The time has come: What next for (the) Liberal Democrats?

I’m writing these thoughts during the last few hours of the general election, but won’t hit publish until just before the polls close at 10pm. I’m then going to bed, hoping that June 9th will bring at least some crumbs of comfort from a Liberal Democrats perspective. Net gains would be nice!

What has astonished me most about the campaign has been the sheer dreadfulness of Theresa May. I always suspected she was a dud, but everything that’s happened suggests she’s far worse than that. I think her weaknesses must have astonished many Conservatives too. While it was too late to change election addresses and candidate billboards (at least in Mid Derbyshire), it’s been noticeable that the ‘standing with’ and ‘strong and stable’ brands have become ever less prominent as the weeks have gone by. One can only wonder what would have happened if she’d undergone the journalistic scrutiny that the other party leaders have. Regardless of the result, I doubt strongly she’ll still be their party leader at the 2022 election.

Labour have had a good general election campaign. They’ve been helped by the collapse of Theresa May’s credibility and authority. Although they look certain to increase their vote share from last time, I wonder how this will actually translate into seats gained.

There were glimmers of hope at the start of the general election campaign for the Liberal Democrats. Exceeding 100,000 members is no mean achievement. I remember Tim Farron talking about this goal during the leadership hustings in 2015 and I genuinely thought that this wasn’t achievable in the short-term. As with so many of my political predictions, I was wrong. The manifesto is great – human, fair, evidence-based, rational  and costed. As the IFS pointed out, if enacted it would provide the best economic outcome for the poorest 50% of society, and by some margin. I’m really proud to be in the same party as the people who put this together.

However, our air war simply hasn’t worked – for whatever reasons. Vote-share looks as if it will be close to the 8% result in 2015. The otherwise welcome collapse of UKIP may sadly mean some lost seats. I sincerely hope that the ground war in our key seats has worked well this time and that my pessimism is unfounded.

I’ve no idea which pollsters will be proved right or wrong. I’ve been intrigued by the new YouGov model. If the trend back towards two party politics in most of the country has continued as expected, then I suspect models based on uniform national swing (UNS) will be more accurate. If there’s been a massive uptake in tactical voting, with young and non-voters turning out for the first time, then YouGov may be the real winners in this particular battle.

So, to my prediction, written a few hours before the polls closed. I think we’ll see a Conservative majority – probably around the 50-60 seat mark. (This implies that I think UNS models will be better than YouGov’s new one). Sadly, I suspect that this would put my party at the lower end of the YouGov 95% confidence interval of 5ish to 20ish seats. Possibly even below it. I really hope that I’m wrong about this and that I look totally foolish tomorrow morning. Regardless, I’d like to add my thanks to all of our candidates and their teams. You become and stay a Liberal Democrat through conviction, not because of a desire for an easy political life. I appreciate all that you do, especially as I am currently unable to do much myself.

Britain under a Tory or Labour government will be unrecognisable in 2022 as the privations of Brexit really start to bite. People that I love will suffer, so you can perhaps understand, a little, why I’m still incandescent with rage with the Brexiteers and their late converts in May and Corbyn. However, I’m no longer confident that the perpetrators of this national catastrophe will ever be properly punished by the electorate. It will be very simple for authoritarian politicians to try to shift the blame onto external causes. But I’m glad that our party remains on what I believe to be the right side of this argument, regardless of whether it is eventually an electorally successful position.

Somewhere in the attic I have a copy of Paddy Ashdown’s 1989 book “Citizens’ Britain”. If I remember correctly, he paints two opposing pictures of how the UK could be in the early 2000s. One is of an optimistic, open, tolerant and united Britain and the other is of a closed, insular, mean and unequal country. Citadel Britain. Up until June 24th last year, I genuinely thought that Citizens’ Britain would eventually be closer to reality. Now, I’m utterly convinced that we’re in the dystopia of Citadel Britain and see no obvious way out. I told you earlier that my political predictions are usually rubbish.

So now only one question remains for me. What next for those of us who want to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, balancing the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity?

Explaining the Labour leadership contest using social identity theory

How does a candidate with a policy position that is perceived to be much more extreme than the consensus within a party win a leadership election? Social identity theory – SIT(*) may have the answer.

If the Labour leadership election had been held when the members(-) of the party (the ingroup in SIT terms) perceived the threat from the Conservatives and others of keeping them out of power for a long time was not great, then it is possible that the debate and decision-making process within the party would have been conducted primarily an intragroup contest, as illustrated below.

