OMOV

Labour Students (LS) are currently engaged in their consultation for a possible transition in the voting system of internal elections – from the current delegate model (as in, members of each club can vote for a delegate, who in turn vote for National Committee at national events) to one member one vote (OMOV, which would allow each member of LS to vote for elections). Both systems involve a trade-off between positives and negatives, but whilst the current system may be justifiable, I do not think the system is justified in the context of our internal democracy. A significant problem of the delegate model is that it entrenches pre-existing networks because delegates (and, indeed, non-delegate members that attend national events) are part of a limited network that is – by its nature – exclusive. The lack of direct involvement by ordinary members up and down the country prevents the direct voices to be reflected at national level. Delegates are not be able to voice the myriad of concerns, issues and priorities of members.

This is ultimately the purpose of OMOV, part of a wider agenda to increase the democracy and representation of Labour Students. OMOV would fundamentally change the nature of elections to National Committee in four key ways:

  1. Inclusivity. Candidates would be forced to reflect the issues and priorities of all members throughout the country, not just the concerns of delegates that attend democratic events. In other words, candidates will have to engage with members directly. Consequently, National Committee would become more sensitive to those concerns. This would ensure that even those that are unable to attend national events (for whatever reason – lack of confidence, affordability, distance, academic pressures, timing) would still have a voice in the organisation. This would do much to tackle one of the biggest problems for Labour Students: the perception of a remote, distant, and ultimately exclusive organisation that is not relevant to the concerns and priorities of the many members it seeks to represent.
  2. Democracy. A perennial problem for the organisation is that elections are often uncontested. Indeed, without alternative choices on the ballot paper, elections have become an undemocratic ritual at Conference. This is often because potential candidates are remote from the wider membership; direct elections would open opportunities for more diverse elections. This would additionally drive up standards because candidates would have to consider more seriously why they want to be on Committee.
  3. Legitimacy. Contested elections would ensure that candidates attempted to actually win over other members. This would increase the democratic legitimacy of her or his position because of the larger pool of voters, all of whom have a right to air their priorities for LS, had a choice in elections.
  4. Visibility. Without direct elections, no members of National Committee have ever had a reason to approach members of Labour Students. This is despite the fact that they have been elected to represent the student members and supporters of the Labour Party. Direct elections will force direct contact.

Three issues immediately arise: the role of clubs, the equalities agenda, and the perceived cost.

The Role of Clubs

A perceived problem is that bigger clubs will have more of an influence with direct elections than indirect elections. In many ways, this is a misperception. Elections will focus on direct and relevant concerns of all members of LS, and not those of bigger clubs. Indeed, indirect elections place significant powers into the hands of clubs – especially bigger ones. [1]

Ultimately, votes for National Committee come from all members – even those from smaller clubs that are unable to send delegates to events. Under OMOV, votes for National Committee will be taken out of the hands of clubs and placed directly into members’.

The Equalities Agenda

A significant concern that I strongly  appreciate is the effect of OMOV on the equalities agenda. Whereas delegation are gender balanced at 50 per cent, the general membership of LS is 70 per cent male. There is therefore a justified concern that direct elections would adversely affect the liberation and equalities agenda. However, I believe that this issue can be overcome.

National Committee is, at the moment, gender balanced. It also has specific representatives from liberation and equalities groups. OMOV would not change this. Therefore, I do not think that the priority that Labour Students places on equality and liberation issues would be limited. Indeed, liberation officers would be in a unique position to enhance their role with OMOV. Direct elections for these positions means that wider concerns of students that identify with one or more liberation group would be raised more openly and democratically. This is especially true of those groups that are particularly under-represented at national events and who, at times, lack the confidence or accessibility to come to national events. Direct elections for liberation officers would therefore be able to increase their representativeness, putting more emphasis on ordinary members.

Cost

A final issue is the cost, which has been articulated in two ways. First, OMOV is perceived to be more expensive. Second, it would make running for election more expensive. Both of these issues are, I believe, misconceptions.

First, OMOV is not more expensive than the delegate system. The LS website has been able to hold a wide-ranging consultation on OMOV, so it can easily also have a simple site that allows people to put ticks next to people that members wish to vote for. Indeed, the LS website has a Members Area, accessed through MembersNet, which means that everything is already a place to allow OMOV to be implemented at little extra cost. However, even if OMOV was more expensive: are we really going to compromise the principle of democracy because of cost?

