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.

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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.