Keir Starmer and Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Getty
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On Brexit, Labour is about to take a big gulp from a poisoned chalice

Taking over in the wake of a contest triggered by the sudden collapse of Theresa May’s minority government is surely Labour’s nightmare scenario.

What we always seem to talk about when we talk about Brexit is the Tories. Given that they’re in government, and given the mess they seem to be making of the whole thing, that’s wholly understandable.  But it’s also dangerous, not least because it’s letting Labour off the hook, blinding the party to the fact that it may be about to take a very big drink from a very big poisoned chalice.

Jeremy Corbyn and co should be breathing a big sigh of relief that, as the EU Withdrawal Bill grinds its way through parliament, media coverage is more likely than ever to focus on a handful of Conservative ‘mutineers’ rather than on Her Majesty’s Opposition. This, plus the fact that all eyes will soon be on the next European Council meeting in Brussels, means voters won’t be anything like as aware as they should be that Labour remains as badly split as ever – and not just on how and when this country should leave the European Union, but whether it should leave at all.

Yet any relief among the Labour leadership that it’s May rather than Corbyn who’s currently feeling the heat most could turn out to be very short-lived indeed, especially if the party is unlucky enough to win the next general election - whether that election takes place before or after Brexit in March 2019.

Taking over in the wake of a contest triggered by the sudden collapse of Theresa May’s minority government is surely Labour’s nightmare scenario.

For one thing, Prime Minister Corbyn would probably only have made it into No 10 with the parliamentary support of the SNP, a party that has made no secret of the fact that it regards Brexit as a calamity and will do anything within its power to halt it.

For another, there are an awful lot of Labour MPs who feel exactly the same way.  Sure, many of them, especially those representing Leave constituencies, remain nervous about defying the ‘will of the people’.  But even if that means they’re prepared to see the UK leave the EU, they would still prefer a much softer Brexit – up to and including staying in the single market and the customs union – than is currently on offer from Mrs May.

Given all this, would a Labour (or Labour-led) government really refuse to stop the clock, pause the process and think again?  I don’t think so.

Let’s imagine, though, that it never gets the chance: that Corbyn instead takes office after rather than before we leave the EU.  And let’s imagine, too, that the deal negotiated by his Tory predecessor turns out to be a complete turkey.

Having presumably felt obliged to support said deal in a parliamentary vote, lest it be accused of ignoring the referendum result, Labour would hardly be able to disclaim any responsibility for the resulting administrative chaos/economic meltdown/diplomatic humiliation (delete as appropriate).  Moreover, the chances of it ushering in a popular and truly transformative programme with all that going on would be slim to non-existent.

How long a Labour government would last in those circumstances, and how long it would then spend in opposition once disappointed and even angry voters had removed it from power is anyone’s guess.

So, too, is whether a party already riven by divisions between its centrist and socialist wings could even survive such an outcome, at least in its present form.

Every opposition should be desperate to defeat the existing government and take its place at the drop of a hat, right?  Wrong.  ‘Careful what you wish for; you might just get it’ may be something of a cliché.  But for Labour, it’s one it might want to think about – and hard.

Tim Bale is professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London.  The second edition of his book, The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron, was published in September 2016 by Polity Press.

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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.