Today has been a first for me. My first active (or more accurately, inactive) participation in industrial action. It’s not something that I voted for, but as a member of a democratic union (in my case the Universities and College Union), I am bound to support the majority view in a fair and open ballot process, to the extent that my conscience allows. In my case, this has involved striking today, and making a voluntary donation to the strike fund to support those members who will have lost up to 8 days’ pay by the end of this stage of the dispute on Wednesday next week. The strike is in protest at the failure of universities nationally to move quickly enough to resolve issues around pay, conditions (especially workload), and pensions. Despite the fact that some universities (including Bristol) have made progress in the areas of workload allocation, reducing the reliance on temporary contracts for teaching staff in particular, and the gender pay gap, the sad fact is that most of the key decisions around pay and pensions are negotiated on a national basis. Pay across the HE sector has been held artificially low for over ten years now, and allowing for inflation, pay remain below pre-financial crash levels. Pension changes have seen employee contributions rise and benefits capped, with the threat of further significant rises to come despite clear evidence from the Union (verified by some of the most qualified pensions academics in the country!) that they are not necessary at the scale proposed (and possibly not at all).
Nobody takes industrial action lightly; and nobody who works in HE wants to jeopardise the education or experience of our students and potential students. But equally, industrial action, whilst always a last resort, is also sometimes necessary to demonstrate strength of feeling and to encourage employers back to the negotiating table. There are signs that the action of this past week is leading some university vice chancellors to put pressure on the national negotiating body to re-open talks, and that would be a good step forward. Personally, I hope that there is enough goodwill on both sides to be allow progress to be made and the dispute to be settled. It is distinctly uncomfortable to find yourself placed between your duty to your students, and your duty to your colleagues.
It’s also good practice, though, because I will face a similar ethical dilemma when I go to the polling station for the general election on 12th December. In my constituency, it looks almost inconceivable that anyone other than either the Labour or Conservative candidate will be elected. There is no dilemma at all for me about not wanting to return a Conservative MP to parliament in my name. My problem is that in order to stop this, I will have to vote Labour. Ethically and philosophically, I can rationalise this on utilitarian grounds : that ethical actions are those that seek to do the most good for the greatest number of people. But in voting Labour, I am aware that I am tacitly supporting a party that has alienated large numbers of centrist socialists, as well as many Jews. The behaviour of some Labour members in some constituencies has been bullying and boorish. The failure of the leadership to genuinely apologise for the many incidents of anti-Semitism that have been reported, AND to take decisive action to root out the racists who have perpetrated those incidents, is shameful.
But I cannot cast my vote in a way that increases the chances of a Conservative government after December 12th. The Conservative Party has become a far-right parody of itself, pandering to a populist agenda that is as hollow as it is morally bankrupt. The leader of the Conservative Party is a philanderer and a liar who is unable to withstand even the most gentle cross-examination and so simply refuses to turn up to any interview with anybody who is not wholly biased towards him. A bully who threatens parliament, the courts, Channel 4 – indeed, anybody who stands up to his appalling behaviour – with curbs on their independence or their right to exist at all. A fraud who insists on pressing ahead with the outcome of a fraudulent referendum on membership of the EU despite all the evidence that there was no majority at that time (or at any time since) for any specific form of leaving. A charlatan who refused to allow detailed scrutiny of his renegotiated withdrawal deal, choosing instead to plunge the country into a divisive and wholly unnecessary general election. After nine years of Tory rule, the country is an international laughing stock, is mired in debt (despite the austerity measures that have seen the richest get richer while everybody else is much worse off), and has spent three and a half years without a functioning government while the Conservative Party tries to work out what form of Brexit it actually wants.
I saw a Tweet the other day that said that the most 2019 thing ever would be to see all parties returned to Westminster on December 13th with exactly the same number of seats as they had when parliament was dissolved. It would be a delicious irony and would certainly appeal to my sense of the absurd. My ideal outcome would be a result that delivers no overall control to any individual party, and that forces a coalition of Labour, Liberal Democrat, SNP, Green and/or Plaid Cymru MPs, with a radical agenda including a second referendum to settle the Brexit debacle, and constitutional reform including abandoning first past the post in favour of proportional representation. I want to be able to vote for the party that I really want to see representing me (at the moment, Plaid), and to know that that vote counts. I don’t want my vote to be a choice between the least worst option.
In the meantime, I’ll be the bloke at the polling station with a peg on my nose voting for Labour.