Tories, Tactics, and Tuition Fees

Brittish Prime Minister Theresa May speaks during an international conference on Somalia at the Lancaster House in London on May 11, 2017. (DOD photo by U.S. Staff Sgt. Jette Carr)

I was listening to The News Quiz on BBC Radio 4, because I am just that cool, and one of the panellists was asked about Labour’s new policy on animal rights. ‘He’s [Corbyn] banned foie gras’ they chortled. ‘Maybe Corbyn’s spent too long in Islington! That’ll really win back the industrial heartlands!’ Of course, the show is meant to be funny, and that works as a gag, but as a piece of political analysis it is terrible.

During the election, one of the most important Tory policies in terms of voter salience was their stance on foxhunting. May’s promise to give all Tories a free vote on the repeal of the ban on foxhunting set the Tories firmly back in the national consciousness as the nasty party. The party that wants to kill a sweet, innocent fox. (That being said, I spent most of my first year being kept awake by two foxes that would meet under my window to copulate loudly, so I have less sympathy than most for them.) In Britain, that matters hugely, because we give more to animal charities than any other nation on earth. Our most well-funded disabilities charity is Guide Dogs for the Blind. Labour’s pro-animal rights ban does play to the industrial heartlands, because caring about animals is a British thing, not a class thing. Yes, the foie gras ban might have no impact on people living in the ‘Industrial Heartlands’, who may or may not eat foie gras, but it contributes to a general mood music coming out of Labour that reminds everyone that Labour are a nice party that does nice things. One of the things that the Corbyn project is getting better and better at doing is ensuring that they’re always playing to their strengths, pitting themselves against the Tories at pressure points where they are strong and May’s Conservatives are weak. (Hence, in my opinion, the radio silence from Labour viz. Brexit, because Labour seems determined to straddle the issue until their section of the electorate shifts one way or the other.) Furthermore, the Labour promise to allow tenants to have pets is the sort of thing that adds to the general theme of ‘Labour wants you to have nice things’, as well as adding to the general mood music that Labour is going to do something about housing – without actually having to do something about housing.

Contrast this with May’s bungled tuition fee reform. To begin, tuition fees are a more or less fine bit of policy. Our Universities are basically free at the point of use, and the issue for students in terms of actual accessibility is cost of living, not tuition fees – given that the fees are the best loan you’ll ever take out because the government will pay them if you can’t. I’d like to see more state investment in our amazing system mooted, so I do want to see some reform to our system, but gutting funding to universities via cuts to fees isn’t the way to do it. Worse than the idea that the issue of fees is the one to tackle is the way that the Tories intend to go about reform of the system, which basically involves telling institutions to make cutbacks on things like bursaries. In other words, working class kids will have less money to pay for things like rent and food, to allow middle class kids a gigantic bung.

So from a policy perspective, May’s reform is a disaster, but it’s even worse from a strategy perspective. To begin, most analysis shows two things: firstly, Labour’s tuition fee pledge was not the electoral dynamite that CCHQ seem to insist that it was. It may have been a factor, but it certainly wasn’t a game changer. Secondly, the idea that there was a ‘youthquake’ seems to, more or less, be bunk. I think that not enough has been written on the idea that 18-24 year olds made it cool to like Corbyn, or normalised him in the zeitgeist with their memes and chants and declaring The Absolute Boy, but in terms of sheer vote numbers, the idea that there was a massive youthquake is nonsense.

Secondly you have the issue that even if it was the electoral dynamite that certain CCHQ figures seem to believe that it is, you’re still left with the fact that Labour’s offering to students was abolition of all tuition fees, with a (much debated) promise to at least review the current system of debt repayment for graduate with outstanding debts. I just don’t see how May’s promise of ‘slightly lower fees but less expensive than my party made them but more expensive than the other guys!’ is actually going to persuade anyone to vote for her party. The problem the Conservatives will find themselves running against is that because the current model is basically fine on the side of the consumer, those who are against fees are so for one of two reasons – either naked self interest (a minority) or a belief that free education is a right. Neither group is going to shift from Labour to the Tories on this issue, so I don’t see any reason why the Conservatives are committing to an ineffective, ill thought out policy on grounds they cannot possibly win on. I’ve been playing at lot of Sid Meir’s Civilisation 5 recently, and watching a flailing Tory party try and take Labour head-on with issues that are Labour bread and butter is like watching a desperate late-game embarked unit try to fight a nuclear submarine. The Conservatives can turn it around, but they’ll need to ensure that they start being more sensible, hitting Labour where the terrain favours them.

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