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.


[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.


The Value of Degrees


The Report of the Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance is quite a pompous mouthful. I’ll just stick with the remarkably dull ‘Browne Report’. It was published recently, and greeted largely with furore. This blog post will not explicitly look at the Browne Report, but rather attempt to deconstruct Higher Education more generally.

The first, and to me most important, matter that arises is the democratic mandate that goes with the endorsement of the report. A majority of the population did not want to see the free market enter higher education (HE) – I crudely get this figure by adding the LibDem and Labour share of the vote (fifty-two per cent). Perhaps there are issues with this, but nonetheless, the sixty-seven LibDem MPs all pledged to vote against any tuition fee increases. Whether this is feasible or not, it goes against their manifesto pledge, and so undermines the democratic legitimacy of the endorsement that the Liberal Democrats gave.

Perhaps this point is unnecessarily picking at parliamentary politics and the Coalition, and fails to deal with the real issue – HE funding. This is an issue to which I would now like to turn.

In principle, and in reality, free university education is unfeasible. Equally, the idea of free-market tuition fees is futile; and more than anything, £7,000 annual tuition fees seem most regressive. It is a poll tax on education; a tax that is inherently unfair on graduates. This is because the poor and the ‘squeezed middle’ will pay more than the rich. This is because the rich are able to pay off interest rates more quickly than the ‘squeezed middle’. It also means that no matter what you achieve after your degree, you will pay the same fee.

Perhaps I could understand this kind of ‘poll tax’ if each graduate had unique, guaranteed opportunities after they have graduated. However, this is not so. The flooded graduate market has lowered the value of a degree to be the ‘standard’ for any white-collar job. This is what makes it inherently unfair. If studying and paying for it had a true reward, then higher fees appear to make more sense.

There is a fundamental paradox in British thinking on this matter of education – HE is perceived to be a right whilst also being a privilege. Our education system is seen to give everyone equal opportunities to be part of a strict hierarchy. It does not work and we need a clear break. The value of the degree needs to increase – it is simple demand-supply economics. Our 16-21 education needs to be re-modelled towards apprenticeships, in order for all pupils to be trained and specialise into a useful field. Academia, or university, ought to be seen as another profession, another specialised field. University is not an investment at the moment, it is the prerequisite for a good job.

This has exacerbated the problem of funding for universities. To deal with funding, it would appear to make the most sense to introduce a graduate tax. There have been many calls that this is not fair – it will tax aspiration. This is not true. Rather, it enhances the case that your degree has added value to your profession, and so it is only fair that you pay for the value of your degree. You are not paying for your success, you are paying for the degree that has allowed this to happen. And you are paying in proportion to how much your degree has added to your profession, and means that the more worthy the degree, the more people pay for it.

All of the above require fundamental changes to our education system, over the long term. It is unlikely to receive any attention by the Coalition government.

Looking at the complex problems of education funding from this way, it makes much more sense that fees and funding must be inextricably linked to the value of the degree. From this perspective, a ‘poll tax’ of tuition fees makes no sense; a free market of fees will deter too many people. The best option, as far as I see, is a £500 fee for each student, followed by a graduate tax dependent on the extent to which it has contributed to your profession – paying for the value of your degree.