Nick Clegg in Cambridge: Liberal Democrats have a good story to tell

Nick Clegg went to Cambridge today. He met Liberal Democrat members  ahead of a packed public Question and Answer session where

Credit: Helen Duffett

he was quizzed on a huge range of subjects. Local MP Julian Huppert, LDV’s own Helen Duffett and Liberal Youth’s Harry Matthews were among those present and tweeting.Nick talked about the distinctiveness of the three traditions, Conservative, Labour and Liberal in British politics and how they couldn’t be folded into each other. He explained how the liberal tradition valued the sanctity of the individual.

The vexed question of tuition fees was always going to come up in a major university town. Without wishing to awaken any canines who may be taking a quick forty winks,  it’s important to repeat the point he made:

In all the heat and furore, thousands of young people have been left thinking that hey have to pay £9000 up front.

when this is far from the truth. I don’t know whether he mentioned that those on the lowest incomes would pay more than £70 less per month than under the system Labour put in place, but that’s another undeniable fact.

Asked whether the Liberal Democrats would go in to coalition with Labour after the next general election, Nick replied that we would talk to them if “that’s what the voters tell us to do.” In other words, the same principles apply, talking to the party with the largest number of MPs first. He also talked of the difficulties of being in Government when we are strapped for cash and of his pride at providing free nursery for two year olds in England.

Questions came on subjects as diverse as community infrastructure, the reshuffle, engaging young people in democracy, air ambulances and the paralympics. I’ve put the various tweets about the occasion in a Storify collection which you can read here.

For me, the story within this story was seeing several tweets praising Julian Huppert for his extensive use of Twitter. Clearly local residents and Liberal Democrats alike appreciate what he does. One said that having  a local MP using Twitter a lot is a huge help in keeping their finger on the pulse of what’s happening locally.

The “town hall meeting” environment is one which suits Nick. He’s certainly been in good form since he came back from holiday. He seems confident and refreshed, which has to bode well for the Conference season ahead.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Lorna Dupre 13th Sep '12 - 4:49pm

    An excellent event, and Nick on fine form at his old college.

  • Robinson carpark?

  • This is exactly the kind of touring Nick Clegg needs to do. The national press aren’t going to let us get our message across, in fact they are determined to try to crush us before the next election, so we need to go out and take it to the voters ourselves.

    If we could add Vince Cable and Tim Farron to the effort as well, we might stand a chance come 2015.

  • There seems to be this massive misconception that students think they’ll have to pay up front, and so it will therefore be a pleasant surprise that they don’t. No student thought they had to pay up front, they are angry because they are being charged three times more than their direct predecessors, and nine times more than people who went to university in 2004.

    We won’t be able to explain our successes in Government (of which there have been many) without getting past this sticking point. We need to make an unreserved public apology, and explain we were forced into this by our Coalition partner. A partner who, as we need to point out more, has failed repeatedly to hold up their side of the bargain. If we come out looking naive for trusting the Tories then fine, it’s better than reaffirming the public’s suspicion that we don’t keep our promises.

    Apologies, didn’t mean this to turn into a tuition fees rant when this article is about Cambridge…

  • I’ve seen Nick at similar events … and he is good – self-effacing, candid, open … until he gets a question about tuition fees – and then he tries to defend what he did in terms of no-up-front fees etc. I agree with Tom. Students and their families aren’t stupid: they know they are going to have to pay back far more overall unless they opt out of the competitive labour market for the next 30 years.

    But unlike Tom I’m not sure Nick can say that we were forced into raising tuition fees by our partners – or at least not directly (but see below) – because I suspect that our negotiating team actually volunteered it as a concession.

