Hopi Sen on the Labour party, unicorn net-catching, and student debt

by Stephen Tall on September 27, 2011

They say you should never judge the success of a budget based on its reception within the first 24 hours. Perhaps we can extend the ruling to policy pronouncements too.

On Sunday, Ed Miliband vowed that Labour would ‘slash’ student tuition fees… by, erm, doubling them from their current rate. Even though it will make no difference to low- or middle-income earners. I wasn’t alone among Lib Dems in pointing out the gaping flaws in this plan.

And nor is it just Lib Dems. Hopi Sen is one of the most intelligent Labour bloggers, and he’s distinctly underwhelmed too in his analysis of Day 1 of the Labour party conference:

Then the big news. We’re going to cap variable tuition fees. Now the history of Tuition Fees is interesting. We used to be against, then we were for them for a bit, then we were against again, and now we’re for, but not as much as the other lot are and we’d really prefer something else, if we could make it work, but we’re not sure we can. So this policy is really a sort of downpayment on a graduate tax.

What’s much more interesting is how we’re going to pay for it. We’re going to take on the banks by taxing them more than the Tories would. I suspect this will be rather popular.

However, with the economy on the edge of recession, a desperate hunger for jobs, and demand as visible as a democratically elected member of the SWP, I did wonder what made us decide that the top priority for that rare and beautiful thing – a popular tax increase – was the repayment terms for graduate loans in a decade’s time? We’ve caught a Unicorn in a net, and we’re using it to somewhat modify student debt levels in the medium term.

Well, quite. When it comes to fees, Labour has a solid track record of flimsiness — as The Potter Blogger points out here, tracing Labour’s seven different policy positions in recent years, many of them diametrically opposed to each other.

What’s still more bizarre is that, even while Ed Miliband was revelling in his discovery of a policy, his higher education minister John Denham was arguing that the party’s long-term aspiration was to replace fees with a graduate tax (they just hadn’t worked out how yet). Confused much?

It’s true, of course, that the Lib Dems aren’t in much of a position to shout ‘inconsistent!’ at other parties on fees. But as I’ve long that been rarity, a pro-fees Lib Dem, I feel no such compunction.