Andrew Rawnsley writes in The Guardian:
Canvassing for Votes, one of a series of four wonderful paintings by William Hogarth about the corruption of parliamentary elections in the 18th century, depicts agents for the Tories and the Whigs flourishing banknotes at an innkeeper in an attempt to bribe him. Would never happen today, of course. Payment in cash or kind in exchange for a vote – the practice that used to be called “treating”– is strictly illegal. Anyone caught doing it will likely wind up in jail.
That’s an obstacle for vote-hunting politicians at election time. Fortunately for them, the law has a loophole. And that loophole is massive. There is nothing on the statute book that says a politician can’t offer a bribe so long as it is directed at lots of voters. Individual bribery is a crime; mass bribery is entirely legal. Which is a good thing for David Cameron and Ed Miliband. If mass bribery were not allowed, both would be facing prosecution for the promises they have been making in the past few days.
Bribe one person and you go to jail. Bribe 100,000 and you get to be in Parliament.
This is also the main reason why Ed Miliband is treating for votes at the other end of the age spectrum by promising to cut student tuition fees to £6,000. One way of thinking about the Labour leader’s pledge is to ask what problem this is supposed to fix. Since tuition fees were raised to £9,000, applications for university places have not gone down; they have gone up. Applications from students with less advantaged backgrounds have not gone down; they have also gone up. No one starts repaying the loan until they are earning more than £21,000 a year and any debt outstanding after 30 years is written off. Of course, when I talk to students I hear complaints about them being burdened with debt. But it is often a greater source of irritation to them that they don’t think the teaching they are getting is value for the money. Some of the sharpest complaints about that are from students at universities with the more prestigious names. That might have been a useful area for Labour’s attentions. The upshot of Mr Miliband’s policy is that the greatest beneficiaries will be the highest earning graduates. Who knew that the Labour leader came into politics to redistribute money to future bankers?
Just as interest free student loans transfer wealth from those who didn’t go to university to those who do.