Labour leadership contest as an intragroup decision

How Labour party MPs thought the leadership contest would be fought

The candidates would have been keen to distinguish themselves from one another and the perceptions of differences between each would have been heightened by debate within the party. However, the likelihood would have been that the candidate who best represented what party members held in common would be seen as most relevant (prototypical) – resulting in a victory for either Burnham or Cooper.

However, these aren’t the circumstances that Labour finds itself in. May’s election results came as a huge shock to many of their members and they trail the Conservatives (the outgroup) by a large margin in the polls nationally. SIT research would suggest that this external threat therefore makes the leadership campaign an intergroup contest instead of an intragroup one. Presumably, the Labour MPs that opposed but lent Jeremy Corbyn their support anyway during the nomination process weren’t SIT aficionados. In such cases, SIT would suggest that the most left-wing of the quartet gains in relevance amongst party members as they are perceived to be the most different to the outgroup.

The Labour leadership contest as an intergroup contest

How the Labour leadership contest has really been fought

So if Jeremy Corbyn does win the contest in a few days time, SIT suggests that it will have been less to do with internal problems of left-wing entryists and rather more to do with external macro-political pressures.

 

 

(*) Social Identity Theory was originally developed by Henri Tajfel and others to try to understand why people believe that the social groups they belong to are better than the ones that other people belong to and why enmity often accompanies these beliefs.

(-) By members, I’m including everyone that Labour has decided is eligible to vote in their leadership election.

(+) Diagrams are adapted from page 109 of Psychology in Organizations – The Social Identity Approach (2nd Edition, published 2004) by S. A. Haslam.

Manifesto promises about adult education and lifelong learning

With the main political party manifestos having been published and now available on their websites(*), I’ve read them all, cover to cover, in an attempt to discover their adult education and lifelong learning commitments, so that you don’t have to.

In summary:

  • The Liberal Democrats have the best pledge – to establish a cross-party commission to address the undoubted problems of this part of the education sector.
  • The Green and Conservative Parties acknowledge that adult learners exist (explicitly in the case of the Greens and implicitly in the case of the Conservatives). However, both offer at least one policy that will damage their interests.
  • The Labour and UKIP manifestos are almost, or entirely free of content on this topic.

In detail:

Liberal Democrats

Pages 50 – 63 of their 158 page manifesto (a little under 10% of its contents) is devoted to education in general.

Page 62: “We will … Work with university ‘mission groups’ to … enable more part-time learning, and help more people to complete qualifications.” Many adult learners require part-time provision and it’s the only manifesto to acknowledge its existence and value.

Page 63: “We will … Establish a cross-party commission to secure a long-term settlement for the public funding of reskilling and lifelong learning.” There’s no doubt that a long-term settlement is required here and it’s the only manifesto to acknowledge that something needs to be done to address the problems in this sector that goes beyond party advantage.

Greens

The Green Party manifesto is an enormous 11Mb pdf file! It becomes clear why that is once you open it – it’s an image document, rather than a text document, making it impossible to read for anyone using assistive technology. They need to do better. However, the table of contents signposts the education section as being on pages 36-40 of the 84 page manifesto.

Page 36: “… the Green Party will make education free for everyone up to and including university or equivalent.” This is a bold promise, but lacking in detail. Does “university or equivalent” include masters and PhD level qualifications, and how many times would you be able to benefit from a free university education? (I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt that they don’t intend to put an age-cap on their promise).

Page 38: “Reverse the trend whereby 45% of apprenticeships, that is, jobs with structured training, are now taken by people over 25.” Wow. This is the only openly hostile policy towards adult education and learning I can find in any of the manifestos. In the Green’s world, it would appear that if you’re over 25 and want to better yourself through a job with structured training, you’d be too late.

Page 38: “Encourage local authorities to use some of the additional money we propose to give them to restore a full range of local adult education programmes.” Also wow. Just four bullet points after the apprenticeships bombshell, they say this – one of the few openly positive policies towards adult education and learning in any of the manifestos!

Page 39: “‘Lifelong learning’ is a phrase that is much used by politicians and educational professionals. Giving people the opportunity to be ‘second chance’ learners should be a crucial part of what universities offer to wider society.” So we have a party that claims to understand lifelong learners. But I’m not sure that ‘lifelong learning’ is a phrase that is used by all that many politicians if I reflect on my own experiences.

Page 40: “The Green Party would address this through … Restoring access to lifelong learning by supporting mature students and their families. We will reverse the 20-year programme of dismantling the lifelong learning sector.” There’s no details as to what kind of support they’re going to offer – free (taxpayer-funded) education? loans? childcare? something else? So beware – fine words butter no parsnips.

