UNCERTAIN TRUMPETS

10 December 2010

The Commons tuition fees votes are done. Well, the votes are done but probably not the aftermath for the Libdems. I am going to focus in this post on Cornwall MPs.

There were two votes yesterday (divisions 150 and 151) on raising the cap, the maximum that undergraduate students can be charged, to £9000 a year and raising the basic fee to £6000 a year. The three Conservative MPs from Cornwall voted yes; one of the Liberal Democrats, Stephen Gilbert, who is a whip, voted yes; two Liberal Democrats, Andrew George and Dan Rogerson, voted no. These fees apply only to English universities as the devolved governments are responsible for university fees there.

All three Cornwall Libdems had signed a pledge to vote against any rise in tuition fees. George and Rogerson kept their promise; Gilbert didn’t. None of the three Conservatives had signed that pledge.

The pledge and keeping it/breaking it is an issue about which the Libdems as a party have damaged themselves seriously; repeatedly shifting ground by the party leadership as the party tried to get itself out of a hole of its own making compounded the damage. The Libdem party has forfeited trust. Despite the twenty one Libdem MPs who voted against the rise, many people who voted for the party will feel let down and be very reluctant to believe the Libdem party again.

I have looked at the Libdem MP websites. Gilbert’s explanation for voting for the rise doesn’t mention his signed pledge. He focuses on the minutiae of the government’s proposals and says they are an improvement on the present arrangements. He says he believes “higher education should be free”. Andrew George, for whom the sticking point appears to be raising the cap, also says, “If we were in power we would…get rid of tuition fees”. Rogerson says briefly his concern is “the government’s contribution to tuition”. I assume he means the cap should remain at just over £3000 or possibly that the division of costs between government/taxpayers and students should be different from the present and proposed arrangements.

I am presently unclear whether the abolition for tuition fees is still Libdem policy or is effectively a disregarded relic from the past, a dead clause 4 or hanging-and-flogging awaiting eventual erasure from the party agenda.

Incidentally, after three years at university a graduate will owe £18 000 or perhaps
£27 000 in tuition fees; if he had a loan for maintenance as well his total debt might be around £38 000. Two graduates marrying, a usual occurrence, might well have a combined couple debt of £77 000.

I mention these scary figures because the supporters of the new fees avoid mentioning them.

The Libdems nationally have struggled with this question. They have tried in the past to portray themselves as righteously different than other parties: it’s time to put an end to broken promises, for promises to be kept, Nick Clegg said in his video, comparing his Libdems with Tories and Labour. It turns out they are just like the others.

This is an ideological argument as well as a practical one. The Conservative party appears to believe in a significant shift in the balance of funding university education from society collectively through taxes as the major funder to individuals through much higher fees for individual students. The Tory Libdem government’s cutting of the university teaching grant by 80 percent in the comprehensive spending review has left universities with a funding gap and raising tuition fees is seen by the government as a way of plugging that gap (though arts and humanities courses are seriously imperilled). This tallies with the Tories’ notions of individualism.

Libdems generally have gone along with the 80 percent cut but some have then baulked at the fee rise, not a credible position, I think. As I said, I don’t know whether the party still seeks the abolition of tuition fees; and I am unclear where the argument from some Libdems about current economic circumstances making abolition unaffordable and increases unavoidable fits in.

Labour, who introduced tuition fees and increased them, appears to have no current worked-out policy though an undefined graduate tax seems to be the preferred view. I think had Labour won the election in May it would be putting up fees.
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A LITTLE FEES HISTORY

7 December 2010

2001

Labour’s 2001 election manifesto said: “We will not introduce top-up fees and have legislated to prevent them”. Top-up fees meant the increasing of university tuition fees payable by students.

2004

Despite its manifesto promise, Labour introduced increased tuition fees as part of its Higher education bill (Commons second reading 27 January 2004, third reading 31 March 2004). The then current £1000 a year tuition fees payable upfront became up to £3000 a year, available on loan and payable after graduation. The second reading was won by Labour by 316 -311 votes with around seventy Labour MPs voting against the government. Forty six Labour MPs for Scottish constituencies voted to increase fees.

