BBC report: “Clegg ‘to axe tuition fee pledge'”

The BBC is reporting that the party will drop its pledge to axe tuition fees.

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg says he may be forced to scrap the party’s flagship policy of abolishing university tuition fees in England and Wales.

Mr Clegg will tell his party’s annual conference he has to be “realistic” about whether it is affordable given the country’s mountain of debt.

His analysis is backed up by the following quotes from Nick:

“I believe tuition fees are wrong, I believe they need to be abolished, I want to do it as soon as possible,” Mr Clegg will tell a rally of party activists in Bournemouth.

“But we need to treat people like grown-ups, and we need to be realistic.

“Ending tuition fees would cost billions of pounds every year. We need to be certain we can afford it before we make any promises.”

“But I can make this pledge – at the next election we will have the best, most progressive package for students of any mainstream party.”

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  • I hope this does not happen- free education is 1 thing that makes us distiinctive – as well as it being simply right.. More of a case of trying to be seen to be tough – how about being tough on nuclear weapons – give them up completely and use the money to scrap tuition fees – if Clegg does give up on tuition fees – it will split the party.

  • I don’t want this conference to be (portrayed as) divisive, but as a student I hope this is defeated by conference.

  • Herbert Brown 19th Sep '09 - 8:15pm

    “The BBC is reporting that the party will drop its pledge to axe tuition fees.”

    To be precise, it’s reporting that Nick Clegg may drop the party’s pledge.

  • The BBC’s headline is misleading – but what did the party leadership expect? Polly Toynbee in this morning’s Guardian pedals the line that the policy of abolishing fees has already been abolished, which is patently untrue – but speeches and interviews like today’s only encourage that perception. When conference and FPC have shown themselves to be solidly in favour of keeping the pledge to abolish tuition fees, it is utterly irresponsible of the leadership to keep bringing the issue into question again and again. Free education is a Liberal point of principle. A leader who wanted to keep the commitment in the manifesto would find the money to fund it soon enough.

    Leading the centre-left is not about making ever more strident rhetorical attacks on the Conservatives – or ad hominem attacks on their leader. It is about setting out a mature and practical programme for progressive government – including defence of the universal welfare state – and winning over voters from Labour on the basis of that programme. If Clegg does not realize this this side of the general election, his chances of remaining party leader after it may be slimmer than he thinks.

  • @david – getting rid of nuclear weapons altogether is seriously inadvisable; forget the ‘seat at the Security Council’ argument (which is a nonsense), but the realpolitik issue of maintaining a deterrent in a world which is returning to great power politics and where in two or three decades time American hegemony will be under threat from China against a background of serious energy insecurity. For me personally, abandoning a deterrent altogether when we simply don’t know what the future holds would be irresponsible (and I think the electorate would agree).

    @Liberal Nick doesn’t see himself as leading the centre-left. He’s looking for a clause four moment (since Kennedy was toppled, the young turks have been running The Blair Revolution as a playbook, albeit with a Campbell interlude). In addition it really doesn’t matter what’s in the manifesto for the third party; if the leadership does as its doing (which is a calculated policy in itself) you are right that people will get the impression the policy has been dropped. That’s the impression they want to convey. The FPC can block them all they like; the leader gives ten interviews where he says the same thing and it will muddy the waters spectacularly. If they can get it reduced down to an aspiration and thus dropped as a policy from the manifesto, so much the better for them. In the middle distance it’ll be abandoned altogether. The policy documents coming out of CentreForum on this issue have for some time been arguing against the tuition fees policy.

    It’s difficult to know what the leadership believes is progressive about its platform since the ‘Fresh Start’ document other than some nebulous points about a ‘greener economy’. ID cards and our civil liberties policies are, for most of the electorate, residual issues. Tuition fees is one area where we reach beyond our ideological base; from purely political considerations, to axe it is to turn our back on our student constituency.

    I am really unsure of what kind of voter coalition Nick is trying to put together. In recent times we’ve become obsessed with the watchword ‘credibility’; but if it’s a straight choice between a credible Lib Dem leader and a credible Conservative leader the swing voter will choose the latter, because that’s having a say in the choice of government at a time of economic crisis. The scattergun policy announcements with regard to deterrent, policing, MOD civil servants also make his attack on Cameron look a bit rich.

