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.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Could tactical voting stop Brexit?

Could tactical votes soften the Brexit blow?

Could tactical voting save Britain from the hardest of exits from the European Union?

That's the hope of Open Britain, which has unveiled a list of 20 seats held by supporters of a hard Brexit (19 Conservatives and one Labour MP, Kate Hoey) in areas that either split evenly in the referendum or backed a Remain vote, and a list of 20 seats held by pro-Europeans: among them Labour MPs Pat McFadden and Liz Kendall, Liberal Democrat MPs Nick Clegg and Tom Brake, and Caroline Lucas, the Greens' sole MP. (Read the full list here.)

"Remain group seeks to oust pro-Brexit MPs" is the Guardian's splash. The intiative has received the thumbs up from Peter Mandelson on Newsnight and Tony Blair in the Guardian. But will it work?

A quick look at the seats in question shows the challenge for anyone hoping for a pro-European front to frustrate Brexit. Theresa Villiers has a majority of more than 7,000 over Labour: and if you're a voter in Chipping Barnet who backed a Remain vote because you were worried about your house price, is Jeremy Corbyn really the answer to your problems? (That said, it's worth noting that thanks to the scale of the 2015 defeat, Chipping Barnet is one of the seats Labour would have to win to get a majority in the House of Commons.)

Or take, say, Kate Hoey in Vauxhall, one of the few people in Labour who can claim to be a unifying figure these days. Yes, she is deeply unpopular in her local party who have mounted several attempts to remove her. Yes, Vauxhall voted heavily to Remain. But - as Jessica Elgot finds in her profile for the Guardian- it also has a large amount of social housing and has more children living in poverty than all but 51 other seats in the House of Commons. There are a great number of people who believe their own interests are better served by sending a Labour MP to Westminster rather than refighting the referendum.

That's a reminder of three things: the first is that the stereotype of the Remain vote as people straight out of the Boden catalogue misses a number of things. The second is that for many people, Brexit will take a back seat.

But the big problem is that you can't make an anti-Brexit - which, by necessity, is essentially an anti-Conservative - alliance work if the main anti-Conservative party is so weak and unattractive to most people. "Voting pro-European" may give Labour's Corbynsceptics a way to advocate a vote for Labour that doesn't endorse Jeremy Corbyn. That doesn't mean it will succeed in stopping Brexit.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

0800 7318496