The most worrying thing about the Balls-Miliband story for Labour

The key point about the email by a Miliband adviser describing Balls as "a nightmare" is that it was leaked in the first place.

Update: I've now learned how the email was really leaked.

The Tories have leapt gleefully on today's Mail on Sunday story revealing that Miliband staffer Torsten Bell, Labour's director of policy and rebuttal, referred to Ed Balls as a "nightmare" in a private email. After Balls's special adviser Alex Belardinelli wrote in a group email on the shadow chancellor's planned response to the Bank of England's upgraded growth forecasts, "Could we get this out pls? cleared at this end and essentially the same script as we had on GDP day the other week", Bell (a former special adviser to Alistair Darling during his time as Chancellor) wrote to fellow Miliband adviser Greg Beales: "As an example of why we're having problems on EB messaging-this is his current three part argument: cost of living, recovery built to last, economy works for working people. Nightmare." Beales replied: "When did built to last become a part of our thing?"

That there are tensions between Miliband and Balls has long been an open secret in Westminster. The Labour leader's team have privately accused the shadow chancellor, who was not Miliband's first choice for the job, of being insufficiently committed to his responsible capitalism agenda and too focused on defending the record of the last Labour government. There also differences between the pair over HS2 and the proposed third runway at Heathrow, with Balls openly favouring the latter over the former, the reverse of Miliband's position.

What is peculiar about the disagreement revealed by the emails is that it is so minor. Miliband himself has regularly used the phrase "built to last" (a key part of Barack Obama's 2012 campaign) and even the most dedicated Labour Kremlinologist would struggle to spot any difference between Balls's three-part argument and Miliband's. Indeed, I'm told the pair met before the publication of the recent GDP figures to discuss and agree on Labour's response, which last Wednesday's quote from Balls (on the BoE's growth forecasts) was almost identical to.

A Miliband spokesman has responded by effectively stating that Bell was wrong: "Ed Balls was entirely right. After three damaging years of flatlining, there is no recovery for millions of families. Prices are rising faster than wages, and figures this week showed that people are on average £1,600 a year worse off since David Cameron came to office."

That this apparently trivial disagreement (what Freud called "the narcissism of small differences") led Bell to refer to Balls as a "nightmare" is evidence of how great the mistrust is. The mutual suspicion will be compounded by the key point of the story: that the emails were leaked in the first place. Assuming that the leak was intentional (and not the result of a lost phone or misplaced documents), this is a red-on-red attack, delivered via a hostile newspaper. If history is not to repeat itself, both sides would be wise to ensure it is the last.

And as Balls comes under increasing attack, largely prompted by the false belief that he has been proved wrong by the return of economic growth, it's worth remembering that there is no one better qualified to perform the job of Chancellor.

Ed Miliband and Ed Balls at the Labour conference in Brighton in September. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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It's a stab in the dark: the myth of predicting your student loan repayments

Even the company responsible for collecting repayments admits that it can't tell students what they'll be.

In response to renewed calls to overhaul the student finance system, the universities minister Jo Johnson insisted last week that the "current system works". He pointed out that a university degree boosts "lifetime income by between £170,000 and £250,000".

What he failed to mention is that not even the people administering the loan system can tell students what they will be expected to pay back each month, because they can't work out what they'll earn. 

When asked by the New Statesman why it had pulled an online calculator designed to tell students what their repayments would be, the Student Loans Company (SLC) said it wasn't "possible to answer customers' questions about how long it will take to repay their loan or how much they will owe at a point in the future because there is no accurate way of predicting their future earning".

The confusion around student loans stems from the fact that, unlike loans from banks, their repayment is income contingent.

Until May last year, the SLC had a calculator on its website which students and parents could use to predict how much they may have to repay in the future. But after Andrew McGettigan, a higher education journalist, emailed the SLC noting that the calculator did not take into account gender inequality in future salaries, it was swiftly taken down. 

It was in response to queries about this calculator from the New Statesman that the SLC admitted that there was no accurate way to predict future repayments. The organisation added that it was "exploring new and better ways to present information" to its customers. 

This admission appears to undermine Johnson’s “fair and equitable” description of the student finance system. If even SLC can't say what repayments could look like, how do we know? 

Further controversy around student loan repayments is expected when a report is published later this year by the Department for Education on student finance and expenditure. This is expected to highlight the discrepancy between the maintenance loans students receive and rising rent costs. 

There are still a range of unofficial student loan calculators on the internet, but many use overly optimistic projections for future earnings. McGettigan says this is because they are based on salary trends from the 1980s to the 2010s. He also adds that these unofficial calculators are all based on the official one that was removed – and that they also do not take into account the impact of Brexit. It's a stab in the dark.

The SLC notes that "every student who applies for their student finance online must navigate a page of key repayment information that outlines six points". Student loans are inherently complicated by design, but as Amatey Doku, NUS vice president (higher education), makes clear, this has consequences for fair access to higher education. “We know that BME and poorer students are more worried about high levels of debt than any other group, but the current system does not provide adequate support for those about to enter it.”

Students seeking advice from an independent body will be hard-pressed to find one. The independent Student Finance Taskforce set up by the coalition government in 2011, which sought “to reassure potential students about what they can expect when applying for university and beyond”, was quietly discontinued and never replaced. 

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

Further confusion surrounds the government’s framing of student finance to sixth formers. Beyond the debate surrounding tuition fees, there is the assumption that has never been made explicit by either political party, which is that students who have a household income of more than £25,000 are expected to have some form of financial support from their families for living costs.

Are parents made aware of this before their children apply to university? Unlike in America, where parents are encouraged to put money away into a “college fund”, the British government never openly encourages parents to save specifically to send their children to university. 

Although there is “no specific date” for its publishing, the Department for Education's report is is believed to argue that, much like the NUS’s debt report did in 2015, that the current system results in poorer students having to take excessive part-time work during the university term. Some also have to take on commercial loans. The stress of both can have an adverse effect on students' mental health.

All this, and not even the organisation responsible for collecting repayments can tell students how much they will be paying back.