Labour would lower the cap on tuition fees if in government, Ed Miliband has announced.
Continuing his strategy of aligning himself with the “squeezed middle” — the ordinary people suffering from the fall-out of the economic crisis — he has said that if he was in government, he would cut the maximum tuition fee from £9,000 to £6,000.
The move is one of the biggest policy decisions Miliband has made during his year in leader, and is a clear attempt to attract some of the student vote that the Liberal Democrats lost when they broke their promise on tuition fees. Speaking to the Observer, aides implied that it may not stop there: “This is what we would do now. But in three and a half years’ time we might be able to do even more.” However, once the new fees are ensconsed, it is difficult to see Labour promising to reduce them further.
Given all the murmurings about his party’s “economic credibility“, Miliband has emphasised that this cut is fully costed — it would be funded by charging more interest for the highest paid graduates, and by scrapping a planned cut in corporation tax.
This last is a canny political move. Directly equating hikes in living costs for ordinary people with cuts for those who precipitated the crisis is likely to strike a chord with a public already angry at this double standard. The coalition has already criticised the proposal, with Lib Dem MP Gordon Birtwhistle telling the BBC that companies affected are potential employers of students. However, this does not ring true as it is not a hike in corporation tax, merely the reversal of a cut. It is a bold move, and sends a potentially powerful message about where Miliband believes the burden should lie.
However, he did not refer to the huge cuts to university funding that the coalition plans. These cuts of up to 80 per cent mean the crisis in university funding — which the Browne Review was created to address — has not been solved, as transferring costs from the state to the student does not address university’s shortage of cash. Miliband’s move is an effective piece of positioning and a potentially popular policy — but it does not address this funding gap.
This announcement comes on the same day as YouGov/IPPR poll found that 70 per cent of people said they might be prepared to vote Labour, versus 64 per cent for the Liberal Democrats and 58 per cent for the Tories. Just 30 per cent say they would “never” vote for Labour, as opposed to 36 per cent for the Lib Dems and 42 per cent for the Tories. While this has yet to be translated into actual concrete support, it suggests that Labour is not seen as the most toxic party, despite concerns about their handling of the economy. As the conference opens, this reiterates that there is a big opportunity there for Labour. It remains to be seen whether they will capitalise upon it.