What now is the Liberal Democrats policy on university tuition fees?
So the abolition of university tuition fees is still party policy, even though in Nick Clegg’s apology, he said this:
“We made a promise before the election that we would vote against any rise in fees under any circumstances. But that was a mistake. It was a pledge made with the best of intentions – but we shouldn’t have made a promise we weren’t absolutely sure we could deliver.
I shouldn’t have committed to a policy that was so expensive when there was no money around.”
This leaves Lib Dem activists in a situation of huge uncertainty that was not necessarily of their own making. I can see why Nick Clegg felt the need to apologise from a tactical point of view. Take the humble pie now so that in two years time (general election time) the issue can be said to have long gone.
The impact of the apology?
The only people who seem to have reacted positively to it on Puffles’ timeline are Liberal Democrat activists. Party-loyalty-wise I can see why, but I think it’s made their position even harder than before – which I’ll cover later in this post.
Labour are understandably making hay over the statement – one of their key opponents is on the back foot. Yet Labour need to be careful on all things tuition fees because even though they made a pledge not to rise tuition fees, they broke that one in the minds of the voters. (This was fact-checked by Channel 4 in 2005) Even worse – though not realised until 2010, they passed the primary legislation that allowed ministers to bring in the substantially higher fees through secondary legislation – requiring only a couple of debates in Parliament rather than the passing of a new piece of primary legislation.
Not only that, in my mind Labour ministers ensured that the Browne Review on higher education would report back just after a general election, so that were Labour to get re-elected, they could deal with the ‘difficult choice’ early on in a new government. The Browne review itself was a farce – and in my mind ministers already knew the outcome they wanted. If it were a genuine in depth review – which it should have been – possibly even a royal commission, they would have allocated far greater resources for research than £120,000 – of which just over half was spent. Can those who were ministers at the time honestly say that they allocated levels of time, people, resources and money proportional to handle an issue that will affect generations of, and millions of people over many years? Can those people honestly say that the research budget alone was proportionate to the changes in funding, budgets and financial sources for higher education institutions?
Ed Miliband made a pledge last year to reduce higher fees to £6,000 - lower than the £9,000 but still a doubling. A strange decision in my mind, one that felt like he panicked and was pushed into making without thinking through fully what his overall higher education policy should be. Jon Worth nails the point here, saying that Labour still has no overall vision of the sort of society it wants to achieve – the thread that links the policies together. (What policies you may ask?)
As far as young people are concerned, if Nick Clegg has some apologising to do, so does the last cohort of Labour ministers. Labour may struggle to gain traction on this issue if they don’t come up with a sound, coherent and consistent set of policies as an alternative to what the Coalition currently has on higher education.
So…Labour are policy-lite on this and the Liberal Democrats…?
Well…their position seems to be: ‘Our policy is still to get rid of the tuition fees – unless our conference decides otherwise – but our leader said that our policy pledge was a mistake because we weren’t 100% sure we could have delivered on it.’
Rather than clarifying the party’s policy, it has generated more confusion – and quite possibly has weakened Nick Clegg further. Half the Parliamentary party did not back the rise – of those most voting against, in line with their pledge. Of those that did vote in favour, most of them were bound by the convention of collective responsibility that goes with being a government minister. i.e. they would have had to have resigned their ministerial posts to vote against. Given that the vote was taken a few months after the formation of the Coalition, no senior Lib Dem ministers resigned – preferring to remain as ministers.
So what we have is a very mixed set of messages coming from the Liberal Democrats. The ministerial leadership (Clegg, Alexander and co) have one line, the backbench leadership in the form of Farron and co have quite another. Which one do you go with?
The bigger picture – coalitions and voting reforms.
This is the biggest millstone around the necks of the Liberal Democrats. Their entire raison d’etre – or rather their main policy pillar as a party is that of voting reform. It is the one key policy that differentiates them from Labour and the Conservatives. Irrespective of the merits, their call for proportional representation makes coalition governments far more likely than under a first-past-the-post system. Therefore the Liberal Democrats HAVE to demonstrate in the current coalition that ‘coalition governments work’. If they cannot demonstrate that coalition governments work, it undermines the key pillar of the party’s existence. Hence they have to be seen by the political, media and financial establishment as being ‘mature enough to make the difficult political decisions.’
While the Liberal Democrats punched above their weight in terms of the content of the Coalition Agreement, the functioning of ministerial office has been one where Conservative ministers have been able to push through a number of policies that in the minds of some go against what the Liberal Democrats should be standing for. Coalition has been a significant learning curve for the party – one that in the future will impact on the future policies of the party.
Is all of what’s going on pointing to a much less radical politics in Westminster?
This is where we seem to be heading. Miliband’s not really giving anything away policy-wise – which The Greens are now taking full advantage of. (In my view, Labour are still struggling to respond to the Green challenge in the same way the Conservatives are struggling with the UKIP challenge). Clegg has said that his party will be far more careful about pledges and promises. But coalition governments – the like of which are much more likely under proportional representation – don’t sit easily with pledges and promises. The UK has a different political culture to those countries under PR – there’s an expectation that when a party enters office it will implement manifesto pledges. (Hence in part the disengagement in party politics because some key pledges either weren’t implemented or the parties in government went in entirely the opposite direction).
For me, more of the really exciting stuff on politics is happening outside the Westminster bubble – and also outside of the far left intellectual bastions around Bloomsbury. Hence my questions around the terms of engagement in politics. There are some fascinating conversations, debates and ideas that fly around social media, but for whatever reason are unable to penetrate the Westminster bubble. There are also debates in academia that at the moment seem to be happening in a separate bubble that both Westminster and ‘the outside world’ seem to be unaware of. I found this out at the Politics and Policy 40th Anniversary Conference in Bristol. Lots of very sharp and sound analysis by lots of stupendously bright people…that all too often remains inside the academic bubble. In a separate blogpost I’ll look at how academics can use social media to break outside of this and the impact that it could have.