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Wednesday, 1 December 2010

A free vote on fees is the only way forward

I don't usually blog on the same topic so regularly. But the tuition fees "dilemma" for the Liberal Democrats is becoming a touchstone issue for the coalition and its junior partner. It is a key test of whether power sharing is workable, an argument crucial to winning next May's referendum on a fairer voting system. Yet today, there is still uncertainty over how Lib Dem Ministers and backbench Lib Dem MPs will vote on tuition fees - in short whether Government Ministers will back Government policy. Shouldn't be up for debate, should it?

I've uncovered a bit more of what the Secretary of State responsible for Universities, Vince Cable actually said yesterday - and it's pretty shocking. Asked how he would vote, Cable said:

"If we all abstain, then that is the position I am happy to go along with... there is an option that we all abstain together and we are considering that. My own personal instincts, partly because I am the Secretary of State responsible for universities and partly because I think the policy is right are very much to vote for it. But we have got to vote as a group, collectively, and we are discussing how we do that".

Not good enough. This is not the kind of grown up, decisive leadership you would expect of a Government Minister in charge of delivering a key policy reform. If you adopt something as policy, you believe in it. If you believe in it, you argue passionately to persuade those who do not and to bring them on board. Every day that passes with senior Lib Dems hedging their bets, the more it sounds as if Lib Dems have reluctantly gone along with a policy they do not really support. You only need to look at Gordon Brown's premiership to see how damaging it is to dither whilst you wait to see which way the political wind is blowing.

Thankfully, some Lib Dems are talking sense. Lord Willis, former Higher Education spokesperson for the party, today said this on the Today programme:

"The reality is that either we bite the bullet and believe that the proposals are the ones to take us forward in terms of higher education or we don't. They do take us forward and it's time the Liberal Democrats now simply got on board and said, 'Well, let us back them; let us sell them'".

This is absolutely right. But a decision needs to be made fast. Looking at the detail of the Coalition Agreement, abstention does not seem to be an option. It says that Lib Dems can abstain "if the response of the Government to Lord Browne’s report is one that Liberal Democrats cannot accept". But the response to the Government is one that Liberal Democrat Ministers have accepted, so they cannot exercise any right to abstain.

It's a moment for decisive leadership. Lib Dem Ministers need to say they wholeheartedly endorse the proposals and will vote in favour. They then need to say that they will offer a free vote, as some sources are suggesting, for Lib Dem backbench MPs. And then strongly sell the policy to get as many to vote for it as possible. There is no point whipping the party into a ridiculous position that then requires an act of political contortionism to maintain, as Nick Clegg did on the Lib Dem position on the EU constitution referendum.

Mass abstention will be seen as a cowardly derelection of duty by the already disenfranchised students and by the wider public who expect Lib Dems to be constructive partners in coalition government. The only way forward is for a free vote on fees - and for Lib Dem MPs to at least vote boldly as decision-makers. For or against. I believe they should vote for the fees package. But they should at least make a decision - sitting on the fence is not an option.

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