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‘Locked down and locked in’: the pandemic plight of UK university students

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In the two months since she arrived at the University of Manchester, Hannah Virgo has been nowhere near a lecture theatre, sports hall or student bar. But she has occupied an empty tower block.

Nearly two weeks ago, the 18-year-old and nine other students sneaked into Owens Park Tower, at the centre of Manchester’s Fallowfield campus, and barricaded themselves inside to protest against the university’s handling of education in the pandemic.

Despite the coronavirus crisis, students were encouraged to start their courses at UK universities on the promise of an undergraduate experience, but many say they have been abandoned with little in the way of financial or mental health support, locked down with strangers as Covid-19 tore through university accommodation, and forced to pay annual tuition fees of £9,250 for lessons over Zoom.

“They moved us here under false pretences,” Ms Virgo says. “Basically, they lied to us so we’d pay our fees.”

With universities still teaching through a second wave of the virus, and a second national lockdown, thousands of UK students appear to be coming to the same conclusion. Some are turning to direct action. In universities from Glasgow to Bristol, hundreds have gone on rent strike, and the occupation at Owens Park was continuing last night despite the university offering to compromise on rent.

Students Hannah Virgo, Lucy Nichol and Lotte Marley at the University of Manchester. Virgo says the university 'moved us here under false pretences. Basically they lied to us so we’d pay our fees'
Students Hannah Virgo, Lucy Nichol and Lotte Marley at the University of Manchester. Virgo says the university ‘moved us here under false pretences. Basically they lied to us so we’d pay our fees’
Manchester university students stand behind a fence erected around their Fallowfield halls of residence. Undergraduates said they felt 'imprisoned' and tore down the fencing
Manchester university students stand behind a fence erected around their Fallowfield halls of residence. Undergraduates said they felt ‘imprisoned’ and tore down the fencing © Christopher Furlong/Getty

A decade on from the student protests against the tripling of tuition fees, the pandemic has exposed deep fissures in the UK’s model of higher education. Dependent on student fees, and with little additional help from the government, critics say universities were driven by financial imperatives to bring students back to campus. They say the decision is typical in a market-driven system in which universities are businesses, bound to view students as fee-paying consumers and prioritise generating income over teaching, research and welfare.

In the past two decades, university funding has been transformed. The UK higher education sector as a whole now relies on student fees for half its £40bn annual income. Universities have become landlords, event managers and caterers in a bid to secure their finances and fund expansion, with students making a large contribution to the economic activity of many UK towns and cities.

Although many universities have large reserves and run healthy surpluses, this left them vulnerable when the pandemic hit. In July, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, an influential think-tank, reported that sector-wide losses could amount to nearly half of overall annual income — up to £19bn. Some universities with already precarious finances, it warned, could be pushed towards insolvency.

Dot plot showing that the UK is an outlier on higher education funding distribution

Within weeks of term beginning, thousands of students had been forced to self-isolate, including 1,700 in two accommodation blocks at Manchester Metropolitan, the English city’s second university. By mid-October, case rates in university areas in England were 701 per 100,000, compared with 141 in areas with fewer students, although cases have since fallen.

“If you’re a student, you’ve been sold the idea that you’d have this slightly modified experience,” says Vicky Blake, president of the University College Union, which represents more than 120,000 academics and support staff. “That was never possible. And now students have been locked down, locked in, paying high tuition fees, made to feel like biological weapons.”

‘Taken by surprise’

Manchester university’s Oxford Road campus, on the edge of the city centre, would on an ordinary November afternoon be packed with a significant portion of its 40,000 students. This week only a handful drifted about the libraries and lecture halls.

Over summer, emails from the university promised that staff were working to ensure students could have as normal a university experience as possible. But just a few weeks into term, a lockdown across Greater Manchester meant the majority of face-to-face teaching was cancelled. Now, students are able to book a limited number of spaces in libraries or computer rooms, but facilities such as bars and gyms are closed and only essential practical work, for example in science or medicine, is permitted.

Nancy Rothwell, vice-chancellor of Manchester university, admits to being 'taken by surprise' by the spread and scale of the virus, but remains confident it was the right decision to bring students back to university
Nancy Rothwell, vice-chancellor of Manchester university, admits to being ‘taken by surprise’ by the spread and scale of the virus, but remains confident it was the right decision to bring students back to university © Joel Goodman/LNP
Students at Manchester Metropolitan University. Within weeks of term beginning, 1,700 students in two accommodation blocks at the university were told to self-isolate
Students at Manchester Metropolitan University. Within weeks of term beginning, 1,700 students in two accommodation blocks at the university were told to self-isolate © Joel Goodman/LNP/Shutterstock

“We shouldn’t have been told to come here,” says Stella, a first-year arts student who declined to give her surname. Although sympathetic to her lecturers, who she says have worked hard to offer online lessons, she is angered by what she describes as poor management, confusing messaging and patchy welfare provision from the university. “They just don’t have a plan,” she says. “Everything is so unclear and just badly communicated.”

When Stella and her flatmates had to self-isolate after one of them tested positive, a care package from the university only arrived three days before the end of the 14-day quarantine. Stuffed with food that was close to its expiry date, it had to be thrown away. The mental health provision promised by the university proved difficult to access, she says, with long waiting lists.

Nancy Rothwell, vice-chancellor of Manchester university, says the institution thought it was fully prepared for the pandemic, having spent “literally millions” on mental health provision and investing heavily in online teaching resources.

However, she admits to being “taken by surprise” by the spread and scale of the virus, which quickly increased from a handful of cases to more than 200 of the university’s students a day after the start of term. But while she says her “sympathy goes out” to those struggling, she remains confident it was the right decision to bring students back to university.

Column chart of In 2019-20 prices (£bn) showing Funding for universities shifts towards fees

While it is too early to know yet whether more students than normal have dropped out during their first term, a survey this month by Opinium and student accommodation provider Unite supports the vice-chancellor’s position. It found 93 per cent of students want to stay on at university and 82 per cent are happy they moved into student accommodation.

“It’s an incredibly difficult position, where we are doing all we can,” Dame Nancy says. “The vast majority of students chose to come, and in our experience to date very few are leaving — most students don’t regret going to university.”

A loss of ‘trust’

During the first wave of the pandemic, when face-to-face teaching was abandoned, many universities feared that students just wouldn’t come back. When the IFS published its forecast in July, it made clear that most universities had healthy enough finances to survive the turmoil. But it warned of losses of up to £4.3bn from reduced international student numbers, and up to £7.6bn from deficits in pension schemes, as well as falls in the conference, catering and student accommodation income streams that are now crucial pieces of universities’ funding jigsaws.

Despite calls for a £2bn bailout, the government offered only limited financial support for struggling universities. Even that was offered in terms of a “restructuring package” that placed stringent conditions on universities. Many vice-chancellors saw the move as symptomatic of a hostility to higher education: in July, education secretary Gavin Williamson scrapped the 1999 target of Tony Blair’s government of getting 50 per cent of young people into higher education, saying it was “not always what the individual and nation needs”.

Students self-isolate in Manchester. The Office for Students, the higher education regulator, has indicated that universities should consider claims for partial refunds over coronavirus restrictions
Students self-isolate in Manchester. The Office for Students, the higher education regulator, has indicated that universities should consider claims for partial refunds over coronavirus restrictions © Christopher Furlong/Getty
A student protests outside Manchester Metropolitan University. Vicky Blake, president of the University College Union, says 'students have been locked down, locked in, paying high tuition fees, made to feel like biological weapons'
A student protests outside Manchester Metropolitan University. Vicky Blake, president of the University College Union, says ‘students have been locked down, locked in, paying high tuition fees, made to feel like biological weapons’ © Molly Darlington/Reuters

Steven Jones, a professor of higher education at Manchester university, says this financial vulnerability and the rush to bring students back was based in part on the reality that UK universities operate more like businesses, competing to attract the students they depend on for income.

Despite widespread protests, in 2012 the government changed how higher education was funded in England. Fees for home students increased to £9,000, mostly in the form of government loans paid off by students over time. A cap on recruitment was later lifted, heralding further growth in the higher education sector, and a scramble to attract students.

Since then, total funding for higher education per student has increased by 25 per cent, according to the IFS, and the number enrolling on undergraduate degrees has risen by nearly 10 per cent, to 541,000 in 2019.

