What I think about tuition fees (2 of 4): that pledge

by Stephen Tall on November 5, 2010

In yesterday’s post, I explained my support for university tuition fees. Today, I’m going to look at how the Lib Dems got themselves into the pickle we have on the issue.

We just can’t escape that pledge. The pictures are there for all to see on the NUS website, and in this video they splice up what Nick Clegg said before the election (‘An end to broken promises’) with what he’s saying now to devastating effect. For a party that has for a long time claimed to be more honest, more straight-talking — and more often than not rightly so — it’s the bitterest of pills to swallow.

How did it come to this?

Why I have some sympathy for our MPs.

The party campaigned on a fully-costed manifesto that would have seen the abolition of tuition fees. We then lost the election, shedding six seats even as we gained a million votes. We won a little over 23% of the national vote. Labour and the Tories between them — both supportive of tuition fees, both committed to the Browne Review — gained 66%. In terms of a mandate, quite simply the British public did not vote in sufficient numbers to enable the Lib Dems to implement our manifesto. That’s democracy.

The result? Lib Dem MPs are having to negotiate as we go along, trying to make the best compromises achievable to deliver as much as possible. It’s messy, often unsatisfactory, even occasionally humiliating. But it’s absolutely the right thing to be doing, hopefully for the Lib Dems, certainly for the country.

I’ve long believed tuition fees are right. That belief was part of the reason I decided not to pursue parliamentary ambitions within the Lib Dems. Quite simply it would not have been fair on whatever constituency might have selected me if I were publicly opposed to a major plank of the party’s programme for government. And I preferred to speak out than keep schtum about it.

There are more than a handful of Lib Dem MPs who would agree with me that the party’s opposition to tuition fees was wrong-headed… in private. There have been occasional attempts over the years by the leadership to try and relax the party’s view, but they have been swiftly shot down. Opposition to tuition fees is, for many Lib Dem activists, a touchstone issue (as Europe is for Tory activists), and the leadership understandably decided to back down rather than risk a fight with activists which they knew they would lose.

Why I have little sympathy for our MPs.

And yet… Though party policy was unchangeable, it was clear that a hung parliament was a possibility, and that Coalition might result, and that therefore MPs should therefore avoid promising what the public might not give them the power to deliver.

Now I should ‘fess up here to a little hypocrisy. After all, I was one of those who argued loudly before the election that Nick Clegg should rule out any Coalition deal (I gave my mea culpa here). Had Nick followed my advice and done so, he would have been guilty much, much earlier of breaking a pledge. I think it’s fair to say that all of us have learned a lot from the last, six tumultuous months.

But, to me, the NUS pledge was symptomatic of the party’s occasionally opportunistic oppositional mindset — we never expected to have power, and so we didn’t behave as if we ever would.

True, our manifesto was fully-costed, in the limited sense that we had allowed enough tax rises to offset the abolition of tuition fees over six years. But we had identified only 25% of the public spending cuts needed to cut the deficit; better than any other party, yet still nowhere near enough to balance the nation’s budget. Weighed against that priority, eradicating tuition fees was always an unaffordable luxury — and we knew that well enough before the election.

Well, now we’re paying the price of not really expecting we’d find ourselves in power. Perhaps the events of the past two months will be largely forgotten in five years’ time… after all, I recall the vitriol directed against the Lib Dems after Charles Kennedy was forced from the leadership in 2006, the damage that fiasco did to the party’s brand among the wider public. Yet we had recovered by 2010.

If they’re not forgotten… well, we’ve only ourselves to blame for putting party priorities ahead of the public’s priorities. That’s what hapens when parties bend to their activists and stop listening to the public.

Tomorrow: What I think about tuition fees (3 of 4): the politics of it all