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 deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era