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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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.