I’m free! It’s only taken me 30 years, but I’m out now. Off the front bench.
Today is my fourth day of freedom, and so far I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. I thoroughly enjoyed my 30 years on the front bench too – indeed it was, as I’ve often said, a huge privilege to have had the chance to have the Opposition posts I held, and still more the four senior posts I held in Cabinet when Labour was in power.
But my first love (professionally speaking!) has always been the House of Commons itself.
I’ve never understood the psychology of those MPs on both sides who spend years trying to get into the House, only to back away from embracing its virtues and its role once they are elected. Despite our 24-hour media the Chamber of the Commons remains the cockpit of British politics.
This is not to be sentimental about the place. It’s just true. Happily, many more of the record new intake to this Parliament do understand the importance of the Chamber, and its debates have been a lot better attended and more vibrant than for years.
My first outing from the back-benches was on Monday – my very first day – in the sombre statement by Foreign Secretary William Hague about the murder of the British aid worker Linda Norgrove.
Something evidently did go wrong in the course of the rescue attempt.
But I felt it important, as one of Mr Hague’s predecessors who had faced similar situations, to offer him my full support, and understanding for the brave US special forces who carried out the rescue effort, who have to make split-second decisions in the most dreadful of circumstances.
My second outing was Tuesday, on the very important report by former BP Chairman Lord Browne about the future of university funding.
His group proposed an increase in tuition fees to £7,000 – with the possibility of higher fees.
They tempered this by recommending that repayments of loans should not take place until a graduate’s income reaches £21,000 a year, rather than £15,000 as now.
When Labour first raised the tuition fee from £1,000 up front (set in the late nineties) to £3,000, we faced a storm of opposition – from the Conservatives and Lib Dems combined, and some Labour rebels.
We only won the key vote by five.
Later the Conservatives came to accept our approach, but the Lib Dems carried on opposing right through the last election – with Nick Clegg describing the prospect of a £7,000 fee as a ‘disaster.’ Since his erstwhile deputy Vince Cable was making the statement, I thought I’d tweak his toe by asking why his leader had so suddenly changed his mind.
Lord Browne’s report is thorough and impressively argued, despite the controversial nature of some of its recommendations.
Our principal concern is whether the additional income from the higher fees will be used simply to offset cuts in the public funding of higher education, or whether a good proportion of it will to help resource the sector.
We won’t find that out until next Wednesday, when George Osborne, the Chancellor makes his long expected statement on spending cuts – when I hope to get in again.