Well what a bloody mess this is! I stop blogging for a few months and in my absence the party almost tears itself apart over tuition fees.
I just felt that I had to write something about this. It feels like it could be a crisis which it takes the party many years to recover from and which could damage it electorally for years to come too.
Firstly, the party leadership should never have encouraged candidates to sign the NUS pledge against increasing tuition fees before the election. From what I have been able to glean, some PPCs/MPs who were a bit wary of such a commitment were told it was party policy and that they should go ahead and sign it. Frankly, it strikes me that the party and its leadership was incredibly naive in thinking that they could do this and then have a Lib Dem minister introduce the bill to triple the fees in parliament and have any realistic chance of credibly explaining this to the public.
Secondly, given that almost all Lib Dem MPs had signed such a pledge the coalition agreement should have made fees a red line issue. I know that fees were not one of the four key pledges in the manifesto but they should have been made a special case due to the strength of feeling in the party and on a more prosaic political level because there are dozens of pictures of our MPs smiling at cameras holding the pledge cards. These will be potent and potentially toxic ammunition in future election campaigns for our opponents (even Tories - just watch).
Thirdly, having taken the decision to introduce a bill to increase tuition fees, our members of government such as Vince Cable have been extremely ill advised to go around saying that they might abstain. It defies all credibility to try and maintain this position and very much plays into the hands of people who claim that Lib Dems want to have their cake and eat it. Also, comments like "I never would have made the pledge had I known we were going to be in govenment" are frankly pathetic. A hung parliament was odds on favourite well before the election. It did not take a genius to work out that the Lib Dems might actually be involved in legislating on this issue.
Fourthly, the actual reason why we are unable to fulfil our pledge is because we did not win the election outright and therefore have had to compromise. The line that the party has taken that the finances are worse than we thought cuts no ice with me. We were told again and again that the Lib Dem manifesto was fully costed. That's what I kept telling people on the doorstep. The reason why we cannot deliver on this is because we were unable to implement our FULL programme. We have had parts of our programme implemented but unless all the measures including the ones that would have raised the extra needed revenue are included, THEN it becomes unaffordable. It is a political choice necessitated by coalition and because the other two main parties did not back our position leaving us with only 57 MPs out of 650 willing to back that full programme. I do not think I have heard a single Lib Dem minister make this point in the last few days.
Right, that's the worst of the criticism of the party out of the way. This has been far from our finest hour as I think I have made clear. However we are where we are and despite my anger at what has happened so far, I actually think that the tuition fee policy is pretty good. I have previously been tempted by the idea of a graduate tax but have read enough recently to become convinced that there are too many practical problems with it. But the measures to be voted on on Thursday are not that far from a graduate tax. Indeed as the fluffy one blogged about brilliantly recently the proposals are actually more progressive than those proposed by the NUS (one of the reasons I would actually love to see Nick Clegg debate Aaron Porter as the NUS leader apparently requested). Not having to pay anything back until you are earning over £21,000 seems fair to me. Paying back £30,000 over 30 years would mean a graduate would need to be earning around £1,000 per year (OK let's factor in interest and say £1,500 per year) more than someone who did not go. I think that is very likely in many cases but of course for people who never earn very much after graduating they will either never pay back anything or perhaps only a very small amount. I certainly think the principle of those who benefit from higher education ultimately paying for it when they can afford to do so is fair.
To come back to the politics of this though, the only way forward I can see now is for Lib Dem ministers to vote for the measures. We are in government and one of our most senior MPs has piloted the legislation through. It is the best deal we could get under the circumstances and I am sure the presence of Lib Dems in government has ameliorated some of the harsher aspects that could have been there had the Conservatives been governing alone.
I fully expect plenty of Lib Dem backbench MPs to vote against the bill. Some will feel they need to as a matter of conscience given what they signed and of course they are not bound by the strictures of cabinet responsibility. Others will doubtless have one eye on the number of students in their constituencies and will be weighing that in the balance too.
Long term it is impossible to know what the effect of these changes will be in terms of the Lib Dems political position. I suspect that one thing is for sure. Our MPs and candidates are going to be far more careful about what they sign before an election in future and not just take the leadership's word for it that everything will be OK.
Perhaps in the long term that will be the strongest legacy of the debacle of the last few days.