Second, elections would also not necessarily become more expensive. It is possible to put safeguards in place – most obviously, a financial limit to how much spending is allowed for election campaigns. Moreover, LS could make manifestos available on their website, which would limit expenses and give equal access for all candidates. If anything, it would make candidates spend more effort (not more money) on their proposals for National Committee.

Given our fundamental Labour value of equality for all, the right to vote seems to be a very basic tenement that must be implemented. National Committee would engage with members at a very direct, individual level, which is currently missing. It would heighten the sense of grassroots-level involvement which Labour Students cannot afford to ignore without detrimentally affecting its effectiveness and inclusiveness. If we want the movement to grow, then we need to be as inclusive as possible. OMOV would increase the pressure for candidates to reflect the wider movement through direct contact with members and to become more responsive to the members they seek to represent.

mg

[1] Even though there are delegate restrictions for bigger clubs, they do still have larger delegations than smaller ones. Moreover, there is no restriction on the number of non-delegate attendees at events (and if there is a restriction, this has not been enforced).

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Pinning Colours to the Mast

It is now the middle of 2013, and we have surpassed the half-way point of this Parliament. David Cameron and Nick Clegg have presided over a turbulent three years with mainly negative evaluations (to put it mildly). We constantly hear of a crisis: within the Conservative Party, the leadership of Cameron has been rocked; within the Coalition, the relationship between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats is increasingly strained; and, within the Treasury, economic forecasts remain as bleak as ever. However, it would be misguided to call these ‘crises’. We are not in a crisis or even going from one crisis to another. We are in a period of social, political and economic malaise. We are faced with a breakdown of stability that has guided British politics for the past 30 years or so under a discredited banner of neo-liberalism. [1] Whilst this is going on, the Labour Party is hammering out its long-term response. In 2010, Labour polled just 29 percent of the popular vote, which understandably provoked a debate about what the Party stands for. Three years down the line, are we seeing a close to this debate? Far from it. Despite Labour’s lead in the polls, the electorate failed to endorse the Party in local elections. It seems that Ed Miliband’s leadership, although cemented, has yet to take a decisive turn towards a coherent governing project with which voters can identify.

Clearly, the Party’s debate is an internal one (at times, one could suggest add the adjective ‘parochial’). However, what is not often ignored is that Labour is made up of a broad coalition of forces that is far more nuanced than most people – Party members included – are willing to admit. The debate is not about Old Labour and New Labour. Both traditions are, without doubt, dominant in many discussions. However, it is possible to characterise many more strands, some of which overlap and some of which diverge radically. Some of these include: Blue Labour [2], Fabian statists [3], ‘Red’ Labour [4], Purple Labour (i.e., Blairites) [5] and Compass, all of which are informed by a proliferation of other ideational networks found in think tanks that include Demos, the Institute for Public Policy Research, the New Economics Foundation, the Resolution Foundation, Policy Network, and many more. [6]

These are competing traditions, and only one specific mixture can emerge out of this coalition of forces in 2015. If this does not happen, then the Labour Party will implode (much like the coalition within the Conservative Party at present). Not only are Labour traditions competing, they are also in opposition to one another, with high-flying accusations. Progress is often accused of a soulless neo-liberal approach to politics and economics. Those opposing austerity are accused of being nothing more than a ‘repository for people’s anger’ [7] or a ‘voice of protest’. The Blue Labour tradition has been attacked as ‘toxic’ and out-of-date. And statism is seen as ‘power hoarding’ that prevents empowerment of the people. Rarely have these attacks been constructive (as some of the examples highlight). It is true that some organisations have begun thinking about strategy, and others have come up with policy ideas. [8] But on the whole, numerous factions within Labour have become increasingly vocal in questioning the calmness of the Policy Review, from New Labour grandees to stroppy trade unionists. What is telling, and should reassure many, is that Ed Miliband is not willing to be pushed around by either New Labour or the trade unions. He is sticking to his own convictions to re-found the principles of the Labour Party in a holistic fashion.

Unfortunately, this is seemingly not enough as factionalism amongst student societies, at public meetings and across the Internet remains steeped full of emotive anger and frustration. Given this, in addition to the malaise facing politicians, it is now more important than ever that Ed Miliband and the Labour Party identify a governing project. [9] This is not about creating a credible economic alternative to the Conservative Party. This is about a vision for politics, economics and society. Without this, the electorate will not vote Labour into government.

One Nation Labour is the banner under which the Party will attempt to unite competing traditions at the general election. Yet few people know what this slogan entails despite the bourgeoning articles, speeches and conferences. Opposition to Labour – from all sides of the political spectrum – is united in calling the Party hollow. This is, perhaps, a curious accusation given that there are so many different centre-left traditions and networks identified above. This has been caused by the fact that the differing coalition forces within the Party and beyond have begun to set out their own appeals for the direction of Labour without fully engaging in dialogue with one another. We have seen the publication of The Purple Book by Progress followed more recently by a new website calling for a Campaign for a Labour Majority. [10] We have an alternative book called The Socialist Way (edited by Roy Hattersley and Kevin Hickson) outlining a statist, social democratic vision. [11] And finally, we have a trail of articles and speeches by Maurice GlasmanMarc Stears and Jon Cruddas that are united by an appeal towards Blue Labour that found their way into an ebook.

The factions within the Party have begun to cluster around these three reference points: Purple Labour, Red Labour and Blue Labour. All three are beyond the traditional Old and New divide that gripped Labour’s path to victory in 1997. [12] Yet it remains to be seen if any of these interact to form a winning formula. Peter Kellner has recently argued that the Labour Party faces a tough struggle to be viewed as a strong, passionate force, rather than a bunch of ‘nice but dim’ policy-makers. [13] The problem is that all three contemporary strands have offered little more than opposition, squabbling and futile accusations. We need to move beyond critique, and form a governing project. This was recognised as far back as 1945, in which the then Labour Manifesto warned: ‘It is very easy to set out a list of aims. What matters is whether it is backed up by a genuine workmanlike plan conceived without regard to sectional vested interests and carried through’. [14] Thus far, Ed Miliband’s leadership has been received with lukewarm interest, which has failed to combine the widespread opposition to the Coalition into a unifying vision. Is this the reason that Labour failed to make further inroads on 02 May? We have pinned our colours – blue, purple, and red – to the mast. The question remains whether that mast is a governing project worthy of the gauntlet One Nation.

mg

[1] C. Crouch (2010) The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism, Cambridge: Polity Press.

[2] M. Glasman et. al. (eds.) (2011) The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox, ebook available here.

[3] See, for example, Y. Roberts (2012) ‘The Relational Reality’, Fabian Review 124:2, pp.7-8.

[4] R. Hattersley and K. Hickson (ed.) (2013) The Socialist Way: Social democracy in contemporary Britain, London: I.B.Tauris.

[5] G. Cooke et. al. (2012) The Purple Papers, London: Progress. Available here.

[6] Taking the issue at the broadest conceivable level, there is also a trade union movement that is ferociously against cuts, an Occupy movement that sought to emphasise the ‘99 percent’, and members of hard-left parties – the Socialist Party, the Socialist Workers Party, the Communist Party, and so on (ad infinitum?).

[7] T. Blair (2013) ‘Labour must search for answers and not merely aspire to be a repository for people’s anger’, New Statesman (12-25 April), p.27.

[8] See, for example, the articles in Fabian Review, 125:1, pp.1-30.

[9] R. Philpot (2013) ‘Remember Wilson’, Progress, pp.10-1.

[10] R. Philpot (ed.) (2011) The Purple Book, London: Progress.

[11] R. Hattersley and K. Hickson (ed.) (2013) The Socialist Way: Social democracy in contemporary Britain, London: I.B.Tauris.

[12] Although Old Labour and Red Labour are obviously linked, as are New Labour and Purple Labour. But importantly, both movements have moved on and re-articulated their visions given the 2008 economic crises.

[13] P. Kellner (2013) ‘Majority rules’, Progress, pp.14-21.

[14] The Labour Party (1945) Let Us Face the Future: A declaration of Labour policy for the consideration of the nation, London: Labour Party. Available here.

Supporting Olivia Blake

At the moment, the Youth Representative for the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party is being contested by two individuals, Bex Bailey and Olivia Blake. Both of them are leading great campaigns, and both of them have shown so much passion that I believe that both would make excellent Youth Representatives for the NEC. However, I wish to use this opportunity to write down some thoughts regarding the campaign, and specifically cite why I will be supporting Olivia Blake for NEC Youth Rep.

The National Executive Committee, or NEC, is the governing body of the Labour Party, which oversees the overall direction of the party and the policy-making process. The NEC is made up of a range of opinion formers within the party, which includes affiliate organisations, trade unions, MPs, MEPs, the Leader and Deputy Leader of the Party, and so on. Crucially, one position on the Committee is reserved for someone to represent all young members, which is one of the most important ways for younger members to be represented by the Labour Party at the national level. Moreover, the Youth Rep will also sit on the national committee of Young Labour, which is the governing body for the subsidiary of the Labour Party. In many ways, this is an important election, but particularly because 2013-2014 will be crucial in setting the foundations for the general election campaign that Labour faces in 2015.

Unfortunately, Young Labour has become laborious and elitist through a combination of complex governing rules and regulations in addition to limited institutional flexibility. One of the most important and pressing issues is that almost all elections are conducted through delegate systems, which means that only delegates get to vote for certain positions, including the NEC Youth Rep. This is hugely frustrating given that regional representatives are elected directly through one member one vote (OMOV). It kind of suggests that direct elections are not only possible in theory, but feasible in practice. An associated problem for the organisations is that communication in general is kept to the barest minimum – if existent at all. For example, information regarding how to submit motions, the locations of previous conferences, and the information for how to become a delegate was kept unclear, which meant that some Labour Clubs found it difficult to organise meetings in time to form proposals, pass motions and elect delegates.

These issues also faces Labour Students, and so both organisations urgently need to deal with them. Otherwise, they could damage the claim that YL and LS are democratically-run organisations. What we need at this time, especially for Young Labour, is a candidate that will open up the processes of decision-making to all members under 27s, which will ensure that the NEC is properly represented. It means that there should be a renewed emphasis on transparency and democracy. One of the ways to do this is to break the elitism that seems to have grappled Young Labour at the moment. This will ensure not only that the organisation is run more democratically, but also ensure a greater diversity of opinion will be heard, fostering further inclusiveness of Young Labour. This, in turn, will feed back into the NEC.

I believe that Olivia Blake is the strongest candidate for this change to happen. Olivia is unconventional in that she is not based in London and did not study the usual ‘Politics, Philosophy and Economics’ at University. Olivia goes to the University of Sheffield and she is studying towards a PhD in Medical Biology. This alone makes her a candidate that will offer a fresh perspective on policy-making, something that has been marginalised to an extent. However, it is not only her background that is impressive, but her entire manifesto. It is detailed beyond reproach, and many of the policies that she cites are ones with which I can identify. These are less about where we stand on the left-right spectrum, which is where we potentially differ. However, we are united in our insurmountable appetite for reform of the structures that govern Young Labour (and, by extension, Labour Students). Some of her excellent policies include:

  • Guaranteed reports to members to ensure that communication and transparency is upheld. This is such a simple, useful policy that I cannot believe it has not been implemented before. I can’t remember when I last heard anything – if ever – from the current national committee, or the NEC Youth Rep for that matter.
  • Feedback sessions in every region of the country to ensure that all young members feel represented. This is another great policy because it will challenge the idea that YL is just based in and around London. It is true that regional Young Labour organisations do exist, but communication between them and the national organisation is not particularly strong or co-ordinated, at least not from where I’m standing.
  • Reform of youth elections to ensure that, in future, all young members get a direct vote in who represents them at the NEC and YL level. This is the bedrock that should sit at the apex of Young Labour. How is it that, in the twenty-first century, we are still electing positions using a nineteenth century system for a political party that is supposedly all about democracy?

These are just three policies that I’ve cited. Her full manifesto is available here. There are so many other things that Olivia wants to achieve that make her a good candidate for reform – including a women’s network, regional liberation groups, more communication online, opening up Young Labour events, and so on and so forth. I’m very proud to be a supporter of Olivia.

Olivia has been a campaigner for Labour for absolute ages, and tirelessly fought the corner for women’s rights, social justice and equality for as long as I can remember. Without doubt, Olivia has been inspirational in many ways. She was the person that gave me the courage to go door-knocking for the first time for the #labourdoorstep and encouraged me, advised me and helped me a great deal since I’ve met her in 2008. Her passion could never be doubted, for Labour in particular, and life in general.

I proudly support Olivia Blake for NEC Youth Rep.

mg

The Living Wage: Supporting living standards, economic prosperity and consumer freedom

The Living Wage Campaign is a laudable campaign that seeks to protect and strengthen employee rights. The LW will be a key factor for economic recovery and crucially helps to re-balance our economic system in favour of the citizen. A decent, living wage has three positive claims: first, it rests on a moral claim that people should not be treated as cheap commodities; second, it rests on a economic claim that it will increase growth through greater consumer spending; and third, it rests on a political claim that will allow citizens to spend their money more ethically.

