David Miliband becomes Labour’s lone star against a graduate tax

Unlike the other leadership candidates, Miliband stands firmly against a graduate tax to save univer

In a speech on education in Bristol today, David Miliband has marked himself out as the one and only Labour leadership candidate not to back a graduate tax. That is not to say he wants to see higher education scaled back; he doesn't just oppose the coalition cut of 10,000 university places, he actually argues for even greater expansion of university participation to 60 per cent.

Diane Abbott voted against the government when Labour legislated for variable tuition fees in 2004 and was a vocal advocate for a graduate tax. Ed Balls now tells us that he argued at the time for a graduate tax from his position inside the Treasury.

Andy Burnham said he was attracted to a graduate tax at the early hustings events and at the weekend Ed Miliband said he would develop a graduate tax proposal to submit to Lord Browne's inquiry into higher education finance.

But today, David Miliband marked himself out by refusing to fall in line and saying that university "expansion must not come at the expense of quality . . . graduates, not students, will need to contribute more. There are a number of ways of achieving that, such as reforms to the student loan system or variations on a graduate contribution scheme. But the principles are clear: cost must not deter access and contributions must be based on ability to pay."

His argument for increasing the participation rate is a compelling and economically literate one. In the UK currently, 45 per cent of the under-30s attend university -- a lower level than for Finland, Australia and New Zealand. And Barack Obama has pledged that by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of university graduates in the world, surpassing the top country, South Korea, which has 53 per cent.

Future-proof

Ed Balls gets criticised for his advocacy of "post-neoclassical endogenous growth theory", but investing in a world-class university sector is now a consensus response to globalisation. Successful innovation clusters invariably have world-class universities at their heart, as well as highly skilled workforces that stop the race to the bottom while sustaining quality jobs in the most future-proof of industries.

So, if all the candidates are in a similar place in opposing higher education cuts, why is David Miliband striking out and seeking to differentiate himself on higher education funding? Why call for growth in the sector without explaining how to finance it? What is the difference between a "graduate contribution scheme" and "a graduate tax"? What are the "reforms to the student loan system" that appeal to him?

One contributor to an online Q&A Ed Miliband took part in yesterday criticised the graduate tax idea for discouraging students from living "frugally". But as Ed Miliband argued, it all depends on whether a new graduate tax is used to fund university tuition or student living costs. One of the challenges for the Browne review is get a fair balance of funding for universities themselves and for student maintenance support.

An open debate about the range of alternatives is exactly what Labour needs this leadership contest to be about: not a contest of characters and personalities, but of policies and ideas. Abbott, Balls, Burnham and Ed Miliband need to explain how much a graduate tax would be and whether they propose any exemptions.

Today, however, David Miliband has done what Ed Balls did over immigration and made himself a lone star in a big policy debate. Expect him to be challenged on why at the hustings in Lambeth tonight.

Richard Darlington is head of the Open Left project at Demos.

Richard Darlington is Head of News at IPPR. Follow him on Twitter @RDarlo.

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Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP’s echoes of New Labour

The fall of Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through bold policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s strategy was so successful that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness.

But, as some say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh; when you make, as you will, bad decisions; when the list of enemies grows long; when you’ve simply had your time; you’ll fall like all the rest. Only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. The debate on 21 May between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of a sure outcome – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. That is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’être is independence; everything else is just another brick to build the path. And so its education reform cannot be either brave or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions, or parents.

The same goes for the NHS, and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature – is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: “It’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs.”

Yet the voters show signs of wearying. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren.

So, during the debate, it was Nicola Sturgeon, not the Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, or Labour’s Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs.

There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use food banks (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster). “I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish government],” Claire Austin told the panel. “You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS.” She delivered the killer line of the evening: “Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you . . . in this election?”

The list of reasonable criticisms of the SNP’s governance is growing. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off. Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried Middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nationalists’ constitution explicitly prohibits SNP elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. Although total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing.

The word “cult” has long dogged the SNP. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning, but this has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage door at times). After the debate, Claire Austin found herself at its mercy as the Nats briefed – wrongly – that she was the wife of a Tory councillor. The SNP branch in Stirling said, Tebbitishly, that if she was having to use food banks, “Maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?”

Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s home affairs spokesperson, was forced to apologise for spreading “Twitter rumours” about Austin. The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but it hasn’t gone away – it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated: they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party.

I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall, it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, and its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly exasperate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and many signs that things will get worse.

How then do you arrest your fall? The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed it. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed. 

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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