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Sunday, 14 November 2010

Now they are six: tell us what coalition really means

The Coalition Government is six months old. And this week has perhaps been the toughest week of the coalition so far for the Liberal Democrats.

Nick Clegg’s stand-in act at Prime Minister’s Questions coincided horribly with a student protest against tuition fees that turned ugly and violent outside the Tories’ London HQ. Clegg was forced into a squirming justification of ditching a cast-iron pledge to do away with tuition fees in favour of a policy that will see the overall cap on tuition fees rise from £6,000 to £9,000. And for him and each of his MPs that signed a pledge not to increase tuition fees during the election campaign, it’s all feeling decidedly awkward.

For 70 years a party of opposition, less generously – a party of protest, it must come as an almighty shock to be at the receiving end of such vociferous protest. And all the harder for it to be from part of your core vote. For election after election, the Lib Dems have courted the student vote. Electoral success for them has been all about incremental progress, of wooing specific types of voter – students, building the South West strongholds of Somerset and Cornwall, those opposed to Iraq and the liberal public sector.

Wednesday’s attack on Tory HQ may have grabbed the headlines, but the anger of most of the 50,000 strong student demonstration was directed at the Lib Dems. You gave an empty promise, and you let us down.

The Lib Dem’s tuition fees pledge was not wise. It was a hangover from a party still wired up for protest politics, chirping from the safety of third party opposition, and not one of a party expecting to be in government. The Tories and Labour made no commitments whatsoever on tuition fees – both pledging to wait for the Browne Review and then decide. The Lib Dems went for it, pledging to phase out tuition fees altogether in 6 years. Bold, myopic, stupid? Probably a bit of all three, but then many a party has foolishly stuck to a policy that its core vote is rather keen on.

But the 2010 election was not any election for the Lib Dems. There was a strong chance of a hung parliament – this blog was predicting that outcome as far back as March, well before the manifestoes were published. The Lib Dem manifesto should have been checked and checked again for future U-turn clangers. In fairness to Clegg, he did try and water down the commitment to abolishing tuition fees at his party conference in 2009. Clegg is not the first Lib Dem leader to feel shackled by the socks and sandles brigade, but he is perhaps the leader who feels it most acutely.

So much for the tactics, what of the policy? I have always happened to believe that tuition fees are right. I do not subscribe to the view that university should be free for all. Our universities are horrendously underfunded. University lecturers are disgracefully underpaid. And our universities are struggling to compete internationally – there are only five British universities in the world’s top 50 universities – which they must do to retain British innovation in research and developing our brightest talent for the future. How tuition fees are levied then becomes the question – and the compromise that has arisen out of the Browne Review is as good an answer as I’ve seen.

Much has been made of the progressive nature of the proposals. It has allowed Clegg to say he has retained his progressive ambition on fees, an unconvincing act of considerable political contortionism. The proposals are more progressive, and the raising of the salary threshold at which repayment starts (from £15,000 to £21,000) is a significant move. There is a rather bizarre policy to penalise students who repay early with a 5% levy charged on higher repayments that I frankly don’t understand. It strikes me as fair to repay the education that you’ve had, much less fair to be charged extra for paying off your debt more quickly.

The rise in the threshold is to be welcomed, but £21,000 is still a wage that can be difficult to live on – especially in London – so I think there is scope for that threshold to be higher. But it is still fairer than the current system where students on £15,000 in London are being whacked as soon as they graduate. Some credit needs to go to the Lib Dems for this progressive element, but let’s not cheer too loudly – Browne himself proposed this and this recommendation is simply being adopted.

Other elements of the proposal are good – more help for part time students and an increase in some maintenance grants – but they’re being cheered rather more loudly given the government’s need for the Lib Dems to be able to claim some influence here.

What we have is a reasonable proposition for making university students contribute financially to the education they receive. The overall goal of which should be to have higher quality, better funded universities. But the government is yet to be clear about whether the hikes in fees will actually just be changing the source of funding from the Exchequer to funding by students. This reform needs to be about more than who pays for universities, and more about the level of funding they receive. The Government has so far been evasive about the level of cuts in direct funding for higher education from the Exchequer. It is fair to expect students to make a contribution to their education. It is not fair for the government then to be off the hook and for its own contribution to shrink to insignificant levels as a result. These proposals need to be accompanied by a significant and targeted government commitment to funding higher education from the Exchequer.

Onto the tactics. To the cries that the Lib Dems have sold out and signed up to a Tory policy, Clegg did rather well at PMQs. It is quite different for the second party in a coalition government (to be clear, one whose manifesto didn’t win an election) to abandon an election pledge as a result of comprise coalition politics, as opposed to a party that won an election by over a hundred seats and then ratted on its pledge. Lib Dem MPs, whatever their division on this policy, should sock it to Labour for having broken their own promises in 1997 and 2001 on university funding when it had thumping majorities. That they did so was a cast-iron breaking of a manifesto commitment by a majority government based on political calculation - a democratic betrayal. The fact that the Lib Dems cannot implement every part of their manifesto as a junior partner in coalition is of a quite different nature, and we should say so more unitedly, more often and more loudly. As the new Lib Dem President, Tim Farron, has said, the Lib Dem manifesto became a negotiating document with the Tories – not a blueprint for government that the Lib Dems could hold to.

So, what next? I think it was wrong of the Lib Dems to include the pledge to abolish fees in the 2010 manifesto – ham-fisted politically and just wrong on policy terms. In backtracking on something they should never have promised, they need to salvage what dignity they can from seriously pissing off a large proportion of their core vote. Three things need to happen.

· David Cameron needs to throw Nick Clegg a lifeline, and spell out in greater detail what coalition government is and how it works. No more vagueness on “new politics”, a country unused to the sharing of power in national politics needs to hear a clear narrative on why a coalition is different, that sacrifices need to be made on both sides as the two parties compromise and agree – and he needs to demonstrate that the Tories are taking hits as well.

· Nick Clegg needs to develop more of a Lib Dem thrust to the coalition. If it looks like the Lib Dems have just become an annex of the Tories, they will be decimated at the next election on two fronts. If the government is unpopular – they will be whacked. If they seem like Tories – they will become irrelevant (why vote for the Lib Dems if they’re “just the Tories”. And if they fail to be a distinctive progressive voice, Labour will be able to camp solidly and attractively on Lib Dem territory and pick up plenty of Lib Dem votes. Clegg himself needs to understand that coalition politics cannot be explained with vacuous phrases such as “new politics”. His key message for the next five years needs to be what the Lib Dems are adding to this Coalition Government. And once he has that message he needs to say it repeatedly.

· The Lib Dems need to cash in on the Coalition Agreement that allowed Lib Dem MPs to abstain in the Commons vote on fees. Better still, allow a free vote amongst Lib Dem MPs so they’re not seen just to be sitting on their hands (as dangerous as them voting for fees and reneging on their pledges). Allow a free vote, and let Clegg, Cable and Alexander work their socks off to persuade as many Lib Dem MPs as possible to vote for the proposals.

Six months old this week, the coalition needs to learn some lessons this week. The policy is, I believe, the right one. But the tactics of coalition government are not there yet. Both the Lib Dems and the Tories need to move fast to develop a deeper coalition narrative on how it operates and explain how the way it operates allows the Lib Dems to be a distinctive force within that coalition. Then, Nick Clegg, go on and show that distinctive force at work. If not, we risk losing not just our core vote – but the reason why we exist.

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