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

by Stephen Tall on November 6, 2010

In the first part of this quartet, I exlained why I supported tuition fees. Yesterday, I looked at that pledge. Today, here are my brief thoughts on the politics of it all.

No-one can doubt the internal carnage the Lib Dems’ tuition fees U-turn has inflicted on the party, either the morale of its members or its reputational integrity among the wider public. The key question is: was any of it avoidable?

As I see it, there were three ways the party could have dodged the bullet. Let’s look at each in turn…

1) The party could have not gone into Coalition with the Conservatives, or could have tried to hold the party line in the Coalition Agreement.

Well, I’m not going to rehearse the ‘Why it was right for the Lib Dems to go into coalition’ arguments again. Broadly speaking, it seems the Coaltion is very popular among party members, and not unpopular among the general public.

Could the party have negotiated a better deal with the Tories in May? Well, anything’s possible, I guess. But let’s recall, that at the time the party signed-up to coalition a stonking 95% of Lib Dem members reckoned the negotiating team had done an effective job.

Moreover, tuition fees were recognised as a specially delicate issue for the party, with the possibility of abstention for Lib Dem MPs specifically written into the Coalition Agreement — an Agreement backed by an overwhelming majority of party members.

Could the party realistically have expected more, given Lib Dems were the only one of the three main parties to oppose tuition fees? I don’t think so.

2) Vince Cable could have declined to take on the job at all, or should have passed the buck to his Conservative higher education minister.

If we couldn’t have Vince as Chancellor, and Vince couldn’t stomach being George Osborne’s deputy as chief secretary, then Business, Innovation and Skills was the only other natural fit for Vince. But with that portfolio came a poisoned chalice: responsibility for responding to the Browne Review.

Perhaps he could have ducked it. Perhaps he could have handed it to David Willetts to deal with. But it would have looked more than a little odd to delegate responsibility for such an important issue to a Tory, as if the Lib Dems were trying to shirk the tricky decisions that are an inevitable part of government.

The party could have sat on its hands and abstained, all the time putting on an air of moral superiority for refusing to dirty its hands with the sordid business of English higher education funding. I don’t think such a decision would have earned much gratitude from students, nor much respect from the general public.

No, the only realistic option open to Vince was to get stuck in and try and carve out the best and fairest deal possible. This he believes he has achieved, ensuring students from the 30% of poorest backgrounds will be better off than under the current system. Anyone who seriously thinks that a Tory, even as civilised a Tory as David Willetts, would have produced a scheme with some form of progressive funding system built in is delusional.

In my view, Vince did the best that could have been realistically expected of him on behalf of the party and its tuition fees policy.

3) The party could have better communicated to Lib Dem members and the general public how and why it has taken the decisions it has.

My reading of what happened once Vince decided to try and make the best of the poor hand he’d been dealt — negotiating a fair deal for students against the background of massive deficit reduction and a sizeable chunk of party activists clamouring for the party to stick to its manifesto commitment — is that he committed himself wholly to getting the job done.

He immersed himself in it, became absorbed in the detail, and in finding a compromise that would be acceptable to both the Tories and the Lib Dems. I spent six years in a hung council, and I understand how this happens… you get your head down, and you focus on the task at hand, and on delivering the best (or least worst) deal.

I think Vince just forgot to look up.

He forgot to recognise that the party faithful was relying on wily old Vince to do the impossible: reach a compromise, continue to fund a world-class higher education system, protect science and research from devastating cuts, contribute to eliminating the deficit, allow the Lib Dems to save face. Vince failed to live up to the impossible task that we set him, but how could he have succeeded? He couldn’t.

But for too long, far too long, Vince allowed us to think that he could. He allowed us to believe there was a magic wand that would solve all our problems.

As a result, the disappointment when it arrived was that much more crushing for those party members who had invested in the Lib Dems’ tuition fees pledge, who regard it as totemic of all they hold dear about the party. A little more frankness, a little sooner, would have helped.

Would it, though, have avoided the car-crash of the last few weeks? That’s too optimistic, I think.

We have been brought up short by the reality of coalition politics: the abolition of tuition fees is of massive importance to Lib Dems, of lesser importance to the general public. The harsh truth is, the party’s policy was never going to survive being in coalition.

The harsher truth is, it would never have survived us being in government on our own either.