On the surface, the Labour Party as led by Jeremy Corbyn is quintessentially left-wing. Two of the key policies that Labour campaigned on in the last election were the nationalisation of the railways and major utilities, and the abolition of tuition fees, allowing for university education to be free from the cradle to the grave. The latter of these policies was the centrepiece of what’s been called a National Education Service. Wrapping it up in the packaging of the modern welfare state, Corbyn’s Labour has managed to effectively hide the fact that it isn’t actually that left wing.
In theory, the abolition of tuition fees is the hallmark of a left-wing government, with education being seen as a right to be provided by the state to its people. But that’s the theory of it. In practice, the policy is regressive; Institute for Fiscal Studies research has shown that graduates that earn the most will be the ones that get the greatest benefit from the policy. When Justine Greening criticised the policy in the House of Commons, she was right to say that it was “for the monied, not the few”.
Although the issue of graduate debt has been debated at great length lately, reforming rather than abolishing the existing system is a way to make Labour’s education policy more left-wing. The creation of a progressive graduate tax is one option that would allow for Labour to create a more left-wing approach to the issue of higher education. This could be done either through tax bands, as with income tax, or by raising the repayment threshold. Such a policy would be more redistributive: those who earn a lot will pay off their debt quicker, putting more money back into the public purse for higher education. By comparison those who graduate but go into lower paying jobs will not feel the burden of the current system as heavily as they do now.
The Labour opposition is willing to posture and challenge the government, but often it fails to offer real responses to issues that affect the worst off in society. This becomes clear when you look at the ways in which Labour is and isn’t responding to the government’s disastrous policy of Universal Credit. Labour has been consistent and vocal in its criticism of the policy, going so far as to brand it “not fit for purpose”. But Labour’s own approach to welfare policy is far from perfect. An analysis of Labour’s manifesto by the Resolution Foundation revealed that if Labour had won the election, at least £7bn of George Osborne’s planned welfare cuts would still go ahead. Key to this is Labour’s unwillingness to un-freeze working age benefits, against a backdrop of rising inflation.
“For the many not the few” might sound good at the end of a speech at party conference, but actions speak louder than words. The “many” that Corbyn’s Labour proports to act for have needed action for a long time. Yes, a Labour government would be better for poor families, and those who are just about managing. But even then, the question of how long they’ll be able to manage for hasn’t been answered by Corbyn’s party.