Sunday comment round-up -- 16 November 2008

A good week for Gordon Brown but why is the commentariat still unconvinced?

With a colossus-like Gordon Brown still striding around the globe, tributes being paid by world leaders and nobel prize winners alike, it would only seem right that the Sunday political commentators hail the great unelected one.

But for some reason it isn't working out like that. The scale of the the Brown bounce depends on whether you believe the Independent on Sunday's ComeRes poll, which has the Tories 11 points in the lead and heading for victory or the Sunday Times YouGov poll which has them at just five points ahead. But there is, on the face of it, every reason to marvel at the Prime Minister's astonishing comeback.

John Rentoul does his reasonable best. As he points out, governments can win elections in downturns and polls can be wrong, as the election of 1992 showed. But his endorsement is not exactly ringing:

Already the scales are more evenly balanced than they have been for most of the past year.

For the second time in three weeks, Rentoul's colleague, Alan Watkins, is deeply critical of Brown. What on earth can the Prime Minister have done to this elder statesman of British journalism? Surely even the most thuggish of the Brownites wouldn't have been daft enough to rough up this old gent of the liberal intelligentsia? Two weeks ago Watkins explained why Brown didn't deserve to win the next election, this week he predicts victory for Cameron, despite his shadow chancellor's difficulties. Now he says:

The last three Conservative Prime Ministers who attained office for the first time around were all surrounded by doubts. Edward Heath was regarded as outgunned; Margaret Thatcher, an inexperienced woman; John Major sure to lose because of the recession.

Iain Martin provides a fascinating analysis of why neither Labour nor the Tories are ready for an early election. In passing he notes Brown's impeccable Democratic Party contacts book, but suggests the veteran PM has more to learn from the novice President-elect than the other way round.

The most surprising dissident is Andrew Rawnsley of The Observer, the chronicler of New Labour. His analysis is pretty balanced, recognising the breathtaking nerve of Gordon Brown in ripping up the rule-book of prudence. But he is not prepared to condemn George Osborne for "talking down" the pound when it was already in a state of freefall. For Rawnsley, Osborne is playing a long-term strategy, waiting for the Prime Minister to tumble from the tightrope he has strung for himself over the chasm of the economic collapse.

Martin Ivens, the on-form political commentator of the moment, notes the chilling inhumanity of the Brown's performance at PMQs on Wednesday - failing to show any genuine empathy over the death of Baby P and wrongly criticising David Cameron for scoring political points (which he wasn't). How does this socially awkward individual who finds it so difficult to give a straight answer to a straight question manage to command such respect on the world stage? I do wonder myself sometimes. Maybe he has really good interpreters.

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Jeremy Corbyn's opponents are going down a blind alley on tuition fees

The electoral pool they are fishing in is shallow – perhaps even non-existent. 

The press and Labour’s political opponents are hammering Jeremy Corbyn over his party's pledge/ambition/cruel lie to win an election (delete depending on your preference) to not only abolish tuition fees for new students, but to write off the existing debts of those who have already graduated.

Labour has conceded (or restated, again, depending on your preference) that this is merely an “ambition” – that the party had not pledged to wipe out existing tuition fee debt but merely to scrap fees.

The party’s manifesto and the accompanying costings document only included a commitment to scrap the fees of students already in the system. What the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are claiming as a pledge is the following remark, made by Jeremy Corbyn in his Q&A with NME readers:

“First of all, we want to get rid of student fees altogether. We’ll do it as soon as we get in, and we’ll then introduce legislation to ensure that any student going from the 2017-18 academic year will not pay fees. They will pay them, but we’ll rebate them when we’ve got the legislation through – that’s fundamentally the principle behind it. Yes, there is a block of those that currently have a massive debt, and I’m looking at ways that we could reduce that, ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off, or some other means of reducing that debt burden. I don’t have the simple answer for it at this stage – I don’t think anybody would expect me to, because this election was called unexpectedly; we had two weeks to prepare all of this – but I’m very well aware of that problem. And I don’t see why those that had the historical misfortune to be at university during the £9,000 period should be burdened excessively compared to those that went before or those that come after. I will deal with it.”

Is this a promise, an aspiration or a target? The answer probably depends on how you feel about Jeremy Corbyn or fees policy in general. (My reading, for what it’s worth, is that the full quote looks much more like an objective than a promise to my eyes but that the alternative explanation is fair enough, too.)

The more interesting question is whether or not there is an electoral prize to be had, whether from the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats, for hammering Labour on this topic. On that one the answer is open and shut: there really isn’t one.

Why not? Because the evidence is clear: that pledging to abolish tuition fees largely moves two groups of voters: students who have yet to graduate and actually start paying back the fees, and their parents and grandparents, who are worried about the debt burden.

There is not a large caucus of fee-paying graduates – that is, people who have graduated and are earning enough to start paying back their tuition fees – who are opposed to the system. (We don’t have enough evidence but my expectation is that the parents of people who have already graduated are also less fussed. They can see that their children are not crippled by tuition fee debt, which forms a negligible part of a graduate’s tax and living expenses, as opposed to parents who are expecting a worrying future for their children who have yet to graduate.)

Put simply, there isn’t a large group of people aged 21 or above voting for Corbyn who are that concerned about a debt write-off. Of those that are, they tend to have an ideological stance on the value of a higher education system paid for out of general taxation – a stance that makes it much harder for the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats to peel those votes off.

The whole thing is a bit of a blind alley for the parties of the centre and right. The Tory difficulty at this election wasn’t that they did badly among 18-21s, though they did do exceptionally badly. With the exception of the wave year of 1983, they have always tended to do badly with this group. Their problem is that they are doing badly with 30-45s, usually the time in life that some younger Labour voters begin to vote Conservative, largely but not exclusively because they have tended to get on the property ladder.

Nowadays of course, that cohort, particularly in the south of England, is not getting on the property ladder and as a result is not turning blue as it ages. And that’s both a bigger worry and a more lucrative electoral target for Labour’s opponents than litigating an NME interview.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.