One policy that was long expected to be announced at Labour’s conference was a cut in tuition fees. During a TV appearance in March, Ed Miliband declared that he wanted a “radical offer” in this area, words that were flagged up to me as significant by party strategists.
In 2011, in one of the first major policy announcements of his leadership, Miliband said that Labour would reduce the headline rate to £6,000, but this did not amount to a manifesto commitment (this was during the phase when the party was merely saying what it would do were it “in governent now”). The expectation was that it would be formally adopted at the conference. A cut in tuition fees is viewed as a crucial means of retaining defectors from the Lib Dems (without whom Labour would not have a poll lead) and of appealing to “the squeezed middle” anxious about their childrens’ future.
But as I write in my column this week, the policy was resisted by senior figures (said to include Ed Balls, shadow universities minister Liam Byrne, and policy review co-ordinator Jon Cruddas) concerned about the estimated £2bn cost. A source told me, however, that Miliband is still keen on the proposal, and that it may yet be adopted if the polls look grim in January (a month regarded by both Labour and the Tories as a reliable indicator of which will win).
After losing the conference season, Labour is drawing comfort from the fact that while the Tories have used up “their best pre-election material” (in the words of one aide), “we’ve kept a lot of stuff back”. As strategists note, Cameron was forced to promise £7bn of tax cuts in an attempt to settle his party’s nerves and to move the polls. But with morale in Labour at its lowest point since May 2010, Miliband may soon need to fire some bullets of his own.