Two years on from the tuition fees U-turn – what do Lib Dem members think now?

by Stephen Tall on November 13, 2012

Lib Dem Voice polled our members-only forum recently to discover what Lib Dem members think of various political issues, the Coalition, and the performance of key party figures. Some 550 party members have responded, and we’re publishing the full results.

7-in-10 say new fees system is fairer than old


LDV asked: Overall do you think the new tuition fees system introduced by the Coalition Government is fairer or less fair than the system it replaced?

    70% – Fairer
    21% – Less fair
    10% – Don’t know

A substantial majority of Lib Dem members in our survey say the new system introduced by the Coalition is fairer than the fees system it replaced, introduced by Labour.

This finding comes with three important caveats. First, many of those who said it’s fairer than the old system were clear in their comments that they did not believe it was the fairest system possible (although many acknowledged it may have been the fairest that was achievable within the constraints of Coalition). Secondly, many said the way the new fees system had been presented both by the Government and by its opponents meant that, even if it’s fairer, potential students may well still be put off going to university as a result. And thirdly, that regardless of its fairness the Lib Dems are long going to have the millstone of ‘that pledge’ round our necks.

Nonetheless, that 70% of current members reckon the system is fairer suggests that the issue is less about the merits of the policy and more about the politics and perceptions of it. Here’s a sample of your views:

It genuinely doesn’t matter how it’s structured, it is a substantial debt with which to begin life; meanwhile we need more skilled people in order to ensure our economy is viable. A deterrent has been inadvertently created and this is a tragedy.

The new fees are fairer, not that we’ll get any credit. The fact that we pledged to do something then immediately did the opposite has brought our party into disrepute.

Loaded question, it might be more affordable and is probably quite a reasonable system. Fair would depend on your own circumstances.

As someone who will be paying back my future tuition fees under the new system, it looks much better to me!

It’s fairer – but sold very badly. If it had been labelled as a tax, it would have gone down a lot better.

Majority of members say drop commitment to scrap fees

Current Lib Dem policy remains to scrap tuition fees. Some members say this policy should be dropped in advance of the next general election as it will not be seen as credible to the public. Other members say the right to free higher education is a crucial Lib Dem policy and should be retained, even if it is unlikely to be implemented while in Coalition with either the Conservatives or Labour. What is your view?

    51% – I think we should drop the party’s commitment to scrap tuition fees
    43% – I think we should keep the party’s commitment to scrap tuition fees
    6% – Don’t know

A clear but narrow majority (51%) of Lib Dem members in our survey think the party should drop its long-held commitment to scrapping tuition fees in the light of the U-turn on fees within Coalition. However, a very substantial minority (43%) argue the party should keep the commitment. In effect, the party is split on the issue — an issue which will become a major subject for debate at next year’s autumn conference (somewhat ironically being held in Scotland, where the system doesn’t apply and the Lib Dems have maintained the party’s anti-fees stance).

Interestingly, there is very little difference between the views of voting conference representatives and all other party members — if anything, those who are eligible to vote appear to be slightly more inclined to drop the commitment:

Current voting representatives All other party members
I think we should drop the party’s commitment to scrap tuition fees 57% 52%
I think we should keep the party’s commitment to scrap tuition fees 43% 45%
Don’t know 6% 6%

Here’s a sample of your views:

Keep it – BUT, we must make it absolutely clear how it is to be financed AND that we will not be able to implement it unless we have an overall majority. NO PLEDGE

We should replace ‘scrap’ with ‘reduce in the long term, as affordable’. That would be much more credible.

This is the biggest “red line” issue for me: scrapping fees should be our Number 1 priority.

Drop it, though I actually think we should keep it – but doing so would make us look more like idiots than dropping it. It is too difficult to explain. Either way it is going to be an issue.

Definitely drop this. The problem was caused by going into the last election with an unrealistic policy which the leadership tried to change.

Nick Clegg’s apology: 81% say he was right to say sorry, but majority think it’ll make no difference

Before the Lib Dem conference, Nick Clegg apologised for making and then breaking the pledge not to vote for tuition fees. Do you think he was right or wrong to apologise?

    81% – Right to apologise
    15% – Wrong to apologise
    4% – Don’t know

And what impact, if any, do you think Nick Clegg’s apology will have on public perceptions of him?

    32% – It will make it more likely the public will listen to him
    54% – It will make no difference
    10% – It will make it less likely the public will listen to him
    4% – Don’t know

On the downside, more than half (54%) even of Lib Dem members think the apology will make no difference; on the upside, almost one-third (32%) say it might get Nick more of a hearing from the public in the future. Just 1-in-10 think it will have backfired.

What does come across loud and clear in the comments are those who say (1) Nick’s apology should have been for breaking the pledge rather than making it in the first place, and (2) that it was too little, too late. Whether these views are based on personal perceptions, or on the basis of what the public is saying on the doorstep, I’m not sure. Here’s a sample of your views…

He should have explained that the scheme is the graduate tax everyone wanted but described in such a way that is harder for the rich to avoid than tax. He should have explained what progressive means.

It lacked sincerity. Both he and Vince were clearly opposed to Lib Dem policy on this in the first place. They should, however, made it a red line issue in the Coalition Agreement.

I don’t think it made much difference, but was too little, too late. It would have been better to have supported the recent comments about the current scheme costing more by pointing out that it was in fact a good deal for students it was.

I guess right to apologise but the policy on fees is the right one. The massive political problem was the pledge which should never have been made.

I think he would have been damned if and whenever he did, and damned if he didn’t!

  • Over 1,200 Lib Dem paid-up party members are registered with LibDemVoice.org. Some 550 responded to the latest survey, which was conducted between 28th and 31st 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 offered accurate guides to what party members think.
  • For further information on the reliability/credibility of our surveys, please refer to FAQs: Are the Liberal Democrat Voice surveys of party members accurate? and polling expert Anthony Wells’ verdict, On that poll of Lib Dem members.
  • The full archive of our members’ surveys can be viewed at www.libdemvoice.org/category/ldv-members-poll
  • * Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.