It was inevitable that this very political Labour party would want to expose the student loan issue to offer maximum embarrassment to the Liberal democrats in the run up to the election. Sure enough on cue and probably on schedule- after leaks alleging delays – Labour yesterday launched its price cut for university courses, cutting the student payment from £9000 a year to £6000 a year from September 2016.
The prime aim of the launch seemed to be to remind left of centre voters that Lib Dems had promised to get rid of tuition fees, a prominent and oft repeated pledge before the election in 2010, only for a Lib Dem Secretary of State to dream up and push through a scheme which did the opposite. I am told it is called punching the bruise in modern political strategist and spin doctor circles.
What matters to most people is not what it does to the relative votes for the Lib Dems and Labour, but what it would do for our country, our students and taxpayers, in the years ahead were Labour to be given the power to do it. The first in the frame to express doubts are the universities. They like the certainty of getting the payments from the students. They will immediately lose a third of their UK student revenue. They will have to rely on government grant to make up the shortfall, and are worried in case that gets squeezed in later years.
The second group to complain will be those who have to pay the extra bills. Labour will need to spell out more of the detail of how it gets £3bn extra tax out of people saving for their retirement. Whilst they claim it will only hit people on high incomes, it may be they do not get anything like as much extra tax out of that group as they hope. Will they then spread the pensions tax lower down the income scale? Are they happy to be deterring people from pensions saving?
The third group who find the new policy does not help them very much are the groups Labour says it wishes to help – students from low income backgrounds and students who obtain lower income jobs after graduating. The first group is already helped by various scholarship and bursary schemes. The second group do not have to start paying interest or making repayments on their loans until their income is high enough to allow that.
Labour’s left wing critics point out that the winners from the scheme are the graduates who do get into better paid jobs, who will have to repay less capital and pay less interest on their debts as a result of cut. Some are already dubbing it a policy to help future hedge fund managers and City high fliers. The Labour response is they do wish to raise the interest rate people have to pay on their loans if they earn more than £42,000. That sounds complicated. To make such people worse off or no better off they will need to raise the interest rate on the loans by at least 50% to avoid the richer and more successful graduates benefitting.
Will it be worth all that hassle? Can we really believe Labour’s figures on all that extra tax from a few highly paid pension savers? Is this really the best use of the money? To me it looks like clever politics makes bad government.