    Hopefully he can turn it round but it’s not looking pretty or positive at the moment.

  • No Iraq war & no scrapping of tuition fees,not much to camapign and no USP’s.

    How about offering to pull out of Afghanistan?

  • This move is utterly utterly stupid.

    We can cut elsewhere. How can we drop our flagship policy?

    It annoys students, probably our most loyal voter base.

    Aspirations aren’t policies. They are worth diddly squat, and voters know it.

    Not to mention – whether we keep our pledge or not, we will now appear very indecisive. Every time one of our MPs gets some valuable TV time they will have to fend off accusations of u-turns and rebellions.

    Where is the strategic vision here? How many people will vote for us now that we will keep tuition fees, that wouldn’t have voted for us before – and how many will vote Green because of this? It just doesn’t add up.

  • What’s the point of the Lib Dems again? We’re endanger of becoming the party of unpalatable economic medicine and little else if we keep focusing on messages like this and use it as an excuse to ditch half our policies. Yes Vince Cable made his name as the forecaster of our doom, which might get him some respect but it will get us precious few votes. We need something positive and inspiring for this conference – yes some economic realism but not just doom and gloom please!

  • @Letterman – spot on. We won’t get any credit for looking ruthless on cuts either, just limited in vision. The irony of the situation is that whilst we are perennially condemned (and often unfairly so) for uncosted policies, becoming ‘savage’ about cuts isn’t what people want from a third party. So much for The Real Alternative. The other irony is that whilst Vince was superb on the economic crisis, we’ve not got much carry-over from that; many people I speak to who like him and have seen him interviewed on TV don’t know he’s a Lib Dem.

    And your doom and gloom point is right as well. Cameron will do the savings bit at the Tory conference, but he’ll no doubt end with some aspirational vision/rallying cry to get the Tories going. Given that Nick is hammering away at the very things that make us different it’s difficult to see at this point how he can do the same.

  • Jessica Ashman 19th Sep '09 - 11:09pm

    Tomorrow Clegg to speak of his commitment to first past the post?

  • What we are now doing is providing vital “centrist” cover for Cameron’s right-wing Conservative drive to close down public services, promote inequality, and give free rein to rich backers who want to get richer. Economists may protest that it is madness to deflate in the middle of a recession, but don’t worry. The Lib Dems, with their past reputation for fairness and objectivity, will ride to the rescue and insist that Cameron’s policies are only flawed insofar as they are not “savage” enough.

    Never mind, perhaps we have a publicity masterstroke in mind. What was that headline exactly? “Axing Those Tuition Fees – Now You See It, Now You Don’t”. Perfect!

  • Herbert Brown 20th Sep '09 - 1:49am

    “Nick doesn’t see himself as leading the centre-left. He’s looking for a clause four moment (since Kennedy was toppled, the young turks have been running The Blair Revolution as a playbook, albeit with a Campbell interlude).”

    If that’s true, all it tells us is that they are spectacularly stupid.

    For the unprincipled leader of the left-most party, moving to the right will be advantageous if you can cajole the party into it. You will make yourself more appealing to the weak supporters of both your opponent parties. You may alienate some of your current supporters, but they have nowhere else to go.

    But moving a centre party to the right will lose just as many votes to the left as it will gain from the right. There’s precious little chance of making gains from Labour if the party is talking about “savage” cuts in public spending, advocating a public sector pay freeze and dropping its opposition to tuition fees. Particularly as the Iraq factor which was so beneficial in 2005 has largely evaporated.

    And precious little chance even of minimising losses to the Tories, with nothing distinctive to offer the electorate, nothing to motivate the membership and nothing to attract those crucial tactical votes. And I suspect a big reason for our success in traditional Tory territory in 1997+ was that we offered the decent majority politics with some kind of conscience. If the party is going to ditch its conscience now, why on earth won’t they vote for real Conservatives rather than a pale imitation, led by a defective clone of David Cameron?

