Alan Johnson u-turns and backs graduate tax

Shadow chancellor advocates system he previously described as unworkable.

"For goodness' sake, don't pursue a graduate tax."

Alan Johnson, 26 September 2010

"There is a strong case for a graduate tax."

Alan Johnson, 8 December 2010

"The roads to Westminster are littered with the skid marks of political parties changing direction," Vince Cable memorably remarked. Alan Johnson has just added some of his own. After weeks of telling us that a graduate tax is unworkable, the shadow chancellor finally appears to have bowed to Ed Miliband.

In an article for the Times (£) he writes:

We are now seeing how casually the variable fees system can be distorted with such damaging effects. It is in these circumstances that there is a strong case for a graduate tax, which may offer a fairer way of sharing costs between individuals and government.

But in an interview with the Fabian Review, published just four days ago, he said of a graduate tax: " I don't think it could [work] on the basis of what we were dealing with before and what we're dealing with now. Frankly, there's a difference of view." He added: "I feel it's going to be very difficult to make a graduate tax a workable proposition."

On another occasion, in a "letter to the new Labour leader", Johnson wrote: "For goodness' sake, don't pursue a graduate tax. We should be proud of our brave and correct decision to introduce tuition fees."

This said, Johnson's endorsement of a graduate tax is decidedly lukewarm. He writes that there is now a "strong case" for one but offers almost no evidence for this claim. He continues to defends the system of fees he introduced in 2004, but insists that "David Cameron and Nick Clegg are abusing the legacy I left them". The logic of this position is to argue for the status quo, not a graduate tax.

Labour is at least one step closer to a coherent position on higher education. A graduate tax is far from perfect, but it would prevent an open market in fees and ensure that the burden of payment falls on those most able to pay.

But while Miliband has finally (and correctly) imposed collective responsibility, he and Johnson have already lost much credibility over the affair.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.