“It’s not the policy, it’s the pledge.” Ed Miliband joins the tuition fees U-turn Clegg club

by Stephen Tall on February 20, 2015

fees miliband

“It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up” originated with Watergate.

There’s a British political equivalent now: “It’s not the policy, it’s the pledge”.

First, it applied to the Lib Dems. My party’s infamous U-turn on fees has bedevilled Nick Clegg ever since. Not because the policy has failed – applications to universities continue to rise, including and especially from students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and universities are better funded – but because the Lib Dems had campaigned so heavily agin them. (Despite Nick’s subsequent and disingenuous attempt to distance himself: “I didn’t even spend that much time campaigning on tuition fees.”)

Now it’s Ed Miliband’s turn. When he campaigned for the Labour leadership he pledged “I’d bin tuition fees” and promised a graduate tax instead.

And then, when Ed worked out that the Coalition’s fees policy was a de facto graduate tax, he tried again with a new pledge, this time to cut tuition fees from £9,000 to £6,000.

This was always an odd policy, as the only people who would gain from it would be better-off graduates – which is a novel approach to wealth redistribution.

It also sits awkwardly with Labour’s economic argument. The Two Eds have argued (rightly) that borrowing to invest, especially when interest rates are low, is a prudent thing to do. Debt isn’t automatically a bad thing as long as you use it sensibly and you’re able to afford the repayments. It’s the logic most of us adopt when we buy a house, and which students are themselves choosing to follow.

In a sane world, Labour would accept another bit of Keynesian advice – “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” — and abandon their earlier pledge, along with their current desperate attempts to tweak it into something that resembles a vaguely workable policy.

After all, it’s not as if there aren’t problems with the current fees policy which genuinely do need addressing, most obviously the impact on part-time and mature students.

The one thing that Ed Miliband usually is said to have going for his leadership is that he’s an intellectual, a policy wonk who gets how to govern. Given he has a better-than-evens chance of being the next Prime Minister, I’d love to believe that to be the case. But there’s vanishingly little evidence to justify it.

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“First, it applied to the Lib Dems”

No. First, it applied to Labour, when they implemented Tuiton Fees – in their case, despite having an outright majority – after having said they wouldn’t during the 1997 General Election

by Alisdair Calder McGregor on February 20, 2015 at 2:48 pm. Reply #

True… In fact true twice-over. In 2001, Labour also promised not to increase fees in that parliament (which, technically, they stuck to by voting for an increase that would come into effect in the following parliament!).

by Stephen Tall on February 20, 2015 at 3:04 pm. Reply #

Labour made no such pledge in 1997

by The facts on February 20, 2015 at 3:45 pm. Reply #

@ “The facts”

Tony Blair in the Evening Standard in 1997: “Labour has no plans to introduce tuition fees for higher education.”

And in 2001 manifesto, for ref: “We will not introduce top-up fees and have legislated to prevent them.”

by Stephen Tall on February 20, 2015 at 3:53 pm. Reply #

“Not because the policy has failed – applications to universities continue to rise”

Either you’re being disingenuous or you don’t understand the figures.

UCAS’ analysis of 2015 admissions states: “This pattern is consistent with the model that the introduction of higher and more variable tuition fees in 2012 reduced the level of 18 year old demand for higher education, but did not materially alter the pattern of annual increases in that demand. Based on trends using revised population estimates, this model would suggest that the application rate is around 2.5 percentage points lower than it would have been if there had not been a decrease in the application rate in 2012.”

This means, regardless of the annual increase, that there are just under 6,000 English 18 year olds who have not applied this year due to the new system.

And please stop this fiction that the Lib Dems’ pledge break is somehow comparable to an unkept manifesto commitment. Voters expect a specific pledge, publicly signed with much hoo hah, to be stuck to in a way they certainly don’t with manifestoes.

by Stuart on February 20, 2015 at 9:53 pm. Reply #

I wouldn’t be so quick to call out this claim – there are other factors at work that may have reduced university applications. For example, there has been a greater uptake of apprenticeships by 18 yos in the period in questions which will have soaked up some of that demand. In addition, an improving job market may well have tempted some.

by Alex on February 22, 2015 at 1:16 pm. Reply #


I think you know that saying “We have no plans” to do something isn’t a pledge not to do it!

by Chris on February 20, 2015 at 9:59 pm. Reply #

Correction, the UCAS analysis I quoted was referring to 2014 applications, not 2015. But since applications are only up 0.6% this year, it’s clear that the gap is still somewhat similar (and may even be higher). Fewer people are applying for university now than would have done without the increase in fees – stop pretending that this has not happened.

by Stuart on February 22, 2015 at 11:37 am. Reply #

Yes, as I’ve previously noted, there was a one-year drop in 2012 in applications – given the furore and misinformation spewed out by Labour and the NUS, it would have been amazing if there hadn’t been. But note that in subsequent years the increase has been the same as it was under Labour’s previous fees regime, 2006-11. And unfortunately for your argument, the drop has not been among the most disadvantaged – indeed, the gap is actually narrowing.

by Stephen Tall on February 23, 2015 at 3:41 pm. Reply #

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