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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

0800 7318496