Living Standards

The Living Wage Campaign was founded on the principle that work should be rewarding, and that it should bring dignity. Consequently, wages should be enough to provide families the essentials of life. [1] The campaign has roots that go back to the late nineteenth century, where one MP wrote: ‘A living wage must be sufficient to maintain the worker in the highest state of industrial efficiency, with decent surroundings and sufficient leisure’. [2] A living wage is important because the minimum wage is not enough for a sufficiently comfortable life in the twenty-first century. This is not about luxury, it is about protecting living standards:

  • The Living Wage has had a colossal effect on reducing in-work poverty. Since 2001, over 45,000 families have been lifted out of working poverty, directly as a result of the LWC.
  • Relatedly, the LW contributes to a reduction in fuel poverty. A living wage would cut the horrifying situation where people have to choose between their radiator and their dinner (especially at a time when fuel bills are going up).
  • The LW is about increasing the health of employees. A higher wage means less stress, and could ensure that the money is spent on better quality food, goods and services (with obvious health benefits).
  • Being paid the minimum wage prevents parents from seeing their children at weekends because they end up with two or three jobs to make ends meet. The LW intends to end such a situation, ensuring hard-working parents’ strain is eased through wage security.
  • Better living standards will have an effect on the economy: a happier, healthier workforce will lead to higher productivity, fewer ‘sick days’ and a greater sense of social cohesion. The modest effect that the LW will have on reducing inequality is vital. [3]

Economic Prosperity

The last three bullet points of the above section have already hinted that the Living Wage plays an important part in prosperity. This is something that goes beyond the individual level, or as the Mayor of London puts it: ‘Paying the London Living Wage is not only morally right, but makes good business sense too’ (quote from LWC Website). Independent studies have shown that 80 percent of employers believed that the LW increased employees’ quality of work, and absenteeism decreased by approximately 25 percent. Two thirds of employers reported a significant impact on recruitment and retention within their organisation. 70 percent of employers felt that the Living Wage had increased consumer awareness of their organisation’s commitment to be an ethical employer. [4]

The benefits for the economy are important for the macro-level too. Higher wages allow for greater consumer spending. Workers’ spending on consumption accounts for roughly half of GDP in advanced economies. Lower wages means less spending, and hence less demand for economic output. Unless this is more than offset by new investment or exports, total output will contract as a result of a wage cut, and employment will fall. [5] Unfortunately, the UK is not export-focused. Combine that with government cuts and decreases to global investment, and we have stagnation in economic output (enter the double-dip recession). A Living Wage could counter some of these negative effects.

Citizenship

Ultimately, giving the employee more economic power can only be a good thing. A massive problem for the low-paid is that their choices, in economic terms, are diluted. They are forced to shop in the cheapest possible places, without any regard to the ethical or moral outcomes. Plenty of people do not buy goods with a Fairtrade mark simply because it is more expensive. Should our moral and ethical choices be limited because we are paid less? No. [6] I am not saying that we should all be paid enough so that we can go to Waitrose, or that everyone should buy free range eggs. But surely there is a problem if shoppers buy unethically because they are paid unethically?

A link between ethical consumption and the LW definitely exists. The LWC is not just about individual changes to eating more healthily, but also about wider societal efforts to create a more ethically-balanced economy. Higher wages means that spending power of the consumer could be directed towards more ethical goods – precisely those Fairtrade, free range and environmentally-friendly products that cost marginally more. Wages affect attitudes to shopping. As one commentator puts it: ‘spenders of the world, unite!’. [7] The LW could enhance exactly this sort of behaviour to create a more ethically-based capitalism.

Fighting For A Living Wage

A living wage has unparalleled benefits for living standards of employees, benefits the economic growth of this country, and can ensure that citizens become more active in their consumer choices. There are other reasons for introducing the LW. One is that it would reduce the need for taxpayers to effectively subsidise employers who pay their staff too little, because state benefits, such as working tax credits, would be reduced.

It is hugely misleading to say that the Living Wage would ‘kill business’. For most businesses – and especially in banking, IT and construction – implementing the LW would represent less than a one percent rise in overall costs; in other industries the costs are a few percentage points higher, but a phase-in could mitigate any harms. [8] Indeed, one way to increase the take-up rate would be to offer tax-cutting incentives to small- and medium-sized businesses for introducing a living wage.

Analysis has also shown that simply reducing income tax rates – touted as one alternative to the LW – is poorly targeted and cuts the British tax base even further, which would perversely increase debt (cut income tax but pay tax credits equals higher debt burden).

