Why is Tony Blair prepared to put his premiership on the line over
variable top up fees in universities? Since the measure will only
raise a relatively small sum of money – some estimates put it as
low as £500m – why not compromise? Partly this is a matter of
power: a man with “no reverse gear” cannot be seen to back
But it is also a point of principle; this is a battle about the
shape of a possible Labour third term. The critical question he
faces is whether the period from 2005 onwards is merely used to
consolidate the huge changes already implemented – from
constitutional changes through educational and health services
reform, to the minimum wage and the New Deal. Or will the second
part of the decade be marked by renewed energy and an outpouring of
new ideas for transforming Britain? Judging by the consultation
document which provides the basis for his “big conversation”,
Blair’s ambitions for modernising the UK remain undimmed. Seen as
the first battle of the third term the prime minister’s fight over
tuition fees makes more sense; this is a battle over a critical
principle which underpins the New Labour project for reshaping the
welfare state and its institutions.
Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have been clear about two of the key
pillars of the government’s approach to welfare and public service
reform. There will be no return to tax and spend, and rights must
be balanced by responsibilities.
These in turn have clear implications for policy. There are few
areas in which expansion of public service provision can
justifiably be financed entirely by taxpayers. This is partly
because Labour’s high command remains acutely aware of the damage
done to the party by its reputation for profligate public spending
– four consecutive election defeats and 18 years in opposition.
More importantly, in many areas Labour believes that a right to
gain access to a specific service should be balanced by some
This is the case being made for variable tuition fees. As provision
is expanded in England to allow half of all young people to go to
university it is only fair that those who will gain the most from
this expansion – the graduates – make some financial contribution.
The same principle will be applied to any future pension reform
where a combination of compulsory savings and longer working lives
will be the central planks of better pension provision. This will
also be the case in any large-scale expansion of child care where
Sure Start for the most disadvantaged will be subsidised while
provision for workers who can afford it will be at a charge. Blair
must win over tuition fees or lose the fundamental sense of purpose
for the third term.
John McTernan is a political analyst.