Why Ed Miliband is vulnerable on tuition fees

The failure to offer a better deal for students leaves Labour little room to attack the coalition.

Ed Miliband admitted today that he was "tempted" to attend Wednesday's student protests and "go out and talk to" protestors.

When asked why he did not, he came up with a rather lame excuse: "I think I was doing something else at the time, actually."

Well, obviously.

Miliband "doing something else" is indicative of Labour's policy on tuition fees. They have tended to ignore the issue. Labour have made it clear that they are against the coalition proposals, but have not attempted to tap in to the intense reaction to them.

The reason for this is because Labour are vulnerable on tuition fees. They introduced top-up fees (then as now an attempt to triple the price of higher education) and they commissioned the Browne review, which helped shape the coalition's current policy. Labour can hardly contend to be the party of students when they set the ball rolling on the current proposals.

The biggest problem for Labour, however, is that the party has not put together an alternative that is any better for students. Labour's proposal of a graduate tax would leave students little better off, paying off a similar amount of money over a similar amount of time. Students might be protesting against the coalition's policy, but they are certainly not protesting for Labour's.

If Ed Miliband had addressed the protesting masses, it would have been opportunistic and more than a little hypocritical.

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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.