But it also shifted the source of funding from the state to the individual. Since 2012, the domestic fee income of English higher education increased nearly fourfold, from £2.6bn to £10.1bn. At the same time, direct government support for teaching fell 76 per cent in real terms.

In 2017, for when its most recent comparisons are available, the OECD reported that 79 per cent of tertiary education spending in the UK was from private sources, and 21 per cent from the public purse. But the OECD’s private classification includes loan financing — much of which students will never pay back — and so it likely underestimates the eventual public spend in UK higher education. Still, the figures put it at odds with much of Europe: in Germany, 85 per cent of tertiary education funding is publicly funded, and in France 79 per cent.

Line chart of Income of higher education providers (£bn) showing Funding from other sources increase as grants rise

As UK universities embraced a market agenda, and moved over two decades from being fee-free to among the most expensive in the world, their contract with students “fundamentally changed”, Prof Jones says. During Covid-19, when the government failed to offer a meaningful bailout to universities, the cracks in the model widened.

About 96 per cent of upfront government support to universities is now in the form of loans, according to the IFS, much of which will eventually be paid back by students. However, Jack Britton, associate director at the IFS, says this shift has not necessarily made universities more vulnerable, as grant funding in previous decades was also calculated according to student numbers. 

“Most universities still want to do what’s right for their students, but in a competitive environment they also have to protect their market share and the income that comes with it,” Prof Jones says. “There’s now a suspicion that you just don’t see in countries where universities are more a part of the public sector. We’ve lost trust.”

Refunds ‘would destroy’ universities

In Manchester, that disconnect has been demonstrated in grave and sometimes tragic events, which have inflamed tensions between university management and undergraduates.

In early October Finn Kitson, a first-year student living in the Fallowfield halls of residence, was found dead in his room after suffering from anxiety. An inquest opened in November.

His grieving father, Michael, an academic at Cambridge university, disputed a report that the teenager’s death had not been related to Covid-19: “If you lock down young people because of Covid-19 with little support, then you should expect that they suffer severe anxiety,” he tweeted. Separately, the mental health charity Mind found 73 per cent of students reported their mental health had declined during lockdown.

Line chart showing that participation in higher education has increased dramatically in the past 20 years

In early November, first-year students living in the same halls of residence woke to discover tall metal fencing had been erected around the perimeter of the site. The university said it was intended to protect students from trespassers, but the undergraduates said they felt “imprisoned” and tore down the fencing.

Adding to the feelings of distrust, a week later Zac Adan, a black first-year student, was walking back to his room on the campus when he was stopped by security guards, pushed against a wall and accused, according to his testimony, of “looking like a drug dealer”. After a video of the incident went viral online the university was forced to launch an inquiry. For Marcell Mapp, a third-year student in disaster management, the alleged racial profiling of Mr Adan was personal. “When I saw the video of Zac, I left the room and I just started crying,” he says. “To come to university where I’m supposed to feel safe and to see someone who looks like me banged up against a wall — it really affected me.”

The unease of students has been echoed by some academics in Manchester. Half a dozen lecturers who spoke to the Financial Times say the pandemic exacerbated a feeling of being sidelined. “There’s a very small group of people making decisions about education who aren’t educators,” says one academic of their experience.

The UCU has argued since the beginning of the pandemic that online teaching should be the default position for universities to guarantee safety, facilitate essential face-to-face teaching and ease the workload. Instead, academics say many universities over promised on what students could expect, then flip-flopped on how staff needed to prepare for face-to-face and online teaching, leaving them “scrabbling around” to plan lessons.

A student deposits her sample as she demonstrates how to take a coronavirus test at a walk-through testing centre at Glasgow Caledonian University
A student deposits her sample as she demonstrates how to take a coronavirus test at a walk-through testing centre at Glasgow Caledonian University © Andrew Milligan/WPA Pool/Getty
Philippa Browning of the UCU says: 'Every university was afraid of losing students, and the idea was to offer face-to-face [teaching] so the students didn’t drop out. Anyone with any sense knew that wasn’t possible — we were already in lockdown'
Philippa Browning of the UCU says: ‘Every university was afraid of losing students, and the idea was to offer face-to-face [teaching] so the students didn’t drop out. Anyone with any sense knew that wasn’t possible — we were already in lockdown’

Philippa Browning, a physics professor and co vice-president of the UCU branch at Manchester, estimates staff would need to work about 20-30 extra hours per week to convert a lecture series to online delivery, and other academics say planning for a combination of online and face to face teaching requires up to six times the workload.

