Which way will Hughes turn on the EMA?

Labour is attempting to persuade the Lib Dem deputy leader to vote against the abolition of the EMA.

The Labour Party will attempt to reverse the Liberal Democrat deputy leader Simon Hughes into a political corner this afternoon when members of parliament vote on whether the government needs "rethink its decision" to scrap Educational Maintenance Allowances (EMA).

Shadow eduction minister Andy Burnham, who will lead the debate alongside Labour Leader Ed Miliband said, "The language used in the motion has been very carefully worded."

To quote the motion, Labour are, "...calling on the government to rethink its decision on EMA, retaining practical support to improve access to, interest in and participation in further and higher education."

Mr Hughes was quoted in the Times Educational Supplement last weekend as saying, "I've never abstained in my life before the tuition fees debate. If what Labour is saying is a call for the Government to rethink its plans, I will support that."

In contrast to promises made by both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats before the election, EMA, the grant that gives 48% of all 16- to 18-year-olds for staying on at school or college, is due to be scrapped at the end of this academic year.

However, as student protests against the government's action on education continue across London today, all eyes in Westminster will be on Mr Hughes to see whether he will stick to his words.

The Lib Dem Deputy spent the week in his capacity as the government's advocate for further and higher education consulting Burnham who has drafted today's motion.

Labour will be urging as many Liberal Democrats as possible to vote against the government today, however, if such a senior member of the coalition as Mr Hughes joins the opposition in the vote fresh strains will be imposed on the coalition.

Mr Burnham said, "Both Michael Gove and David Cameron specifically promised to keep EMA before the election therefore their plans are a total renege on their commitments.

"The debate today will ask ministers how long do they really want to carry on being lied to?"

Mr Burnham said, "My conversations with Hughes this week have been very constructive and I really believe that he understands the importance of EMA."

When asked whether he think Hughes will vote in favour of Labour's motion Burnham said he couldn't be sure.

Hughes' office told this journalist last night that Labour's careful wording would not succeed in luring the veteran Lib Dem MP into their media trap and that the government will independently reassess their decision to abolish EMA and look for realistic alternatives.

Whether as a face-saving measure or not it seems the coalition have not pulled the plug from EMA - or at least some kind of financial incentivisation for young people to remain in education until the age of 18 - quite yet.

But will anything less than EMA do for Labour or are they just championing this cause celebre to make a media mark?

"This is not about playing party political games," Burnham assures me. "This is about having something of value for young people in Britain. We're open to a healthy debate and understand the coalition are considering alternatives such as free travel."

But he warned, "Since 3400 young people are in receipt of EMA in Mr Hughes' constituency of Bermondsey, he's definitely got cause for concern. About 70% of students at Southwark College get EMA and he'll soon feel the political effects if he goes back on his words."

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

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