By Martin Williams-26 JUL 2017
Jeremy Corbyn has been accused of U-turning on a pledge to scrap student debt.
But that’s not true. The story comes from a single quote plucked from a longer interview.
When read in context, rather than promising to wipe out all student debts, the Labour leader actually admitted that he didn’t have any simple answers to the issue yet.
So what was said, exactly? And has Labour been misleading students?
How the story emerged
In the run-up to the general election, Jeremy Corbyn made a comment about student debt. Speaking to the NME about the issue, he said: “I will deal with it.”
At the time, this was not widely picked up on by the national media. But – where it was reported – most papers accurately reflected that Corbyn had not explicitly promised to write off all debts. For instance, the Daily Mail said the Labour leader had pledged to “reduce or even write off” student debt.
But then, on Sunday, Corbyn was quizzed about this remark during a BBC interview.
Presenter Andrew Marr put it to him: “If you are a young voter and you heard those words: ‘I will deal with it’, you might have thought Jeremy Corbyn is going to relieve me of my debt.”
Corbyn was forced to defend his position, saying: “We never said we would completely abolish it.”
For some, this constituted a U-turn.
The Mail said: “Labour has backtracked on its promise to write off £100 billion of student debt.” The Telegraph said the party had “retracted its pledge to abolish student debt”. And Alan Sugar called Jeremy Corbyn a “cheat” and said he should resign for having “lied”.
So, did Corbyn really promise to write-off existing student debt?
It’s true that he promised to “deal” with the problem of people who are “burdened with student debt”. But this was just one sentence from a much longer interview.
The full context is important – and has been ignored by many critics.
He told the NME: “There is a block of those that currently have a massive debt, and I’m looking at ways that we could reduce that, ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off, or some other means of reducing that debt burden.”
He added: “I don’t have the simple answer for it at this stage – I don’t think anybody would expect me to, because this election was called unexpectedly; we had two weeks to prepare all of this. But I’m very well aware of that problem.
“And I don’t see why those that had the historical misfortune to be at university during the £9,000 period should be burdened excessively compared to those that went before or those that come after. I will deal with it.”
In context, it is clear that Corbyn stopped short of making any specific pledge about completely writing-off all student debts.
It’s true that he was appealing to young voters by promising to address the issue and trying to reduce the burden of student debt. But at no point did he make any policy commitments. In fact, he explicitly said that he didn’t have an firm answers yet.
What’s more, none of the possible solutions he mentioned included wiping out all debt. Instead, he talked about reducing or ameliorating (which simply means to make the situation easier) the burden of student debts.
And this was not actually a new Labour position. The party had already said it would “look for ways to ameliorate this debt burden in future”.
Indeed, while Labour’s manifesto promised to “abolish university tuition fees” and said that many young people are “held back by debt”, it made no mention of writing off student debts, or anything similar.
Have other Labour MPs pledged to write off the debt?
After Labour denied changing its policy, two main pieces of further evidence of a U-turn have been circulating.
First is a video of shadow justice minister Imran Hussain, filmed during the election campaign. In it, he comments on the fact that Jeremy Corbyn had announced that “every existing student will have all their debt wiped off”.
Some have claimed that Hussain’s comment appears “at odds with Jeremy Corbyn’s insistence that the party never made that specific pledge”.
But it’s a bit more complicated than that.
The key phrase here is “every existing student“. But it seems that some critics have conflated this with all existing student debt, which would include that held by thousands of graduates. Clearly, however, these are two very different things.
The actual policy announcement Hussain was referring to appears to have been pretty close to what he said it was – a promise to scrap debts for existing students only, rather than historic debts held by graduates.
And this was not a secret pledge consigned to a single YouTube video. It was a major policy announcement that was widely reported in the press.
Labour’s press release explained the proposal in full:
“To discourage students who are planning to start university this September from deferring until after tuition fees are removed, we will guarantee to immediately write off their first year of fees.
“Students part way through their degree will not have to pay fees for the remainder of their course. Part-time students will be covered for the cost of their first undergraduate degree.”
Regarding the debts of people who have already graduated, Labour did not promise to write these off. Echoing Corbyn’s comments, the party simply said they would consider ways to improve the situation for those concerned.
The only aspect of the policy that Hussain appears to have exaggerated or misunderstood concerns debt already racked up by existing students. The official pledge was to only wipe the debt “for the remainder of their course”, whereas Hussain said existing students would have “all their debt wiped off”.
This was clearly wrong and misleading. But Hussain made no comment about the far more costly issue of wiping all debt for all graduates.
The second example that is being cited as proof of a Labour U-turn is a tweet from a shadow minister, Sharon Hodgson, in which she said that Labour “could write off historic student debts”.
It seems that this was actually a headline from a Politics Home article, following up from the NME interview, rather than her own comment. But that doesn’t diminish her responsibility for the tweet, which does appear to confirm a policy commitment that had not been made.
There is no doubt that these words were very misleading.
In fairness to Hodgson, she did say “could” rather than “will”, but that will do little to reconcile any voters who feel misled by her tweet.
Corbyn has not U-turned on student debt, because he never made a commitment to do this in the first place. He expressed sympathy with debt-laden graduates and promised to help ease the burden on them. But – as far as we can tell – he never pledged to write off all graduate debts.
For Hussain, it is more complicated. The main accusation against Labour concerns U-turning on an alleged promise to wipe the debts of all students and graduates. Hussain made no promises about the debts of graduates but, regarding existing students, he slipped up by saying all debt would be wiped, rather than just the future debts.
Hodgson, on the other hand, posted a highly misleading tweet. Strictly speaking, it was not entirely inaccurate, but it clearly alluded to a policy that the party had not committed to.