"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.