Originally published at The Educator on 16th June 2017
When Theresa May called snap elections in April, it was with the intention of gaining a strengthened majority in Parliament, to have full authority to negotiate a ‘hard Brexit’ with the EU, and to push ahead with the Tory party’s obsession with austerity, which has seen state schools and public health services devastated by massive cuts.
However, May and the Conservative government grossly misjudged the national spirit. For the average voter, this election was less about handing the Tories their agenda to deliver a ‘hard Brexit’ but more about living standards, social services and everyday concerns.
The Tory party’s commitment to spending cuts has been evident since they came to power in 2010, and the results of this have been that living standards have fallen, inflation has risen, the NHS has been depleted and schools are losing teachers at an unprecedented rate.
The Tory party failed to convince people that their “quality of life” would improve, in fact they did just the opposite with the Prime Minister telling a nurse who hadn’t had a real pay rise in eight years, “there isn’t a magic money tree that we can shake that suddenly provides for everything people want.”
In contrast, Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party made the election about investment in schools, the NHS and the police. The Labour party’s manifesto promised – proper investment in our NHS, social care and schools; more police on the streets; free childcare; a real living wage; no more zero-hours contracts: free school meals and the scrapping of university tuition fees.
One politician who clearly understands where Theresa May went wrong was Gavin Barwell, who lost his Croydon Central seat to Labour. He told BBC’s Panorama programme that years of spending cuts had taken their toll on the general public’s trust,
“There’s a conversation I particularly remember with a teacher who had voted for me in 2010 and 2015 and said ‘you know I understand the need for a pay freeze for a few years to deal with the deficit but you’re now asking for that to go on potentially for 10 or 11 years and that’s too much,”
Since the election, it appears that the Conservatives are looking to U-turn on their economic policy, as Bloomberg Intelligence economist Dan Hanson explains, “It’s quite possible that the new government will commit to a less aggressive path of deficit reduction. It would not only be politically savvy, but also give the economy a much-needed boost.”
These predictions have since been acknowledged by the Prime Minister, who apologised to Conservative lawmakers. This apparent end to the Tory party’s eight years of austerity is a surprise which will offer optimism to schools, teachers, students and everyone involved with the NHS.
The Conservative Party initial plans had schools across the UK facing a funding cut of £3bn in real terms by 2020. School funding cuts have made it increasingly challenging for school leaders and classroom teachers to focus on their primary purpose of educating learners to the best of their abilities.
Cuts in education have also been instrumental in making teaching a less attractive profession than it had been previously, and this led the country to face one of greatest teacher shortages in decades. Looking back it’s hardly surprising that the Conservative government’s campaign of austerity coincides with the UK’s teacher shortage.
Theresa May’s U-turn on funding for state schools is likely to include her party’s controversial plans to scrap free school dinners for four to seven year olds. Graham Brady, senior Tory and chairman of the influential 1922 committee, admitted that replacing free school lunches with free breakfasts had been very unpopular, “It was a silly thing to say free breakfasts are a sensible substitute for school lunches.”
This reversal will be seen as a victory for Jeremy Corbyn and Labour, who had promised to increase school funding and bring in free school meals for all primary schoolchildren. Keeping free school dinners on the menu will also be welcomed by celebrity chefs and food campaigners Jamie Oliver and Prue Leith, who, working with teachers and health experts, campaigned against plans to replace free lunches with free breakfasts.
Jeremy Corbyn’s promise to ‘bring about the progressive restoration of free education for all’, was another key factor in Labour’s electoral successes. Labour’s pledge to abolish university tuition fees was seen as having encouraged a strong turnout among young voters.
Since 1997, university tuition fees have risen from £3,000 per year to £9,000 per year. University graduates are now finding themselves tied to huge debts before they even enter the employment market. Young people are disillusioned by this and voted to change a system which they saw as being unfair to them. As George Osborne, the former Conservative chancellor summarised, the 2017 election results were “the revenge of the young,” adding, “The young are coming out and voting and they are clobbering the Tory MPs in university towns and places like that.”
It remains to be seen if higher education will be overhauled and university students will again be free from tuition fees. It will also take some time to see how much additional financial support the government will provide to teachers and schools, but for now there is a reason to be optimistic that politicians are listening to the general public, and that is something that’s been missing for far too long.
Daniel Maxwell is a writer and educator.