Prof Browning believes a “mistake was made” when the university emailed students to encourage them back. “Every university was afraid of losing students, and the idea was to offer face-to-face [teaching] so the students didn’t drop out,” she says. “Anyone with any sense knew that wasn’t possible — we were already in lockdown.”

In Manchester, a new campaign group, Safer — Student Action for a Fair and Educated Response — is pushing for fees to be cut to £6,162, the rate charged by the Open University, a distance learning institution.

The Office for Students, the higher education regulator, has indicated that universities should consider claims for partial refunds, which will be pursued through the Office for the Independent Adjudicator.

But, says Gavan Conlon, an education researcher at the consultancy London Economics, universities have behaved “entirely rationally”, given the importance of fees, and made statements about what students could expect “in good faith” in the context of the UK government’s “shambolic” response to the pandemic.

Even a one-off refund of £1,000 per student, he estimates, would push institutions into deficit. “It would destroy them,” he says.

That would cost Manchester university about £40m. With an annual income of £1.1bn, Dame Nancy admits that the university is “worried” about the consequences of the pandemic for its finances. Losses in other income streams such as events and on-campus retail have collided with increased costs for online teaching and campus safety, she says.

The UCU’s Ms Blake acknowledges the financial vulnerabilities of universities. But she says managers need to see past those risks to work closely with staff and students if they are to overcome them. “They have failed because they have not engaged with students and staff,” she adds.

Larissa Kennedy, president of the National Union of Students, says the anger stirred by the pandemic and the damage done to relations between students and universities will not be forgotten.

“Students are railing not just against what’s going on now, but the whole financial structure of higher education funding in the UK,” she says. “We need a new strategy, thinking about what fully funded education looks like. We cannot accept that this system continues.”





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Analysis

Covid paralyses Asia as western economies prepare for blast-off

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Throughout 2020, Asia’s success in controlling Covid-19 made it the champion of the world economy. While Europe and the US were mired in deep recessions, much of Asia escaped with a shallower downturn or even kept growing.

But as western economies gear up for a vaccine-induced rebound which is set to take their output back to its pre-pandemic scale by the end of this year, parts of Asia are still paralysed by coronavirus. As a result, although the region’s output is already above its pre-pandemic level, slower growth is expected in the coming months.

As it launched its new regional outlook last week, the Asian Development Bank said that the region’s economies were diverging and that more Covid-19 waves were a big risk.

“New outbreaks continue, in part due to new variants, and many Asian economies face challenges in procuring and administering vaccines,” said Yasuyuki Sawada, the ADB’s chief economist.

The ADB projected growth of 5.6 per cent across developing Asian economies in 2021, led by growth of 8.1 per cent in China and 11 per cent in India. But the continued threat of coronavirus means risks to that outlook are skewed to the downside.

“Six months ago, or eight months ago, I would have said Asia is going to be ahead of the game because Asia can control Covid,” said Steve Cochrane, chief Apac economist at Moody’s Analytics in Singapore.

But the picture has changed, with India suffering a severe wave of the virus, and cases still high in countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand. Thailand is unable to reopen its crucial tourist industry.

More subtly, countries such as Japan are only controlling the virus with restrictions that keep parts of the economy in hibernation. “Some countries need vaccines to control Covid,” said Cochrane. “Others need it so they can open up to international travel and tourism.”

The promise of more than 6 per cent growth in the US this year, as a result of President Joe Biden’s fiscal stimulus, would normally have Asian exporters licking their lips.

Line chart of GDP rebased (2019 = 100) showing Asian economies were less affected by the early stages of the pandemic

The outlook, however, is more subdued than record US growth would usually imply: Americans already bought plenty of goods during the pandemic, while higher US interest rates would mean tighter financial conditions in Asia.

“Adding stimulus at this stage, from the goods perspective, is a real test of whether wants are insatiable,” said Freya Beamish, chief Asia economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics. As the economy opens up, US consumers will probably pay for the services they were denied during lockdown — such as meals out and haircuts — rather than replacing their television again.

There will still be some spillover from the US stimulus, said Beamish, noting that service providers needed equipment, too. “We suspect that people will find new goods to buy and that Asia will benefit from that.” But she added: “We suspect that China will benefit proportionately less from the services recovery than from the manufacturing recovery.”

Whether the extra US demand for goods turns out to be large or small, it is clearly positive. By contrast, higher US interest rates and a stronger dollar would threaten many emerging Asian economies with a repeat of the 2013 “taper tantrum”.

Increased financial integration and foreign currency borrowing mean that the pain of rising US interest rates is quickly felt on the other side of the Pacific.

“A stronger dollar is no longer an unalloyed blessing for Asia,” said Frederic Neumann, co-head of Asia economics at HSBC in Hong Kong. “It helps exports but tightens financial conditions.”

However, inflation is subdued across most of emerging Asia, and the ADB said the risk of a US-induced shock to financial conditions “remains manageable at present”. It said economies such as Sri Lanka and Laos would be vulnerable if such a shock occurred.

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Some Asian economies are well-placed for the next few years, especially Taiwan and South Korea, which are exposed to the semiconductor cycle. “Judging from semiconductor shortages, it doesn’t look like the electronics cycle will break down in the next two or three quarters. That tides them over this rough patch,” said Neumann.

But other Asian economies will find themselves in the less familiar position of relying on domestic demand to grow. One of the biggest question marks is China itself, where first quarter numbers suggest the economy has lost a little momentum.

“Chinese domestic demand still has a way to go,” said Cochrane. “Our forecast right now is for 8 per cent growth in China in 2021, but it depends a lot on policymakers and how quickly they pull back on stimulus and introduce frictions in areas like construction.”



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Analysis

Has Venezuela’s economy bottomed out?

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After one of the biggest economic meltdowns in Latin American history, there are signs that Venezuela may finally be turning a corner.

According to some economists, the socialist government’s decisions to loosen currency controls, relax import restrictions and encourage informal dollarisation have breathed a modicum of life into an economy that has shrunk by about 75 per cent since 2013.

The change of government in the White House has also raised hopes that a solution might be found to the country’s long-running political stalemate, which might lead to an easing of US sanctions and in turn fuel a further rebound.

Credit Suisse recently predicted the Venezuelan economy would expand by 4 per cent this year, which would be its first year of growth since 2013. The bank acknowledged this was in part due to the resumption of economic activity after last year’s hit from the coronavirus pandemic, but this was “not the whole story”.

“The revival in domestic demand, which we have long been noting, is becoming more apparent in the data,” Alberto Rojas, the bank’s chief economist for Venezuela, wrote in a note to clients.

“The easing of controls and widespread use of foreign currencies in everyday transactions has rekindled economic activity — even if just slightly.”

Rojas forecasts further growth of 3 per cent in 2022. “In our view, the growth this year is not just a dead cat bounce,” he wrote.

In Caracas, people were sceptical that this amounted to any sort of meaningful recovery. According to the IMF, per capita gross domestic product in Venezuela has dropped a staggering 87 per cent over the past decade, from $12,200 a year in 2011 to $1,540 now. For the first time, the average Venezuelan is poorer than the average Haitian.

“When you’ve fallen so low, eventually you’re bound to see some sort of correction,” said Adán Celis, president of Venezuela’s manufacturers’ association Conindustria. “The government has introduced some anarchic measures of economic flexibility and that’s provided us with a little bit of oxygen but the structural problems remain.”

But a handful of other banks and consultancies also expect output to increase. Two Venezuelan consultancies, AGPV and Dinámica Venezuela, predict growth this year of 1.9 per cent and 2.3 per cent respectively.

UK-based Oxford Economics forecasts growth of 0.2 per cent this year followed by a jump of 13.1 per cent next year, although it stresses this recovery needs to be seen in context.

“This follows two years in a row [2019 and 2020] when GDP fell by a third or more,” said Marcos Casarin, OE’s chief Latin American economist. “Given the magnitude of the collapse seen since 2014, Venezuela could grow at double-digit rates for several years in a row and still not recover its pre-crisis GDP level.”

Column chart of GDP change (%) showing Venezuela's economy has been shrinking for years

For every economist predicting growth, there are plenty who say Venezuela will suffer more pain before things finally improve.

FocusEconomics, a provider of economic consensus forecasts, recently polled 21 banks and consultancies for their views on Venezuela. The consensus was for a fall in GDP of 3.1 per cent this year followed by a rebound of 2.7 per cent next year. The IMF predicts a contraction of 10 per cent this year and 5 per cent next.

The huge differences between forecasts reflect uncertainty over the consequences of the pandemic, the impact and timing of the rollout of Covid-19 vaccines and the future of the sanctions regime.

“The evolution of US sanctions under the Biden administration remains the key determinant of the outlook,” wrote Stephen Vogado, economist at FocusEconomics.

The sanctions prohibit Venezuela from selling oil to the US and make it difficult for it to export elsewhere, although the government has found ways to get round the measures. Venezuela’s oil exports have risen slightly in each of the past five months, hitting a 10-month high in March — although they are still feeble compared with historical highs.

While oil has been the mainstay of the Venezuelan economy for the past century, the country also used to produce cacao, coffee and rice in significant quantities. It boasted a textile industry and produced chemicals, cement, steel and aluminium. Most of those industries have been decimated in the past two decades of revolutionary socialist rule.

At an outlet selling car accessories in a petrol station in the Las Mercedes neighbourhood of Caracas, store manager Alfredo Barrera said informal dollarisation had brought some degree of price stability after years of hyperinflation.

“The economy has adapted to the country’s problems,” he said. “Right now, it’s fair to talk about relative stability in terms of the currency but we’re a long way from seeing real improvement.”

At La Alicantina, a bakery that has been in business for more than 30 years, manager Douglas Palencia said sales had been hit hard by the pandemic. The shop’s windows, usually full of cakes and pastries, were empty. “I don’t have great expectations for this year,” he said.



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Sturgeon taps Scottish resentment over Johnson and Brexit

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Kenny Paton, the postman in Dumbarton, has been criss-crossing the west coast town near Glasgow, delivering flyers for all the parties contesting Scotland’s parliamentary elections this Thursday. But he is only listening to one.

For all the shortcomings of the Scottish National party’s 14 years in power, the recent turmoil surrounding its handling of sexual harassment claims against former leader Alex Salmond and the destructive nature of its cherished goal of breaking the 314 year union, the party is on course for victory once again.

That is in large part because the SNP, with first minister Nicola Sturgeon at its helm, has been speaking to the heart, tapping into the deep resentment many Scottish people feel at being ruled from Westminster by Conservatives whose leader Boris Johnson and policies, notably Brexit, they did not vote for.

Dumbarton, Scotland map

For some Scots, the economic arguments against independence — and these have only grown with the sharp deterioration in Scotland’s fiscal position since Brexit and the onset of the coronavirus pandemic — are no longer cutting through. 

“You can get into all the intricacies about the border and the currency but at the end of the day who do you want to run the country Boris Johnson or Nicola Sturgeon?” said Paton, who once supported Labour, but is now rooting for the SNP.

Nicola Sturgeon campaigns in Dumbarton © Jeff J Mitchell/AFP/Getty Images

If opinion polls in the run-up to Thursday’s vote are correct, the party is sure to remain the largest in the devolved Holyrood parliament and will possibly gain the slender majority it wants to continue pressing Westminster, for its second chance in seven years of winning independence in a referendum.

There is also the probability that with the Scottish Green party, and Salmond’s newly launched Alba party, the SNP will form part of a bigger block in favour of Scotland going its own way.

Chart tracking voting intention polls for the constituency vote in the Scottish Parliament election

But to get across the line to an SNP majority, Sturgeon may need to win marginals such as Dumbarton, where Jackie Baillie, the deputy leader of Scottish Labour and a popular constituency MSP is defending a majority of just 109, the most vulnerable in Scotland.

As well as her appeal to Scottish identity, Sturgeon has a number of other things in her favour. One is Labour’s weakness, and the perception that it could be long before the party Scotland once voted for en masse returns to power.

“I have been an advocate for Scottish independence since the Conservatives won a majority in Westminster. They do not reflect our views — Scotland is a progressive place,” said Ross Crawford, a 28-year-old IT consultant. “It will be a while before Labour can collect themselves — that’s what makes it so discouraging. It means yet more Conservative rule,” he said.

