Is there a dissenter in the House?

October 17, 1997

As Labour ploughs on with higher education reform, Huw Richards scans the horizon for political opponents

"We haven't lost a vote at conference for three years now - but what's more important is that we haven't lost an argument either," said a leading Labour official at the end of their Brighton conference, neatly summarising the leadership's mastery over a party once considered ungovernable.

David Blunkett's victory on tuition fees means that Labour's front bench can now be confident that it will not be defeated on higher education policy when post-Dearing legislation comes to Parliament.

Mr Blunkett was able to attend conference brandishing the extra Pounds 165 million extracted from the Treasury for the universities and enhanced access funds. Little matter that it was essentially an accounting trick not repeatable in future years, when fresh battles must be fought with the Treasury.

It was enough, in the short term at least, to placate the vice chancellors and insure against any likelihood that the sizeable universities' lobby in the Lords might be mobilised to make life difficult for the government.

But the other two party conferences did provide an assurance that Labour will have to face contesting arguments before that 179-seat majority processes through the lobbies. And there is still some unease on Labour's backbenches.

THE LABOUR BACKBENCHES

A Government commanding the largest peacetime majority since Neville Chamberlain can be relatively relaxed about opposition attacks. Unless an extremely large part of its own backbench revolts, it is safe.

There is undoubtedly unease on the Labour benches. If the whip is the dominant force in a backbencher's life the constituency postbag is a fair second.

Anne Campbell, MP for Cambridge, told the education debate at Brighton that she had received around 1,200 letters on student funding. She did not add what she had confided to a Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals fringe meeting only an hour or so earlier that the number backing the government was "about three".

Dr Campbell is backing the government. Not so another recipient of substantial mailbags, Ken Livingstone. "I am used to the fact that when I say something on television there is a response in the post, and that for every two letters backing me there will be one against. Not this time. When I came out against tuition fees I received over 100 letters, and not a single one criticising me," he says.

He believes the publicity over his stand helped win him election to Labour's National Executive Committee, ahead of leadership choice Peter Mandelson and says: "There is a great deal of unhappiness about it. Virtually every Labour MP had a free university education and is unhappy about seeing that opportunity removed."

Party managers might of course dismiss opponents like Mr Livingstone and Tony Benn, who says: "They'll want you to have loans for operations next."

They would find it harder to so categorise John Marek, member for Wrexham since 1983 and a former maths lecturer at Aberystwyth. "I will not vote for tuition fees. I believe the government has been pushed by the privatisers and by the vice chancellors' understandable worry over the financial state of the system. Fees will be a deterrent to many well-qualified students and will have to be supported by an even larger bureaucracy," he says.

A supporter of financing the system via progressive taxation, he argues that the consultation on Dearing is a sham. "They began the consultation by saying 'we will do this' on funding. If you take out a fundamental element like that, it devalues the rest of the consultation."

The mood at Brighton can probably be best summed up by further education lecturer Jill Stokoe, supporting the government position during the conference debate: "Nobody wants tuition fees, but we have to recognise the funding pressures higher education faces."

That note can similarly be heard in the voices of two ex-academics elected at the last election. Huw Edwards, MP for Monmouth, says his personal preference would be for a graduate tax but that he will "support the government, with some reservations".

Alan Whitehead, who won Southampton Test, feels that Dearing missed some serious issues about part-time and mature students and fears that the early groups of fee-payers will face the extra costs without any of the benefits of the new money coming into the system. But he expects to make his concerns felt by raising them with ministers and ensuring that the potential worries are monitored, not by going into the opposition lobby. "I didn't go into Parliament to break whips," he says.

THE CONSERVATIVES

Among the pledges offered by new Conservative leader William Hague at their Blackpool conference was that his party would be prepared to back the Government where it was doing the right thing. Had the Government accepted the funding provisions of the Dearing report - product after all of an inquiry appointed by a Conservative secretary of state for education and employment with support from her Labour counterpart - such an action might well have fallen into this category. Its decision not to do so has produced a vigorous response from the growingly confident shadow education and employment secretary Stephen Dorrell.

Unabashed by a Daily Telegraph columnist likening him to Private Eye's loony leftie Dave Spart when he attacked the Government response as a "smash and grab raid on the poorest families", he renewed the charge at Blackpool. He cited Sir Ron Dearing's admission that he and his committee began their work expecting to recommend axing grants, but became convinced that they were needed to safeguard the interests of students from low-income families.

Mr Dorrell had the satisfaction, at a fringe meeting staged by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, of hearing his reasoning endorsed by John Arbuthnott, vice chancellor of Strathclyde University and a member of the Dearing inquiry.

Mr Dorrell is also likely to open a secondary line of attack on the government for over-centralising proscriptiveness. He told the CVCP meeting that his least favourite part of Dearing was the section on qualifications, together with a table setting out a eight-level progression. He argued that, subject to the basic quality control mechanisms offered by the Quality Assurance Agency, the content and award of qualifications should be a matter for the universities rather than for the Department for Education and Employment.

THE LIBERAL DEMOCRATS

It was perhaps unsurprising that the Liberal Democrats, buoyed by victories and the extra Commons voices that allowed education spokesman Don Foster to convert his one-man band from the lastParliament into a trio, should have made a faster start to thebusiness of opposition than the massacred Conservatives.

Party leader Paddy Ashdown was at pains, in speaking to their Eastbourne assembly, to argue that they were the real opposition now. Their higher education spokesman Phil Willis has shown himself an extremely quick learner, and will certainly continue to press their opposition to the government response with vigour: "There will be no weakening on this, and if necessary a three-line whip to vote against the Government."

But this does not mean there is much likelihood of their making common cause with the Conservatives. While Mr Dorrell denounces the end of the maintenance grant, the Liberals accept it. Their concern is with the introduction of tuition fees. "This is the thin end of the wedge. Once the principle is accepted, there is nothing to stop the government raising the proportion of costs students have to pay on a year-by-year basis until you have a full-cost system by default," says Mr Willis.

The Liberal Democrats also argue that business is the conspicuous non-contributor among the beneficiaries of higher education - a view shared with the National Union of Students and the Association of University Teachers. They have called for a 2 per cent remissable levy on the payroll of large and medium-sized companies. The government, as Baroness Blackstone reiterated on a number of occasions when challenged at Brighton, remains convinced that voluntarism is the best means of getting business money into the system.

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