There’s a lot to mull over here and some great sentiments in the manifesto – but the openly hostile and ageist approach to apprenticeships they appear to be advocating is hugely concerning.

Conservatives

Page 35: “We will continue to replace lower-level, classroom-based Further Education courses with high quality apprenticeships …” This is bad news for returning adult learners. The policy of diverting funding from the adult skills budget to protect the apprenticeship budget is opposed for good reason by the relevant trades union and adult FE providers.

Page 35: “And we will encourage the development of online education as a tool for students, whether studying independently or in our universities”. Potentially interesting, as many adult learners benefit from the flexibility that the Open University and MOOCs provide, but there’s no detail as to what form this “encouragement” might take.

Disappointingly, there’s no explicit statement in their manifesto that any form of education or learning is needed by individuals and/or the businesses they work for past early adulthood, but I guess that ‘studying independently’ might just be an implicit acknowledgement.

Labour

Page 37: “We  will protect the entire education budget, including the early years, schools and post-16 education, so that it rises in line with inflation.” So it sounds as if the cuts made by both the coalition and the previous Labour government to adult education funding will remain in place. The context of this sentence is also from an entire section that talks about education being important for “our children”, so I do wonder if post-16 education lasts much past 21.

Page 52: “Labour will do more to increase the amount of time prisoners spend working and learning.” A laudable aim. But I’m not going to suggest that anyone should consider getting locked up to secure access to educational opportunities as an adult!

From the perspective of adult learners, the Labour manifesto is disappointingly content-free.

UKIP

There’s nothing at all in the 76 page UKIP manifesto for those wanting to understand their policies on adult education and lifelong learning. But that’s ok – their leader will simply make it up as he goes along, as usual!

 

(*) I’m speaking from an English perspective of course, so I’ve not bothered to read the manifestos of those parties only standing in specific countries or regions of the UK, as much as I’d like to find the time to read Mebyon Kernow’s manifesto.

 

On Labour’s financially illiterate tuition fee proposals

At the height of the tuition fees debacle, I seriously considered leaving the Liberal Democrats. At one time, I even considered joining the Labour Party. Yes, I was that annoyed/frustrated/angry – but it didn’t take too much thinking for me to come to the conclusion that being in the fire would be even worse than staying in a rather warm frying pan.

I passionately believe that higher education needs to be funded in a way that acknowledges the overwhelming public good that comes from having a substantial number of people in our economy who are highly skilled and more importantly, having people around who are able to think critically and innovate.

Access to higher education is a significant driver of social mobility. In the 1980s, I was the first person in my family to attend university. The opportunities provided by my degree have helped me immeasurably. Having a degree has also meant that I’ve paid substantially more in tax over my working life than I would have otherwise done. But that’s the way it should be. As Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. put it – “I like to pay taxes. With them, I buy civilisation.”

For these reasons, I believe that we need a government which will develop policies for higher education to encourage people of all ages (not just the young) to study. As few barriers as possible should be put in the way of those who wish to take up this opportunity. Financial or social, real or imaginary barriers – it doesn’t matter. Pulling up the drawbridge on higher education betrays individuals by removing opportunity, as well as being economically illiterate.

The current fees system isn’t one that I like. The consequence of  the near trebling of the fee cap has undoubtedly been the catastrophic decline in opportunity for mature and part-time students. Young people may not have been put off higher education, but an important section of the population (part-time study accounted for nearly 40% of all students before the last election) has been. For this reason I still want to see a higher education system funded from a fair, general taxation system – the absolute opposite of what the Conservatives wish to see.

If you accept that you have to get to this goal a step at a time, then the fairest way to achieve it isn’t to make stepwise cuts to the headline tuition fee. That’s simply a political stunt that only helps better off graduates (*). Hardly fair and progressive and is, as Martin Lewis succinctly points out, a financially illiterate policy.

No – the right way, the fair way to get there is to raise the threshold at which repayments start (+), helping poorer graduates first. Which is interestingly enough what the Liberal Democrats have managed to achieve in government against the background of both of the other major parties simply wanting to raise fees as the Browne Report (commissioned by Labour) suggested.

I therefore hope that the Liberal Democrats are going to suggest raising this threshold at a rate above inflation in the 2015 manifesto. It certainly won’t repair the damage of a broken promise from 2010, but the incoherence of Labour’s policy announcement today provides a new opportunity to demonstrate that we care about social justice, even if the other parties don’t.

 

 

(*) I’m pretty sure that this policy announcement won’t help the Labour Party. The electorate isn’t stupid, and you’d have to be really stupid to think that cutting the headline fee was better financially for poorer graduates than raising the repayment threshold.

