Reaction to the Browne report on higher education has focused on the broken promises of Liberal Democrats who pledged to vote against rises in tuition fees. For any opposition party, it is easy to fall into the trap of concentrating exclusively on the Lib Dems’ betrayal of their election pledges. Yes, this betrayal is the one, among many, that I still can’t get over – even more than their U-turn on the fundamental issue of the economy immediately after the election.
But the photos of Nick Clegg holding up his card pledging to vote against fee rises speak for themselves. While the media has devoted so much space to the betrayal that the morality of the rise in fees itself is put to one side. Which is exactly what David Cameron wants.
Therefore, Labour’s opposition to the rise in fees must be ideological rather than just bashing a party about its broken promises. It is a disgrace that the last Labour government commissioned the Browne review, which will deter aspirational young people from lower-income families from considering the prospect of a university degree. Even the remotest possibility of a two-tier system of higher education, with some universities unaffordable to many, could not conflict more with Labour’s core values of social justice, equality and anti-elitism. If there is anything that shows our complacency in government over our last years in office, it is this.
To many of us in the party, it’s quite simple. A social democratic government should not see a former chief executive of a major transnational oil company as the man to determine who should have access to education. It is the job of the Labour movement to recognise that while we must work with and support business, it is also naïve to assume the sector has everyone’s best interests at heart – and not simply profit.
The importance of this issue cannot be over-emphasised. I find it hard to contemplate any reversal under a future Labour government if we allow this regressive revolution to take place without making the ideological arguments against it. The Tories want us to see the proposals as a pragmatic response to hard times, yet they are undoubtedly a step backwards for social mobility.
It was heartening to see Ed Miliband reaching out to Liberal Democrat MPs uncomfortable with breaking their election pledges. Rather than relishing the Lib Dem betrayal as a means to edge up in the opinion polls, we must do all in our power to defeat the bill when it comes before parliament, even if this means that some Lib Dems look principled after all.
Ed Miliband showed that he is prepared to distance himself from some actions of the last government when he admitted that “we got it wrong over Iraq”. The decisions Tony Blair took were irrational and immoral, but ultimately bore little relation to Labour’s core principle of fairness, unlike whatever our policy on tuition fees is. In order for us to once again become the party of hard-working, aspirational young people, irrespective of class, we must admit our mistakes in higher education policy too, and do our best to undo the damage. Only then will we discover whether a “new generation” has taken over the party.
Conrad Landin is an A’ level student.