Mandelson takes a swipe back at McCluskey

Labour peer says the Unite head is "the man who reminds us of where we came from and what we left behind" after McCluskey's attack on him in the NS.

In my interview with him for the NS, Len McCluskey reserved some of his fiercest barbs for Peter Mandelson. With particular reference to the Labour peer, the Unite general secretary said of the Blairite grandees who have warned Ed Miliband not to "tack left":

It may be easy for these people, who are sitting with the huge sums of money that they’ve amassed now - they’ve done pretty well out of it, remember it was Mandelson who said he was comfortable about the filthy rich, presumably that’s because he wanted to be one of the filthy rich. But the fact is that under Labour the gap between rich and poor increased...that’s a stain on what Labour stands for.

Unsurprisingly, Mandelson felt the urge to respond. A Labour source informs me that the former Business Secretary declared at last night's Friends of Labour Students dinner that McCluskey was "the man who reminds us of where we came from and what we left behind". 

But Mandelson's riposte is mild compared to that issued by Miliband, who accused McCluskey of a "reprehensible" and "disloyal" attempt to divide the party. 

McCluskey, whose union helped secure the Labour leadership for Miliband in 2010, told me that Miliband would be "defeated" and "cast into the dustbin of history" if he was "seduced" by "the Jim Murphys and the Douglas Alexanders". Of Liam Byrne, the shadow and work pensions secretary, he said: "Liam Byrne certainly doesn’t reflect the views of my members and of our union’s policy, I think some of the terminology that he uses is regrettable and I think it will damage Labour. Ed’s got to figure out what his team will be."

The irony of Miliband's denunciation of McCluskey is that the Unite head has rarely been more well disposed to the Labour leader. McCluskey told me that he thought Miliband was doing "a very good job of holding the party together" and that while there were "disgreements" between the pair, he was happy with the course he had taken since 2010. 

But it is precisely for this reason that Miliband felt it necessary to rebuke the Unite head so swiftly and explicitly. He couldn't allow the impression to form that he was willing to tolerate McCluskey's attack on the "Blairite" shadow cabinet ministers and the suggestion that they should either be ignored or sacked. As I noted in the piece, those associated with Blair are troubled by what they regard as Unite's excessive influence over European and parliamentary candidate selections. Rather than rejecting claims that the union had "stitched up" selections, McCluskey suggested to me that he was simply beating the Blairites at their own game. 

The truth is that this is a process that was set up by Tony Blair, and the right-wing and organisations like Progress have had it their own way for years and years and have seen nothing wrong it.
 
Because we're having some success, suddenly these people are crying foul. Well I’m delighted to read it. I’m delighted when Tony Blair and everyone else intervenes because it demonstrates that we are having an impact and an influence and we’ll continue to do so.
After David Miliband's departure for New York, the Blairites are increasingly anxious about their standing in the party. Miliband's intervention was an important signal that there are lines he will not allow McCluskey to cross. 
Former Labour business secretary Peter Mandelson speaks during an interview at the foreign correspondents club in Hong Kong. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Jeremy Corbyn's opponents are going down a blind alley on tuition fees

The electoral pool they are fishing in is shallow – perhaps even non-existent. 

The press and Labour’s political opponents are hammering Jeremy Corbyn over his party's pledge/ambition/cruel lie to win an election (delete depending on your preference) to not only abolish tuition fees for new students, but to write off the existing debts of those who have already graduated.

Labour has conceded (or restated, again, depending on your preference) that this is merely an “ambition” – that the party had not pledged to wipe out existing tuition fee debt but merely to scrap fees.

The party’s manifesto and the accompanying costings document only included a commitment to scrap the fees of students already in the system. What the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are claiming as a pledge is the following remark, made by Jeremy Corbyn in his Q&A with NME readers:

“First of all, we want to get rid of student fees altogether. We’ll do it as soon as we get in, and we’ll then introduce legislation to ensure that any student going from the 2017-18 academic year will not pay fees. They will pay them, but we’ll rebate them when we’ve got the legislation through – that’s fundamentally the principle behind it. Yes, there is a block of those that currently have a massive debt, and I’m looking at ways that we could reduce that, ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off, or some other means of reducing that debt burden. I don’t have the simple answer for it at this stage – I don’t think anybody would expect me to, because this election was called unexpectedly; we had two weeks to prepare all of this – but I’m very well aware of that problem. And I don’t see why those that had the historical misfortune to be at university during the £9,000 period should be burdened excessively compared to those that went before or those that come after. I will deal with it.”

Is this a promise, an aspiration or a target? The answer probably depends on how you feel about Jeremy Corbyn or fees policy in general. (My reading, for what it’s worth, is that the full quote looks much more like an objective than a promise to my eyes but that the alternative explanation is fair enough, too.)

The more interesting question is whether or not there is an electoral prize to be had, whether from the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats, for hammering Labour on this topic. On that one the answer is open and shut: there really isn’t one.

Why not? Because the evidence is clear: that pledging to abolish tuition fees largely moves two groups of voters: students who have yet to graduate and actually start paying back the fees, and their parents and grandparents, who are worried about the debt burden.

There is not a large caucus of fee-paying graduates – that is, people who have graduated and are earning enough to start paying back their tuition fees – who are opposed to the system. (We don’t have enough evidence but my expectation is that the parents of people who have already graduated are also less fussed. They can see that their children are not crippled by tuition fee debt, which forms a negligible part of a graduate’s tax and living expenses, as opposed to parents who are expecting a worrying future for their children who have yet to graduate.)

Put simply, there isn’t a large group of people aged 21 or above voting for Corbyn who are that concerned about a debt write-off. Of those that are, they tend to have an ideological stance on the value of a higher education system paid for out of general taxation – a stance that makes it much harder for the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats to peel those votes off.

The whole thing is a bit of a blind alley for the parties of the centre and right. The Tory difficulty at this election wasn’t that they did badly among 18-21s, though they did do exceptionally badly. With the exception of the wave year of 1983, they have always tended to do badly with this group. Their problem is that they are doing badly with 30-45s, usually the time in life that some younger Labour voters begin to vote Conservative, largely but not exclusively because they have tended to get on the property ladder.

Nowadays of course, that cohort, particularly in the south of England, is not getting on the property ladder and as a result is not turning blue as it ages. And that’s both a bigger worry and a more lucrative electoral target for Labour’s opponents than litigating an NME interview.

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