A Difficult Day

Some of my students amongst supporters of Ed Miliband on his recent visit.

Last Friday was, in some respects, like every term-time Friday for me. 9am was the beginning of seven hours of seminars with first-year History students. Only, this wasn’t like any other Friday. It had been less than 11 hours since that exit poll told us just how deluded we had been about the political climate. It was a wildly disorientated day.

My students are a broadly lefty bunch. This is true of Warwick University as a whole, where Labour were recently said to be the party favoured by 41% of students and the Greens by a further 21%. My general sense is that the History Department especially attracts from this end of the political spectrum. I’m not sure if this is something to do with its proud history as the home of EP Thompson, its genuinely impressive gathering of radical scholars today, or if the reputation for nice, hard-working, middle-class lefty students is self-perpetuating. Whatever the reason, few of my students were likely to have been celebrating as the election results came in.

For almost all of my students, this was their first election. The first time they’d likely been actively involved in the political process. And they were on the losing side. That’s a hard fact to come to terms with. And I recommend to them John O’Farrell’s witty memoir of being a lefty in the Thatcherite 1980s, Things Can Only Get Better. I may not quite share their political allegiance, but I respect their pain. And it was a pain that many of them couldn’t conceal, even if they tried. It wasn’t just the #millifans (I know of at least one amongst my students) who found the day difficult. Some had to leave, feeling sick and unable to cope. I’m sure some of the others who didn’t turn up were feeling the same. Others came and carried on, but looked completely phased.

This wasn’t simply a case of some people (elsewhere) celebrating an election victory and others coming to terms with defeat. That is the often tough experience every first-time voter has at any election. And for them, this would be something odd. Almost none of them had been born the last time the Tories had a majority – this was an election result unprecedented in their lifetimes. But this was something else as well. This was also disorientating. Those lefty students didn’t just lose – there can be a pride to take from a noble and courageous defeat. Rather, they’d had the rug pulled out from under them. What was so hard to cope with wasn’t defeat, but the loss of hope held out by opinion polls ever since they left home to study and live and vote as adults. For their entire, short independent adult lives, they’ve been lied to about the political climate within which they’ve lived.

The British Polling Council has set up an independent enquiry, to be chaired by Professor Patrick Sturgis of Southampton University, into why the polls were consistently so wrong. They showed a close race, to be decided in a few marginal seats. They all pointed to a hung parliament with weeks of coalition negotiations almost certain to follow after polling day. For many, including my old PhD supervisor, this seemed to defy political gravity. I’d long seen the writing on the wall, but… the polls! Surely they’d learnt so much since the debacle of 1992, they must be broadly right. This assumption undoubtedly shaped the media coverage, which turned to horse-trading, almost stepping over the actual decision voters had to make first. It also shaped pollsters handling of the situation, as the one poll far more accurate went unpublished by Survation as it was assumed somehow inaccurate. I would imagine it played a significant part in determining how political leaders and activists targeted their efforts in the campaign. And across the country, as I saw from nearly 100 students over those seven classes, for people across the country it turned disappointment into a traumatic psychological shock.

But how to teach through all this? Not easy. Whenever there’s a major distraction, usually building work at Warwick lately, I tend to acknowledge it as part of regaining attention. In this case, that meant sharing nuggets of political history. Weaving asides about the new political climate into what I’d prepared. But ultimately it’s about powering through: KBO, as Churchill used to say.

That’s easier said than done. Especially if you haven’t slept for 40 hours. Like many people, my plan had been to have a nap after the exit poll confirmed what we already knew, then set an alarm for around 3am when we’d actually find out the all-important details. But that was not to be. So I sat there, tired but highly-caffeinated, in front of class after class of dazed and disorientated, often distraught, students. The last things they wanted to do were hear about each other’s ongoing research projects or prep for their upcoming exams. And this is the first time I’ve actually seen any real value in the question on all the student evaluation forms: how enthusiastic is your tutor? I always score very highly on this, but I’ve never been convinced of its importance. I repeat my teaching enough to know that each class has its own dynamic that is only in small part down to the teacher. But it would have been impossible to get through that day otherwise.

It certainly took a gargantuan effort to motivate myself and my students last Friday.

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