Scottish Labour turns against free university education

Johann Lamont's declaration that free higher education is "effectively regressive" is a significant moment.

Following her speech earlier this year in which she questioned the future of universal benefits, Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont has gone further and declared that free university education in Scotland is "not sustainable".

Not only did Lamont argue that free higher education could not be maintained at a time when college funding was being cut, she also declared that a no-charge system was "regressive" since graduates got "higher lifetime returns" and a "disproportionate number" also come from well-off backgrounds. In the speech, which marked her first year as leader, she said:

There is no such thing as free higher education: under a completely tax funded tuition system, everybody is forced to pay for it, including those on low incomes.

Labour believes in extending the chance of a good university to all who are capable of undertaking study.  However, university education is costly, and faces competing claims on limited public resources.

This represents a significant departure from Scottish Labour's traditional support for free, tax-funded higher education. Lamont is preparing to move to a position of support for tuition fees or, more likely, a graduate tax.

In England, of course, Labour abandoned its support for free university education as long ago as 1997 and Ed Miliband has only promised to reduce the cap on fees to £6,000. But the debate is similar to that currently taking place in Westminster over universal benefits. In his speech yesterday, Nick Clegg argued that benefits for the elderly like the winter fuel allowance, free bus passes and free TV licences should be means-tested.

There are some in Labour who believe Miliband should adopt a similar stance and pledge to use the money saved to fund social care or cheap universal childcare. Earlier this year, Liam Byrne, the shadow work and pensions secretary, said: "There has always been a balance in the welfare state between universal benefits and targeted benefits and I'm afraid as part of Ed's zero-based review that balance has got to be looked at".

He was swiftly slapped down by Labour HQ, but such is the fiscal mess that the party will inherit (the Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts that the defict will be £99bn in 2015) that it will almost certainly reconsider its position.

Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.