Tuition fees – what party members believe Lib Dem MPs should do

by Stephen Tall on October 16, 2010

Lib Dem Voice has polled our members-only forum to discover what Lib Dem party members think of the party’s reponse to The Browne Report into higher education funding and student finance in England. Some 567 party members have responded, and we’re publishing the full results of our survey this weekend.

In the first part of our survey, we reported how Lib Dem members think higher education should be funded, and what changes, if any, would make the Browne Report acceptable to them. Now let’s look at what party members think our MPs should do about that pledge

Should Lib Dem MPs stick by their manifesto and NUS pledges?

We asked: In its general election manifesto this year, the party stated: “The Liberal Democrats will phase out tuition fees over the course of six years, so that, after school, everyone who gets the grades has the opportunity to go to university without fear of debt, no matter what their background.” Almost all elected Liberal Democrat MPs signed the NUS pledge to “to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative”. Which of the following statements comes closest to your view:

Here’s what you told us:

  • 59% – Lib Dem MPs must continue to stand by these pledges and oppose any increase in tuition fees. This is the only honourable position
  • 29% – I understand why Lib Dem MPs would want to look at the issue of tuition fees afresh in the light of the Browne Report’s recommendations and the current economic situation. I would be disappointed if they went back on their pledges but I would reluctantly accept it in the circumstances
  • 11% – I support the thrust of the recommendations of the Browne Report, and believe our MPs would be acting responsibly if they supported the Coalition’s position
  • 2% – Other
  • (Excluding Don’t know / No opinion (1%))

The majority of Lib Dem members, 56% in our survey, believe the party’s MPs must honour the pledges made to the electorate. In particular, it’s the specific NUS pledge to which almost all Lib Dem MPs signed up before the election that causes a lot of angst… a manifesto pledge in Coalition politics is one thing, to go back on a specific pledge made to individual voters quite another.

A significant minority, 29%, chose the ‘I’ll be disappointed but will reluctantly accept it in the circs’ option, while a further 11% believe that supporting Browne’s recommendations is the only responsible decision for the party’s MPs. In total, then, 40% of party members are prepared to see Lib Dem MPs renege on their pledge to vote against fees.

Here’s a sample of what you said:

A bigger issue than tuition fees is the public’s trust in politicians. We said that this time, things could be different, that there could be an end to broken promises. Let’s make sure that opportunity is seized with both hands.

Abstention is acceptable, because the party voted on the coalition agreement. Voting *for* the fees would go against both the manifesto and the coalition agreement.

We cannot go back on a pledge that many MPs signed and which was a key platform of our campaign. I cannot stand on doorsteps and defend a total about face on this pledge.

We must learn no to sign sich pledges in future

As a PPC I signed the pledge too, a pledge is a pledge, we have to stand up for what we agreed to, otherwise our pledges in future will count for nothing with the electorate

I do think that the proposed new system is “a fairer alternative”, so, whilst embarassing for our MPs who signed the pledge, I don’t think this would be a complete betrayal.

The decision to make the pledges was misguided, but they should not renege on them now, especially not without a vast improvement of the proposals

The world has changed! I wish it hadn’t changed, but the fact is, we now know that there’s no more money.

I have been worried that our policy as stated in the general election was not practical. There were hints before the election that the leadership wanted to move away from this but there was a groundswell of opposition in the party to ditching a popular policy. I thought then and think now that the leadership was probably right. But we are where we are, so… I think that Lib Dem MPs who made specific pledges have no real choice but to stick to them.

Coalition government involves compromise and pragmatism, of course. But this is a special case. Our MPs made very specific pledges, with lots of publicity, to a substantial part of our core vote. If they betray that pledge, whatever the arguments for and against, our party is going to be seriously fucked. How will we ever credibly promise anything ever again?

And what should our MPs do in a Commons vote?

We asked: The Coalition Agreement endorsed by party members at the special conference in May, states, “If the response of the Government to Lord Browne’s report is one that Liberal Democrats cannot accept then recommendations will be made to enable Liberal Democrat MPs to abstain in any vote”. If there is a vote in the House of Commons to increase tuition fees as recommended by Browne, would you expect Lib Dem MPs to:

Here’s what you told us:

  • 51% – Vote against
  • 41% – Abstain
  • 7% – Vote in favour
  • (Excluding Don’t know / No opinion (5%))

A bare majority, 51%, of Lib Dem members expect Lib Dem MPs to vote against any recommendation to increase tution fees, when the Coalition puts its proposals to the House of Commons. However, a significant minority, 41%, believe MPs should abstain in any vote, in line with the Coalition Agreement. Just 7% of party members expect the party’s MPs to vote in favour.

We then asked: If you were an MP how would you personally vote?

Here’s what you told us:

  • 63% – Vote against
  • 20% – Abstain
  • 17% – Vote in favour
  • (Excluding Don’t know / No opinion (7%))

It’s interesting to note the difference in results, between what party members expect MPs to do and what they would themselves do if they had a vote: many more would vote against (63%, up 12%), but many more would also vote in favour (17%, up 10%), with far fewer abstaining (20%, down 21%).

In our previous survey findings we reported that 52% of party members were prepared to consider supporting increasing tuition fees if changes were brought in by the Coalition to improve chances for applicants from poorer families, and be more generous to lower-earning graduates. These findings, showing almost two-thirds of party members against Browne’s proposals as they stand, indicate the Lib Dems in the Coalition will have to make significant changes if they are to win over those party members who are persuadable.

  • Over 1,200 Lib Dem paid-up party members are registered with LibDemVoice.org. 567 responded to the latest survey, which was conducted between 13th and 15th October.
  • Please note: we make no claims that the survey is fully representative of the Lib Dem membership as a whole. However, LibDemVoice.org’s surveys are the largest independent samples of the views of Lib Dem members across the country, and have in the past accurately predicted the results of the contest for Party President, and the conference decision to approve the Coalition agreement.
  • The full archive of our members’ surveys can be viewed at www.libdemvoice.org/category/ldv-members-poll