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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Winning Scottish independence will be even harder than before - but it may be the only choice

Independence campaigners will have to find answers on borders, currency and more. 

The Brexit mutiny has taken not just the UK economy and its relationship with Europe into uncharted waters. it has also imperilled the union between Scotland and England. From Sir John Major to the First Minister, both Unionists and Nationalists had warned of it. The outcome, though, has made this certain. The Leave vote in England and Wales contrasted with an overwhelming Remain vote north of the border.

That every region in Scotland voted to stay In was quite remarkable. Historically, fishing and industrial communities have blamed the European Union for their woes. That antagonism was probably reflected in lower turnout - an abstention rather than a rejection. 

The talk now is of a second referendum on independence. This is understandable given the current mood. Opinion polls in the Sunday Times and Sunday Post showed a Yes vote now at 52 per cent and 59 per cent respectively. Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests even arch No vote campaigners, from JK Rowling to the Daily Record, are considering the option.

The First Minister was therefore correct to say that a second referendum is now “back on the table”. Her core supporters expects no less. However, as with the economy and Europe, the constitutional relationship between Scotland and England is now in uncharted seas. Potential support for independence may be higher, but the challenges are arguably bigger than before. The difficulties are practical, political and geographic.

Of course the Little Englanders likely to take the helm may choose a velvet divorce. However, given their desire for the return of the Glories of Britannia that’s improbable. They’re as likely to wish to see Caledonia depart, as cede Gibraltar to Spain, even though that territory voted even more overwhelmingly In.

Ticking the legal boxes

Practically, there’s the obstacle of obtaining a legal and binding referendum. The past vote was based on the Edinburgh Agreement and legislation in Westminster and Holyrood. The First Minister has indicated the democratic arguments of the rights of the Scots. However, that’s unlikely to hold much sway. A right-wing centralist Spanish government has been willing to face down demands for autonomy in Catalonia. Would the newly-emboldened Great Britain be any different?

There are no doubt ways in which democratic public support can be sought. The Scottish Government may win backing in Holyrood from the Greens. However, consent for such action would need to be obtained from the Presiding Officer and the Lord Advocate, both of whom have a key role in legislation. These office holders have changed since the first referendum, where they were both more sympathetic and the legal basis clearer. 

Getting the EU on side

The political hurdles are, also, greater this time than before. Previously the arguments were over how and when Scotland could join the EU, although all accepted ultimately she could remain or become a member. This time the demand is that Scotland should remain and the rest of the UK can depart. But will that be possible? The political earthquake that erupted south of the Border has set tectonic plates shifting, not just in the British isles but across the European continent. The fear that a Brexit would empower dark forces in the EU may come to pass. Will the EU that the UK is about to leave be there for an independent Scotland to join? We cannot know, whatever European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker may be saying at the moment. The First Minister is right to start engaging with Europe directly. But events such as elections in France and the Netherlands are outwith her control. 

Moreover, currency was the Achilles heel in the last referendum, and hasn’t yet been addressed. George Osborne was adamant in his rejection of a currency union. The options this time round, whether a separate Scottish currency or joining the euro, have yet to be properly explored. A worsened financial situation in the 27 remaining EU members hampers the latter and the former remains politically problematic. 

The problem of borders

Geography is also an obstacle  that will be even harder to address now than before. Scotland can change its constitution, but it cannot alter its location on a shared island. In 2014, the independence argument was simply about changing the political union. Other unions, whether monarchy or social, would remain untouched. The island would remain seamless, without border posts. An independent Scotland, whether in or out of the EU, would almost certainly have to face these issues. That is a significant change from before, and the effect on public opinion unknown.

The risk that's worth it

Ultimately, the bar for a Yes vote may be higher, but the Scots may still be prepared to jump it. As with Ireland in 1920, facing any risk may be better than remaining in the British realm. Boris Johnson as Prime Minister would certainly encourage that. 

David Cameron's lack of sensitivity after the independence referendum fuelled the Scottish National Party surge. But perhaps this time, the new Government will be magnanimous towards Scotland and move to federalism. The Nordic Union offers an example to be explored. Left-wing commentators have called for a progressive alliance to remove the Tories and offer a multi-option referendum on Scotland’s constitution. But that is dependent on SNP and Labour being prepared to work together, and win the debate in England and Wales.

So, Indy Ref The Sequel is on the table. It won’t be the same as the first, and it will be more challenging. But, if there is no plausible alternative, Scots may consider it the only option.

Kenny MacAskill served as a Scottish National MSP between 2007 and 2016, and as Cabinet Secretary for Justice between 2007 and 2014.