Will cutting fees to £6,000 actually help? Photo: Getty
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What does Lord Mandelson's tuition fees warning to Labour reveal about its policy?

The former Labour Business Secretary is to warn Labour about their imminent higher education pledge.

The former Labour Business Secretary, Peter Mandelson, is set to warn his party about their imminent higher education pledge. Mandelson, whose department received the universities and skills brief during the New Labour years, is intervening ahead of Labour's expected announcement of a cut in tuition fees.

The Guardian reports that the Labour peer will suggest any reform to tuition fees has to ensure that the current range and flow of funding into universities from all available sources is sustained. He is also expected to voice his concern about making a higher education pledge before the election, believing it would be better to resolve the issue when in government.

In Mandelson's opinion, the levers of government would allow the party to tackle the extremely complex long-term funding implications of changing tuition fees. It would also provide Labour the opportunity to properly consider the impact if a graduate tax were introduced, a policy that the shadow universities minister Liam Byrne told me is his preferred option.

Mandelson will make his comments about Labour's upcoming policy in a speech to Universities UK today, as the Labour leadership continues to grapple with its tuition fees announcement, which has long been expected to arrive this month.

The party is a little stuck with its higher education promise. Even as far back as 2011, and repeatedly since then, Miliband and other senior Labourites have said that were they currently in government (I hear Labour politicians were instructed to speak strictly "in the subjunctive" on this subject), they would introduce £6,000 tuition fees, down from the coalition's controversial £9,000.

Yet the party has not officially announced this policy, and seems to be in limbo. I hear from a shadow cabinet aide that the shadow chancellor Ed Balls is "happy" for Labour to cut tuition fees, but needs the party to find the money to cost such a policy, and so Labour is waiting on coming up with a funding plan. Another obstacle is that although cutting tuition fees is a popular policy, university vice chancellors have been forthright against a tuition fee cut, and there is the argument that the coalition tripling the fees has not actually put pupils off applying to university. A better policy, as Tim has written, would be to help disadvantaged students with maintenance funding, rather than cutting their tuition fees.

On the BBC's Today programme this morning, the Business Secretary Vince Cable defending the Lib Dems' agreement to a hike in tuition fees, referred to Labour being stuck on its policy: "As I understand it, the people who are advising Ed Miliband and his team are telling him that this is a very foolish thing to do because it will either open a very large hole in their budget or it will be funded by quite serious cuts in universities, which is the last thing we want."

It could be that there are other plans in the mix, to mitigate the cost of helping out students financially. One shadow cabinet aide close to the tuition fees wrangling tells me there has been talk among some of a system like New Zealand’s, which has interest-free student loans.

Labour's tuition fees announcement was supposed to take place in February, which means the party only has a week left to reveal its policy. Apparently, this decision now lies with Miliband. As the party is planning to unveil its "young people's manifesto" at the end of this month, it may coincide with that.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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