John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector.
A month before the general election, I stood in Linton for Cambridgeshire County Council. I had previously leafleted and canvassed the area six times, beginning with Sir Jim Paice’s campaign in 2005, and spoken to many people from the other side of the political fence as well as to our supporters. During the 2015 campaign, I had also been drafted to Bedford, but not this time. We know what happened in Bedford.
I went into the election worried. I’d worked out exactly how much Labour’s land value tax was likely to cost, and wrote about it on this site, on social media, and in The Guardian’s comment threads. It hit late in the day, but undecided voters were very interested. It seemed the only major issue that was unequivocally helpful to our side, and I didn’t understand why it was not hit harder, and earlier. I’ve no doubt that it firmed up some of our supporters.
Against this were at least six major negatives for us – social care charges, disguised cuts in school budgets, tuition fees, unfair disability assessments, housing, including the long-term effect of buy to let, and the NHS. Then there was foxhunting. Most people do not much care about foxhunting – there are other ways of controlling foxes – but a small number care very much indeed, and it was careless to lose votes over it.
As two of the six issues concern education, I’ll focus on them. In the next village to mine, I met two headteachers who normally vote Conservative, who were very worried about pressures on their budgets, which they saw as cuts. One had a dodgy boiler and no means of replacing it. Her husband knew a little about plumbing, and was helping the school. The other was going to lose staff, and thought she might have to cut music lessons. Neither school had any budget left for staff training.
A third voter, a purchasing manager with the NHS, was very worried about her procurement cuts, but was put off voting for us because of her child’s school roof. It needed to be replaced, at a cost of £70,000, but instead was being patched up. She had not been impressed by the use of buckets to catch leaks when she had attended an assembly. Our record on school building is not good, and I’m sure that this issue cost us among women voters in particular.
The rise in tuition fees under the coalition was described by Nick Clegg as a form of graduate tax. I saw it as a tax on brains. The idea that free higher education was regressive took root in the eighties, with support from The Economist and Sir Keith Joseph. I did not agree, as I’d come from a background where people could not afford to go to university without grants; but could see the point. A secretary at the further education college where I worked completed an OU degree in psychology, which enabled her to qualify as a social worker and multiply her salary by 150 per cent. Not all graduates were so fortunate, but the argument that secretaries should not subsidise graduates was convincing, not least to my mother, who worked as a school secretary.
In the middle of the afternoon, we received a note from central office of very heavy polling. Conservative friends were telling me of their children’s intention to vote Labour en masse, and it’s clear that they did so. £9,000 does not represent good value for the level of tuition and support received in any university outside Oxford and Cambridge, which retain their system of supervision, and many students are working their socks off in the evenings and weekends when they should be studying and resting.
Students whose parents cannot pay the fees upfront have the additional problem of an excessively high interest rate – Retail Price index +three per cent while they are actually studying, a higher rate than most mortgages. Thereafter the rate varies according to earnings, but this initial interest charge, which is far higher than people can obtain on their savings, puts less well-off students at an immediate and unfair disadvantage – it can easily cost them an additional £3,000 to complete their degree.
Corbyn’s manifesto amounted to offering the nation a jar of his jam. No-one could honestly believe that he could carry it out on the basis of the modest increase in income tax he was proposing. As a neighbour, a lifelong Labour supporter, put it to me, “Someone has to pay.” All that concerned the students voting for Corbyn was that, whoever paid, it wouldn’t be them… We need a more equitable system.