Saturday, November 13, 2010

Rethinking what the tuition fees issue is about

Unlike, it sometimes feels, 99.9% of the politically active people I come across, I don't have particularly strong views on university funding.

I've been following the arguments for the last 10-15 years and can see good arguments on all sides. I'm pleased that everyone is concerned about potential students from poorer families, about sustainable funding, and about part-time students. But beyond that I'm still open to persuasion that either 100% taxpayer funding or some variant of the Browne proposals is the way forward.

However, for LibDem members like me I wonder if there is an even bigger issue at stake than the one of how to fund undergraduate degrees.

In short: I'm concerned that the U-turn by LibDem ministers is of a different order of magnitude to normal U-turns.

As we all know, voting for these tuition fee proposals would not just breach party policy; and not just breach a Manifesto commitment made just a few months ago; and not just breach the expectations of parliamentarians and members when they backed the Coalition Agreement; but most of all these proposals would breach a personal pledge by every LibDem MP, signed before the election.

This we know. For the purposes of this post, let's set aside the reasons why Nick Clegg and Vince Cable have changed their minds; and also set aside why Clegg and Cable believe these breaches to be necessary

And also, for now, let's set aside worries about the consequential election losses over the next few years. Set aside questions about lack of mandate. Set aside the vitriolic "lying" and "betrayal" narratives themselves. Others have more to say about these matters than I care to. I want to focus on just one aspect here.

It is possible, I believe, that the magnitude of this breach of trust is such that serious damage, possibly generational, has been done to the capacity of the Liberal Democrat Party to nudge our society in the direction of the social, liberal, democratic rational values that the party cherishes.

For example, respect for science, an understanding of the urgency for action on climate change, the campaign for electoral reform, the internationalism that helped us make the right call on Iraq, the drive to reduce social unfairness... all these and more need LibDem support at every level of politics.

And while there will be insufficient numbers of LibDems, MPs, MEPs, councillors, activists, members, and voters to support these values, it is much worse than that: this question of trust will permeate every policy discussion, every doorstep encounter, every debate, every columnist's analysis... so that LibDem influence in those discussions will diminish.

If I am right about the seriousness of this breach of trust (I might be wrong) then it is incumbent on members of the party to consider whether the long-term interests of liberal democracy might be best served by calling a halt to the plan of Nick Clegg and Vince Cable to whip the parliamentary party to vote for these tuition fee proposals.

There are always compromises in government. Most times we argue our case, sigh if we lose, and trust that the leaders we choose know what they are doing. We do not always get our own way. We often have to defend unpopular decisions that we have reluctantly concluded are in the best interests of the country. We sometimes get things wrong and have to make U-turns.

But here, in this case, it is not that the members are not getting their own way; it is that the MPs themselves pledged that they would vote one way and are now expected to vote another. The facts of the case have not changed. We knew how bad the finances were; we knew what Browne was likely to say; we knew that a hung parliament was likely. People interpret this as a blatant personal betrayal by MPs.

What compounds the sense of betrayal is that Nick Clegg's campaign emphasised "No more broken promises" and "A new kind of politics". This sense of betrayal is likely to have quite serious repercussions.

What I am trying to suggest is that - for once - the merits of the particular proposals themselves are actually not that important. What is important is the consequential damage of MPs breaking their personal pledges for the future of liberal democrat values for some time to come.

Update 15 Nov 10:

I was in two minds on Saturday night about posting my views above. I don't want my view confused with those LibDem supporters who oppose the Coalition, or with certain Labour supporters who are whipping up anti-Clegg hysteria wherever they can. But in the fading light of a frosty Monday afternoon I think I was right to do it. I do not want to be accused of acquiescing - through inaction - to the broken pledges.

This comment by Andy Darley spurred me to write the post, in particular:
"... it’s not a question of whether Lib Dem MPs will break their promise to vote against tuition fee increases, it’s actually a question of which out of two contradictory and equally binding promises they will choose to break.

"Promise one was to vote against a rise. Promise two, in the coalition agreement, was to abstain.

"... One thing the [Liberal Democrat Voice members] survey is clear about – more than 90 per cent of respondents expect them to keep one or the other of the two promises. And at the moment the leadership is marching them towards breaking both."
I would also like to quote Keith Day who wrote...
"... the point about the tuition fees pledge... has nothing to do with coalition compromises and which party got how many seats. It was a personal promise by a candidate to their voters. It doesn't matter which party won or is in coalition with which other party. Our MPs said to their voters 'If I win I will do this'. The promise was not conditional on which party won, or if there was a hung parliament or not.
Those MPs who will vote in favour of increasing fees will betray those voters who believed that promise and all those of us who believed that Lib Dems stood for something better than the sordid, selfish, self-aggrandizing politics of recent years.
Clegg’s betrayal is that he is going to whip his MPs into breaking a promise, forcing those who stand by their principles of honesty and honour to be 'rebels'."
Update #2 15 Nov 2010:

The whole of the above post could probably be replaced by Ming Campbell's simple statement:
"My credibility would be shot to pieces if I did anything other than to stick to the promise I made."


  1. The whip would be to abstain, surely, rather than vote for.

    But anyway, suppose the government is defeated on this. Then what?

    I agree we're getting a kicking over this, and not entirely undeserved. But all the other courses of action seem to involve getting a kicking too.

  2. Hi Joe

    Yes, you're right about the whip. This post was written when it appeared as though ministers were intending to campaign for an aye vote by the parliamentary party. But in retrospect the situation was more ambiguous.

    I also think you're right on alternative courses of action being bad too. I've outlined three possible futures here.

  3. I'm not a member of any political party, but have been following this debate closely, partly due to self-interest - as I have children presently in education. But partly also due to an interest in the political system.

    With that preamble over - I have to say that I think you have put your finger on the most significant issue and that your analysis seems 100% sound.

    Irrespective of the rights or wrongs of the argument about how to pay for higher education, a decision to do anything other than vote against moves to raise fees will IMO do massive damage to the LD party. I suspect the damage will last for many years.

    Interesting times.