For all those reasons, I’m very happy that the Labour Party has announced its unequivocal support for the Living Wage and that Sheffield Labour Students supports this campaign. I’m also proud to support the Living Wage Campaign in Sheffield more generally. And I’m more than happy that Sheffield City Council will introduce a living wage for all its staff.

mg

Notes

[1] D. Hirsch and R. Moore (2011) The Living Wage in the United Kingdom, London: Citizens UK, p.4. Report available here.

[2] Ibid., p.4.

[3] For instance, see R. Wilkinson and K. Pickett (2009) The Spirit Level: Why equality is better for everyone, London: Penguin.

[4] These figures are drawn from the Living Wage Foundation. Click here for more details.

[5] J. Stanford (2008) Economics for Everyone, London: Pluto Press, pp.158-9.

[6] One very interesting example of this in action was Hugh Fearnely-Whittingstall’s Channel 4 three-part documentary, Hugh’s Chicken Run, from a few years ago. Here, local residents learnt about free range chicken, but some residents simply could not afford to eat ethical chicken – even if they wanted to.

[7] D. Jeffery (2012) ‘A Call to Arms: Spenders of the world, unite!’, Canvas 3:6. Article available here.

[8] M. Pennycock (2012) What Price a Living Wage? Understanding the impact of a living wage on firm-level wage bills, London: IPPR. Report available here.

Frequent Myths, Infrequent Truths

I have previously outlined my proposal for a Mixed Graduate Tax, based in part on the NUS, and in part by my own research. Throughout my research, I have self-evidently encountered arguments against a graduate tax (more often than not, a ‘pure’ form of it – telling enough?). Here is a selection of them, and my rebuttals:

1. A graduate tax will require centralisation.

In one sense, yes. But HE has always been centralised given the ESRC, HEFCE and other educational bodies. The HE Trust will be a subsidiary of the HE Council, the Council which will come into being anyway. The Treasury will have limited, if any, influence in the Trust, because the money will largely be redistributed back to the universities – the government will not have control over the money.

This also defeats the related point that it breaks a link between universities and students. Universities will receive the Trust money based on their students success, intended to act as an incentive for universities to continue their own investments.

2. People will be paying back for their degree for a lifetime.

Using my model MGT, students will be paying for 20 years. This is no different to the majority of students at the moment paying off tuition fees (indeed, usually for 25 years). It will not act as a disincentive either – the real disincentive is the prospect of £40,000 debts.

3. It will act as a brain drain: people will go abroad to study.

This isn’t anymore of a case than it has been before. Indeed, one could plausibly argue that more students will study, because it will make their degree truly worthwhile. The funding from the HE Trust will ensure that funding and investment is available to sustain world class higher education. Will a future of £40,000 debt not act as a brain drain for 18 year olds?

4. This is a tax on success.

No, it isn’t. It is a tax on the value of your degree. This means that those who have contributed to your degree deserve a share in your good luck (good luck because your success is not entirely based on your own hard work, but the contributions from businesses, tax payers, the government and university staff). It is as much a tax on hard work as a £40,000 debt will be a single payment for success. Of the two options, which is fairer? Everyone given equal opportunity to succeed with their degree and paying their due desert, or… everyone paying the same amount, regardless of how useful it has been to you?

5. It will cost billions to implement.

This is an argument about the technicalities of the implementation of the graduate tax, and an argument that will lose force once it has been implemented. Yes, it will cost billions – but only in the short term. Once the MGT has been established, and the HE Trust coffers begin to rise, then the system will run itself. Can we afford to save in the short term at the cost of the long term? The transition, if handled correctly, can work. And the sooner this happens, the cheaper and better for everyone.

6. Hypothecated taxes tend to get raided by a cash-strapped Chancellor.

Admittedly, I am not a fan of hypothecated taxes, precisely for this reason. However, it is a trust in government that we must make. Besides, the government would hardly see this money, given it will be controlled by the HE Council and HE Trust. A safeguard can easily be made in statutory terms to prevent a Chancellor raiding the future of our Higher Education system. Students, tax payers, businesses and employers would be in uproar.

I hope this short set of answers will persuade people that a Mixed Graduate Tax can work for the benefit of students, society, businesses, employers, tax payers, and so on. We need to work out a better deal than tuition fees: invest, invest, invest!

