New Labour takes old friends for granted

28th April 2000 at 01:00
NOW, I want you to answer this question honestly.

Beside which name did you place your cross on that momentous May election day back in 1997?

It's no good looking at your feet or mumbling incomprehensibly into your Ovaltine.

Admit it, you voted Labour didn't you? Most of us did. Most lecturers that is.

I can't remember the precise numbers. It was three years ago, after all, but the surveys at the time showed how overwhelmingly we put our crosses next to Tony's (or one of his cronies') name. It's hardly surprising if you think about it. Tories, by and large, don't go into the public services. Their first instinct is to flog them off or shut them down rather than choose to start a career in them.

In many ways, us lecturers are the new Labour (as opposed to New Labour) heartland: second or third generation labourites, often from working-class backgrounds and living in households where voting Tory is seen almost as an indictable offence. And then, of course, back in 1997 we had reasons of our own for seeing off the Major Government. At the risk of sounding like a whingeing teacher (heaven forfend) it's worth remembering how the Tories virtually built the "new further education" on our backs.

Thousands found themselves surplus to requirements. Those who remained had to teach more hours, run more courses and shift more paperwork. And then end up earning considerably less than before for the privilege.

All right, we knew Tony wasn't exactly Keir Hardie but, given the alternative, most of us had no hesitation in plumping for him in preference to the "hammer of the lecturer" in Y-fronts! That was then. With new elections coming up in a few days' time, what's the position now?

Working in a London college, one can't help but be aware of a movement, which has recently come into being, known as "Lecturers for Ken".

To be accurate, it is more normally styled as "Lecturers 4 Ken", apeing the wider slogan of "Londoners 4 Ken", a small difference perhaps but an important one. That "4" implies that, in voting for Mr Livingstone, you are not really opting for a balding, newt-fancying, fifty-something Labour retread but for someone with much younger, much trendier blood racing through his veins. Oh Ken-baby, how we are 4 you!

Lecturers 4 Ken has attracted a big following in its few short weeks of life. In fact, I'd hazard a guess hat most FE teachers in the capital are likely to end up being "4" Ken come May 4th.

Quite possibly, many of them will just be "agin"' Tony but, in practice, the only way to demonstrate this is by making your mark next to Livingstone's name.

If a week is a long time in politics then three years could be described as an eternity but still one might wonder how it can be that Labour's support amongst lecturers has dwindled so dramatically.

After all, hasn't the Government already done a lot for colleges? Hasn't it ended the debilitating drip, drip, drip of year-on-year economies that had become such a blight under the Tories? Hasn't it pumped millions into the service via New Deal, widening participation and a whole variety of other targeted projects? And, in doing so, hasn't it put back the spring into the step of jaded FE folk? The answer of course to these questions is yes to the first three but a resounding no to the fourth.

Why this should be demands a closer examination. Despite the new money from New Labour, lecturers' jobs have not become any easier. The marked worsening in their conditions of work so relentlessly imposed by the Tories has not been reversed.

There are still too many hours and too many students to teach. And all those pointless administrative tasks haven't gone away either.

If anything, they have got worse. On pay, Labour has sat by and watched our incomes dwindle yet further.

Overall we are now nearly ten percent behind teachers in schools and some lecturers have had no pay increases, not even below-inflation cost of living increments, for years. If any more money is to be found, it looks increasingly likely to be of the poisoned-chalice, performance-related variety schoolteachers are being invited to sit up and beg for.

Suggesting that Labour is in danger of losing a chunk of its core vote is not particularly original at the moment.

Most political commentaries talk of little else. That doesn't mean that the grievances of lecturers are any less real.

Like other caring and politically-aware people, we don't necessarily vote in terms of narrow self-interest.

But, when you are on the receiving end of a good kicking, you have to be a particularly hardened type of masochist to insist on giving the kicker a bigger pair of boots!

Stephen Jones is a lecturer at an FE college.

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