Gary Day

April 29, 2005

If the parties want to get disaffected academics and students to the polls, perhaps they need inspiration from the Bard

Are you thinking what I'm thinking, that the election is very boring? I'm fed up of hearing the phrase - "it's not about personalities, it's about policies". We know politicians don't have a personality. They don't have to keep going on about it. And, quite frankly, their manifestos aren't that interesting either.

I can barely read new Labour's online version. Even with a magnifying glass, it's all a Blair. I mean blur. From what I can gather, we're going to win a lot of Olympic gold medals if they are re-elected. The Conservative manifesto is legible, a tactical error on their part, which they've compounded with a picture of Michael Howard. Smiling. But the Tories too want us to be successful at sport, which, they say, Labour has "squeezed out of the curriculum".

The Liberal Democrat manifesto does exercise the mind but only because you need all your ingenuity to find it. Unlike the other two, it doesn't say we'll win the World Cup if Charles Kennedy is the next Prime Minister - and frankly, there's as much chance - but it too reads like a school report.

The phrase "Britain could do better" is one of many that recurs in all three documents. Perhaps they were all written by the same person.

There's not much in any of them about higher education. But, let's face it, what happens in universities isn't really headline-grabbing material. You don't find the leaders of political parties whipping up emotion about the problems of staff parking, the difficulties of obtaining a photocopying card or the demise of the staff canteen. It just goes to underline how marginal universities are to the rest of society.

But they needn't be. This election is a golden opportunity for English lecturers, at least, to do something instead of signifying nothing. Why not persuade each of the party leaders to take Shakespeare as their inspiration?

"Is this a voter I see before me? Come, let me clutch thee, I have thee not yet see thee still." Ah, all life is in that sentence. Not just a politician's disappointment. That's the great thing about the Bard. He makes you look beyond immediate circumstances. Our leaders could learn a thing or two from him - including, I suppose, how to rouse the electorate out of their apathy. "He that votes for us this day and comes safe home (and if he doesn't we'll put even more police on the beat) will stand a-tiptoe when this day is named and rouse him at the name of Blair/Howard/Kennedy."

Blair told us he went to war to protect us against Saddam Hussein. And Blair is an honourable man. Howard tells us he wants tighter immigration controls to prevent race riots. And Howard is an honourable man. Kennedy got his party's policy on local income tax wrong. But Kennedy has become a father. He is a tired man.

Shakespeare doesn't have a great deal to say about top-up fees - which just goes to show he doesn't have a quote for every occasion. The introduction of this measure means that new Labour will have to work hard at winning back the student vote while the other parties will be eager to exploit their disaffection.

My advice to party activists is not to raise their hopes too much. It is hard enough to get students to seminars, let alone to the polling station.

If they make it to class, they've forgotten their book. If they've remembered it, they haven't read it. If they've read it, they've got nothing to say about it. So you can't rely on their support.

Oh sure, they can put a cross on a piece of paper. They're not stupid. But where do they put it? That's the problem. Years of training and testing have deprived them of the power of independent thought.

But perhaps that's exactly what the politicians want. It makes us much easier to control. Can you imagine, when you were at university, being told that if you wanted to smoke you must get permission from the dean and then be supervised by a tutor? That's what you now have to do if you want to light up at one Oxford college. Mind you, this year marks the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, so you can't be too careful. Britain is not a happy place. We work too much and even if we earn a lot of money we are not satisfied. Something is missing. A politician is as likely to mention this as to come up with a radical solution to global warming.

I don't know if there is a real alternative to going either forwards or backwards, but I do know there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in any of the party manifestos.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University.

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