In Support of a Graduate Tax

Graduation has been and gone. I have hugely enjoyed it, and my time at the University of Sheffield so far. I’m even more excited at the prospect of starting my MA in Politics with Research Methods. And yet, the following sign, usually in red, has been stalking me with unflagging enthusiasm: £. I am 20 years old, facing a debt of over £20,000 (without accrued interest). A price worth paying, perhaps. But with the prospect of seeing the University of Sheffield increase its tuition fees from 2012 to £8,975 per academic year, I can only question as to what extent tuition fees are a suitable method to fund Higher Education (HE) in this country. A country which, by the way, has world class universities and is only second to the United States despite the significantly lower funding. The US is to be commended in only one aspect: it invests twice as much of its GDP in HE than Britain. Can we sustain world class education by simply raising fees and cutting funding by almost £1 billion 2011-12, or are there other alternatives?

The Browne Review and subsequent changes passed by the Coalition last year are an improvement to the system that served me these past three years. However, it is only marginal, and marginal in the sense that higher earners will pay back more over their time at university than lower earners, whose fees will be cancelled after 25 years (which, seems to me, is a hypocritical policy of government, seeming as they will have to foot the bill of unpaid fees). How can we ensure a sustainable future? The answer lies, in my eyes, in a Mixed Graduate Tax system. Mixed, because employers, students and the government would be forced to contribute. A graduate tax will offer an alternative funding system for HE that is fairer, sustainable, and long-term.

How would it work?

A Mixed Graduate Tax (MGT) would work along the following lines:

  • Contribution dependent on earnings: 0.3 per cent for the lowest quintile right up to 2.5 per cent for the highest quintile. This would mean that a top earner would pay back £125.00 a month, a low earner £37.00 a month (figures assumed from 2010 [link to NUS Blueprint needed]).
  • People will pay back for a fixed amount of time, assumed to be 20 years. This will be enough for your value of the degree to have made its effects and you will have paid back the appropriate amount of money that your degree was worth.
  • A student would have to pay a tuition fee of £750 per academic year as an incentive to carry on studying. Studying for three years and then giving up just before final’s won’t be scott free.
  • A small rise in Employer’s National Insurance Contribution would be made, the proceeds of which would also go towards HE funding (this would be a tiny amount, less than a percentage point). Employers, as well as society at large, benefit from well-qualified students, and especially those who went to top-class universities. Without them, businesses would collapse.
  • The government would set aside a certain figure for research, teaching and investment in HE. Our education cannot be entirely privatised. Once our economy returns towards more substantial growth, I would hope we can match the investment made by the USA.

Where would the money go?

All of this money would go into a fund. The NUS have called this a ‘People’s Trust’. I’d just call it the ‘HE Trust’, a subsidiary of the soon-to-be merged educational councils called Higher Education Council. The HE Trust would have a chair directly accountable to parliament, and appointed by the Universities Minister (or perhaps Secretary of State). The remainder of the HE Trust would be made up of representatives from universities and HE establishments, a reformed NUS, and employers. The HE Council would be quasi-independent from government.

Funding would not be centralised. Rather, the money would be redistributed back to the institutions depending on their students and their contributions made, with a given cap to prevent some universities accruing too much capital. The remaining money (from the cap) would be invested in bursaries, grants, and other educational projects. This means that good universities will be rewarded, failing one’s punished (to the extent that they can go bust).

Why an MGT?

A Mixed Graduate Tax is a fairer system of financing Higher Education than the current tuition fee model. University education is an investment, not a product for consumption. If it were, a free market would be perfect. As it is, HE is an investment made by the student as well as society. It is a contract between the citizen and society. Students are not customers, and HE is not a supermarket. To think otherwise will give students the wrong mentality.

Given this, students, the government (acting to represent society) and employers would need to contribute to our ‘knowledge economy’. All three actors are investing in our future, the ultimate aim of all this. The British economy is (or has begun a transition to) a knowledge economy, and this requires highly educated citizens. Only HE establishments can provide this effectively.

An MGT is a better deal for students and the country more generally. We crucially need more investment in university. Sources have already shown that the potential of leaving university with a debt of over £40,000 (loans and fees) will put many people off university. This would be fine, if we had a world-class further education system in terms of technical colleges, apprenticeships, colleges and so on much like Germany. We don’t, which should cause alarm.

A Mixed Graduate Tax accepts that the abolition of fees is unfeasible and that students have to make a substantial contribution. But it proposes a fairer deal for students too. We must acknowledge that students, society and businesses take part in this social contract. That is why a Mixed Graduate Tax will work for all involved.

