Saturday, 4 December 2010

Reaching out to the Plebs.

Amid the whirlwind of "snowy headlines" we have seen David Cameron and Ed Miliband writing in The Evening Standard to address the students who have taken to the streets in recent weeks. It was a wise choice as The Evening Standard is one of those free newspapers and we all know how much students love free stuff - particularly free education. Not even a year in government and the Con-Dem Coalition are facing massive opposition from students. The students have really shown the political class what they think and feel. Vince Cable has implied he might abstain on the vote this week and Ed Miliband claims to have affinity with the students. It's exquisite. Though it should be noted that Miliband did not act on this "affinity", because he had better things to do than go to Whitehall and speak with student activists. Instead Ed Miliband has opted to address students through the press, that way the students are kept at a safe-distance where they can't push him into signing a pledge.

David Cameron, a man of public-relations grandeur, was careful to litter the article with trite that no one could disagree with. The first instance: "Of course these people have a right to protest." What follows this statement is a message of responsibility, specifically the responsibility to know the "full facts" which he will soon deliver. The first "full fact" is a reminder that the nation is in a state of economic crisis, even though the recession ended in January, there is a massive budget deficit to confront. The aim here is to give the packaging a convincing label of necessity and inevitability, whilst making the current system look unsustainable. But the truth of the matter is that these cuts are not necessary. As government debt is 70% of GDP today, in 1945 it was 260% of GDP and remained above 100% right up until the 1960s. It wasn't until 1980 that it had shrunk to 52% of GDP and the preceding years were marked by a decline in public spending. When compared to the past it would seem that we are not in a state of crisis.

Following up this "full fact" Cameron unloads a figure of £5 billion as the teaching costs of English higher education, he neglects to mention that 0.7% of GDP is spent on higher education in Britain which is less when compared with most other countries. Take Sweden, a country of less than 10 million people, 1.4% of GDP is spent on higher education. Cameron emphasises that the Coalition is responsible for the interests of students but also for the interests of tax-payers. This is evident in the way the Coalition has let Vodafone skip away with £6 billion owed to the treasury. Never mind the amount of taxes that are "dodged" every year, the estimates of which range from £30 billion to £125 billion a year. It is not right to have people on low incomes pay for a few people to be educated, he argues. But it is right for a few rich people to cost society billions every year, which goes without saying in British politics today.

Next the Prime Minister makes some deeply ideological assumptions. Cameron claims that putting the burden of paying for a greater proportion of that 0.7% on students will create a better system. He argues that this will drive universities to up their game to attract a greater number of students each year. This does not necessarily improve the quality of teaching as he argues. Even if it does it will only improve teaching standards of the "priority subjects", like science and maths, which will coincidentally equip young people with what it takes to be a stock-broker or the next Lord Browne. Cameron goes onto argue that the reforms are fair because no one will have to pay anything back until they are earning £21,000 a year. It is true that it would be fair for high earners to contribute more to education. But that is a reason for the government to crack down on tax evasion and avoidance, not a reason to radically alter the education system.

When the Prime Minister finally rounds off the article with some more shallow words about responsibility, he claims that "responsible politics is not about peddling fantasy policies without looking at the price tag and pleasing any crowd you're playing to." This description of "responsible politics" is ironically an adequate job description of the average politician today. Particularly accurate of the way the Coalition draws up policies and presents them to appeal to a dual constituency, the uber-rich on one side and everyone else on the other. Take the cut in national insurance, which is presented to the public as a cut in "jobs tax" to create jobs for the unemployed. The cut is essentially a subsidy to firms to take on more workers, at the minimum wage of course, which will also lower wages for workers and undermine trade unions at a time when costs for working people are about to increase.

Ed Miliband had a reactive article in The Evening Standard the following day. The fact that the leader of the Labour Party, who was dubbed 'Red Ed' by the right-wing press and was "tempted" to take to the streets on 'Day X', is revealing of the kind of political system we have in Britain. We don't live in a true democracy. Yes, we have the right to vote. But the choices are limited to three parties, Lib-Lab-Con, which are very similar and only dissimilar at a shallow cosmetic level. The reason: each of the main political parties is influenced heavily by wealthy elites and pander to the same dual constituency. For instance the Conservatives won over the support of over 1,000 business leaders and Rupert Murdoch, and by extension over 40% of the media, prior to the General Election. The same is true of New Labour in the run up to the three preceding elections. The cosmetic differences are down to the roots of the parties, Labour has historically been closer to industry and trade unions than finance for example. Of course, things have changed considerably since the 1970s.

So we have Ed Miliband putting forward an article in lukewarm opposition to David Cameron. He claims that the Con-Dems are out of touch with ordinary people throughout the article, when so is the Labour Party. The opposition leader expresses his support for the graduate tax, which would explain Aaron Porter's affinity with the proposal. The graduate tax may not be as overt as higher tuition fees but it would still deter students from working-class backgrounds. None of the main parties are totally opposed to tuition fees and none stand in firm support of free education all the way. Nevertheless, the Miliband who looks like a Simpson makes some notable points. He criticises the Coalition for cutting teaching funding by 80% and raising tuition fees to replace that lost funding. So it would seem unlikely that the cuts and higher fees will improve the quality and standards of universities.

At the same time Ed Miliband states that the Labour Party will oppose the government's plans and will seek to "sort out the mess" if the reforms are imposed. Though Miliband does not come out against tuition fees and leaves some ambiguity over what exactly the Labour Party opposes. All we can take away from this article is that the Labourites are for a graduate tax system, but it is highlighted as a "long-term aim". He goes onto write that "Higher education should be at the heart of our plans to be competitive in the world and a leading knowledge economy." It would seem that the Labour Party does not buy into the notion that market forces should not be let into the educational system. Similarly, Miliband does not hold the view that knowledge has any intrinsic value, that education is good in itself. Instead 'Red Ed' views knowledge as merely something to equip young people to work not to live more fulfilling lives.

Labour only offers a moderate version of the reforms being pushed by the Conservatives. I stress Conservatives and not Con-Dems, as the Liberal Democrats seem to be backing away from the proposals with the cowardly dithering that defines them as a separate entity to the Tories. The abstention of Liberals is not enough as students voted for them on the basis of a pledge to abolish fees, which they abandoned 2 months before the election without informing the public. Similarly the "opposition" offered by the Labourites do not go far enough and the student movement deserves better. That being said, a low rate of graduate tax is preferable to extortionate tuition fees. But we should not support the Labour Party with the illusions handed down by its leadership. Instead, if we are to support Labour out of pragmatism, we should vote without illusions with the long-term future in mind.

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