Mandelson's third way on tuition fees

Mandelson says that Labour would have increased fees but would "never have trebled" them.

Peter Mandelson's comments on Ed Miliband at last night's Progress event have received a lot of attention this morning but some of his most revealing remarks were on another subject: tuition fees.

Mandelson conceded that Labour would have increased tuition fees but added: "We would never have trebled them and cut the teaching grant by so much." The Tories have often pointed out that Labour commissioned the Browne Review, implying that the opposition would have adopted the same policy, but Mandelson's comments suggest that Labour could have charted a third way.

Had the coalition not chosen to triple fees to £9,000 - the highest public university fees in the world - it could at least have minimised the tuition fees fiasco. The cost to the state would have been no greater since ministers would have been required to provide fewer subsidised loans (many of which will never be paid back in full), and the charge that students from poorer backgrounds will be deterred from applying would not be so strong. It was the coalition's decision to slash the teaching grant by 80 per cent that prompted around two-thirds of universities to charge the maximum £9,000 a year.

Mandelson was also right to call for Labour to "revolutionise its funding sources". As I've pointed out before, the party is now an almost wholly owned subsidiary of the trade unions. Back in 1994, when Tony Blair became Labour leader, the unions accounted for just a third of the party's annual income. They now account for more than 60 per cent.

In the last quarter, private donations represented just £59,503 (2 per cent) of Labour's £2,777,519 income. Just two individuals donated to the party, one of whom was Alastair Campbell. By contrast, union donations accounted for 90 per cent of all funding. I'm a strong supporter of the trade union link, but it's unhealthy for a progressive political party to be so dependent on a few sources of income. Mandelson was right to argue that Labour must widen its funding base as a matter of urgency.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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PMQs review: Emily Thornberry triumphs over Brexit

The shadow foreign secretary skewered Theresa May's stand-in David Lidington. 

Two years ago, when Emily Thornberry was forced to resign from Ed Miliband's shadow cabinet over her white van tweet, few would have expected her to return to the frontbench. Today, she led her party at Prime Minister's Questions. Jeremy Corbyn has appointed his Islington neighbour as his stand-in when he or Theresa May is absent. With both the Prime Minister and Philip Hammond abroad, Thornberry faced David Lidington, the hitherto obscure Leader of the Commons. 

Thornberry, a former barrister, arrived with a reputation as a strong parliamentary performer. It was one enhanced today. From her first question, the shadow foreign secretary was in control. "Does the government want the UK to remain part of the customs union?" As Thornberry anticipated, Lidington was unable to say, merely promising "additional clarity about our position at the earliest opportunity". 

Rather than relenting (as Corbyn sometimes does), Thornberry pressed her advantage. "Does he still agree with himself?” she asked after quoting a doom-laden warning from the pro-Remain Lidington. "There has been a referendum since February," he retorted, warning that it would be harmful to the "national interest" to provide a "detailed exposition of our negotiating position". With pantomime theatricality, an exasperated Thornberry replied: “Dear, oh dear. We’re not asking for details, we’re asking about a central plant of the negotiation."

When she turned to the status of the Irish border, Lidington was similarly hamstrung. "There is good will on all those sides to try and reach a solution," was all he could promise. The Leader of the House wasn't hiding the answers; he doesn't know the answers. 

Thornberry's line of attack was aided by rare clarity on the Labour side. The opposition, she declared, supported customs union membership. By contrast, "we have a government that cannot tell us the plan because they do not have a plan." Thornberry ended by once again torturing Lidington with his own words: "In February, the Leader of the House said what he was hearing about from the Leave campaign was confusing, contradictory nonsense. My final question is this: are we hearing anything different from this government today?" Lidington's retort fell flat: "[Labour's] quarrelling like Mutiny on the Bounty re-shot by the Carry On team". From the gallery above, Thornberry's spin doctor Damian McBride smiled at a job well done. 

The odds on Lidington succeeding May are unlikely to have shortened. But Thornberry, a Corbyn loyalist, has shown why it would be hasty to write her off. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.