Local MP John Denham answered some challenging questions this evening as he took to the podium in the Nuffield Theatre. Denham is the MP for Southampton Itchen, and was recently elected into the Shadow Cabinet as Shadow Minister for Business, Innovation and Skills – a portfolio which includes higher education.
Denham warned that planned cuts in higher education could affect the quality of teaching for current students, not just the students of the future. He observed that because of the reductions in public funding for universities, a rise in tuition fees to £7,000 per year or more yields no additional money. Using statistics to shocking effect, Denham noted that the average graduate today will pay off their tuition fee loans in 11 years, but under the coalition’s plans 60% of graduates will not pay off their whole debt within THIRTY years.
Reproaching government plans, Denham argued that changes to university funding would hammer “middle Britain”, while other countries are increasing investment in higher education. He said the Labour Party was “working for change day in day out.” He contrasted his party with the Liberal Democrats, whose MPs appear to have abandoned their pre-election pledge to oppose fees. He urged his listeners to put Lib Dem MPs under pressure on this issue.
Denham acknowledged that Labour “clearly got something wrong” to lose so many votes in the general election, and thoughtfully observed that his party “weren’t sensitive enough” about the burden of university fees during their time in government. The former SUSU president emphasised Labour’s belief in a “common solidarity society”, and was careful to remind his audience that Labour is not about building a large state. Denham was also repentant on the former government’s immigration policy, admitting that “we didn’t seem to understand” and that public anger was reasonable.
Responding to a question about the David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’, Denham applauded the voluntary sector for its efforts in Southampton and elsewhere. He said that when Labour increased public spending the voluntary sector grew too, and warned the coalition against overloading ordinary volunteers, quoting a constituent who couldn’t coach a children’s rugby team and help run a local school at the same time.
Denham also expressed his dissatisfaction with a planned ‘bonfire of the quangos’. He said that some of the non-governmental organisations which the coalition wants to scrap (such as the Audit Commission and Consumer Focus) perform a vital role in giving individuals power against big establishments, including the government itself. This ironically contradicts the Conservatives’ apparent aim to empower local people.
The audience were encouraged by Denham’s straight-talking answers, and their questions became increasingly difficult, but frank responses were largely forthcoming. His well-judged comments on solidarity and community spirit went down well: but with a majority of just 192 votes in the last election, Denham will need to keep the pressure on the government if he wants to impress his constituents. Judging by tonight’s performance, the coalition will have to be ready for a fierce fight over fees.