People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 05

February 01, 2004

Beginning of The End for Tony Blair?

From Nagen Das In London


AS Britons braced themselves for the coldest week of the season, Tony Blair survived a major rebellion on Tuesday (January 27) night by his own Labour Party MPs by just five votes in a crunch House of Commons test of his controversial plans to introduce university top-up fees.

For a party, which has 408 MPs in a house of 659, a victory for a controversial bill by a slender margin of five votes clearly shows that Blair’s authority within in own party is at stake now. Yet the beleaguered prime minister is still not out of trouble, as on Wednesday (January 28), Lord Hutton, the judge probing the circumstances that led to the suicide of weapons expert Dr David Kelly, is to submit his report. (To remind the readers, Dr David Kelly was an advisor to the British defence ministry on the issue of so-called weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. He committed suicide after the government made his name public as being the source of leaked information to the media that Tony Blair’s office had deliberately included the clause of ‘Iraq being able make WMDs within 45 minutes,’ despite knowing that such a claim was false. This claim was in the British government dossier making the case for war.)

On Tuesday night, the higher education bill was backed by 316 votes to 311 after days of intense campaigning by ministers and rebels. The close vote saw a major reduction in the government’s usual majority of 161, and the tightest victory of Mr Blair’s premiership. The opposition Conservatives and Liberal Democrats opposed the plan, which would allow universities to charge students 3,000 pound sterlings a year, payable when they earn 15,000 pound sterlings a year.

What is the top-up fees controversy?

Before moving ahead, let us look at the entire issue, which almost saw Blair lose his premiership:

It works like this:

  1. Currently, university students pay a flat rate of 1,125 pounds every year; the new bill says this fee would be varied from 2006, from nothing up to a maximum of 3,000 pounds.

  2. Families earning less than 30,000 pounds a year would be exempt from up to the first 1,200 pounds of fees --- known as “fee remission.”

  3. Unlike now, students would no longer have to pay “up front” while at university, unless they wanted to.

  4. Instead, fees would be covered by a loan, repayable by graduates once their annual income crossed 15,000 pounds.

  5. Repayments would then be a minimum of 9 per cent of earnings per year.

  6. From 2004, a new grant for living costs of up to 1,000 pounds for family incomes below 1,185 pounds, rising to 1,500 pounds from 2006 onward.

  7. Universities charging maximum fees will have to fund bursaries of at least 300 pounds for the poorest students.

Why does the government want to charge more? Universities say they need more money.

The government says graduates benefit after having gained a degree --- through wider career opportunities and earnings --- and so they ought to contribute something. A counter argument is that the biggest beneficiary from having a more highly educated workforce is the national economy as a whole, so the nation ought to be prepared to invest in it.

Why do some people call them ‘top-up’ fees?

Because they would “top up” what universities receive from the capped fee (1,125 pounds this year) to more like the actual cost of providing the course --- which the government says is about four times the average. Ministers argue they are not in fact “top-up” fees, which they previously promised they would not allow, precisely because they would not meet the full cost of tuition.

The actual cost varies from course to course and institution to institution. In broad terms, courses in science and engineering are more expensive to run than, say, English or psychology, because of equipment costs. Majority of the Labour rebels opposed to top-up fees, arguing that in its election manifesto the Labour Party had promised the voters that it would not introduce this system, and that by introducing this bill Tony Blair’s government was cheating the electorate. Rebel MPs argued that it is the duty of the government to provide higher education to the students and, hence, it should provide grants instead of charging higher fees from students. In fact, this slender victory was possible only after the entire cabinet, including the prime minister and his arch-rival chancellor (finance minister) Gordon Brown, closed ranks to avoid the first defeat for the Blair administration in about six and a half years. This preceded high drama earlier in the day, and at one stage, the government had almost conceded defeat, when deputy prime minister John Prescott admitted publicly that they lacked the numbers to get the bill passed.

Analysts here feel that ever since Blair decided to join George Bush in attacking Iraq, he has been consistently losing support within his own party MPs and sympathisers, and this is a clear manifestation of that fact. The entire country here is awaiting what the Hutton inquiry would reveal, and beyond doubt this is the toughest week in the prime ministerial career of Blair. He might survive the storm, but maybe just for the time being. We would be reporting about the Hutton inquiry next week.