    The only argument that really washes is that put forward by Vince: we couldn’t justify giving free tuition to the children of the wealthy (or even to the children of the poor if we are expecting them to earn more money in future) if it means having to cut benefits to children, the elderly and disabled instead. And the reality of coalition is that we cannot meet our manifesto commitment to phase out tuition fees or even to freeze them without making cuts elsewhere when our plans to raise taxes from the wealthy to pay for it have been blocked by the Tories. So the alternatives to raising the cap on tuition fees were (i) depriving the needy to pay for more funding or (ii) letting all the top universities break away and go private anyway. It was Catch 22.

  • Mohammad Rahman 14th Sep '12 - 1:07am

    I know a single mother with doctor’s salary worries about the size of her daughter’s university. She is astute enough to read the ‘small prints’ that it dosen’t need to be paid upfront. But a debt is a debt is a debt. I personally think that students should pay a proportion of their tuition fees, but what really gets my goat is the fact that LD made such a big deal about it, and one can argue, duped so many university town residents, that breaking it makes them look like dishonest crooks.
    I do not agree with Paul K. The apology must be without ifs and buts. Trying to justify one way or another will have exactly the reaction Tom described – even if the justification is true.

  • Like Tom (but unlike Mohammad), I think an explanation is nevertheless required – from those MPs who broke their promises as well as from the large number who kept their promises but need to explain the actions of their colleagues.

    You can only apologise unreservedly for something by accepting that what you (or your colleagues) did was wrong.

    Which generally means explaining what happened, why you (or they) did what was done, and then identifying the particular things that you (or they) did wrong and the lessons you (and hopefully they) have learnt for the future either so as to put things right or at least to make sure that it won’t happen again.

    Trouble is that I don’t think the party is clear about how we can put things right on this one. The damage has been done. But we do need a clearer policy than (i) our aim is to phase out tuition fees and we should be paying for them out of taxes on high earners (most of whom are graduates anyway or at least employ them), but (ii) in the short term they need to be increased to £9000 pa to be repaid at a penal rate of interest using a 9% pa supertax on recent graduates. That is an unacceptable compromise – half of us believe in (i) and the other half in (ii), and very few of us actually support both.

  • You are absolutely right that the facts on fees need to be got across. Even Judi Dench claimed she wouldn’t have been able to afford university with fees of £9,000 which is nonsense.

    But this has to be coupled with a frank apology for breaking a promise and an explanation of why in coalition negotiations that promise became frankly impossible to keep > what is so frustrating is that Clegg spends so long defending the new system (which is undeniably better than the old) that he forgets to accept that he broke a promise.

    If this was all coupled with a long term plan for an end to fees for any education on liberal principles would do a great deal for me.

  • Henry, I’m not sure “no fees in any education” accords with Liberal principles. We have duty to nurture non adults including education until they reach the age of majority; there is a consensus around that. There is an argument for paying for higher education out of general taxation based on the progressive tax take from higher earners but I don’t think we have had and won this debate with the general population. There is an equally valid point that says it is unfair for those for whom an elite (and that is a good thing) higher education is something from which they will.never benefit should nevertheless contribute towards. This is very different from health, which all adults expect to use to a greater or lesser degree.

  • Yes, I appreciate that, although it was not the core tenet of what I was getting at. (I was losing a little bit of clarity in trying to be brief.) Obviously there are limits, but I am firmly of the opinion that a first higher education (in all its many and varied forms) should not be beyond that limit.

    I thing there are more options than you suggest though: Yes, there is a progressive tax take but we cannot hypothecate that to a specific education or expenditure so I agree this argument is not won and may never be won. But I do not think it true that there is anyone for whom we can say ‘higher education is something from which they will never benefit from’ for a variety of economic reasons and this is the key: a healthy and accessible higher education sector (without hypothecated fees punishing those who choose that option) will benefit the UK as a whole in a lot of ways.

  • The problem with an apology is that it can’t really come in the form of “I’m sorry, but…..” for it to be in any way effective. You either have to apologise, admit you were wrong, and do something about it, or front up and say why you did it and why it’s better than it was before. We’re caught between a rock and a hard place – we can’t do either realistically. I suspect the party at large would prefer the first (I know I would) but equally I suspect that Nick and other senior figures would prefer the latter. We have to make a decision at some point about which we’re going to do, and stick to it.

