I have been metaphorically, and at times literally, hiding under the duvet to avoid the whole tuition fees shambles last week. It seems to have been painful for all concerned and rather painful to watch. It certainly won’t go down in history as the Liberal Democrats finest hour.
I should say from the outset that I am not an expert in student finance and I haven’t chosen to take the time to make myself one. When you get beyond the easy campaign statements of ‘F*ck Fees’ and similar, the arguments for and against the government’s proposals seem to get increasingly complex. It does seem the case that a vast number of those marching and protesting against this policy neither have read or understood what they are demonstrating against.
I’ve not read the proposals in detail either, but I do know that they are not Liberal Democrat party policy and are not what a Liberal Democrat government would have introduced. They are an attempt by a coalition government to get a workable approach to the funding of universities in a time of great financial difficulty. The Liberal Democrats have fought hard to make the approach a fair one and as a result the proposals are a lot fairer than would have been introduced by a Conservative government on it’s own. While there is a case for exploring alternatives, those alternative approaches are neither easy or straightforward.
Also, the abolition of tuition fees remains Liberal Democrat party policy.
This is something that seems to have been overlooked in all the fuss. The policy of the Liberal Democrats towards tuition fees remains what it has always been. That is different from the government’s policy which is the one that is being voted through parliament. Yes, that government does include Liberal Democrats as ministers, but it includes Tories too. It is a coalition! Nobody, as far as I can see, has said that the government’s current policy has to be the final word on the issue. Nothing is preventing the Liberal Democrats from keeping the abolition of tuition fees as a long term goal.
It was inevitable when the coalition was formed that there would need to be some kind of compromise. Indeed, the need for that compromise was specifically written into the coalition agreement. Those Liberal Democrats who have been resigning from the Party in the last few days because of some “betrayal” by our MPs are really several months late. The logical time for such gestures would have been when the coalition agreement was signed, or perhaps after the special conference voted to support it, not now.
I don’t have a huge problem with the tuition fees policy itself. What coalition government has come up with is probably not something that I would have come up with myself. I think we need to take a more fundamental look at the role of higher and further education. But my impression of the government’s policy is that it is a reasonable one given the current circumstances and has been made fairer by Liberal Democrat pressure. Yes we can, and should, do better. But for the moment, it will do. Two articles I have found useful on this issue is this argument for the merits of the policy by Millennium and this one from the “money saving expert” Martin Lewis.
Yet, I am angry and frustrated. Not because of the policy itself, but because we have got the politics of this so badly wrong.
This was a difficult situation. It was always going to hurt and involve a bit of a row. So it needed handling with care, sensitivity, and a bit of low cunning. While the compromise on tuition fees was never going to be an achievement that we could shout about, more an awkward tactical retreat, if done right we could have emerged with some, deserved, political credit. Something along the lines of facing up to a difficult choice and forcing concessions from the Tories. Something which is very close to the reality.
Yet it seems there was no strategy at all.
The management of this issue within the party and within the coalition by the leadership has been appalling. While a lot of effort seems to have gone into getting the detail of the policy right, I can see no evidence that there was any attempt to manage the political consequences.
The communication of the policy has been dreadful to non-existent. When we needed to appear humble and apologetic we’ve been arrogant, when we needed to be proud and confident of our decisions we’ve been defensive, and the rest of the time we’ve just looked confused.
It has been far worse than it needed to be.
What I think the party leadership has failed to understand is the symbolic importance of the tuition fees policy.
While there are some within the Liberal Democrats who care passionately about the issue of university funding itself, far more members on one level or another supported the commitment to abolish tuition fees because of what it said about the kind of party the Liberal Democrats are. It was a symbol of our belief in the liberating power of education, our commitment to a fairer and more equal society, our support for the proper role of an active state, and a demonstration that we were on the side of the young and disadvantaged. It was also, because of the nature of the policy, a symbol that the party is a grassroots campaigning organisation with a clear and radical message. Myself I have consistently voted at conferences to keep our policy to scrap fees and thought it was important to do so. But not because I have ever felt that one particular form of higher eduction funding is worth dying in a ditch over.
Ultimately, the tuition fees thing is an issue of identity.
And then there is that pledge.
Part of the Liberal Democrats’ identity for many members is that we are different from the other parties. We are about reforming politics and doing politics in a better way. What many of our opponents see as our “holier than thou” attitude comes from the genuine belief of many members that the Liberal Democrats are about a more open and honest form of politics. Making a clear promise to the electorate to do one thing before an election and then doing the opposite a matter of months later, is clearly incompatible with that identity. A promise is a promise.
I will make no criticism of individual Liberal Democrat MPs for the way they voted last week. I know that, whether they decided to keep the pledge or not, that decision was an extremely difficult one. What I will criticise is the failure by the leadership to understand what an excruciatingly difficult position the parliamentary party would be in given what had been negotiated in the coalition agreement and therefore to properly prepare to handle it. I will also criticise the failure by the leadership to understand just how contrary a decision to break that pledge would be to the story that the party tells about itself. In short they should have understood that a matter of policy is one thing – a matter of honour is another.
In these two ways the tuition fees issue has challenged and damaged the identity of the Liberal Democrats. Some of that may have been inevitable, much of it is self inflicted, a lot of it is unjustified, but damaged our identity it has. This is very troubling because entering the coalition itself has challenged the party’s identity. Members are nervous and uncertain. Meanwhile the public is looking at us with fresh eyes. Developing a new clear identity for the Liberal Democrats that accommodates and builds on our role in the coalition is the essential task for the party over the next few years. It is a task we can achieve successfully. But not if we go about things the way we have handled tuition fees.
I am clear that my support for my party is undiminished. There is no chance of me resigning!
I continue to believe that entering the coalition was the right thing to do. I believe that Nick Clegg and the other Liberal Democrat ministers are doing a good job, that they are making a success of government, and achieving good things for the people of the UK. I also believe that participation in the coalition has the potential to lead to greater success for the Liberal Democrats in the future (although I also am aware that it also has the potential to lead to disaster).
But I am extremely concerned that it doesn’t appear that Nick, Vince and the others in government have got a grip on the politics of the new situation. I am reminded too much of those Liberal Democrat council groups who, on winning control of their council for the first time, get sucked into the Town Hall and forget to keep delivering Focus, only this is happening on a national scale. We can, and we must do better than this.
Not long after the commons tuition fees vote I got an email from Nick Clegg. Since the coalition has formed I, like a lot of other Liberal Democrat members, have been getting regular emails from Nick. This is obviously one of the methods, although at times it seems the only method, of keeping members and activists engaged and informed. I have to say that often I have found the tone of these emails midly irritating.
The latest email explained Nick’s view of the tuition fees vote and then asked me to go an help in the Oldham East and Saddleworth by election, the “next big challenge for us as a party”. I believe the by election is very important but the implicit message in this latest email was that although the tuition fees issue has been very difficult for the party, now the vote has taken place we can forget about it and move on to the next thing. While many may wish that could be the case in reality it simply won’t wash.
We can’t carry on as if nothing has gone wrong and there aren’t problems to be solved.
If the tuition fees thing is about the struggle to define our identity, then this tuition fees thing won’t go away that easily.