Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Rationality prevails
This is excellent news. The House of Commons has just passed Tony Blair's higher education bill proposing top up fees. And by a mere 5 votes!

Now the real fight begins, namely the battle to get the 3000 pound upper limit increased to something approximating the actual cost of educating British undergraduates. On that score, Peter Cuthbertson reminds us why the bill is so watered down as to be of little consequence anyway.

Finally, a commenter at Harry's Place made this, sensible point:

'...the point about increasing income tax to pay for universities, however, never seemed like a reasonable option. I may just have fallen for the useful statistic, but given that the tax-payer already pays for 5/6 of university funding - meaning they contribute more to the HE sector than any other part of the education system, including primary schools and adult education - then perhaps it is fair to generate funds from those that benefit directly, which is to say the students.'

Bravo to that...

UPDATE: Thinking about it, I'm struck by just how small the majority was. Going into the vote the view of several pundits (here & here) seems to have been that, whilst things might be a bit tight, Blair was well advised not to lose any sleep over the vote. The slimness of the majority gives the lie to that however. Despite the efforts of the whips, overwhelming media support for top up fees and the spectre of a re-juvenated Tory party, Blair still only just scraped home. So what does this all mean?

Well, at the very least it seems that New Labour's great project to reform the public services by introducing elements of the market has ground to a halt. It is exceedingly hard to imagine Blair risking his neck like this again and even if he did, it's unlikely that he would be able to muster the necessary support in the face of such implacable opposition. For this is the nub of the problem: New Labour never exorcised those radical elements that had made it unelectable during the 80s and early 90s, it merely succeeded in keeping them quiet for a time as a ploy to making Labour electable again. This may have worked initially and indeed it appears that the taste of power kept them quiet for most of Blair's first term but now the old impulses are beginning to show themselves again. The debate about top-up fees has been driven for the most part by a fear of the market and an instinctive disliking of any notion of elitism. Top up fees thus combined, in a unique way, two old Labour bugbears and it is therefore not surprising that the idea generated so much heat. Nor too should it be a surpise that old Labour has returned so soon and that it appeared willing to bring down its own leader. These are, after all, many of the same people who repeatedly sacrificed electability on the altar of principle during the Thatcher years.

Is the Blairite project finished then? Probably yes. I wouldn't be surprised if Blair hands over to Brown shortly after the next election. And I also wouldn't be surprised to find the Tories support starting to creep up. Whilst it is true that the middle classes were the big losers today, most of middle England is sensible enough to realise that Labour back bench opposition to top up fees had nothing to do with sympathy for them and everything to do with a reversion to the traditional Labour obsession with class and the commitment to an extreme egalitarianism. I'm not certain that the middle classes suspicion of Labour ever really died. They may have been temporarily convinced by Blair's promise of a new era in British politics but, as today demonstrates, Blair never suceeded in elimating those aspects of Labour which so frightened the middle classes in the past. As for what Blair will do next, I'm not certain. But as a first guess, I'd say that he'll be keeping his head down for the next while and that Gordon Brown's star will continue to rise.

Oh, and before I forget, don't think for second that today's success will have a major impact on the Universities. They will continue to decline, but with a little more grace now and over a slightly longer period.

UPDATE 2: Josh Chafetz doesn't think this will be a problem for Blair but Merton College's Politics Don appears to come down on my side. Which is comforting


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