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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser