Angela Rayner, MP for Ashton-under-Lyne, has come out fighting against the Tory government this week. Her latest policy announcement on education is a direct appeal to young voters. The plan may improve Labour’s already strong support from this demographic. And it shows how switched on Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘rookie’ team is.
Reversing Tory attacks on young people
Rayner, the Shadow Education Secretary, announced several major policy ideas, including reversing several unpopular Conservative government decisions. Rayner said Labour will reinstate the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) and maintenance grants for students from poorer families. Both these allowances were scrapped by former Chancellor George Osborne, who described the maintenance grants system as a:
basic unfairness in asking taxpayers to fund grants for people who are likely to earn a lot more than them.
Osborne said in last year’s budget that the current £1.57bn cost of maintenance grants would double to £3bn in ten years. He replaced the grants with loans of up to £8,200. The move was criticised by major charities, as well as student and teaching unions.
But Rayner said that it was:
disgraceful that the Conservative government abolished student grants that levelled the playing field for young people from low and middle income backgrounds. Opportunity taken from them is a loss to us all, leaving Britain worse off.
Evidence-led policy making
The EMA was originally a Labour government policy. It was a means-tested payment of between £10 and £30 per week intended to encourage 16-to-18-year-olds to stay in education longer. The Tories fobbed the policy off under the coalition government, saying it was badly targeted. But Rayner says that research showed the policy was cost-effective. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) said the EMA increased the number of students staying in education. It also said that, far from being “badly targeted”, students benefitted from:
better attendance, or more study time as a result of not having to take on a part-time job. Moreover, even if the EMA had no impact on educational outcomes it would still represent a transfer of resources to low-income households with children, which may in its own right represent a valuable policy objective.
Research from the Welsh Government, which still awards the EMA, backs this up. It said that the allowance helps “address… the link between poverty and educational attainment” and encourages students to enroll in “post-compulsory education more quickly”. It also said EMA students “studied for longer and achieved at a higher level than non-recipients”.
The cost of Labour’s proposals would be met by an increase in corporation tax. Labour’s forecasts say that upping the rate of the tax by 1.5% would raise £3bn, half of which would be pumped into education. As Rayner says:
while the Tories continue to burden our young people with debt, the Labour party is committed to investing in our young people. It is only by investing in education that we can ensure that all of our young people, whatever their background, are able to succeed in whatever they aspire to.
Rayner: already standing out from the crowd
It’s no wonder that Rayner is so passionate about her shadow education brief. She says she comes from a “working class” background where poverty directly affected her life chances. As she commented in her maiden speech in the House of Commons:
I grew up on a council estate, and my parents and I were recipients of welfare throughout my childhood. I was on free school meals, I was a NEET—not in education, employment or training—and I had no GCSEs at grade A to C; and, as I said, I had a baby at 16. School, for me, was not a place where you went to be educated, but a place where you got away from your parents for a couple of hours while they got some respite from you, and where you were able to see your mates. Rather tragically, it was also the place where I got a hot dinner. I often did not have a hot meal when I went home, and I often went to school without having had breakfast, so getting to lunchtime was quite tricky for me.
But it is exactly this background that many view as a breath of fresh air. Rayner is no career politician. Before becoming an MP, she was a local authority care worker and Unison shop steward. As she tellingly said in her policy announcement, she and Corbyn are:
two politicians who never went to university [but] we have nevertheless benefited from those that did. We do so every time we visit our GP or dentist. When our children go to school or when we buy the latest gadget. Education is a collective good that benefits all of us.
Rayner is addressing the issues that young people face from a position of experience, something which makes her stand out from so many other MPs. It may well reach out to potential young voters as well.
Research shows that at the last general election only 43% of 18-to-24-year-olds voted. But those who did voted for Labour by 12% more than in 2010. By appealing now to young people, Rayner may well be hoping to sow the seeds among potential Labour voters in 2020. And as someone who knows exactly the challenges young people face, her policy decisions demonstrate how switched on she and the rest of Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet are.
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