Students marching against tuition fees in November 2014. Photo: Getty/Carl Court
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Where is Labour heading with its tuition fee pledge?

Ed Miliband has hinted at a big announcement on higher education, an area where the party seems confused at best.

In a speech today at Sheffield Hallam Students’ Union, Ed Miliband denounced the “scandal” of a million voters disappearing from the electoral register. He also hinted that the Labour party will have more to say on higher education in the coming months.

It has been long suspected that if the polls were looking particularly grim for Labour this month then an announcement on higher education and tuition fees would be imminent. A commitment from Labour to cut tuition fees is crucial in retaining the support of disaffected young Lib Dems who have come flocking to the Labour party, but so far a long-term plan on the issue hasn’t been agreed.

Miliband during the speech, said: “We also want to do more for students heading to university, who leave at the end burdened down with debt. By the time of our manifesto, having listened to you, we will have more to say on higher education. And unlike Nick Clegg, we will keep the promises we make.”

Labour’s policy on the matter has been far from clear and coherent in the past:

  • Running for Labour’s leadership in 2010, Miliband said he would consult vice-chancellors and universities to produce a plan to replace tuition fees with a graduate tax.
  • In 2011 Miliband said that Labour would reduce the headline rate of tuition fees to £6,000. This was not a manifesto commitment – rather more of a “if we were in government now” claim.
  • In December 2013 the shadow universities minister Liam Byrne confirmed it was Labour’s long-term goal to introduce a “graduate tax”.  He said: “The policy we’ve set out is what we would do if we were in government today. Ed Miliband also said in his leadership campaign, our long-term goal must to be move towards a graduate tax. What we’ll have to do in our manifesto is take our starting point of 6k fees, explain how we see the situation for 2015 to 2020, and how we’ll see a long-term shift to a graduate tax.”
  • In March 2014 the Sunday Times splashed on reports that Labour were planning to slash tuition fees by at least £3,000 a year. The paper also said that Miliband was being urged by his inner circle to make a final decision on the policy in time to announce it at the party conference.
  • There was no announcement on tuition fees at the party conference in October 2014. George Eaton reported that the policy was resisted by senior figures (said to include Ed Balls and the shadow universities minister Liam Byrne) who were concerned about the £2bn cost.

According to Douglas Alexander, Labour’s manifesto will include a pledge to scrap the coalition’s £9,000 a year tuition fees and replace it with a maximum of £6,000 – but Labour is yet to agree on a long-term policy. We’ve contacted shadow universities minister Liam Byrne about this, and we’ll be speaking to him on Monday.

Ashley Cowburn writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2014. He tweets @ashcowburn



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How the shadow cabinet forced Jeremy Corbyn not to change Labour policy on Syria air strikes

Frontbenchers made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the leader backed down. 

Jeremy Corbyn had been forced to back down once before the start of today's shadow cabinet meeting on Syria, offering Labour MPs a free vote on air strikes against Isis. By the end of the two-hour gathering, he had backed down twice.

At the start of the meeting, Corbyn's office briefed the Guardian that while a free would be held, party policy would be changed to oppose military action - an attempt to claim partial victory. But shadow cabinet members, led by Andy Burnham, argued that this was "unacceptable" and an attempt to divide MPs from members. Burnham, who is not persuaded by the case for air strikes, warned that colleagues who voted against the party's proposed position would become targets for abuse, undermining the principle of a free vote.

Jon Ashworth, the shadow minister without portfolio and NEC member, said that Labour's policy remained the motion passed by this year's conference, which was open to competing interpretations (though most believe the tests it set for military action have been met). Party policy could not be changed without going through a similarly formal process, he argued. In advance of the meeting, Labour released a poll of members (based on an "initial sample" of 1,900) showing that 75 per cent opposed intervention. 

When Corbyn's team suggested that the issue be resolved after the meeting, those present made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the Labour leader had backed down. By the end, only Corbyn allies Diane Abbott and Jon Trickett argued that party policy should be changed to oppose military action. John McDonnell, who has long argued for a free vote, took a more "conciliatory" approach, I'm told. It was when Hilary Benn said that he would be prepared to speak from the backbenches in the Syria debate, in order to avoid opposing party policy, that Corbyn realised he would have to give way. The Labour leader and the shadow foreign secretary will now advocate opposing positions from the frontbench when MPs meet, with Corbyn opening and Benn closing. 

The meeting had begun with members, including some who reject military action, complaining about the "discorteous" and "deplorable" manner in which the issue had been handled. As I reported last week, there was outrage when Corbyn wrote to MPs opposing air strikes without first informing the shadow cabinet (I'm told that my account of that meeting was also raised). There was anger today when, at 2:07pm, seven minutes after the meeting began, some members received an update on their phones from the Guardian revealing that a free vote would be held but that party policy would be changed to oppose military action. This "farcical moment", in the words of one present (Corbyn is said to have been unaware of the briefing), only hardened shadow cabinet members' resolve to force their leader to back down - and he did. 

In a statement released following the meeting, a Corbyn spokesperson confirmed that a free vote would be held but made no reference to party policy: 

"Today's Shadow Cabinet agreed to back Jeremy Corbyn's recommendation of a free vote on the Government's proposal to authorise UK bombing in Syria.   

"The Shadow Cabinet decided to support the call for David Cameron to step back from the rush to war and hold a full two day debate in the House of Commons on such a crucial national decision.  

"Shadow Cabinet members agreed to call David Cameron to account on the unanswered questions raised by his case for bombing: including how it would accelerate a negotiated settlement of the Syrian civil war; what ground troops would take territory evacuated by ISIS; military co-ordination and strategy; the refugee crisis and the imperative to cut-off of supplies to ISIS."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.