Catherine Webb Posted by Catherine Webb on 20th May, 2015

The certain uncertainty, that wasn’t and what happens next

This blog post is part of a series reflecting on the 2015 General Election and outcomes for Higher Education in England, Scotland and Wales. In this blog post, Bec Davies, PVC and COO at Aberystwyth University gives a personal view of the 2015 Westminster elections from a Welsh perspective.

The results of the election have been a little like we’ve been sitting on a train, with a curious mix of fellow passengers, and over the tannoy we’re informed that all passengers need to get off at the next stop, and there will be a new route for our onward journey.

Everyone changes, duly troops up to the departures board in the station and waits for the announcement as to which platform to go to, to continue the journey.

The departures board lights up and it’s the platform you’ve just left…hmmmm. Surely not? You walk down to the train. It’s the same train. You think, well surely we’ll be taking a different route?

To check if this is the same train, you get on to the carriage with the same letter as the one you just left and you can see the debris of the guy who was talking too loud is still on a table. The chap who was pushing the trolley looks familiar but wasn’t he the conductor? The previous trolley guy has sat down and taken his badge off, looks like he’s off duty…

The train starts and we’re being taken in the same direction on the same route – but maybe stopping more frequently. Some of the train staff have changed jobs, got off or sat down. But it’s all eerily familiar considering all the fuss and drama of changing and worrying about new routes…

Okay, so I may have got carried away and am unsure if in my analogy Nick Clegg was the guy selling the sandwiches who has now sat down or not… But there is something in this feeling of surprise at no change – emotionally and strategically.

We expected change and that the change we’d experience was months of uncertainty – it was “THE MOST UNPREDICTABLE ELECTION IN YEARS”.

We expected paparazzi to be taking photos of Danny Alexander accidentally walking near George Osborne outside the Palace of Westminster, with Ed Balls cycling past and some kind of convoluted story emerging about how this might mean something, it might tell us who might do deals with whom. We sort of expected a second election and for us to be like lovely Belgium for a few months and have no government.

In universities the certainty of uncertainty mattered, every one of us paused over consultation responses, budget construction, student fee modeling saying in wise tones “Ah, but the election could change all of that”.

But we have certainty, the UK Government will be led by the Conservatives, but it will be different as almost all of the Liberal Democrats have got off the train, a grim night for Labour, 4m people voted UKIP, 1m people voted Green, in Wales Plaid Cymru stayed still and in Scotland the SNP rewrote the unwritten rules with their phenomenal success.

  UK England Wales
CON 36.9% 41.0% 27.2%
LAB 30.4% 31.6% 36.9%
UKIP 12.6% 14.1% 13.6%
LD 7.9% 8.2% 6.5%
PLAID n/a n/a 12.1%
SNP 4.7% n/a n/a
GRN 3.8% 4.2% 2.6%

[Source http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election/2015/results ]

Wiser folks than I are analysing the shifts in allegiance and what this means for Britishness. But for Universities across the UK we now have one major certainty – the shared policy priority to look beyond these islands, on Europe and immigration. We must celebrate, lobby, and gather the evidence base with more vigour than ever before as ideas will harden without challenge.

In England the “interesting” aspects of recent legislation in Scotland and in Wales around Higher Education may become more attractive – so I am sure colleagues in Scotland and here in Wales will be happy to be the “phone a friend” should this happen to our English colleagues.

In Wales  – the uncertainty is far from over. In fact it’s only just begun as Higher Education is a devolved matter. The campaigning for the Assembly Election in May 2016 has started and it’s going to be interesting. I predict more senior Labour figures hanging out here than ever, ever, ever before. The election strategists in the party must be buzzing with the detail that not only did the Conservatives gain seats from Labour, Labour are only 10% above the Conservatives in Wales. UKIP have surged. If they repeat the success from the Westminster Election they’ll have a handful (at least) of UKIP Assembly Members. And Plaid stayed still.

In Cardiff Bay, Labour must be so aware that Carwyn Jones (First Minister) does not want to do a Jim Murphy.  All parties have seen that change is not just possible, it’s happened – they will look at the SNP and UKIP in detail. So this means Wales will be a battleground to test new leaders, to test policy direction and to see whether, as Nicola Sturgeon said “the tectonic plates… have shifted”.

I predict election-pleasing policies from all parties, with a distinct Welsh flavour often reacting to (positively or negatively) the Westminster stance.  There will be furious activity to figure out what the UKIP voter was voting for. Here in Ceredigion where we have the only remaining Liberal MP in Wales (35.9%), Plaid Cymru stayed the same on just under 28% of the vote and UKIP went up 7.7%, getting 10.2% of the vote.

So in Wales what will the next months hold?

Well I predict a rebranding exercise on policies and activity to show “Wales is brilliant and so are we” by Labour who lead the Welsh Assembly Government.

I predict no risky/awkward decisions or challenges from any party, as the unintended consequences can be enormous (e.g. the impact of going into coalition on the Liberals and standing on the “better together” side for Labour in Scotland).

I predict that no one will want to talk about student fees, but we will hear lots about Europe, and less about immigration.

In Wales the certain uncertainty continues for another year in University life, and for the whole of the UK Higher Education sector the EU referendum gives certain uncertainty for another two years at least.

So we’re not living in interesting times, we’re living in uncertain ones. That’s for certain.

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