As he makes his first leader’s speech in the unusual context of an online Labour party conference, Keir Starmer’s position is rock solid. Since his election, the party has pulled almost level with the Conservatives in the polls, and more Britons think he would make a better prime minister than Boris Johnson. He has had a good Covid crisis.

But the hard work of rowing his party away from the wilder shores of Corbynism has yet to begin. Starmer has so far fought shy of criticising Labour’s 2019 manifesto, apart from suggesting it was “overloaded” – and has yet to say which of its policies should be unloaded. Most people still do not know what he stands for.

Many of the members who voted for him as leader still look favourably on policies advanced by Jeremy Corbyn. But with Labour suffering its worst defeat since 1935 in the last general election, Starmer knows that to win, he has to recast that programme. Now, in the context of a Covid-ravaged economy, the pressure to unload some of those “overloaded” policies has increased.

Starmer has to win voters’ trust on the economy: the Conservatives are still regarded as better able to manage it than Labour. This means he has to persuade voters that Labour will use their taxes wisely, sacrificing policies beloved by many members – and breaking some of his campaign pledges.

Paradoxically, the most politically difficult pledge for Starmer to drop is the one that, in terms of Labour’s historic aims, should be the easiest: the abolition of university tuition fees.

It will be a hard policy to abandon because Labour members, many of them graduates with children and grandchildren in higher education, love it. During the leadership campaign, 79% told YouGov they wanted Labour to retain the abolition of tuition fees in its next manifesto. More than any other, the policy has acquired a totemic significance. Indeed, the very first policy announcement Corbyn made in his 2015 bid to become leader was the abolition of fees and the restoration of maintenance grants. Corbyn even apologised to previous generations of students for New Labour having made them pay for their higher education.

Making tuition fees the centrepiece of its 2017 election campaign was credited with helping Labour win a massive lead among younger voters and a surge in support in many university towns, preventing Theresa May winning a Commons majority. Therefore, while the party spent the next few years tearing itself apart over Brexit, the abolition of fees remained an uncontested part of the 2019 manifesto. Hence, in seeking to replace Corbyn, Starmer declared that “Labour must stand by its commitment to end the national scandal of spiralling student debt and abolish tuition fees. We lost the election, but we did not lose our values or determination to tackle the injustice facing young people going to university.”

But how far the abolition of fees, which it is estimated will cost at least £6bn a year, advances Labour’s aim to make society more equal is not obvious. Given that students are disproportionately from better-off homes and graduates earn more than non-graduates, the policy would in effect redistribute wealth upwards, something associated with the Conservatives. The idea that the present system loads students with a huge debt – an important justification for abolishing it and one Starmer appears to believe – is wrong. Most graduates do not pay anything back until they earn £26,575, and repayments are fixed at 9% of everything they earn above that. Moreover, 30 years after graduating, remaining debt will be written off.

If making Britain a fairer society is Labour’s objective, there are far better ways of spending taxes in education. This was why Angela Rayner, now Starmer’s deputy, as shadow education secretary was unenthusiastic about abolishing tuition fees, believing – rightly – that concentrating spending on early years education would make the biggest impact on inequality. It was an insight that underpinned the New Labour government’s approach.

The 2019 Labour manifesto addressed the needs of pre-school children from working-class homes as well as the economy’s demand for better technical education and more apprenticeships, policies that might also help win back Labour’s lost ‘red wall’ seats. It would make sense to target resources on these.

Starmer has time on his side. His calm focus on exposing the government’s lapses during the Covid crisis has boosted his image as a supremely competent politician, in contrast to Boris Johnson. But during the next year or so he will need to start clarifying his position on a range of issues. If he decides to move on tuition fees – as surely he must – that will become a battleground within his party, where many still see this as a sacred cow.

The Covid crisis has exposed the extent to which the management of many universities is seriously awry: policymakers need to give the funding and social purpose of higher education a good hard look, something they have avoided for generations.

Should higher education remain a finishing school for the offspring of the well-off, one that allows them to make useful contacts in their future careers, which many elite institutions effectively are? Or should it play a critical role in breaking down inequalities and contributing to economic renewal, a role too few universities take seriously? Abolishing tuition fees will not address these issues.

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