Johnson U-turns on graduate tax

Shadow chancellor Alan Johnson says he has changed his mind about a graduate tax and believes there is now a “strong case” for the policy.

Mr Johnson has previously said the idea – which is backed by the Labour leader Ed Miliband – is unworkable.

But, writing in The Times newspaper, Mr Johnson said the tax “may offer a fairer way of sharing costs between individuals and government”.

MPs are set to vote on plans to increases tuition fees on Thursday.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said the proposals, drawn up by the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government, were fairer than the existing system of fees.

He and fellow Lib Dem ministers have said they plan to vote in favour despite the fact they signed a pledge before the election to vote against any tuition fees rise.

Analysis

Alan Johnson’s decision to signal his support for a graduate tax is not just about trying to give Labour a coherent and united position on tuition fees.

It also come amid mounting background chatter over Ed Miliband’s leadership and whether he’s up to the job.

To have the shadow chancellor so openly at odds with his leader merely fuelled the idea that somehow Ed Miliband was unable to assert his authority over his senior colleagues.

It was also an open goal for the coalition to have the two top figures in the Labour Party unable to agree over such a central issue.

So Mr Johnson’s belated conversion – whether he had his arm twisted tightly behind his back or not – is as much about bolstering Ed Miliband’s leadership as it is about ending the party’s confusion over tuition fees.

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Mr Clegg cites the fact that the new system would raise to £21,000 the level of graduate earnings before repayments start, and other help for students from poorer homes.

Mr Johnson was the Labour minister who took the original tuition fees legislation through the Commons in 2004, and he said six weeks ago he thought it would be “very difficult” to get a “workable” graduate tax.

His difference of view with new Labour leader Ed Miliband has been exploited by opponents who said it showed Mr Miliband’s lack of authority.

In his article Mr Johnson said Labour’s priority “this week is to defeat the government. If we fail, our priority will be to offer the country a fairer alternative for stronger universities and a better deal for our young people”.

He said the situation was now “very different” to when he brought in tuition fees and he accused the government of “abusing the legacy I left them”.

“We are now seeing how casually the variable fees system can be distorted with such damaging effects. It is in these circumstances that there is a strong case for a graduate tax, which may offer a fairer way of sharing costs between individuals and government.”

There is no mention of what form a graduate tax may take, or how different it might be to the proposed new tuition fees system. In both cases students would not have to start repaying fees until they graduate and are earning above a certain level.

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