18 October 2010

First, look at this. It is a film of Nick Clegg, the Libdem leader, promising the party will vote against a rise in tuition fees for university students.

Clegg video

Did you catch the bit where he said, “I believe it’s time for promises to be kept”? And “We will resist, vote against, campaign against any lifting of the cap” on fees?

The Libdem promise on tuition fees before the general election was unmistakable, inflexible, crystal clear and with no get-out clause. I’m not here looking at how we should best pay for university education but only at a very clear party promise that was made and that is now to be broken.

Making the promise
Around the general election the National Union of Students (NUS) organised a pledge among parliamentary candidates about these tuition fees. It read: “I pledge to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament…”

Libdem candidates signed as did many Labour and other candidates. There is a list of the signatories here (Full vote for students list).

The Libdems did not merely promise to vote against increasing fees. They made a public show of it, physically signing, many being photographed – and the NUS has the photos to show us. That probably went down well among student voters and their families.

Breaking the promise
The details have not been worked out yet but following the Browne Report
the Tory Libdem government is intent on abolishing or significantly raising the present cap on tuition fees (£3290) and thus allowing universities to increase these fees. It was the Libdem business secretary who told parliament. Fees are likely at least to double to £7000 a year and possibly more. Future students from Cornwall and future students at Falmouth university college are going to be affected.

The official explanation for this volteface is the financial situation. Unfortunately for the Libdems the difficulties of the UK were known before the election; the Libdem explanation won’t do. In fact the financial position turned out to be better than the forecast.

Of course it might well be unwise to make a solemn, well-publicised promise at an election unless you mean that come hell or high water, you’ll stick to it and see it through.

Sticking to the promise
Having pledged to vote against any rise in fees, the Libdems as a parliamentary party will most likely now officially vote in effect for a rise in tuition fees or abstain to allow a rise. A few individual Libdem MPs have already said they will stick to their pledge and vote against any rise. For example, Menzies Campbell, former Libdem leader, has said, “My credibility would be shot to pieces if I did anything other than to stick to the promise I made” (here and reported in the Guardian 14 October 2010). Additionally, Charles Kennedy, also a former Libdem leader, has said in the Commons that he did not agree with “the thrust and direction of government policy” on fees (Hansard 14 October 2010 column 469).

Now to Cornwall…
Among those who signed the NUS pledge to vote against any rise in tuition fees, according to the NUS list, were Andrew George, Stephen Gilbert, and Dan Rogerson, now Libdem MPs for Cornwall constituencies. None of the current Tory MPs for Cornwall signed. Several other non-Libdem parliamentary candidates in Cornwall signed – the NUS list is here again (which wrongly records Labour’s Charlotte MacKenzie as the UKIP candidate for Truro and Falmouth).

Libdems appear divided on the issue of the abolition or raising of the cap on fees and a rise in fees. What will George, Rogerson, and Gilbert do when the fees vote comes? Will they stick to their pledge and vote against a rise in fees?