What a mess.
I’ve not been blogging much lately, but watching today’s events unfold, and the vitriol being expressed by some of the opponents of the government, I thought I might as well put some thoughts together, if only as an aid to my own thought process.
Where to start?
The Policy Itself
Personally, I have never felt entirely comfortable with the party’s stance on tuition fees. Yes, I would like a university education to be free, and I think that the increasing casting of the decision to go to university or not in terms of a cost-benefit anaylsis for the student is rather sad and will lead to the decline of people studying subjects in which they have no intention of pursuing a career – a trend for which our country will be all the poorer (and less liberal, as I understand the concept).
However, I have always thought that the criticism of tuition fees as a “crippling” debt was overblown, and would contribute more to any discouragement felt by prospective students than anything the policy itself might have done. Yes, there is a cost to graduates which was not incurred by previous generations, and there is therefore an issue of intergenerational equity here, but to call it a “debt” is disingenuous to my mind. This is not a debt in the sense that most people generally use the word. No bailiffs are going to turn up on your doorstep if you can’t pay it. Vince Cable, in his speech a few months back which was so widely trailed as advocating a graduate tax, made the point eloquently enough that
We currently have what is misleadingly called a system of ‘tuition fees’. Many people believe, wrongly that when students arrive at university they or their parents are required to get out their chequebooks, or wallets, and pay more than £3000 for a year’s tuition.
The idea that students are repelled from higher education by fees owes much to this erroneous belief.
In reality of course most students meet these costs by taking a student loan, payable direct from income after graduation when earning a reasonable salary. In this sense, we already have a form of graduate tax.
In this sense what students are being “saddled” with is not so much a debt as a future tax obligation, albeit quite a personalised and very specifically hypothecated tax. We shouldn’t pretend that that isn’t significant, and nor do I even dissent from the view that it is undesirable. What I do not accept is that there should be any differential in the proportions of prospective students who are put off by the policy who come from poorer or more affluent backgrounds. To suggest that there would be seems to me to require the corollary belief that students from poorer backgrounds are less able to rationally weigh up the benefits to their future of going to university.
Of course there are problems with the repayment system, and Vince has correctly identified these and sensibly addressed many of them. The bottom line, then, is that this is an undesirable policy, but not because it is an “attack on poorer students” or any of the other rather overheated rhetoric which we have seen from some of the more ideologically motivated opponents of the government today.
People like the NUS, who are now busy telling everyone, future students included, that students from poorer backgrounds will not be able to go to university in the future, could be helping to create exactly the chilling effect on social mobility they claim to fear. If anything is going to put people off going to university, it is the perception they might form from statements like these, and in this case it is indeed fair to suggest that the effect may well be greater for people who do not have immediate examples from their own lives of peers and members of their own families who were able to go to university and have not been ruined financially by it.
Where the Lib Dems went wrong
The problem with criticising such overheated rhetoric, of course, is that the Lib Dems bear much of the responsibility for feeding it in times gone by. When it suited us, we used exactly the same sort of language about tuition fees. Yes, we were right to oppose tuition fees, and we still are. When the economy is in better shape, I still hope, as difficult as it will be, that it will be possible to see some of the proceedsdecision is not in much danger of changing. of growth used to return to free university education. But we were never right to describe student debts as “crippling” or any other form of words which might have suggested to people thinking of going to university that they couldn’t afford it. They could. They still can. This isn’t about whether or not people can afford to do it. It’s about whether they will want to or not, and for what reasons.
So I’ve never thought that what the party was saying on fees was particularly sensible, though I do support the party policy of favouring a free university education. In many ways, much of the opprobrium we are reaping today we sewed ourselves when it was us attacking the Labour Party on the issue.
