In the wake of the Browne report, I felt that Nick Clegg, Vince Cable and Lib Dem ministers should have stuck to the coalition agreement and, at the very least, abstained on the issue of tuition fees.
I wrote a personal letter to Nick Clegg on the issue and in it, I wrote:
For me, the overriding theme of this year’s election was public distrust of politicians. If we go back on our pledge to vote against any rise in tuition fees, we risk convincing everyone that we are no better than other politicians. Fundamentally it is an issue of trust.
Our shift on policy from scrapping tuition fees, to phasing them out, to voting against a rise in this parliament, is pragmatic given economic conditions. To accept a major rise in tuition fees, is a massive change in our policy.
Why negotiate an opt-out to abstain in the Coalition Agreement, only to abandon it without consulting our MPs and the wider party?
In yesterday’s post for the Lib Dem Voice, Jo Swinson went some way to answering my concerns:
Of course, in the coalition agreement Liberal Democrats had negotiated an opt-out – an opportunity to abstain on the issue. We could have left it to the Conservatives to present plans for unlimited fees, with no regard for a progressive payment system, and no requirements for top universities to do better on access for poorer students. Instead, we got involved to make a Liberal Democrat difference, and create a fairer system. That’s what Vince had delivered.
Faced with the prospect of unlimited fees from the Browne report. Lib Dem ministers were faced with an impossible choice. Abstain or rebel, in futility, to see unlimited fees imposed. Or renege on their NUS pledges to get the best deal possible. Not a very good deal, admittedly, but the best deal that could be achieved given the Browne report and Conservative and Labour policy.
Were there any alternatives?
Stick to the coalition agreement and abstain: Conservatives would have implemented the Browne Report in full, with no cap on fees and no concessions for poorer students.
Rebel and vote against the proposals: Conservatives and Labour push through the Browne Report in full, with no cap on fees and no concessions for poorer students. Conservative MPs would derail Liberal Democrat policies in parliament. Either the Lib Dems limp to next general election as a weak, ineffective coalition partner or the coalition collapses with Lib Dems getting the blame for not sticking to the agreement.
Negotiate a rejection of the Browne report, or at least water it down more: How would we fund that from Lib Dem spending priorities? Cut the pupil premium? £10k income tax threshold? Green Deal? Child Benefit for 16-18 year olds? The AV referendum is not an option; it will not save any money.
Negotiate a better position in the Coalition Agreement: The uncapped fees suggestion in the Browne Report was fairly unexpected. The general consensus was that the coalition agreement was a major victory for the Lib Dems. Getting a better deal on tuition fees would have required foresight into Browne’s proposals and giving up on some of our other policies. Areas where we got the least concessions were where Labour agreed with Conservatives, so they did not need our support to get their way. Voting reform, Trident and tuition fees are the best examples of this.
Spin the Browne report: Imagine if instead of saying, “no upfront tuition fees”, we had said that we are scrapping tuition fees and replacing it with a graduate contribution. The level of graduate contribution can be decided by Universities. Remainder the same as yesterday’s announcement. That could actually have worked, with detractors having to work hard to explain this is the same as tuition fees, instead of forcing us to explain “no upfront fees”. Frankly, we should have done this, much as I hate spin.
Do not sign up to NUS pledge: This would have required amazing foresight into the Browne Report, General Election results and Coalition negotiations. The NUS pledge was actually a weakening of our policy from phasing out tuition fees, which was controversial enough, to only committing to not increasing them.
Maintain central government university funding, but decrease the number of University places, as proposed by Duncan Borrowman: I largely agree with the sentiment of Duncan’s post. However his suggestion that there be more vocational post school training still has to be funded. At just £55 per week for those on modern apprenticeships, that is almost £3,000 per year. Whilst that is less than funding a University place, the savings will not be that great and it is not clear that central funding for this would be sustainable either.
Nick Clegg and Vince Cable have been accused of being sell-outs, traitors, “Tories” and been called on to resign. Today those slurs have spread to Jo Swinson. Lib Dem members and activists throwing around those insults should be ashamed of themselves.
When I felt strongly that Nick and Vince had got this decision wrong, I wrote a private letter and only stated a simple re-affirment of my NUS pledge. I wish many of my colleagues had done the same, rather than wash our dirty linen quite so publicly.
Some of those accusing Nick Clegg of being a “Tory” point to his desire to ditch our tuition fees policy before the election. They say that the way he has embraced the Browne report is a demonstration that he always wanted to raise fees and is using the state of the economy as an excuse to get his way.
The reality is, I think, that Nick and Vince have felt for quite some time that the tuition fees policy is unsustainable. They have not been able to convince the wider party of this and were left with our policy to fund anyway. Even the switch to phasing out tuition fees was seen as a betrayal. Having reviewed everything above, I wonder whether the party should have listened to what they were saying and we might have avoided the current situation.
The abuse being hurled at Jo Swinson today is pretty disgusting. Faced with the alternatives above, Jo could simply have kept quiet and followed the ministerial line and let Nick and Vince take the flak. Instead she has stuck her head above the parapet and tried to explain the position. That requires a tremendous amount of courage.
Are Nick, Vince and Jo sell outs? Toxic Tories in disguise? Or are they realistic, feet on the ground politicians trying to make the most of an impossibly difficult situation? Given everything else I know about the three of them, I feel the latter is far, far, more likely.
If I have interpreted the situation and the motivations correctly, not only are they faced with an impossible decision, they are not free to explain it the way I have above, beyond the paragraph I’ve quoted from Jo’s post.
So the question I have for fellow Liberal Democrats, is what would you do if you were in the same position as our ministers? Would you choose integrity and principles to retain trust in the party, but sacrifice any hope of provisions for poorer students in Government Higher Education policy? Or would you try to salvage something for poorer student from the wreckage of the Browne report and Tory and Labour policy and sacrifice your NUS pledge?
My answer? Frankly, I am struggling to answer. However, I realise that I have more admiration, sympathy and respect for Jo, Vince and particularly Nick now, than I did even at the height of the “I Agree With Nick” and #NIckCleggsFault roller coaster during the election.