Election Antithesis

May 9, 1997

Think of it as a small but worthwhile "new blood" scheme for British universities: all of a sudden UEA needs a dean of biology, Essex needs a head of public relations and Bath is short of a professor of social policy. Or if you want to go for the real money, Shell could do with a chief economist. These are just some of the desirable job vacancies created by the voters on May Day when the occupants of about 15 academic posts took up new jobs in SW1. New MPs also include a clutch of university-friendly folk including ex-NUS presidents, researchers and economists. Here are a few to keep an eye on - and some you may never hear of again.

All the presidents

So much for Labour's hopes of distancing itself from any organisation with the word "union" in its title. Starting the campaign with one former president of the National Union of Students in its ranks, the Parliamentary Labour Party has wound up with six, at least two of whom were probably as amazed as their Conservative victims. No great surprise that Jack Straw held on to Blackburn, or that Charles Clarke won comfortably in Norwich South. And it was reasonably predictable that Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale) and Phil Woolas (Oldham East and Saddleworth) would be the ones left standing when the Lib-Lab hand-to-hand fighting which passes for party politics on the western flanks of the Pennines reached its conclusion with two of the few Lib Dem losses of the night. After all, Woolas's picture had been seen by every Labour party member after he modelled for its sample election literature.

But no such hopes were held out for the two most recent ex-presidents, Jim Murphy and Stephen Twigg. Not even when he made NUS presidential history by being unavailable for an interview because he was taking an exam has Jim occasioned greater amazement than by ejecting the Conservatives from Eastwood, supposedly their safest seat in Scotland, on a swing of 14.3 per cent. Not bad for someone who arrived at the same time as the coffee when he came to lunch with The THES. And even that pales besides the 17.4 per cent achieved by Stephen Twigg to remove Michael Portillo from Enfield Southgate and the Tory leadership race.

Sultans of swing

Messrs Twigg and Murphy were not the only figures from academic life more than a little surprised to find themselves taking the oath at Westminster this week. It is de rigueur for any candidate within 25,000 votes of last time's winner to say that they expect to take the seat. But one suspects that Epping College librarian Linda Perham, who took Ilford North on a 17.3 per cent swing, Roger Casale from University of Greenwich, who achieved 17.9 per cent to win Wimbledon, and the University of East London's Rudolph Vis, whose 15.1 per cent swing captured Margaret Thatcher's former base in Finchley and Golders Green, really expected to be back at their jobs this week. Wimbledon's Labour faithful had been sent to work in Mitcham and Morden, helping to see off former education minister Angela Rumbold, on the theory that there was no point campaigning too hard in their own true-blue constituency.

Body politic

"What is really needed is more politicians with a real understanding of how science works", said Labour's Norwich North hopeful Ian Gibson when challenged as to whether the world needed yet another politician rather than a world-class cancer researcher. Gibson has been careful not to conceal his Socialist Workers' Party past or his ambition to be science minister as soon as possible. No sooner said than done. Gibson, dean of biology at the University of East Anglia, took his seat with a majority close to five figures. There were also wins for Salford organic chemist Brian Iddon, who held Bolton North East, biologist and former Bristol University lecturer Doug Naysmith, winner in Bristol North West, former Oxford University obstetrics lecturer Phyllis Starkey, who captured Milton Keynes South West, and industrial research scientist Ashok Kumar, who regained the Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland seat he held briefly in 1991/92 when it was known as Langbaugh.

Passing the Test

Also coming back for a second go was Brighton University social policy lecturer Huw Edwards, like Dr Kumar a 1991 byelection winner who failed to survive the Tory recovery of 1992. He retook Monmouth, but the prize for persistence goes to another social policy expert, Alan Whithead of Southampton Institute of Higher Education, who finally took Southampton Test after trying at every election since 1983.

Seeing double

Labour supporters doubtless cheered every gain last Thursday night, but one suspects that Tony Wright, the former Birmingham University political scientist who sits for Cannock Chase, had mixed feelings about the election of another Tony Wright for Great Yarmouth. And they probably will not be the only Labour members swapping misdirected mail and mystified telephone callers over the next five years. King's College, London PhD student Gareth Thomas, who removed Robert Hughes from Harrow West, has a namesake who unexpectedly took Clywd West from scandal-hit former Welsh office minister Rod Richards. Two massive swings established academic control of Harrow, with the East seat falling to University of North London business lecturer Tony McNulty.

