Labour 2017: more activists and fewer lobbyists make for interesting HE debate

Nick Hillman writes from the Labour Party Conference in Brighton, where – happily – he finds fewer lobbyists and more activists

September 26, 2017
Brighton, Labour, conference
Source: iStock
The 2017 Labour party conference is taking place in Brighton this week

Unusually, party conference season is my favourite time of year. If you are interested in politics and policy, there is nothing better than getting together with thousands of other people with similar interests. It is like going to one big house party where no one thinks you are strange because you would rather be discussing the finer points of university finance than the last football match or the last boxset you watched. 

I have lost count of the number of party conferences I have attended. It is somewhere between 15 and 20. Some things – like the crush in the hotel bars – have been the same at each one (although, admittedly, I did not go to the recent Lib Dem affair, where it is rumoured it was much easier to buy a beer or, perhaps, an organic smoothie). 

Some other conference characteristics depend on whether a party is in power or not. When I attended my first Tory conference back in 2000, the party were miles from power and it was a decade before they returned to office. So there were lots of party political activists and rather few lobbyists. Today, Tory conferences have flipped around and there seem to be more people lobbying than doing grassroots politics.

Labour conferences have been though the opposite cycle – they were once full of lobbyists but, this week at the party's 2017 conference, the activists are more noticeable. 

I am a hypocrite, given that I am here in Brighton with "Third Sector Observer" printed on my bright orange pass, but I believe conferences with a higher proportion of party activists are much more fun and interesting. There are lots of reasons why. They have taken a week’s holiday to attend, not to mention are paying to stay in an overpriced hotel, so they care more. Moreover, their stories and questions are rooted in real human life, rather than filtered through a public affairs company. 

They are also much less likely to bring a London-centric perspective to any discussion. That means events about higher education are attended by regular lecturers and regular students (at least, if union reps can be described as "regular") from all over the UK, rather than just the usual wonks who gather so regularly for events in the capital. 

Before conference, lots of work goes into honing the set-piece speeches of the party leaders. These big events tend to earn the most media coverage on TV and in the newspapers – unless of course there is a major conference gaffe, such as John Prescott being driven a few hundred metres to deliver a speech about driving less, David Miliband waving a banana, or a row over Theresa May talking about cats. But, close up, no conference ever feels quite like how it is portrayed in the national press.

This is not because the media are disingenuous in their reporting. It is because the most interesting policy discussions often go on at the fringe events rather than in the main hall. 

Take the University and College Union (UCU) fringe that happened yesterday at the 2017 Labour conference. Nominally, it was about tuition fees but those posing questions to the panel (Gordon Marsden MP, Shakira Martin of the National Union of Students and Sally Hunt of the UCU) included past and present staff from the University of Brighton, Queen’s University Belfast and the Open University. Their questions ranged far beyond fees, to raw issues such as staff redundancies and student poverty.

Even a seemingly dull and esoteric question about whether the UCU would affiliate to the Labour Party "now that Jeremy is in charge" produced an interesting discussion on why trade unions representing staff in educational institutions choose to remain above the party political fray. 

It does not always work like this. Sometimes, a bold question lands flat on its face. I remember a fringe event at a Conservative Party Conference about 10 years ago when a furious man demanded to know why policymakers obsessed with widening access were so determined to make life harder for the parents of Etonians, given how they were paying school fees in the belief that it should lead to a place at Oxbridge. 

There have been questions that have missed their mark this year too. At an otherwise excellent fringe event organised on Sunday by MillionPlus and the NUS on investment in skills, the fiercest questioner challenged Shakira Martin on how motions are chosen at NUS conferences. This managed to confuse (and bore) the room – until the Times Higher Education’s own John Morgan called it back to order. 

Sometimes, even after many years of attending party conferences, you can be drawn up short by the things you hear. Yesterday, the Higher Education Policy Institute co-hosted an event on universities as regional hubs for growth with UPP Limited. One participant rejected the idea that areas benefit when graduates stay around to work locally after their studies, arguing that they use up the scarce resources of local people.

It was rather like those weak arguments against welcoming international students to the UK on the (false) grounds that their costs outweigh their benefits. I profoundly disagree but I am pleased our event gave an opportunity to hear, digest and then refute the idea. That is one of the many things that conference is for. 

Nick Hillman is director of the Higher Education Policy Institute.

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