Of course, the other component of that opprobrium is the fact that we signed the NUS pledges. Yes, it is possible to argue, as Duncan Hames did today, that we have not reneged on this pledge because we have indeed “pressure[d] the government to introduce a fairer alternative” (the second half of the pledge, and curiously the bit that tends to be omitted when people quote it back to us now), but the point is academic and frankly will not butter many parsnips with most voters. Given the likelihood of a hung parliament, in retrospect it is astonishing that the party doesn’t seem to have been more wary of such an obvious hostage to fortune, particularly when many of the party’s front bench clearly had their doubts over the feasibility of moving away from fees in this parliament.
Having made that mis-step, however, is there an argument that the party should have gone through with it and stuck to its guns while the coalition agreement was being negotiated? To my mind, not really. To secure this, we would have had to use up much of our leverage, which we used instead to achieve the key priorities (“the four fairnesses”) which we had campaigned on. We would rightly have been derided as a middle class special interest group, consigning areas of government spending like apprenticeships to harsher cuts as a consequence. We might have been able to keep a promise, but if that meant abandoning some of the movement on the £10,000 personal allowance, a greener economy, political reform and the pupil premium, the accusations of “Yellow Toryism” would have been much more accurate. As a post-script, however, whoever thought that the permission to abstain was going to help anything had clearly not been getting much sleep. With the benefit of hindsight it has only served to cloud the defence that “this is a coalition, and we have had to compromise”.
Finally, having reached the point we did today, should more of our MPs have voted to defeat the government? No. I understand why many of them felt that they couldn’t go back on a promise they made their constituents, but even if doing so had not brought down the government, it would certainly have been a license for the Tory backbenches to defeat those areas of policy which they don’t like so much. Once you agree a coalition platform, you can’t pick and choose which bits to support.
Where do we go from here?
There is every reason to think that this decision should be by far the most toxic for us in the coalition. There may be further unpopular decisions, reversing manifesto commitments, coming down the pipe, but the argument that we didn’t win the election is quite legitimate. The Tories promised to jail anyone caught carrying a knife, which they have now abandoned, which was met with not-quite-comparable levels of criticism. The problem with the tuition fees vote was the separate pledge all our candidates signed as individuals. We haven’t, to my knowledge, made any such ill-advised promises on any other subjects, so any future issue, whilst it might be disappointing, should be by no means as damaging.
At least that’s the theory. The problem with that is that we have allowed a frame to be attached to the Lib Dems in the coalition, which says that we are simply liars who will say anything for a sniff of power. Superficially, it is convincing; we are in government, but much of what we said before the election isn’t happening. It requires a bit of calm, rational explanation to point out that a coalition requires compromise, we didn’t actually win the election, and so on. If every little thing from here onwards becomes another “betrayal”, we will be in trouble. So every compromise needs to be rationalised and explained. We must fight the betrayal narrative hard, before it sticks.
Can you see where this is going?
What this means is that the Clegg strategy of “owning” the coalition must end. We cannot simultaneously position ourselves as rational compromisers whilst simultaneously sounding overjoyed at everything the coalition does.
I suppose I should conclude by saying that, although I can think of many days when I’ve felt more proud to be a member of this party, I’m not about to rip up my membership card or storm off in a huff. That might not be too surprising given that I’m not as upset about tuition fees as some in the party. Nonetheless, the deficiencies of our presentational strategy whilst in the coalition have meant that the thought has crossed my mind. I always immediately dismiss the idea, though. Why? I can do no better than to repeat what Jae tweeted earlier: “Join the Labour party? I’d rather be waterboarded (which I’m sure they’d arrange gladly).”
My involvement in politics has always been based primarily on a belief in the importance of engaging rather than whining from the sidelines, and consequently on choosing whichever party I most agreed with and fighting for it, whilst also pushing within it for the things most important to me. Whilst that process leads me to the Lib Dems, I will remain a Lib Dem. Until the Green party becomes less obsessed with unelectably daft ideas and quite a lot of woo, or until the Labour party get a whole lot less authoritarian and tribal, or the Tories become much less of a special-interest group for the rich and for big business, that state of affairs is not in much danger of changing.
At the end of the day, the coalition has still yet to launch an illegal war leading to thousands of unnecessary deaths.