It doesn't add up: Where Ed Miliband's gone wrong on tuition fees


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It bodes ill that Ed Miliband should have deliberated so long over his policy on tuition fees and still come up with the wrong answer. One of the purposes of yesterday’s promise to cut fees from £9,000 a year to £6,000 a year is to capitalise on Liberal Democrat defectors who were dismayed by Nick Clegg’s breaking of his promise to oppose tuition fees.

Yet Mr Miliband is making a similar mistake. The Labour leader knows perfectly well, because Ed Balls, the shadow Chancellor, has told him, that the cut would benefit mainly those students who go on to well-paid jobs – because those in lower-paid jobs will never pay off their debts. But Mr Miliband has obviously decided that he does not care for this inconvenient truth, and that the symbolic value of being seen to cut student debt outweighs that of good progressive policy.

It would seem that Mr Balls has done what he can to rescue the situation, by imposing a higher interest rate on higher-paid graduates, but this cannot compensate for the basic unfairness of the pledge.

Mr Clegg went into the last election knowing that it was unrealistic to abolish tuition fees. Everyone who has looked at the main alternative, a graduate tax, has come away from meeting the reality-based universe rather worse for wear. He went ahead and paid the price.

Mr Miliband’s quest for the youth vote makes sense, but now he wants to take advantage of the Lib Dems’ embarrassment by promising something he knows perfectly well is a bad idea. Spending £2bn a year on future bankers is a poor priority for public spending. All that matters to the Labour leader, however, is that this promise, like Mr Clegg’s, looks good superficially, and, unlike Mr Clegg’s, can be delivered. Mr Miliband’s decision is a regressive step in both senses of the word.