  • @Herbert Brown I think they are monumentally stupid; I’ve thought that ever since they axed Kennedy (quite obviously with a view to a future Clegg leadership – Chris Huhne was right when he said ‘young men like old popes’ in respect of Campbell). For all Kennedy’s faults and weaknesses he appealed outside the party, as did Paddy in a very different way. That’s what a third party needs; someone who can reach out beyond its base; we look at the moment like crypto-Tories and I agree wholeheartedly with your point that the northern cities can simply be dismissed as a possibility for us. The party has always fought shy of taking Labour on on its home ground in significant numbers, with an eye to the bird in the hand of the party’s existing seats against the Tories in the south (and this goes back to Kennedy at least). This isn’t going to get any better with current tranche of policy changes. Cameron isn’t soft; he knows that he can take advantage of Nick’s repositioning to say that the Tories and LDs are effectively identical and this will hurt us in the south and the north for different reasons.

    This is the way David Laws et al have wanted the party’s direction to go in for years; the recession/credit crunch is just giving them more cover than they could have hoped for to expedite it. If anyone’s taken in by the ‘aspiration’ line they’re kidding themselves. The recession has given Clegg/Laws the opportunity to do the ‘look at how reasonable I am’ bit far more adeptly than they could possibly have done otherwise. Those of us who disagree with the leadership’s stance will be caricatured by the press as the beards and sandals brigade who can’t/won’t face up to unpleasant economic realities. Simply saying we won’t do a deal with the Tories isn’t enough; if we look so similar to them as certain sections of the media want us to look

    I was quite surprised by one member voxpopped at the BBC website at conference who remarked he was ‘quite surprised’ tuition fees had been raised. Clearly he hadn’t seen any of the stuff coming out of CentreForum for the last three and a half years. In May 2006 Astle’s Open Universities paper proposed supporting ‘private payment’ for tuition and ending the LD position of lone opposition to fees; this was over a year before the credit crunch began, so had nothing to do with ‘economic necessity’. It was reinforced in the ‘Time’s Up’ paper in December 2008. Astle co-edited Britain After Blair with Laws. This proposal has been on the table a long time before the economic crisis made it respectable and offered Clegg the opportunity for his ‘clause four moment’.

    I honestly thought the Kennedy coup showed how many of these young turks were utterly divorced from electoral politics in many swing seats; things like this only reinforce my view. It’s not simply that these things are wrong pure and simple, they’re also politically inadvisable.

  • Herbert Brown 20th Sep '09 - 4:31pm

    Talking of Charles Kennedy, here’s what he has to say on the matter:

    Charles Kennedy said the party should be “careful” about ditching policy promises such as tuition fees and free care for the elderly that are at the core of its values.

    “I think that’s served us well but I think those are also defining features, if you like, of a Liberal Democrat society,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme.

    Asked if the tuition fees pledge should be retained, Mr Kennedy replied: “Well, I think so. I think you should do so in terms of principle.

    “And I think in addition if you simply look at the parliamentary reality, those age groups were very important to us at the last election, some of the gains that we made, not least against Labour.”

  • David Allen 20th Sep '09 - 7:24pm

    Why not retain the pledge to scrap tuition fees, but meet the need for financial stringency by replacing the fees with a graduate tax?

  • Alix Mortimer 20th Sep '09 - 7:57pm

    I’ve been wondering, in an unfounded speculation way, whether there mightn’t be a bit of a background movement afoot to propose just this idea. Phil Willis (MP) twittered a while ago asking what people thought of it.

    If this now appears in a newspaper and involves the word “faction” we’ll know for certain how the media operate 😀

  • Terry Gilbert 20th Sep '09 - 11:28pm

    Yes, this does look like Clegg being forced by economic circumstances to do what he always wanted to do anyway! Frankly, I do not believe his claims that he really, really wants to scrap tuition fees if only he had the money. You don’t spin a policy change this big on the eve of conference if you intend to reverse it once the economy recovers.
    The principle of free education is more important than any leader. If Conference Reps have any gumption at all, they should make him eat humble pie this week. I doubt we’ll get more than coded references from the leadership, but look out for ‘we’ve heard what you have to say, and we’re listening’ moments.

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  • By Do university tuition fees deter the poorest? on Thu 15th October 2009 at 7:25 pm.

    […] issue of tuition fees exploded into the Lib Dem conference in Bournemouth, when Nick Clegg appeared to suggest he was rowing-back on the party’s long-established commitment to abolish […]

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