From lies on student debt to arms to Saudi Arabia – let Labour have its biggest ever summer attack on the Tories


The Conservatives have been surprisingly unified since the election. But what this masks is a party stunned and existentially riven. They have not moved to oust Theresa May, hobbling on with an enfeebled PM purely out of a seething expediency.  

Commentators on the left have discussed the relative merits of strategic silence during the summer lull in news. Their argument is that Labour can sit back and allow the Tories to cannibalise themselves over their failed election and Brexit. The problem is that the Tory message has been unusually united, no doubt driven by the new team in CCHQ and No 10 looking to prove themselves. The precedent of low-level Corbyn-bashing in the media has supported their efforts. There is a risk that Labour’s quieter period – albeit with some attack stories on the government’s record on the NHS and the railways – could be framed as incompetence.

Instead Labour should actively exploit the Conservative divisions, using every attack on the party as a platform to show up the Tories for what they are: a weak, ideologically bankrupt and divided rabble. In certain martial arts, there is a concept in which each defensive block becomes an offensive attack on your opponent, all within a single, fluid movement. The leader of the opposition’s office deployed this brilliantly at the start of the year by allowing Corbyn to announce a new policy every time he was invited onto broadcast to defend himself, thereby moving the news cycle forward.

Take Labour’s position on student fees. Last month there was continuous talk of “u-turns”, “scrapped pledges” and “broken promises”, all of which can be shown to be completely false given about five minutes worth of research on the internet.

The source of this story was a pre-election interview with the NME, or “the New Musical Express” as Jeremy Corbyn somewhat archaically referred to it. The position currently proposed by Labour is exactly the same as the one stated in the NME. There was a commitment to scrap fees outright for those starting university this year. For graduates already burdened with debt, Corbyn pledged that he was, “looking at ways that we could reduce that, ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off, or some other means of reducing that debt burden.” Talk of a U-turn is clearly false, the position is still to scrap future fees while looking at ways to deal with the existing debt.

The immediate way to diffuse the attack is for those in the Labour team to merely reiterate what was stated in the original interview and to invite their interviewers and audience to check it for themselves. Beyond this simple response, however, we should look for solutions to the actual issue at hand, like reducing or offsetting the existing £100bn debt owed by graduates, which is equivalent to the entire education budget for a full year. The answer surely cannot be a straightforward borrow and plug operation. A new Labour government will have far more pressing needs for cash, a properly funded and integrated NHS and social care system, as well as national investment banks for growing our economy.

This is vital because investment will allow us to eventually reduce the deficit. By increasing productivity and growth we should be able to close the gap between government spending and revenue. One way we could solve both the issue of unfair student debt and the lag in national productivity is to provide professional and career development grants up to the value of the loan itself.

Essentially, all those who paid fees between 2012-2017 would have thousands of pounds in credit for retraining in anything from coding, languages, accounting, woodworking, cooking or nursing. These grants would not have to be paid for in a single £100bn lump and presumably wouldn’t be claimed in their entirety. What’s more, they could be used to kick start our new national education service.

In the same vein, the simultaneous defensive-to-offensive move could be used on Corbyn’s Venezuelan position. Infringements on human rights should be sincerely condemned, but Theresa May’s own history on such issues should be made abundantly clear, including the sale of £3bn worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia, a country that funds Wahhabist extremism, routinely beheads political dissidents and homosexuals and has used British weapons to kill more 10,000 civilians in Yemen.

Labour should use every attack on the Tories as an opportunity to talk about their policies while showing them for what they are, a party devoid of leadership and direction.

Gus Carter is a Labour and Co-op Party activist.

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