Higher education was a devolved matter in Scotland and after second reading Tim Yeo (Conservative) asked whether it was not “completely wrong that a bill that imposes higher charges on students attending English universities should be carried by this House only by using the votes of Scottish members of parliament, given that the constituents of those Scottish members do not have to pay these higher charges” (Hansard 27 January 2004 column 275).

At both second and third readings Candy Atherton, Labour MP for Camborne and Falmouth, voted for the bill; the four Cornwall Liberal Democrat MPs (Colin Breed, Andrew George, Matthew Taylor, Paul Tyler) voted against.

Andrew George is the only Cornwall MP who was in the House of Commons in 2004 and there now.

2010

The 2010 election manifesto of the Liberal Democrats said: “We will scrap university tuition fees for all students taking their first degree” and “We have a financially responsible plan to phase fees out over six years so that the change is affordable, even in these difficult economic times, and without cutting university incomes” (page 39 of the manifesto).

Before the general election current Libdem MPs individually signed a pledge that said: “I pledge to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament…” All the three Cornwall Libdem MPs (Andrew George, Stephen Gilbert, and Dan Rogerson) signed this pledge.

Both the Labour (3.7) and Conservative (page 17) 2010 election manifestos said the party was awaiting the John Browne report on the fees and university funding. Neither spelt out whether the party would or would not raise fees though Browne was widely expected to recommend an increase. According to this list ninety Labour parliamentary candidates and three Conservatives also signed the no-rise pledge.

In the 2010 vote England MPs voted 311-209 in favour of the increases in fees, with eight abstentions/absences and including tellers [this sentence added 17 December 2010].
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“It’s time for promises to be kept” – Nick Clegg, video before the election (below)

“Say goodbye to broken promises” – Nick Clegg, video before the election (below)

“I pledge to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament” – every current Libdem MP, April 2010

In this post I asked whether promises should be kept, referring to the Libdem parliamentary candidates individually signing a pledge not to raise tuition fees.

I took the view that if you promised to do something, signed that promise, had your picture taken with the promise and your signature on it, made a video about the importance of keeping promises, and used your promise as an election campaign, it was binding. If you broke that promise, you probably shouldn’t be trusted in any promises you make again.

If politicians make a promise, they should do their damnedest to keep it and if they fail to keep it or break it they should apologise fully and even, what’s the phrase, consider their position. Cue Libdems and their pledge not to raise tuition fees.

Vince Cable, Libdem business secretary in the Tory Libdem government, has now said (Politics Show, BBC, 21 November 2010) of the Libdems and tuition fees, “We didn’t break a promise”.

As I understand it, the Libdem argument is that it isn’t their well-publicised pledge that counts. It isn’t even the manifesto in which they made a “commitment” (not a pledge or a promise, this is the politics of the thesaurus); since they didn’t win the election the manifesto doesn’t count either. What counts, the only thing that counts apparently, is the agreement made with the Tories after the election, the agreement none of us voted for; that’s binding. The pledge, pooof; the manifesto, pooof; what we said we stood for, pooof. Meet coalition politics. Meet the Liberal Democrats.

Oh, and we are told again that a reason for not keeping the fees promise is the financial situation. This is vastly unconvincing. Before the election the Libdem manifesto said their plans for tuition fees had been costed and were affordable (page 107 of their manifesto); and that further deficit-reduction “will not reverse or undermine any of the spending commitments we make in our manifesto” (page 97). See too this post: Perplexed of the Western Isles for a succinct point about the deficit.

So, next time the Libdems pledge/promise/commit to do anything, laugh and walk away. Even if they put it in writing and have their photo taken with it. Yes, even if they make a video of it. Laugh and walk away.

You can watch the video – it’s time for promises to be kept – here. And here’s the video with Libdem comments devastatingly added.
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SHOULD PROMISES BE KEPT?

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?