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Please note that an edited version of this article appeared in Canvas, a student politics journal for which I was the Founder and Editor between 2010 and 2012. The article was published on 04 November 2011, and is available here.

 

The Governance of the NUS: Solutions

Previously, I have blogged about the problems facing the governance structures of the NUS. They represented steep challenges to the democratic credibility of the NUS elite, the accountability processes of NUS meetings, and the economic viability of a monopolistic commercial arm. I want to make it clear that in principle, a strong national movement for the benefit of students must exist. I disagree with Laurie Penny and her claims that we don’t need an NUS to work for us at all, even less leaders and even parliament. Concerted, collective action can work in the context of a vibrant national movement. Penny forgets the fact that her role has become one of leadership. So then, we need a national movement. The NUS, in its current form, cannot even hope to amass a vanguard, let alone enjoy the support of students across the country. Liam Burns, NUS president, ignores this in his appeal for more action against cuts. He needs to sort out the NUS before he can try to sort out the government. If a Union demands £50,000 from Sheffield Students’ Union (SSU) every single year, we deserve to have an organisation committed to helping students. Below, I have outlined five key proposals that the NUS must enact with a great sense of urgency.

Direct Elections. The first change that Burns and the Block of 15 need to instil is a new democratic culture. Our leaders must be elected directly by its membership. Paying NUS members should have a democratic voice. NUS delegates provide a middle man, a nice solution to the NUS problem of democracy. It was useful in an age when we did not have a digital media. But I concede the point to Penny that Twitter and Facebook have given us fantastic opportunities for involvement. The internet is an opportunity for direct policy consultation, leadership and action. Only, the NUS has chosen not to use it. This is the first problem that the NUS needs to confront. Direct elections and a direct voice to students it says it represents.

Student Consultation. This notional right to democracy is not enough. We need a more substantive sense of deliberative decision-making, lacking across many national organisations. But even the current government manages to launch consultation programmes. Think tanks promote commissioned research projects. The National Executive Committee (NEC)? They meet six to seven times a year to discuss policy. NUS Connect has been challenged in my previous article. The NUS fails to promote its message through any concerted action with the people it supposedly represents. This will be an important change. It needs to consult, survey and question the student population. It needs to offer innovative policy proposals subject to scrutiny by students before it is adopted national policy. The internet, again, provides a platform in which this could happen. It could work like Jolitics, or 38 Degrees, or even adopt a more formal approach to research, like the Wilberforce Society. There are even possibilities of working with YouGov to consult student opinion, as YouGov@Cambridge has started to do. This would also ensure that the NUS line is constantly open for debate. The NUS can be an open, transparent organisation whilst maintaining serious support for students.

NUS Liaisons. Every single NUS affiliated body must have an elected NUS Liaison. Major consultation must be handled by this elected individual, who would be the facilitator of debate and ensure that the new qualities of democracy and consultation are further entrenched within each affiliated SU. Liaison officers would work in partnership with the NUS – it would be their role to liaise between the NUS and the individual SU.

Student Issues. The NEC needs to be entirely reformed. Student Select Committees must come into existence in order to promote the following interests: (i) gender and sexuality equality, (ii) mature and postgraduate student options, (iii) ethnic minorities representation, (iv) international student issues, and (v) community relationships. Each would be headed by directly elected Officers, and committees themselves made up of NUS Liaisons and NUS permanent support staff. The NEC would be made up of these Officers, plus a national president and three vice presidents who would further: (i) student finance and fees, (ii) student welfare, and (iii) student educational well-being.

Freedom of Choice. NUS Services Limited (NUSSL) needs to be either overhauled or abolished. It cannot work as a serious organisation to the benefit of the student population. Admittedly, economics is not my strong point, but even I can see that NUSSL is a ridiculous monopolistic enterprise. It could be reformed: adopt flexible policies, ensure local and independent businesses are included, promote competition and freedom of choice.

The internal structure of governance needs reform. This has become clear with the above policies. Only through direct elections, substantive consultation and freedom of choice can the NUS deliver on its promise to be a national voice of the student population. Without a clear plan of reform, Sheffield Students’ Union must disaffiliate. SSU does not benefit from NUSSL, nor from the NUS that is closed and undemocratic. To say that SSU would be part of a national conversation is a total mistake – the NUS closed conversation in 2008.

If the National Union of Students does not reform, it risks a systemic crisis of confidence. Do not let that happen, Liam Burns!