A feeble excuse for politics
Britain's 'battle royal' over tuition fees is a pseudo-clash between a defensive government and its cowardly critics.
It is, according to Ian Gibson, Labour MP for Norwich North, the ‘battle royal’ – the ‘big issue of principle’ which will define the battle lines between Labour ministers and rebellious Labour MPs. As education secretary Charles Clarke fired the latest shot in this internal war – unveiling the government’s plans to reform the funding of higher education by introducing variable tuition fees for full-time undergraduates – Gibson warned that there would be tough clashes ahead (1).
Battle royal? The internal Labour Party clash over tuition fees is no such thing. Clarke’s publication yesterday of the government’s watered-down Higher Education Bill, which will require students to make a financial contribution to the cost of their university courses, and the response by the so-called rebels, shows that this is no ‘big issue of principle’, or even much of a debate. This is not a political divide over the quality or substance of higher education, but a pseudo-clash between a defensive government and its cowardly critics – it is politics with the politics taken out.
Neither side in the debate over tuition fees is able to hold the line – because neither side has anything of substance to hold the line on, or really believes in what they are saying. In early December 2003, prime minister Tony Blair said that he was not for turning. He ‘vowed’, as one report put it, that he would ‘not back down over the principle of variable university tuition fees’. He insisted there would be ‘no retreat’. ‘My authority’s on the line’, he said, ‘but I’m determined to do this’ (2).
Yet yesterday’s Higher Education Bill made a number of concessions in an attempt to appease the rebel camp, suggesting that Blair’s no-retreat, authority-testing stand on the principle of tuition fees was entirely negotiable after all. Education secretary Clarke revealed that, from 2006, the government would guarantee at least £3,000 to one-in-three students, in order to offset the impact of the £3,000 tuition fees on poorer families; and he promised there would be no lifting of the £3,000-a-year fee cap without a vote in both Houses of Parliament, and no increase at all before 2009. Representatives of Britain’s top universities, who hope that tuition fees will go some way to alleviating their funding crises, claim that the government’s scheme has been ‘so watered down it [is] in danger of becoming worthless’ (3).
Not for the first time Blair laid his authority on the line and bet his political life on a key New Labour principle, only to capitulate and backtrack in the face of internal party squabbling. After unveiling yesterday’s paler shade of higher education legislation to introduce tuition fees, Clarke warned party rebels that they had to accept it, as this is ‘not a pick’n’mix menu’ (4). Yet ministers have demonstrated that this is the politics of pick’n’mix rather than a clear policy initiative, where certain things can be dropped in order to, as one headline puts it, ‘avoid tuition fees defeat’ (5).
The response by Labour’s rebels to yesterday’s bill shows that they, too, are driven by anything but political conviction. In recent months disgruntled Labour MPs have warned that introducing fees will undermine the ‘central Labour principle’ of ‘free education’. But this central principle also seems to be of the pick’n’mix variety. According to one report, 17 Labour MPs have already defected from the rebel ranks back to the party line, clearly judging that the rehashed Higher Education Bill only threatens the principle of free education a little rather than a lot (6).
Other rebels are holding out, but only for further concessions. Martin Salter, Labour MP for Reading West, declared: ‘They have got to go a lot further than this if they want me to stand our 2001 manifesto on its head and vote for this in a marginal seat.’ (7) So Salter doesn’t have a problem with going against his party manifesto; he just wants to milk some more out of Blair and Clarke, and cause them a bit of grief in the process. Guardian columnist Simon Hoggart captured the stubborn, childish nature of the continuing rebellion among backbench MPs: ‘Think of a class told they’ll be kept in until someone admits spray-painting the gym. Resentful. Sullen.’ (8)
For all the talk of a great political clash, a ‘battle royal’ between different ranks of the governing party, in fact ministers water down their proposals while the rebels begrudgingly get back on board or stubbornly sit it out on the backbenches. The reason that supposed matters of principle can be so easily ditched in the clash over tuition fees is because this is not a substantial or political clash. It is party in-griping hooked off the non-issue of tuition fees; it is internal squabbling projected on to an issue that matters little to the world outside parliament (where polls have suggested that a majority see tuition fees as no big deal) and which is of little political consequence.
In this sense, the rebels taking a stand against tuition fees are even worse than the ministers feebly proposing them. Theirs is not a rebellion based on an alternative vision for higher education, but an infantile tantrum; fees is simply the latest issue through which disgruntled Labour MPs, feeling themselves increasingly isolated from the Labour Party machine and its decision-making process, can express their frustration with Blair.
At least, whether you agree with it or not, a real case can be made for introducing fees, and government ministers have attempted to make it. The rebels offer no serious alternative, just empty platitudes about ‘free education’ (without articulating why education is important or how it might be improved) and helping the ‘poorest students’ – who have effectively become a stage army to the rebels’ internal tantrum-throwing.
The end result is government ministers who offer empty proposals for higher education, and a phoney rebellion against them by isolated MPs. And you thought the pantomime season was over.
Phoney rebellions against Blair’s empty policies, by Mick Hume
(1) Clarke bids to avoid tuition fees defeat, Bill Jacobs, Scotsman, 8 January 2004
(2) ‘No retreat’ over top-up tuition fees, ePolitix, 3 December 2003
(3) Blair ‘making too many concessions to rebels over fees’, Scotsman, 8 January 2004
(4) No changes to fees package, Clarke warns, Guardian, 9 January 2004
(5) Clarke bids to avoid tuition fees defeat, Bill Jacobs, Scotsman, 8 January 2004
(6) Top-up fee rebels vow to fight on, Michael White and Rebecca Smithers, Guardian, 9 January 2004
(7) Top-up fee rebels vow to fight on, Michael White and Rebecca Smithers, Guardian, 9 January 2004
(8) Bodging of a botched job leaves mutineers seething, Simon Hoggart, Guardian, 9 January 2004
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