OPINION - Keir Starmer U-turns on axing university tuition fees

·3-min read
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer (Stefan Rousseau/PA) (PA Wire)
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer (Stefan Rousseau/PA) (PA Wire)

On the face of it, Tuesday has been another red letter day for intergenerational unfairness. New data from estate agency Savills finds that the over-50s now own more than three-quarters of the nation’s property wealth. At the same time, the man favoured to be the next prime minister has U-turned on a commitment to drop university tuition fees.

The picture is of course a little more mixed. Not on housing – congratulations once again if you purchased a home in the mid-1990s. But on fees. Last month, Philip Collins called Labour’s (then) policy to scrap them a “a vast subsidy to the middle class“. And it is true that moving the financing of universities off students and onto the Exchequer would not only be very expensive but deliver uneven distributional effects.

At the same time, the present system, with universities able to charge a maximum of £9,250 per year for a full-time undergraduate course, has a bit of the worst of both worlds about it. It places significant debt on students, middle earners often end up facing marginal tax rates well above the rich (up to 71 per cent(!) according to this), while universities remain underfunded.

Labour would really like to spend the £10bn elsewhere, whether on support for low-income students or on any of the other public services that are falling down. Keir Starmer could promise to raise taxes, but he has a general election to win, and knows that the overall tax burden is already expected to reach a post-war high of 37.7% of GDP in 2027-28, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility.

This when the population is ageing, higher interest rates are raising the cost of servicing debt, and the cost of climate change and growing geopolitical threats are coming into view.

More broadly, Starmer’s announcement represents the latest chapter on his journey from ‘Corbynism without Corbyn‘ to slayer of the Labour left. Check out his 10 pledges from the 2020 leadership election – how many are left intact? Now, no normal person could name one of those pledges, and team Starmer will be betting that making a bid for fiscal rectitude is worth more than any single spending policy. But accusations of flip-flopping will continue.

In fairness, Tony Blair (himself accused of ideological flexibility in opposition) had the advantage of becoming leader after Neil Kinnock (and John Smith), who already ditched some of the party’s more extreme policies, most notably on unilateral nuclear disarmament. Starmer’s problem is in having to be his own Kinnock, Smith and Blair rolled into one.

Still, today’s brouhaha speaks to one test that the Labour leader has already passed: his position on policy is newsworthy, because he is viewed by voters and the media as a potential prime minister – something his two immediate predecessors rarely, if ever, accomplished.

In the comment pages, Anne McElvoy calls Joe Biden a safe bet, but warns America faces a dangerous generation gap. Nimco Ali says African politics is changing – though she suspects the West hasn’t noticed. Meanwhile, will you or won’t you? Melanie McDonagh on the big coronation allegiance question and much else besides.

And finally, is Hollywood tiring of Harry and Meghan? Is it back to Southwark for City Hall? Londoner’s Diary has all the answers.

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