Wednesday, 13 October 2010

The Lib Dems Grow Up

In opposition, it is often easy to forget the realities of government and to produce nice long lists of policies which would be nice to have but which in some way lack realism. When you have been out of government since 1945 this is even easier, and so it came to be for the Liberal Democrats and student tuition fees.

In opposition free university tuition became one of the Liberal Democrats most distinctive policies, a strident declaration of the Lib Dems commitment to fairness, free education and young people. The policy, among others, helped it cultivate a strong presence on university campuses. Yet the policy was not easily workable. University education is incredibly expensive. Free university would have required a major tax rise, substantial cuts to government funding elsewhere or substantial cuts to the number of students in University. None of these is particularly attractive for a government, particularly during difficult economic circumstances. Nonetheless the Liberal Democrats have wedded themselves to this policy, signing NUS pledges and making it a key part of their platform. This was essentially short sighted, and one feels that a certain section of the party realised this. Around the time of the 2009 conference Clegg suggested ditching the policy but he was rebuffed. It is an issue too close to the grassroots heart, an issue that identifies them as Liberal Democrat, an ideological touchstone from which they will not deviate, similar to opposing the EU for the Conservative grassroots (for even if Ken Clarke could promise the world to the Conservative grassroots there has never been any way they would elect someone so pro-European). Now they have to face up to their immovability.

Since the coalition began tuition fees has been the time bomb waiting to go off. Cable has been running around attempting to defuse it, with graduate taxes, partial graduate taxes, variable interest rate loans, in reality these ideas do not provide much of a difference. The terms of the tuition fees system we have are such as to already be a graduate tax of sorts. The whole process of watching Cable trying to find a way to stick to the letter of the Lib Dem pledge not to raise tuition fees, even if they break the spirit, is unedifying, and not at all dissimilar to Labour’s similar excuse that it had not broken the letter of its 2001 manifesto which stated they wouldn’t introduce top-up fees. In the end they voted for them in that very parliament but excused it by saying that the top-up fees would not be introduced until after the next election. It doesn’t matter that the coalition agreement says they can abstain. The electorate will not be fooled by such technicalities and in any case, I am not at all convinced that students find the prospect of paying an extra tax any more attractive than paying a large debt.

Yet hopefully this trial will have a positive effect on the Liberal Democrats. Lib Dem policies matter more than ever before because Lib Dem policies may genuinely be implemented. Experience of the realities of government gives the Lib Dems a new sense of the realism of British politics. They will be stronger because of it. They were a party with only member with ministerial experience: Baroness Shirley Williams, who had been a Labour Party minister in the 1970s. They will leave government with at least 24 members with ministerial experience, a healthy influence on the party that will ground it in the realities of life in government. If the Liberal Democrats are to remain a party of government then never again can they wed themselves to unworkable unfeasible policies like free university tuition, even if they do attract a large number of voters.

The Liberal Democrats are supposed to be a radical progressive party, yet on this issue they became small-c conservatives, opposed to change no matter, wedded to a principle which simply didn't add up. Yes, it may provided voter leverage, but it was not a viable policy and they should have recognised that. Those who come up with Liberal Democrat policy should never allow this to happen again.


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