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



Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.