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26 July 2017

Why Labour’s tuition fees row could only be the start of a difficult summer

New appointees at CCHQ and Downing Street are keen to show that the Tories are back in business.

By Stephen Bush

What is the row over Labour’s tuition fee pledge really about, and does it matter? The party is under attack from its political opponents and parts of the press for Jeremy Corbyn’s pre-election NME interview in which he said he’d “deal with” the issue of tuition fee debt.

The story has been given a fresh lease of life because Guido has got hold of a recording of a shadow minister, Imran Hussain, saying Labour would wipe out all student debt. The Evening Standard has splashed on it: “Corbyn caught out on students” is the headline.

Among the commentariat, certainty that a) Corbyn pledged to eradicate all fee debt and b) this was electorally significant seems to run in exact proportion with people who didn’t think the Labour leader was surging before the election.

YouGov, who you’ll recall did pick up on what was going on have found that just 17 per cent of 18-24s believed Corbyn’s statement meant he’d wipe out all fee debt. More significantly, just 14 per cent of 25-41s, the cohort actually making tuition fee repayments right now, thought they were in line for a debt write-off. There is no partisan divide – Tory voters were actually slightly more likely than Labour ones to believe there was a write-off in the offing.

So does it matter? That much of the political class either pay tuition fees, would have paid tuition fees, or have children who will pay tuition fees is one reason why the issue receives outsized attention, and that matters.

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As far as the politics goes: it’s worth remembering that for all “tuition fees” became emblematic of the perceived failures of the Liberal Democrats in coalition, that party’s ratings began to steadily decline pretty much the moment that Nick Clegg turned up in the Rose Garden with David Cameron. Other than among current students and their parents, the issue isn’t a live one, even among fee-paying graduates. (Frankly, were I Labour, I’d rather my fees policy was on the front page of a London newspaper than I would my Brexit policy.)

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There is a political reason why it matters. Today’s newspapers are pretty thin and the next month looks like going the same way. (That the other big political story is Theresa May’s £26 dress gives you an idea of the scale of the news drought.)

News is a lot like an ideal gas: it expands to fill the space available. That from the top of the party to the outer reaches of the frontbench, Labour expected to be involved in another leadership contest this summer means that not a great deal of thought has been put into what, exactly, they are going to fill the summer with. No one at the top of Labour has had a proper summer break since 2014.

On the other side, the new appointees at CCHQ and Downing Street are keen to show that the party is back in business. The opposition should brace themselves for a summer of difficult front pages.