Why I couldn’t vote Labour

With the UK elections now less than 4 weeks away, it looks increasingly likely that there will be a hung parliament for the first time in a generation. Labour, sorry New Labour, which has been in power for some 13 years, following the Tories’ 20 year stint, look like coming second. As John Lanchester explains in the LRB blog, the Tories will need a sizable percentage swing to overcome the inbuilt Labour advantage in returning MPs. It doesn’t look like they’ll get it outright, which perhaps says something for Cameron’s rebranding efforts. But they may get in if they form a coalition (which no-one would have voted for directly).

As a British citizen living in the United States I’m of course not eligible to vote here. Furthermore, I’m unfortunately unable to vote in the UK elections either. The current statute of limitations is 15 years away (it has varied from 5 to 20) before you become ineligible. So I’m kind of a stateless, or voteless person. If I could vote in the UK though, I’d be hard pressed to tick the Labour box to return the MP for Chester for another term, (that being where I last lived in the UK some 25 years ago).

What I hear from my UK colleagues about higher education there is very dispiriting. The RAE was bad enough, but this Hefce Research Excellence Framework (REF) seems to me to have two intended effects. One, as Ross McKibben points out (also in the LRB), is to characterize academia as a kind of branch of business, with “outputs,” “impacts” and “units.” This is a dispiriting vision of the university system (not that it’s much better here, in fact Labour seem to have taken the weakest part of the American system and expected it to magically generate new revenue, while cutting off fee-paying non-EU students over fears of terrorism).

Secondly, it’s an econometric vision, where you see scarce resources and seek to centralize them in a few research universities or “units.” But is academia rather not something that produces “outputs” but rather education? How could you measure “critical thinking”? Is it an “output” or an “impact”? Speaking for myself, that’s what I see myself doing, not making new inventions or gadgets.

In all this Labour seem to have forgotten the “art of government.” This is pretty funny considering how neoliberal Labour are. As McKibbon explains:

Britain now has a ministerial elite who have largely divorced the art of politics from the art of government. All politicians, of course, have to practise the art of politics, but at some point, the needs of government, which are usually long-term and based on accumulated knowledge, have to override the needs of politics, which are usually short-term and based on anything but accumulated knowledge. It has been characteristic of British political life in the last 30 years, not least under New Labour, that the art of politics has vanquished the art of government. MPs who wish to become ministers are obliged to repeat what they do not believe (or perhaps they do not know or care what they believe), and they have been taught that that is what politics is about. In the case of education, though not education alone, such behaviour has produced a political vacuum filled by ill-considered and often mutually incompatible pieces of legislation. Unfortunately, while our constitutional and electoral apparatus remains as it is, there is no reason to suppose this will change.

McKibbon says the Tories, if elected, would put the REF on hiatus for 2 years while the measure of “impact” is defined. That might be just enough of a reason not to vote Labour on May 6.


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