Tuition Fees and the Labour Right: Who to Trust in British Student Politics?

With the constant erosion of the NHS; the removal of essential services such as Legal Aid; the closure of Rape Crisis Centres and libraries; benefit cuts for the disabled, workfare for the unemployed; the jingoistic tone of the vote to bomb Syria; and now the scrapping of maintenance grants for disadvantaged students, I want to say that this government has gone too far, but to do so would be to ignore the incredible damage that has already been done.

We are, in fact, looking at “gone too far” in the rear view mirror. “Gone too far” is a shitty service station we passed sometime in the 1990s. Every time the government and the local councils chip away at public services, it is a cut on top of a mountain of other cuts and, thus, an endorsement of every one that has preceded it. People talk about being kicked when they are down, but this is more like disfiguring the terminally ill… a practice that chimes well with the Tories’ humiliating and immoral disability testing.

It should come as a breath of fresh air, therefore, to hear Labour Party come out against the scrapping of maintenance grants. Indeed, British politics has certainly become a more hopeful place since the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the Labour Party leadership.

But before we get too excited, it is important to consider Labour’s (let’s face it) appalling recent track record on student issues when in power.

The PLP and the Labour councils are teeming with Blairites, unprincipled careerists, and confidence tricksters, who would say anything to get elected but would sell us down the river at the first opportunity. For this reason, we should be wary of providing uncritical support for Corbyn, irrespective of his own excellent credentials on student politics.

Yesterday’s debate in parliament saw voting split along party lines, with Labour bloc-voting against the scrapping of maintenance grants. Unfortunately, the motion passed. Although on this occasion Labour took the right stance, their reputation when in power is quite different.

Tuition Fees and the Labour Right

Prior to the election of New Labour in 1997, Tony Blair assured the country that “Labour has no plans to introduce tuition fees for higher education.” In a commons debate on July 23, he reiterated this message:

“Our proposals will be designed to safeguard the position of low-income families… We need a system that is fair, does not involve additional parental contribution, is linked to students’ ability to pay and safeguards the country for the long term. That is what we will provide.”

Notwithstanding these noble claims, a motion to support tuition fees was passed overwhelmingly just six months after Labour’s election. Originally fees were set at £1,000 to be paid by every student for every year of study, but the motion also replaced maintenance grants (set at £1,710) with repayable student loans.

This pattern of betrayal continued in 2001, when Labour was re-elected on a manifesto that, amongst other things, promised to fight against “top-up fees.” The manifesto reads: “We will not introduce ‘top-up’ fees and have legislated to prevent them… We will ensure that the funding system continues to promote access and excellence.”

And yet, on January 24 2004 the vast majority of Labour MPs voted in favour of university tuition fees increasing from £1,125 per year to up to £3,000 per year.

Of those who voted in favour of increasing fees, many remain amongst the Labour ranks today, some with positions in the shadow cabinet (indicated in parenthesis). For example,

Hilary Benn (Shadow Foreign Secretary)

Chris Bryant (Shadow Leader of the House of Commons)

Andy Burnham (Shadow Home Secretary)

Vernon Coaker (Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland)

Angela Eagle (Shadow Secretary of State for Business Innovation and Skills)

Maria Eagle (Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport)

John Healey (Shadow Minister for Housing and Planning)

Angela Smith (Shadow Leader of the House of Lords)

Tom Watson (Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office)

Rosie Winterton (Opposition Chief Whip in the House of Commons)

Other notable individuals that voted against the manifesto promises in 2004 are Yvette Cooper, Alistair Darling, Jim Dowd, Harriet Harman, John Mann, and Keith Vaz. The full list can be found here.

Only four ministers from today’s shadow cabinet voted against the raising of tuition fees in 2004: Jeremy Corbyn (Leader of the Opposition), John McDonnell (Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer), Jon Trickett (Shadow Minister for the Constitutional Convention), and Diane Abbott (Shadow Secretary of State for International Development).

This means that of the current shadow cabinet eligible to vote in 2004, 10 out of 14 (71%) voted for increased tuition fees in 2004.1 Given the current make-up of the PLP, it’s difficult to imagine that the story would be different any different if Labour were in power today.

Spinning on to the next seminal moment in the history of tuition fees, on December 9, 2010, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat (Con-Dem) coalition government won the vote to raise the upper limit of tuition fees to £9,000, against a backdrop of massive national demonstrations and police violence. Labour, now safely out of power, bloc-voted against this policy.

Interestingly, the Tories that put this motion on the table were the same Tories that voted against tuition fees in 1997 and 2004. Even more interestingly, many Labour MPs who took a “principled stand” against this deeply unfair policy in fact voted for the increase in 2004.

Recent history has shown conclusively that when locked out of power the Labour Right, and even the Tories, will take a progressive stance on student issues, but when it matters they both vote the same: more tuition fees, more loans, and less grants.

We are presented now with a real opportunity for change. The Tories currently hold the reins of power with a desperately small mandate from just 24% of those eligible to vote. At the same time, the Labour Party has recently elected the most left wing leader in its entire history. The PLP and the local councils, however, do not yet reflect these changes.

If young people are going to throw their lot in with Labour’s Momentum campaign they need to know that their elected representatives have a history of fighting for working class students. Sadly, this is not currently the case, and it is an issue that can only be redressed through the amputation of the Labour Right.

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Thomas Barker is an independent journalist and PhD student in Aesthetics and Politics. He can be reached at https://durham.academia.edu/ThomasBarker

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