With only days to go until the election, few political commentators appear willing to put their necks on the line to predict the result. It’s been a strange election campaign, that’s for sure, with Brexit dominating less than many expected. That said, it’s hard to avoid the vox-pop interviews in which the Leave-voting "disillusioned-from-Doncaster" or the Remain-voting "frustrated-from-Finchley" tell us that they’re planning on “voting for the other party” for the first time in their life.
That degree of uncertainty makes polling highly speculative: and it’s not as if polling has had a great track record in recent years anyway. This election is harder than ever to call, given the volatility in the relatively small number of constituencies that will make or break a majority for the Tories or Labour. Tactical voting might be significant, with the polarising Brexit issue driving behaviours that pollsters are unlikely to have picked up fully.
Whitehall seems unable to forecast any better than anyone else, with seemingly less preparation for opposition policies than I have seen in previous elections. This suggests that their expectations are for a Tory majority or possibly for a position of no overall majority, which would place manifesto promises into the negotiation mix in what could be a very short-term focused makeshift government.
Election 2019: What will it mean for colleges?
So, what does all of this mean for colleges and further education? Firstly, the uncertainty in politics makes our #LoveOurColleges campaigning even more important. The campaign’s success has been based on college leaders, staff, students and employers showing how and why colleges are important, setting out an optimistic and positive agenda for the future. That advocacy has engaged MPs across every party, in every part of the country, and has given MPs a simple, local and national message to take into Parliament. It has allowed them to talk about the needs of their constituents, irrespective of Leave or Remain, despite Brexit concerns. It has given them a platform to advocate for young people and adults who matter, and for the local employers who need more skilled people.
Whatever the outcome of the election, that work led by college leaders will be vital in keeping colleges at the forefront of parliamentary debate and high on the list of priorities. The chances of being able to achieve that are high. I’ve written before about the circumstances and the actions that have helped to put colleges, skills, post-16 and lifelong learning high on the politicians’ priorities list, and those reasons remain.
Businesses are finding it harder and harder to recruit skilled workers, polling is showing that more adults want to see investment in technical education while confidence in higher education wanes and the electorate is more worried about social justice and fairness. All of those factors will not disappear in 2020: they may even strengthen and, with strong campaigning, colleges should be able to maintain their profile and importance.
FE is well-positioned
Finally, I cannot remember an election in which colleges and lifelong learning have featured so heavily, in manifestoes, speeches and visits. All the main parties have recognised the decade of austerity and have pledged varying degrees and types of investment; all are committed to a long-term renaissance in colleges in the 2020s. We can make sure that they deliver, by helping them to implement their pledges and reminding them if they don’t.
So, amidst the uncertainty and despite the Brexit clouds, colleges are well-positioned. We cannot be complacent, though: with a large number of new MPs expected, there will be more work to do. I’m hoping that every college leader in the country has their congratulations letter ready to go, with an invite to visit the college, meet students, don the hi-viz vest and ensure that the first picture of the new MP in the local newspaper is at the college.
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges