They're off. The general election race has started and both the major parties start the year neck and neck in the polls.
The latest You Gov poll shows Labour on 33% and the Tories on 32%. The Lib Dems trail on just 6% while UKIP has a healthy 17% share of the poll. So it's going to be another hung parliament – I think. But what will that mean in reality?
For if these polls are translated into seats it is likely that Labour and Tories will end up with around the same number of seats – perhaps as low as 270-280 each. To form a government a coalition needs to have more than 326 seats in the House of Commons. With a likely reduction in the number of Lib Dem MPs from the current 57 to perhaps as few as 20-30, and no real idea how UKIP will do, it becomes increasingly difficult to see which major party will be able to form a coalition government.
Various scenarios then present. There might be a minority government sustained through a confidence and supply arrangement with a minor party. There might be three or four way coalition agreements. There might be no chance of a government forming and a fresh election in October or sooner. Needless to say there is a long way to go in this particular race.
What is clear is that the two major parties have come out unequivocally fighting on ground they believe represents the best chance of swaying floating voters. The Tories are making the case as the party of the economy. They will reduce the deficit quickest; tax us all less, and ensure growth is sustained. In the process they will shrink spending on public services to the lowest levels as a proportion of GDP seen since around 1935.
This in turn offers the Labour Party its battleground. Starting with the NHS they will save public services. If the British people value their public services then only Labour will do. The Lib Dems propose a little bit of both – less austerity than the Tories but more than labour.
But what does this mean for FE? The simple answer might be not a great deal. However that would be to over simplify some important differences between the parties in their economic strategies. Particularly when it comes to how to create more productivity which was the subject of my last blog. Essentially the Coalition strategy has been based on a form of voluntarism plus cash. If we can move resources to employers in the form of giving them the funds for training and apprenticeships then we will surely deliver better outcomes is the belief. Given that the results of the consultation on Apprenticeship funding announced on 13th of this month seems to have kicked into some very long grass the time when there will be clarity about the way employers will be funded this belief is being sorely tested.
Labour too has adopted a similar approach but its might be best summed up as voluntarism with less carrot and more stick. And stick in the form of expecting larger employers to deliver apprenticeships when in receipt of government contracts and more reform of the supply side too with new Institutes of Technical Excellence, Technical degrees and Technical universities and apprenticeships at level 3 only.
Of course any of the above goes into abeyance if neither major party can form a government. If a new government cannot be formed then decisions around future funding and capital investment might well be left in limbo. Current policy ideas may well continue but new ones clearly won't be implemented. That is why it is doubly important whatever one's personal views to support the principle of citizens exercising their right to vote. Encouraging those of our students who can vote to vote is a responsibility all in FE should embrace.
One thing is certain. This will be the most fascinating general election since at least 1992. There is a long way to go and it may be the case that a clear winner will emerge from the pack to either govern alone or form a clear coalition with another party or parties. Then again it may not. Personally my bet is likely to be each way...
Nick Isles is deputy principal and chief executive of Milton Keynes College