Blue on blue

The cull of Conservatives with higher education connections was particularly ferocious, even by the standards of the Tories' worst night since the introduction of universal suffrage. Former lecturers Ian Twinn (Edmonton) and John Bowis (Battersea) probably foresaw their fate as must Malcolm Rifkind, whose old job in the politics department at the University of Rhodesia is unlikely to be available. But there were less predictable victims among former higher education ministers, including William Waldegrave in Bristol West. Being regarded as one of the most likeable holders of the post did nothing to save Nigel Forman in the face of the Liberal Democrat surge in Carshalton and Wallington. A third, Robert Jackson, survived with under 40 per cent of the vote in Wantage. And few Tory defeats were less foreseen than the removal of Malcolm Thornton, chair of the select committee on education and employment, from Crosby. A swing of more than 18 per cent left him trailing Labour by over 7,000. Another Merseyside casualty was David Hunt in Wirral West, like Waldegrave a former science minister.

Fallon on his feet

Some Tories with academic connections made it past the electorate. Michael Fallon, a member of the Higher Education Funding Council for England since losing his seat in 1992, was returned for Sevenoaks. Andrew Tyrie, fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford won Chichester and commercial negotiator Caroline Spelman, whose multi-skills include a research fellowship at Wye College, just held off Labour in Meriden.

Essex man

Bob Russell's electoral success in Colchester may mean he spends less time with his family. But the up side is that he can get out of talking to the staff of The THES. Until last week, Russell was publicity officer of the University of Essex. He claims to have been the youngest editor in the land at 21 when he took over the hot seat at the Maldon and Burnham Standard, also in Essex. He has resisted all efforts to modernise his Grimond-era hair and spectacles. Possible sleaze issue - will he have to pay when the time comes to renew his Colchester United season ticket?

Among longer-established colleagues he will meet is Don Foster, back as MP for Bath with a majority of over 9,000, up from 2,000 at the time of his 1992 victory over Chris Patten. Foster, Liberal Democrat education spokesman and former chair of education in Avon, is a former teacher and lecturer.

Also long-established among LD academic MPs is Alan Beith, for Berwick on Tweed, who was a lecturer in politics at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne alongside Mo Mowlam, now Northern Ireland secretary. He is reputed to have offered a course called comparative bureaucracies on the theory that the title was so dull that he could get an hour off when nobody signed up.

Hero for a day

Slightly more recent academic experience arrives with Steven Webb, new Liberal Democrat MP for Northavon and professor of social policy at the University of Bath, a former member of staff of the Institute for Fiscal Studies and an expert on the tax and benefits system. Webb is likely to have a few eavesdropper-baffling chats with Edward Davey, now MP for Kingston, and a former tax adviser to Paddy Ashdown. Action man Davey won two awards for rescuing a woman who had fallen on the tracks at Clapham Junction. But his real courage lay in chairing the Liberal Democrat manifesto costings group - not an organisation other parties found it necessary to establish.

However, even these two cannot match the world economics background of Vince Cable, now MP for Twickenham and formerly an economist with Shell, the Commonwealth Secretariat, the Royal Institute of International Affairs and other organisations, where he spread green as well as economic awareness.

As well as all this theory, one returning Liberal Democrat knows more than most about earning a living the hard way. Richard Livsey is back as MP for Brecon and Radnorshire, where he was MP from 1985 to 1992, winning by 56 votes in 1987 and losing by 130 in 1992. As well as being a farmer, he has lectured in agriculture at Aberystwyth.

Highland fling

Brian Wilson, the new Scottish Office education minister, is unusually streetwise when it comes to the media, since he is a former journalist and was a founder of the radical West Highland Free Press. This developed an entertainment arm, introducing Billy Connolly and the Corries folk duo to the western isles, a reprise of Mr Wilson's success in attracting Pink Floyd to the township of Dunoon, where he went to school. His writing skills have also been in demand outside newspaper columns: he is the proud author of the official history of Celtic Football Club.

Pro provost

The logistics of ballot boxes for 26 inhabited islands in Argyll and Bute made it virtually the last constituency to declare on Friday. The hot news that Scottish National Party candidate Neil MacCormick, regius professor of public law at Edinburgh University, had failed to unseat Liberal Democrat MP Ray Michie, was greeted with delight at an Edinburgh seminar on the implications of the election results. This was a tribute to Professor MacCormick's political skills rather than a lack of confidence in them. The audience felt that Professor MacCormick's first duty should be to continue to defend them via his role as provost of law and social sciences.

Irish ayes

The highest concentration of academic firepower among members of the new parliament is to be found not among new Labour but in the 18 MPs from Northern Ireland, where Ian Paisley's doctorate from Bob Jones University is only one of the scholarly baubles on display. Among the Unionist ranks, notable is David Trimble, a former senior lecturer in law at Queen's University, Belfast. He has, however, seen less of the world academically than John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, who has been an associate fellow at Harvard and a research fellow at Trinity College, Dublin, once the home of academic Protestantism in Ireland and the alma mater of Martin Smyth, head of the Ulster Unionist Party, who also managed to attend Magee University College before it became the University of Ulster.

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