month, Gordon has tweeted 35 times about his constituency of Blackpool South and exactly zero times about the higher education White Paper. This fact is not entirely explained by the local government elections on the 5th of May. Gordon has found time to offer his thoughts on skills and FE in relation to the White Paper on schools. With the exception of attending a recent event run by HEPI, you have to go back to April 28th to find a reference to universities, and that is a retweet from Chuka Umunna.

Gordon Marsden may have taught at the Open University and edited History Today but it is very clear that his interests lie in FE and potholes in the greater Blackpool area. While the cost of the student loan book is expected to rise to £330billion pounds by the middle of the century and despite the troubles the government has experienced around the outlay costs of tuition fees and their repayment rates, as well as the scandals around private and for-profit providers, the Labour Party has had next to nothing to say about higher education since the general election. Gordon Marsden has no special adviser on HE policy and a slender constituency majority of only 2,500.

In truth, the higher education policy world is only a microcosm of Labour’s political problems. While those still smitten by the summer romance of Corbynmania convince themselves that the sunny uplands are just around the corner, back in the real world everywhere else, Labour is in trouble. Scotland, where the party was founded, has gone. It completed its turn to the SNP in May 2015 and following the recent elections to the Holyrood parliament; Labour sits third behind the Conservatives with only 19% of the popular vote and no constituency MSPs in Glasgow. Labour has not experienced such a bad result in Scotland since before women had the vote.

Back in London, Labour does not seem to be showing much urgency about addressing this problem. Perhaps, there is an unspoken belief that it is ok to ignore Scotland because the SNP are a left-wing party and a second independence referendum looks to be off the cards for the moment. However, in reality, the SNP socio-economic programme is well to the right of New Labour and their education policies would meet with approval from Michael Gove.

Their interest is in providing economic stability and demonstrating competence in government to reassure the electorate that a vote for independence is not a vote for chaos. Labour’s strategy has been to challenge the SNP to use new powers for Holyrood on income tax to stave off public service cuts. Nicola Sturgeon did not rise to the bait instead she made a defence of high earners as wealth creators who might leave Scotland if taxed at fifty pence in the pound. It would seem that the supposedly left-wing people of Scotland were no more willing to embrace increased taxes than any other part of the UK and also declined Labour’s proposal.

What all that means for the funding of Scottish universities and students in an age of global competition is unclear. While tuition is free under the SNP, university is not. The most valuable financial asset of the Scottish government is the student loan book, currently valued at £2.7bn. Meanwhile, the SNP remains big on the rhetoric of social justice but even bigger on the privatisation of public services and middle-class subsidy. It is a form of triangulation that is as progressive as anthrax. However, Labour in Scotland is quite incapable of responding to it, burning through a succession of leaders as they are outflanked by the SNP on the economy and by the Conservatives on the constitution.

As Labour flounders, the SNP dare not call a second independence referendum because they know they would lose it and so give rise to the fundamental and unanswerable question: what is the point of having consecutive landslide nationalist governments that cannot deliver on independence? Nicola Sturgeon now finds herself in the invidious position of having to campaign against a Brexit she secretly wishes would happen as the best bet for precipitating a second referendum. For Scottish politics now to be a division between rebranded nationalism and a unionism associated with Conservative economic policy is a searing indictment of the Labour Party’s recent performance.

Labour have little prospect of recovering Scotland, so they will require a 13% lead over the Tories in England and Wales should they hope to form a Westminster government in 2020. The local elections in England saw a new leader of the opposition lose seats at this time in the electoral cycle for the first time in 34 years. In Wales, Labour lost its majority and subsequently Plaid Cymru, UKIP and the Conservatives have combined to block the appointment of Carwyn Jones as a minority first minister. Labour will hope that the nationalists recognise that they may be forever tainted by such an unprincipled association with UKIP and the Tories and so retreat in the stand off at the Senedd. However, it is by no means certain that the election in Wales will not need to be re-run, a month after Mr Corbyn declared himself satisfied with the result. Universities in Wales will have to watch the horse-trading and wait in uncertainty for a new minister and the implementation of the Diamond review.

Ed Miliband’s old fixer, Sadiq Khan, won the mayoral election in London, overcoming dog whistle politics and standing on a centre-left platform. The victory is more symbolic than anything else. The Mayor of London is often little more than a glorified transport commissioner (his influence over universities will be minimal) but the role comes with a global profile and may yet prove a thorn in the side of Tory ambitions at Westminster.

Khan’s victory and Labour’s Celtic twilight might offer Jeremy Corbyn a valuable exemplar. If you want to be taken seriously as a government in waiting you cannot waste political capital on trying to out popular the populists. Instead, you must demonstrate basic competence as an effectual opposition that harries a complacent and divided government. Unfortunately, as the handling of the Ken Livingstone meltdown and the absence of the Labour leader from the EU debate show an inexperienced Labour central team are struggling to formulate and communicate a coherent electoral proposition.

Energy and resources are wasted in dreams of deselection and in defending marginal policy positions that only serve to put doubt in the electorate’s minds about the seriousness of Labour. There is nothing in either Jeremy Corbyn or John McDonnell’s CVs that suggest they are remotely suited for the job of running a complex coalition of interests and diffuse administrative apparatus like the British Labour Party. Nor, do they seem to be learning quickly on the job.

In the meanwhile radical proposals are being put on the legislative table about the future of our universities. The contents of the higher education White Paper are important because they will determine the use of billions of pounds of taxpayer’s money, effect the prospects of millions of people and the competitiveness of the economy, as well as the cultural outlook of the nation for years to come. The government has not meaningfully consulted with the sector over the White Paper because it thinks it does not have to. Without an engaged opposition, they may attempt to push the policy envelope as far as they think it will go. It is high time the Labour Party had something to say about it all. It is their job to hold the White Paper up to public scrutiny.

For the absence of doubt, my issue with the Labour leadership is not ideological it is one of basic competence. Also for the absence of doubt the people who halted the forced academisation of primary schools were Conservative local councils not the Labour front-bench and it is the BMA not the PLP who are leading an effective response in the Junior doctor’s dispute.

It looks as if serious questioning of the HE White Paper is going to have to come from within the sector itself.

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