Miliband would cut top tuition fees to £6,000

Labour pledges to reduce top university fees by scrapping cut to corporation tax.

Labour would lower the cap on tuition fees if in government, Ed Miliband has announced.

Continuing his strategy of aligning himself with the "squeezed middle" -- the ordinary people suffering from the fall-out of the economic crisis -- he has said that if he was in government, he would cut the maximum tuition fee from £9,000 to £6,000.

The move is one of the biggest policy decisions Miliband has made during his year in leader, and is a clear attempt to attract some of the student vote that the Liberal Democrats lost when they broke their promise on tuition fees. Speaking to the Observer, aides implied that it may not stop there: "This is what we would do now. But in three and a half years' time we might be able to do even more." However, once the new fees are ensconsed, it is difficult to see Labour promising to reduce them further.

Given all the murmurings about his party's "economic credibility", Miliband has emphasised that this cut is fully costed -- it would be funded by charging more interest for the highest paid graduates, and by scrapping a planned cut in corporation tax.

This last is a canny political move. Directly equating hikes in living costs for ordinary people with cuts for those who precipitated the crisis is likely to strike a chord with a public already angry at this double standard. The coalition has already criticised the proposal, with Lib Dem MP Gordon Birtwhistle telling the BBC that companies affected are potential employers of students. However, this does not ring true as it is not a hike in corporation tax, merely the reversal of a cut. It is a bold move, and sends a potentially powerful message about where Miliband believes the burden should lie.

However, he did not refer to the huge cuts to university funding that the coalition plans. These cuts of up to 80 per cent mean the crisis in university funding -- which the Browne Review was created to address -- has not been solved, as transferring costs from the state to the student does not address university's shortage of cash. Miliband's move is an effective piece of positioning and a potentially popular policy -- but it does not address this funding gap.

This announcement comes on the same day as YouGov/IPPR poll found that 70 per cent of people said they might be prepared to vote Labour, versus 64 per cent for the Liberal Democrats and 58 per cent for the Tories. Just 30 per cent say they would "never" vote for Labour, as opposed to 36 per cent for the Lib Dems and 42 per cent for the Tories. While this has yet to be translated into actual concrete support, it suggests that Labour is not seen as the most toxic party, despite concerns about their handling of the economy. As the conference opens, this reiterates that there is a big opportunity there for Labour. It remains to be seen whether they will capitalise upon it.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.