Thursday, 9 December 2010

How not to break a promise…

As the long awaited vote on the increase in Tuition fees is just hours away I thought it would be nice to have a look and see if the Liberal Democrats could have avoided their car crash. No matter how their MPs vote, or what the result is, the damage has already been done. In fact, the problem was unavoidable from the moment the coalition agreement was signed. The Lib Dems were always going to struggle to reconcile their opposition to tuition fees with the reality of working with either of the larger parties in a coalition. But could they have made this inevitable betrayal less painful? To a degree, yes. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and with it I'm sure Nick Clegg would have done things a bit differently. Whilst you're waiting for the vote here are three things the Lib Dems could have done to stop themselves looking quite so silly

1.) Don't make a promise you can't keep!

It sounds quite obvious but I'm sure we've all done it. And to be fair to the Liberal Democrats it wasn't a promise they couldn't keep. If they were in opposition then I have no doubt the Lib Dem MPs would be falling over each to get into the NO lobby. Equally, if they managed to get an outright majority they may well have managed to abolish tuition fees as part of a wider radical overhaul of Government spending priorities. Of course, the reality is that they are the junior partner in a coalition Government. It seems quite bizarre that despite the fact they were the most prepared for a hung parliament they didn't adequately address the fact both potential coalition partners were committed to the Browne Review recommendations and were almost certainly going to raise fees during this Parliament. To be fair to Clegg he tried to drop the policy at the 2009 conference, citing the financial situation as the reason an immediate repeal would not be possible.

"Ending tuition fees would cost billions of pounds every year - we need to be certain we can afford it before we make any promises"

The motion was defeated thanks largely to the policy's popularity among party activists. The fact the thought was there makes the following mistake even more bizarre…

2.) Don't make a big deal about the promise you can't keep!

The leadership clearly knew they wouldn't be able to keep their policy to scrap tuition fees if they entered into a coalition so why on earth did all 57 Liberal Democrat MPs sign the pledge?! Clearly there will some among them who would oppose any rise and they will rebel in tonight's vote. But there must have been more than a couple of Lib Dems who were not ideologically opposed to raising fees, knew a hung parliament was a distinct possibility and knew that this pledge could not be kept if they went into coalition. The man pictured is the obvious, but not the only, example.

The likely reason behind the now infamous pledge is that a refusal would have caused a short term stir during an election campaign. The question would have been asked - 'why are a party with a manifesto promise to abolish tuition fees refusing to sign a pledge not to raise them during the next Parliament.' It certainly wouldn't have been an easy side step for the Lib Dems, but they could have advanced the argument made by Clegg above – we can't be certain that it's affordable. It would have been a calculated risk but considering the other two major parties supported the last fee rise they would hardly have lost their student support competely. Essentially the Lib Dems were outmanoeuvred by Labour's youth team the NUS. At the time the pledge was made many were waking up to the very real possibility that a Conservative led coalition with the Lib Dems would form the next Government. The NUS campaign ensured that either their interests would be represented in the negotiations or they would have a number of very incriminating photographs…

3.) When you have decided to break the promise you couldn't keep, stick to your guns!

Now here's the bit the Liberal Democrats have really shot themselves in the foot. Having made the first two mistakes and then entered a coalition Government they had two choices available to them on tuition fees. They could let the Tories draft the legislation and then abstain or they could get involved with the design but make it as fair as possible. I feel they made the right choice here by accepting the challenge to implement the Browne review. They went astray when they tried to have it both ways.

Vince Cable has presented a bill which I have no doubt would have been fairer than any Conservative legislation, and even fairer than anything a Labour Government would have offered. Instead of talking up that fact, Cable designed the most Lib Dem friendly bill possible under the circumstances, and then he contemplated not actually voting for it! As Paul Goodman argues, Clegg can cope with be being hated so long as he isn't seen as ridiculous. Unfortunately he is, along with his party, very close to being both. They have so comprehensively lost the PR battle on this that no matter how they all vote tonight it will be spun against them. They'll be a split party, a party who can't keep their word, a party who can't make up their mind… Probably all three; and more! Even if they all 57 MPs had a change of heart and stuck to their pledge they'd just be seen as caving in under the public pressure.

The real irony in all this is that their lost support is heading straight to a party who did exactly the same thing. The students on the streets today shouldn't need a degree in History to remember that in 2001 the Labour Party vowed not to introduce top-up fees and then in 2004 they did. It could be argued that what Labour did was actually far worse as they won 413 seats with this promise in their manifesto, where as the Liberal Democrats netted barely an eighth of that in May. What Blair and co. (Alan Johnson in particular) were very successful at seven years ago was sticking to their decision, and then ramming the argument down their opponents' throats. They may have broken promises but Labour knew how to run the country, and they were prepared to take unpopular positions if they thought they were right.

A couple of months ago Chris wrote an article arguing that this issue gave the Liberal Democrats a chance to 'grow-up' and move from a party of opposition to one of Government. I think it is safe to say that they have utterly failed to take this opportunity. Nigel Lawson once said 'to govern is to choose…to appear to be unable to choose is to appear to be unable to govern' (H/T Iain Dale). In the long term the fact the Liberal Democrats have appeared unable to govern will hurt them just as much, if not more, than the fact they broke a promise.


  1. Nothing good about this for the Lib Dems. Not only is Clegg spineless, without the convictions he always talks about, but even when acting 'politically' he doesn't know what to do. He's alienated his core voters to boot. The significant thing about this is the power structure behind the coalition - when the Conservatives say jump, the Lib Dems are obliged to ask 'how high'?, even on high ranking issues in their manifesto! This was always going to be the case, which always surprised me as to why Clegg was so enthusiastic about placing his political career and party's future into the hands of the Conservatives. I can only stand by my prediction that the Liberal Democrats will be a broken party in decline once this political term is over, and if Alternative Vote isn't delivered -- what was it all for?

  2. There was a fourth solution - that was to negotiate a bit harder in the final stages. The scheme could have been a different mix of graduate tax and fees - with student repayments going into a capitation fund rather than to fees. Cable struck a good business-like deal but it was Clegg's job to get the politics right and he showed his inexperience in coalition politics.

  3. I actually have to disagree with that Anonymous. I think the Lib Dems negotiated as hard as they could (in fact I think they out negotiated both other parties) but that the party leadership never made tuition fees a real priority.

    During the election campaign they continually harped on about four electoral priorities: a pupil premium, raising the tax threshold to 10k, political reform and green investment to create green jobs. When it got to the coalition negotiations all four of these pledges were more or less fulfilled, some were watered down, but all are, in some form or another, in the coalition agreement.

    Meanwhile tuition fees gets a glib mention about the ability to abstain. This is after Clegg tried to drop the policy in 2009. I'm going to be honest here - I simply don't believe that the Lib Dem negotiating team and the party leadership ever planned on making tuition fees a priority. Leaked internal documents from their pre-election prep backs this up (see: Frankly I don't think Clegg and the party leadership saw tuition fees as a workable policy and thus sought to abandon it, with the abstention clause thrown into the coalition agreement to throw a bone at the policy. I think they, foolishly, underestimated the feeling that still exists about about coalition fees, the feeling in the party and the eventual size of the opposition against them. That doesn't make them bad negotiators, it makes them fools. If they were to have four pledges than tuition fees should have replaced one of them and should have been a red line. The reality is that the party leadership appears to have never seen it as a red line, which was a gigantic mistake.