So Tony Blair got his tuition fees bill through by the margin of five votes.
I find myself increasingly in the position of being unable to believe the government’s plans are quite as progressive as they claim and at the same time unable to take what passes for a ‘left opposition’ seriously.
I suppose its a problem that arises out of having a government that doesn’t enthuse and a backbench opposition with no credibility.
I really couldn’t buy into the argument that making teenagers gamble on their future career chances was a social-democratic approach, in some way a progressive transfer of resources from the wealthy to the poor. It might have been 30 years ago but when we are approaching 50% of 18-year-olds going into higher education, the idea that University is some sort of elite privilige seems rather out of date.
But nor did the oppositionist and alarmist claims that we were heading towards privatisation of education sound reasonable either. What passes for a left has cried wolf far too often in recent years for me to take them at their word anymore.
Of course any socialist will like the sound of the government’s argument that the bricklayer should not pay for the education of a budding banker. But why should it only be those who are about to begin study who should pay? Would it be wrong to ask people like myself, who have (in a rather round-about-way) benefited financially from a University education to fund the next generation? There is a way for us to make that contribution – it is called income tax. But of course ‘conservative correctness’ means we can’t talk about raising money that way can we?
The concessions made to get the bill through parliament did go some way to easing some of the concerns but that debate is now over. What we are left with is the political fall-out. Blair has been taken to the brink and then (slightly) back again.
I think the Guardian’s Tom Happold strikes the right note with his analysis:
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the argument, Mr Blair has been weakened by tonight’s vote. To rebuild his authority and reunify his party he must take on board at least part of the rebels’ critique. If he wants to carry on with his plans to reform the public services he must learn to consult and explain more. Otherwise the fate of Mr Macdonald and Mr Callaghan awaits.
So much for the party of spin. The government is failing to explain even its flagship policies. The media may build up these battles over policy as though they were Sky Sports pay-per-view games but I doubt there is much detailed understanding of ‘Foundation Hospitals’ or Top-Up-Fees.
Listen and make people listen – that should be the motto for Labour in the run-up to the next election.
And if the Prime Minister wants those of us who, for varying reasons, see him as the least worst option at the moment to continue to give him our lukewarm support then he should stop placing his job on the line over such votes. It might help rally the vote but in the long run it really doesn’t do him or the party any good.
I’ll stop there – it’s the Hutton report tomorrow……..