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Why both parties should stop talking about their vote share

It's a very strange way of working out Labour had a good night, and a good way of pretending the Tories didn't have a bad one.

I heard an awful lot about vote share at both the Conservative and Labour conferences. Both parties used this to argue that the 2017 election was a type of victory, and that things were going well.

It’s true that Labour got close to their 1997 performance, while the Conservatives bettered even their 1983 high watermark as far as vote share goes. However, the British electoral system isn’t about vote share. It’s much more important to remember that in 1997 Labour got 418 seats, while in 2017 they got 262. In 1983 the Conservatives got 397 seats and a landslide majority, in 2017 they got 317 and no majority.

It’s more instructive when assessing if an election was a “good” result or not to look at the situation that the relevant parties went into the election in. Labour went into the 2017 election on the back of a defeat that was so bad, as I wrote during its 2015 leadership election, it had realistically lost two elections in one night.

The Conservatives had made phenomenal in-roads into the ethnic minority vote, among social liberals and young professionals. Many former marginals had fortress-sized majorities. To get a majority of one, Labour needed a 1997-level national swing. There were only really 30 arguable marginals and only 15 seats to be gained under a “normal” swing.

After the 2017 election, the Conservatives essentially reversed their Cameron-era gains with ethnic minorities and social liberals. They lost a swathe of marginals, including ones where Labour were well-beaten in 2015. To win the last election, Labour had to do something they have done once in their history. To win the next one, they need to pull off a swing that is below their historical average. They can gain 30 seats with a swing of just 1 per cent.

Talking about vote share is just a bit daft, frankly. It’s also worth remembering why vote share was up: because Ukip collapsed, the Liberal Democrats failed to recover from the damage their participation in the Conservative-led coalition did to them, because people who voted for the first time in the referendum kept voting in the general election, and because people who had never voted before voted for Jeremy Corbyn.

Why did it happen? Largely, because of decisions taken by, in no particular order: David Cameron, Nick Clegg, Tim Farron, Boris Johnson, Paul Nuttall, Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn. Note how the name “Theresa May” is not on that list? It was their victory in the referendum that wounded Ukip, and the ineptitude of Nuttall as their leader that helped to ensure that the wound was mortal, or at least severely damaging.

The only active politician who can take any credit for their vote share is Corbyn, and even then, we’re really only talking about perhaps an extra percentage point on the Labour share. (This is still a big deal – that percentage point was decisive in many Labour gains throughout the country.)

There is a counterfactual argument that only May could have won over quite so many Ukip votes, but the important thing to remember is that thanks to first past the post, a lot of these votes were useless. The price they paid for May’s rhetoric was scaring off a bunch of actually useful votes that David Cameron won, most importantly social liberals – which helped lose them Stroud, Bristol North West, Kensington and Canterbury among other places – and affluent ethnic minorities, which helped lose them Cardiff North, Peterborough, Croydon Central, and Battersea.

So talking about vote share correctly tells you that the 2017 election went better for Labour, but is a pretty odd way of working that out – rather like deciding that getting full marks in an exam was a good result because you used the same ballpoint pen throughout.

On the Tory side, talking about vote share tells you that actually the Conservatives did very well in 2017, that the forward march of Corbynism is actually some kind of victory for centre-right ideas, and that everything is rosy in the Conservative garden. That is to say, it’s nonsense. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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What the university staff strike reveals about our broken higher education system

The marketisation of our universities is facing its biggest opposition yet.

The biggest industrial strike ever by academic staff in Britain's universities has begun.

National newspapers are running panicked headlines about what may happen if the strike lasts: “University strike puts final exams in danger”, warns The Times. “University strikes could hit exams and graduation ceremonies”, says the Guardian. But as well as affecting the education of students who are heavily in debt, the strikes will hit academics with very different levels of job security, and university establishments at a time when higher education is on the political agenda. 

The University and College Union voted for strike action last month over a failure to reach an agreement with Universities UK (UUK), the body which represents of the Vice Chancellors of every university in the country, over changes to academics' pension plans.

The pension scheme at the heart of the conflict, the Universities Superannuation Scheme, currently has over 400,000 participants. UUK have stated that the pension scheme currently has a £6.1bn deficit and that the cost of future benefits has increased by one third since 2014. They are proposing a switch from a direct benefit pension scheme (fixed, guaranteed pension payments) to a direct contribution scheme (reliant on stock markets) to maintain the scheme's sustainability.

However, many academics argue the deficit is overstated, and is instead a cynical attempt to reduce the universities' pension liabilties. 

Older and more senior academics who have already spent several decades paying into the system will be less affected by the changes, as contributions will be protected under the old scheme until 2019. 

UCU however allege that this change will result in an average yearly £10,000 loss in staff members' pensions. Academics at 61 universities, including the likes of Oxbridge, UCL, Imperial College London, Cardiff University and the University of Edinburgh will be striking for 14 days. 

The strikes begin on Thursday, and yet no-one seems to know what will happen. FAQs provided by universities to students all appear to have a similar theme: Academic disruption will be minimised, but if you have a complaint, please email us. 

16 percent of academic staff at these universities will be on strike (because most academics aren't a part of a union) but lectures and seminars have still been cancelled. It is still unclear for students whether they will be examined on subjects that they will miss. 

But for the most part, students appear to support the academics. Mark Crawford, a Postgraduate Sabbatical Officer at UCL (the biggest university in the country to strike) says he has been pleasantly surprised by the number of students who have messaged asking him how they can help. 

Perhaps this is due to the pains some academics have gone to minimise the disruption their students will face. Some lecturers have made presentations available online, and have amendeded their reading lists. One academic at King's College London, KCL, has even rearranged her seminars off campus. 

Yet this feeling of goodwill may disappear when reality kicks in. Robert Adderly, a second year Law student at KCL, and a campaigner for the student group provocatively titled “Students Against Strikes” says he’s unsure how supportive students will be once the action actually begins. 

Adderly, while sympathetic to the concerns of the academics does not believe striking is the most effective way to negotiate with Universities UK. He goes on to say that he believes “neither side is willing to compromise” and says that the “only people losing out are students.”

He also says he believes a lot of students “haven’t assessed how they really feel about the strikes” and that the “longer it goes on, the more students who will get angry”. 

Adderly's thoughts are backed by a poll conducted by Trendence UK, a market research company, which found that 38 per cent of students supported their academics on strike, compred to 38 per cent who did not.

Several academics have spoken to the New Statesman off the record about feelings of uneasiness around the strike, arguing that there is a better, less disruptive way of resolving the pension debate. Others are unsure about the leadership of UCU and believe striking will only lead to a build up of work later. 

Professor Andrew Pomiankowski at UCL emailed his students saying while he supported the strike, he would continue conducting his classes this week. He later told the New Statesman “I have a lot of sympathy with the reasons for the strike - the loss of provision of pensions, especially for the younger members of staff. Talking is the only way of resolving this problem. However, I don’t feel that I should disrupt teaching of students. That’s a step too far.”

The strikes go to the heart of the debate about the marketisation of university. Even students who support the strike are in conflict with one another. Notably, students who support the strikes are unhappy with campaigns such as Adderly’s which are also demanding universities compensate them for lost teaching hours. Crawford says your “first instinct shouldn’t be how much am I losing? It should be how much is our staff losing.”

On the other hand, Adderly argues we shouldn’t pretend the marketisation of university hasn’t already happened, saying “It’s here. It’s happening. We are now consumers.” 

Though it appears unlikely that universities will refund students, these strikes are highlighting how our attitudes to higher education have changed in a short space of time, and causing some to ask if this is the future we want for British higher education.