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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle