Labour didn’t win the last election but, if much of the media is to be believed, it was the young “wot (almost) won it”. Our better-than-expected June result was characterised by a surge in youth turnout, a demographic many pundits and election strategists had long decided was hopeless. The result? Labour gains in Canterbury and Sheffield Hallam, the former being a Tory held seat since 1918.
It does not take long to figure out why a Labour Party promising to abolish tuition fees might make otherwise unexpected gains in university towns, however, as I wish to argue here, the tuition pledge constitutes a costly and irreversible strategic mistake, and a gross misuse of resources which would be better directed elsewhere.
There are two sides to this argument: the electoral case and the policy case, although both share the same foundation – £11bn, the cost of scrapping fees, is a lot of money to spend on a single demographic and I’m yet to be convinced that students are really worth it.
Think about it this way. A Labour MP in a seat like Canterbury is fantastic, yet for every Canterbury there are two other types of seats which we have to talk about. The first is Birmingham Selly Oak, where I currently reside, a safe Labour constituency stuffed with students and where an increase in our majority from 8,000 in 2015 to 15,000 in 2017 doesn’t really mean anything. The second is Stoke-on-Trent South, a marginal working class seat, without a notable student population, which Labour lost in June.
Electorally speaking, one student voting for the first time (me) is worth half as much as a Tory voter switching to Labour, and something we shouldn’t forget about the last election is that the core Conservative vote more or less held up. Furthermore, in most of the seats we gained in June, (think Battersea, Croydon Central, Kensington) as well as those now finding themselves within the “Safe Labour” column (think Tooting, Enfield North and Ilford North) it was not the student vote that did it for us, but graduates. It was the fabled “liberal elite” – middle class professionals under the age of 40, former remain voters, socially liberal and not particularly left-wing.
What do the seats mentioned above have in common? They’re all in London. Take the tube to King’s Cross, jump on a train heading north towards Leeds, and in two hours you’ll be in Ashfield, where Gloria De Piero is defending a majority of 441, down from nearly 9,000 in 2015. Britain’s electoral landscape is changing, and whenever the next election comes, most Labour MPs forced to defend ever-dwindling majorities in traditionally working class seats won’t have an army of students to save them, and neither will candidates trying to reclaim Stoke South, Mansfield and Copeland.
So the question we should be asking is whether spending £11bn to strengthen our grip on students, most of them in safe Labour seats, is the wisest allocation of resources. It’s not. According to the Resolution Foundation, £4bn is the cost of scrapping the welfare cap, a policy shamefully missing from the 2017 manifesto. Think of how many homes we can build with the remaining £7bn. The former will go a long way towards improving Labour’s standing with the demographic we are in the greatest danger of losing, the older working class, while the latter will help consolidate those who made up the biggest share of our 2017 surge, younger, professional middle class graduates living in rented accommodation.
Electioneering aside, it is also worth asking whether tuition fees should really take priority not only over the aforementioned issues of welfare and housing, but also other aspects of education policy. For instance, not only reversing Tory cuts to primary schools, as mentioned in this year’s manifesto, but increasing funding across the board. Most people who wish to go to university already do so, but what about those who take up jobs and apprenticeships after finishing A-levels? And, let us not forget, the cost of scrapping fees is over £200m a week that could be spent on our NHS instead.
Unfortunately, backtracking on fees at this stage would likely be political suicide. Just ask Nick Clegg or Julian Huppert what happens when a party marketing itself to students decides to have a drastic change of heart.
Peter Tutykhin is a Labour member and student at the University of Birmingham.