Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

In future, Lib Dem candidates should watch what they sign

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.


Unknown said...

Great to see you write again.

The candidate I worked for didn't sign the pledge because it didn't seem sensible to make that sort of commitment when the chances were we'd not be able to get it through.

It was clearly an elephant trap set by NUS & their Labour cronies. There is a cruel irony that we are getting it in the neck for breaking a pledge NUS don't believe in. They're now advocating a system similar to ours only less fair as the elephant has pointed out.

The scheme the Coalition has put forward is about as fair as we can achieve but it is a significant, and heartbreaking, moment. This should have been a red line issue & the Party needs to take some share of responsibility for not insisting so at the special conference.

Anonymous said...

Good blog.

One thing I've been wondering about a lot though, is how much money this will actually save. The IFS estimate that,

"if all universities charged £9,000 a year, we calculate that total the taxpayer burden of higher education would only be slightly lower than it is at the moment".(

Now, not all universities will charge £9000 but a lot will, and I don't think (I might be wrong) the IFS estimate includes the cost of the scholarship fund and implementation costs, so the change might not actually save very much at all.

Has anyone actually bothered working out the total net saving once all the extras have been added (assuming there still is a saving)?

It's pretty important I imagine.

Rusty Liberal said...

Great to see a blog post from you again Mark. I wholeheartedly agree and it too has been a mystery to me why we aren't being more vocal about the fact that in the electoral scheme of things we lost the debate on tuition fees. There were 593 MPs elected on a position opposite to ours.

Having said all this, the media hype has been very OTT (but predictable) as has the Labour position which is completely disingenuous as they both introduced fees and top ups after saying they wouldn't. Tuition fees is also being used by people who, for whatever reason, hate the Tories and won't forgive us for working with them.

NoetiCat said...

"Secondly, given that almost all Lib Dem MPs had signed such a pledge the coalition agreement should have made fees a red line issue"

How? Any coalition agreement would have been with either Labour or the Conservatives, both parties who were deemed very likely to include increasing fees (not necessarily with any further amendments to make things more progressive!) as part of this Parliament's programme.

I've even heard that Labour negotiators demanded £7K/year fees as part of any agreement!

Making something like this, where we would always be 57 MPs vs 5-6x as many of either Lab or Con a red line issue would have meant kicking it into the long grass yet again, which frankly is the coward's way out.

oneexwidow said...

What a great post - you make all the points I wish were being made superbly.

martijn said...

Nice to see you return with such a great post!

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.

I find the idea of making a pledge assuming we would not be in government even worse, because that totally defeats the point of a pledge.

(Totally off-topic but the CAPTCHA below is 'voter'. That's kind of nice.)

Anonymous said...

I think everyone seems to have missed what the pledge actually was - it was "I will vote against any rise in tuition fees." It made no caveats about Lib Dems winning as a party - it was about each individual winning their own seat!

So really the choice for each MP is - should I have integrity to my constituents, who voted for me, based on my promises? Or should I toe the party line, for convenience?

Beating around the bush and coming up with reasons to justify the position of the cabinet really is beside the point. They either keep their promises to their constituents, or they admit that they are willing to lie to be elected.

I really can't see how it's any different to Phil Woolas lying to try to get elected - they say they will do something they are perfectly able to do, and then don't do it because it's inconvenient.

I think when you put it that way, it makes it clearer.

Integrity is important to me, and I think it ought to be important to our MPs too.

It's kind of like when you say 'I will love and honour' in a wedding vow. You don't suddenly inherit a get out clause later because the office secretary was really attractive, and your wife was a bit less interesting than she used to be. It was still a vow, and you are still breaking it.

NoetiCat said...

Anonymous said: 'I think everyone seems to have missed what the pledge actually was - it was "I will vote against any rise in tuition fees."'

What the pledge ACTUALLY said was "I pledge to vote against an increase of tuition fees in the next Parliament, and to pressure the government to INTRODUCE A FAIRER ALTERNATIVE".

The latter part is in larger letters than the rest...

Paul Walter said...

"the party almost tears itself apart over tuition fees"

I really think you're overtstaing the case there. The debate has happened in a very civil and polite way. There have been a lot of strong views expressed but as Paddy said yesterday, there has been absolutely no bitterness or rancour.

Cicero said...

Yep- can't disagree with most of that: PLEASE return on a more permanent basis!

Mark Wadsworth said...

Ah! You're back! Keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

surely the problem is Blair's ridiculous idea to have 50% going to university. It has spawned a host of third class institutions offering useless degree courses to non-academic students. It is a con on the kids. They expect better jobs after graduating and then find their subjects are not in demand. The costs of running these 'universities are huge with third class vice chancellors earning over £200K a year and their subordinates correspondingly overpaid. 10% at university is probably too many but 50% is a joke if it wasn't serious.
Sammy Mehaffey

Anonymous said...

"the measures to be voted on on Thursday are not that far from a graduate tax."

According to the NUS website, they want a graduate tax with a "25 year limit and an overall maximum amount to ensure fairness." I don't quite how this would differ from the government's proposals in practics.

"Tuition fees is also being used by people who, for whatever reason, hate the Tories and won't forgive us for working with them."

I think that's a large part of the reason; hence, for example, the fact that everyone seems to be focusing on the government, despite the fact that it was Labour who made tuition fees necessary in the first place, introduced tuition fees, made this government belt-tightening necessary, commissioned the Browne Review and entered the election saying that they'd implement the Review if elected.

P.S. Allow me to join the chorus congratulating you on a first-rate blog post, and hoping that there'll be more in future.

HampsteadOwl said...

To be fair to you Liberal Democrats, you faced an unenviable choice (albeit as a result of your own immaturity).

You could present yourself as a party that reneges on its most fundamental promises

Or as one that, when the time comes to govern, runs for the hills.

No one would relish either choice. But to go for both, as you have managed, takes a rare act of political stupidity that can hardly be matched. No wonder you are at eight per cent in the polls.

Peter Reynolds said...

There is no excuse.