Jeremy Corbyn has recently incurred the wrath of many media outlets for seemingly rowing back on his commitments to eradicate student debts, but a distinction must be made. Although his and Labour’s statements on the issue were a misleading fudge which do not help to enhance public trust in politicians, his muddle should not be compared to the former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, with his infamous broken promise of to lead his party’s MPs to vote against any rise in tuition fees.
Perhaps carried away by the positive reception among young voters to his party’s core manifesto pledge to scrap tuition fees, and wishing to continue his transformation of the Labour Party’s platform from centre-left to radical socialist, Corbyn certainly gave the impression of at least wanting to dramatically reduce student debt in a now infamous interview with NME magazine.
When discussing the issue of the huge debts graduates had obtained from the £9,000 tuition fees, Corbyn explained his opposition to the fact that the current generation will be “burdened excessively compared to those that went before or those that come after”. He then added the oft-quoted cryptic sentence, “I’ll deal with it”.
This has since been interpreted by some as meaning a pledge to eliminate or dramatically reduce student debt after a Labour Government had scrapped tuition fees.
After the Shadow Education Secretary, Angela Rayner, and Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, both appeared to distance themselves from the idea of eliminating student debt in the final week of Parliament before summer recess, increased scrutiny forced Corbyn to clarify in an interview on the Andrew Marr Show that Labour had never said they would eliminate student debt.
The Conservatives have since been exploiting this apparent backtracking, releasing attack ads such as the one below.
Promise broken: Corbyn u-turns on abolishing student debt pledge to NME magazine during the election campaign. Yet another Corbyn shambles. pic.twitter.com/xf0dqPtdhY
— Conservatives (@Conservatives) July 24, 2017
Ultimately, it is false to equate this to a “broken promise” on the scale of Clegg’s tuition fees pledge.
There never was a promise in the manifesto to eliminate or even reduce student debt, merely one to abolish tuition fees for future students. Even in his interview with NME, Corbyn never categorically stated that a Labour-led government would reduce existing student debt, let alone abolish it. He did state that he was “looking at ways” to reduce the debt burden for recent graduates, but this can be seen as having been fulfilled as he revealed on Marr that Shadow Chancellor McDonnell was chairing a working group to investigate this.
However, whilst definitely arguable, the reaction to Corbyn’s student debt comments – particularly from right-wing sections of the media – has been disproportionate. Corbyn and Labour certainly cannot be exempt from criticism.
Following the main party’s manifesto launches, election campaigns should be based solely on fundamental manifesto commitments, not possible future policy ideas in order to avoid confusing or misleading the electorate. Corbyn broke this rule.
Considering Corbyn’s initial incompetence as leader of the opposition with poor performances at PMQs and incoherent speeches, there is a case to be had that his lack of front-bench experience before becoming leader led him to deviate into discussing possibilities rather than cast-iron policies. Personally, I do not think the excuse of previous lack of front-bench experience can be counted anymore as the Labour leader has progressed markedly since facing off against Theresa May across the dispatch box. I believe the comments regarding student debt were wilfully misleading, designed to build excessive expectations of a Labour government at least reducing existing student debt.
Even taking the less cynical and rather more generous view, it was reckless for the leader of the opposition to digress into aspirations rather than actual policies a mere week before polling day and for then-Labour parliamentary candidates, like Sharon Hodgson, to whip up anticipation.
However, it is important to re-emphasize that a policy muddle, deliberate or not, does not constitute a broken promise. Unlike Corbyn’s comments on reducing student debt, Nick Clegg made it quite clear in 2010 that the Liberal Democrats pledged categorically to vote against any rise in fees and wished to reduce, if not abolish them.
We all know what happened after that.
Hopefully, Clegg’s ousting in the 2017 election will ensure Corbyn heeds the lesson of u-turning on a popular policy commitment.