(+) It’s why the Liberal Democrat policy of raising the personal tax allowance is also so much better than re-introducing a 10% starting tax rate, as Labour have suggested.

 

Lifelong learning = political tumbleweed

Having failed to engage any of the five political parties through twitter on the subject of lifelong learning and what their policies might be, the next stage of my quest has led me onto their websites and the search capabilities that they offer.

The first problem I encountered with this approach was that both the Conservative Party and UKIP don’t appear to have this rather important function on their websites. (This is 2015 and not 1995, right?) I can only assume, at least, until their 2015 manifestos are formally published, that they have no policies in this area that they’d like people to be able to find easily.

However, the Liberal Democrats, Green and Labour party websites all have prominent search functions. And all three sites seem to have it delivered by an embedded Google search engine, which probably means that it’s likely to work.

So I thought I’d try half a dozen different search terms that someone interested in policies for lifelong learning might use and see what they turned up. The table shows the search term I used and the number of times it appears in connection with a policy document, consultation or manifesto (I’ve excluded hits on personal biographies and other items that contain the search term).

 

Search Term Liberal Democrats The Labour Party The Green Party
Adult education 0 0 1
Lifelong learning 0 1 5
Mature student 0 0 0
Older student 0 0 0
Open University 0 1 0
ELQ 0 0 0

(Note: I included ELQ – Equivalent or Lower Qualification – as it’s a technical term much-loved by many policymakers. However, it didn’t return any hits.)

At this stage in the process, I therefore (with regret, as Lord Sugar might say when firing an apprentice) added the Liberal Democrats onto the “wait until the 2015 manifesto is published” list too.

The Labour party website turns up the same document for both the lifelong learning and Open University search terms. It’s their 2008 “Partnership in Power – second year consultation document” and so probably doesn’t reflect current policy.

The hits for the Greens turn up an eclectic selection of local election manifestos (from Brent in 2005, Enfield in 2010, Camden in 2010 and London in 2012) plus a 2006 report on all manner of topics from one of their MEPs. These documents are therefore too old, too general, too local or all three of these things to rely on.

My conclusion is that I’m therefore going to have to wait a little longer until the General Election manifestos are published to see definitively what the parties are seeking to attract the lifelong learner vote with in May.

 

The US government “gets” lifelong learning – so why don’t our politicians?

After I wrote about the fall in OU student numbers for a fourth consecutive year last Saturday, I decided to see if I could get a reaction from the five largest (by membership) UK-wide political parties by asking them about their policies for promoting lifelong learning.

My first attempt was on Sunday. I sent this tweet to @LibDems, @Conservatives, @UKLabour, and @TheGreenParty. I even held my nose and sent it to @UKIP – after all, who knows what May will bring.

 

 

I didn’t get a response (or even a click on the link to my article) from this. But it was Sunday. Maybe those who run political party twitter accounts take the day off. I can understand that. So undeterred, I tried a similar tweet on Monday: 

 


… and it got exactly the same result. Nothing. Yesterday, I tried to introduce an element of competition:

 


… and no-one has responded to that tweet.

Which is a shame. Because the lack of investment in lifelong learning, at all levels of study, directly impacts our ability to compete as a nation. It means we continue to fail to make the best possible use of our greatest resource – the people who live and work here.

By contrast, the Obama administration seems to genuinely “get” lifelong learning. Their latest proposal is to provide free access to two years of higher education through their network of community colleges for eligible students. This is in addition to what seems to be a well thought out and employer supported workforce training programme.

I’m going to keep on pestering our politicians about this. I’m particularly disappointed, but not wholly surprised,  by the lack of any kind of response so far from the political party I belong to.

 

No wonder Liam Byrne left “no money” – he made an error of 25% today

Earlier on today my ears pricked up when I heard Liam Byrne make the following claim in his question about the shambles unfolding around the implementation of universal credit to Iain Duncan Smith:

To hit your deadline at the end of 2017, you must now move over 200,000 people a month on to the new system. That is a city the size of Derby.

Sadly for Liam Byrne, his mathematical abilities don’t seem to have improved much since he was dumped out of office at the last election, leaving behind the now infamous “no money left” note for David Laws.

For the record, Derby’s population in 2011 was recorded as being 248,752 – a mere 24.5% more than he suggested. Current estimates suggest that it could be nearer to 255,000. And yes, I do realise he said “over 200,000” … but 24.5% is a pretty big margin of error by anyone’s standards on such a relatively small and easily researched number.

Perhaps he would have been better advised to choose Luton (2011 population recorded as being 203,200) instead.