Nick Hillman brings us his post-match analysis of the 2019 general election campaign
So Boris Johnson has a huge majority and it is all over bar the shouting. Some people called it the most important general election in decades. In truth, it is too early to tell—but it was certainly the least edifying.
Johnson ran away from scrutiny by Andrew Neil and other broadcasters, while the Labour Party was dogged by concerns about antisemitism. Things that were originally expected to happen, such as a Lib Dem surge, did not. The brutality of politics was rammed home when Jo Swinson lost her seat at around 4am.
As Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour pointed out, both Labour and the Conservatives fought macho campaigns. Female ministers and shadow ministers were kept out of the limelight. The most high-profile woman from the two biggest parties was Nicky Morgan, who wasn’t even standing in the election (though she will presumably be rewarded with a peerage).
The American politician Mario Cuomo famously once wrote: ‘You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.’ But given the well-founded accusations of racism and misogyny that were flying around, there was absolutely nothing poetic about this campaign.
Listen to Your Heart
If there is one thing the past few years have proven beyond all doubt, it is that the Conservatives’ simple promise to Get Brexit Done hides more than it reveals, given nobody yet knows for certain what the UK’s post-Brexit arrangements will look like. Even though it helped deliver electoral success, much of the rest of the Conservative programme was either overspun or embarrassingly vague (or, in the case of ‘40 new hospitals’, both).
Meanwhile, some of the biggest promises made by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, including to those with outstanding student loan debts and to the Women Against State Pension Inequality, were so implausible that they weren’t even included in the Labour manifesto.
The Lib Dems’ main policy of revoking Article 50 made little sense for a party so far from getting the keys to Number 10. It confused their other messages and swamped their commitment to a second referendum. Strictly speaking, Labour backed a second referendum too. But its position was also hard to explain—and even harder to understand.
The one local campaign I watched up close was in my own constituency, Buckingham. Its oddness was revealing. The Lib Dem candidate (Stephen Dorrell) told people to vote for him because he had been a member of the Conservative Party for half a century and was once in John Major’s cabinet. The only candidate based in the constituency was a 19-year-old philosophy, politics and economics undergraduate living in student accommodation at the University of Buckingham.
Eschewing the concept of brave leadership, our local candidates went full-on nimby, spending their time arguing over who was most opposed to developments in the Oxford-Cambridge arc—described during the campaign by property agency Savills as “one of the most dynamic and innovative places in Europe”.
Just a few years ago, the Conservative and Lib Dem coalition actively explored a road link between our two oldest university cities. Locally, at this election, the two parties fought over who was most opposed to the link and the much-needed economic benefits it could bring to a post-Brexit Britain.
Don’t Bore Us, Get to the Chorus!
The headline results tell us most of what we need to know: Tories and Scottish National Party up; Labour down; Lib Dems stagnant; Greens and Brexit Party nowhere. But what was the importance of the election for higher education?
Many higher education leaders were hoping for a hung parliament. That would have made changes to tuition fees harder and a second referendum easier. But it was not to be. Staff and students voted Labour in very large numbers against the tide and must now reconcile themselves to five years of majority Conservative government.
Despite the opacity of the Conservative manifesto, some things are clear.
First, there is likely to be swift movement on higher education courses deemed to be low value. The Conservative manifesto promised “to tackle the problem of grade inflation and low-quality courses”. Some Tories may now want to push ahead with blocking public funding for courses with seemingly poor labour market returns.
Second, universities must urgently prepare for squeezed funding for teaching. The Tory manifesto said: “The Augar review made thoughtful recommendations on tuition fee levels.” But the best-case scenario in the Augar report was “a real-terms reduction of 8 per cent between 2019-20 and 2022-23, and a reduction of 11 per cent compared to 2018-19 funding levels”. Some say austerity is over, but that’s evidently not true for university teaching income. The pain could be eased if the promised warmer regime for international students comes to fruition.
Third, there may be a better outlook on research funding, as the prime minister’s closest adviser is firmly committed to big increases in spending. But it remains unclear where any increase will be spent. Will it be distributed according to excellence criteria, will it become part of regional policy or will it help deliver more full economic costing? The ambitious R&D targets envisage much more private funding, which may or may not be realised. One thing seems likely: a smaller proportion of the total budget finding its way into universities, as research institutes could become the flavour of the day.
Fourth, the Conservative manifesto also repeated the old trope about universities hindering free speech. This could have flared up into a fully fledged culture war during the campaign, and the likelihood is that it still could at some point.
The final point to note about universities and the election is more positive. Academics, especially John Curtice, yet again proved themselves invaluable to public understanding of politics. That should serve as a reminder of the weight we still give to experts’ opinions.
Perhaps the biggest challenge now for universities is to avoid the fate of MPs and hospitals. People typically dislike politicians in general and worry about the NHS overall, while often respecting their own local MP and valuing their own local hospital. In other words, the challenge for universities is to maintain general respect and avoid sinking to a position where people see the value of their nearest university but question the value of higher education as a whole.
Nick Hillman is director of the Higher Education Policy Institute.