Labour’s Jackie Baillie in Dumbarton © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/FT

Most of all Sturgeon has Brexit and the indifference shown by first Theresa May, the former prime minister, and then Johnson to the majority in Scotland who voted to remain in the EU and who wanted to retain close relations.

“In 2019, the polls began consistently showing higher levels of support for the SNP. The rise occurs entirely among Remain voters,” said John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde. “Whatever the preferences of Boris Johnson, and Michael Gove [Cabinet Office minister], the brutal reality is that their pursuit of Brexit has undermined support for the union,” he said. 

Julie Reece: ‘We felt safe with her [Nicola Sturgeon] during Covid’ © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/FT

For most of last year backing for independence in Scotland polled at 50 per cent or higher when undecided voters are excluded. But while it has slipped back since then, support for Sturgeon in Dumbarton remains high. This has much to do with her more assured performance during the pandemic, which has helped the SNP avoid an awkward reckoning for its less than stellar longer term record in areas such as education and health. 

“We felt safe with her during Covid,” said Julie Reece, a bus company manager and former Labour supporter now backing the SNP.

Like many people strawpolled in the constituency, Reece was unfazed by Sturgeon’s alleged mishandling of sexual harassment claims against her former ally. “They have tried to make her a scapegoat for Alex Salmond’s affairs,” she said, adding, with a nod to how the first minister has brought women like her behind the SNP cause: “She has engaged women better — it switches you on that bit more,” she said.

But the stakes are high and the tightness of the contest is also galvanising Scots who support the union and are passionately against the rupture it would cause. This has led to unlikely alliances in Dumbarton, with some staunch supporters of the Conservative party even promising to vote tactically for Labour — a rare occurrence in UK politics.

Chart tracking voting intention polls for the regional vote in the Scottish Parliament election

“Anything that keeps the SNP out,” said Carl Vickers, who works at the Faslane naval base further up the Clyde estuary, where thousands of jobs could be lost if Scotland breaks away. The SNP opposes the use of Faslane to store the UK’s nuclear deterrent.

Vickers described himself as a Conservative by nature but said he would be voting for Baillie on the day.

“It’s all about stopping them [the SNP] getting another referendum,” said Trish Collins, a headhunter and Tory who was also planning to vote for the Labour candidate in the constituency vote, which the Conservatives have little chance of winning.

In Scotland, members of the parliament in Edinburgh are elected using a hybrid voting system: constituency representatives elected using the first past the post voting system while additional representatives are elected according to the proportion of votes a party secures in a region comprising several constituencies.

On the banks of the river Leven, Baillie herself remained defiant. “My seat on paper should go to the SNP but I am a seasoned campaigner so I am not stopping until polls are closed,” she said.

A pro-Scottish independence rally in Glasgow last Saturday © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/FT

“Our number one priority should be recovery and then we can argue about the constitution,” she added, warning that when Westminster pulls the plug on the job protection scheme, there could be a surge in unemployment.

“Brexit has been a mess,” said Baillie. “Leaving the UK could be 10 times worse.” 

That need to focus on recovering from the pandemic — the core of Labour’s campaign — does appear to have resonance, even among some SNP supporters. But for those already convinced about the risks involved in breaking up the UK union, the feelings were even more emphatic.

“We’d just got over one independence vote then Brexit was thrown at us. Now the SNP have got a good chance of coming out with a majority — the whole of Scottish politics is a joke,” said Bryan Burn, a wholesaler for fishing tackle.

He was speaking an hour south by car from Dumbarton in the relatively prosperous town of Ayr, where Conservative MSP and former farmer John Scott is defending another slender majority. A life-long Labour supporter, Burn was visibly distressed at the way things are headed. “If I were younger I would be looking to move elsewhere,” he said.

But Sturgeon is picking up votes in Ayr too.

“I like what she stands for. She’s great at what she does,” said Chris Hughes, a self-employed software engineer, who hoped an independent Scotland could rejoin Europe, and who along with his wife was voting SNP.

Scott, the Conservative incumbent who is defending a majority of just 700 votes, acknowledged that the odds were even. “It will be very, very close,” he said. “The independence issue has become an issue of the heart. Many people don’t take into account the grim realities it might hold for Scotland.”



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