“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.