    And we have to reiterate strongly the point that for Scottish students, we continue to support our previous policy of no tuition fees and have voted on those lines in the Scottish parliament – reminding them that this debate doesn’t affect them and that our policy is completely different.

  • I think you can apologise and explain why this is better than before, but also explain why the promise you made had cease to be a real option (namely, in negotiation, Labour and Conservatives both insisted otherwise).

  • David Allen 14th Sep '12 - 3:28pm

    “The problem with an apology is that it can’t really come in the form of “I’m sorry, but…..” for it to be in any way effective.”

    Dead right.

    “You either have to (1) apologise, admit you were wrong, and do something about it, or (2) front up and say why you did it and why it’s better than it was before. We’re caught between a rock and a hard place – we can’t do either realistically.”

    No, we can’t. Option 1 won’t work because we are not going to do anything new about it. Option 2 is another way of saying “sorry but”, or “sorry but I’m not really sorry”, which is what we have been saying for yonks, and then we wonder why everybody just treats us with more and more derision.

    Option 3.

    We don’t apologise for the eventual Government decision. Whether we are fans of that decision or haters of that decision, we should say nothing about it. It was what the Tories insisted upon and we had to go with it. End of.

    We do apologise for signing a stupid pledge in the first place. We were making an overclaim. We knew perfectly well that we could be put into a position where we would not keep the pledge. Therefore it was stupid to claim otherwise. We weren’t thinking like a party of government. We were trying to impress people with a promise we couldn’t keep. We fell below our standards of honest campaigning. We won’t do that again. There is nothing we can do about it now, except promise not to campaign so dishonestly again. What we should have said was “Look, if you elect a Lib Dem majority government we can probably scrap fees, but if you don’t, we can’t.” Sorry that we didn’t.

    It’s a pity we didn’t say that long ago, but, if we don’t say it at all, we will get pilloried at the next election for never having said it.

  • Peter Watson 14th Sep '12 - 4:18pm

    @David Allen ” We knew perfectly well that we could be put into a position where we would not keep the pledge.”
    This was not a Lib Dem pledge. As a party we opposed (and still oppose tuition fees), and had a costed alternative in our manifesto. Trading that away in coalition negotiations is regrettable, but fair enough. I think people accept that as part of politics.
    Beyond this, individual Lib Dem candidates pledged to vote against an increase in tuition fees. A simple promise that could be easily honoured; every MP is free to vote however they wish. They signed this pledge. They publicised this pledge. They fought for the votes of students on the back of it. We had a party political broadcast in which Clegg told voters they could say goodbye to broken promises, and he offered a new kind of politics.
    And what did we deliver? Broken promises and old politics.
    I think the reason that Clegg et al stumble over explaining their actions is because they don’t have a coherent excuse. Either they were dishonourable, or as David Allen suggests, “stupid”. Or both. Neither of these are vote winners.

  • And of course until this particular boil is lanced every single Lib Dem MP who signed the pledge on fees can expect to see a particular photo on opposition material day after day after day….and no matter how unfair that might be compared to an overall record its the impression the opposition will use to the hilt. especially framed against the idea that the party was goiing to change the old politics. Saying nothing until election day will be gold dust to the opposition, lancing the boil however painful for Clegg is the only way forward.

  • John Fraser 14th Sep '12 - 9:54pm

    I am honestly not very sure where the good news story is here unless it is that the local MP is a whizz kidd on twitter ?

  • The saddest thing about the tuition fees pledge is that we encouraged people to believe there was somehow “free money” just lying around.

    University tuition can only be paid for in one of two ways: Fees or a tax on those who go to university or taxes on everyone, regardless of whether they go to university or not. Yet we allowed people to ignore this fundamental truth.

    Given that, in a coalition government the latter option – more taxes on everyone – was unacceptable to the Tories, the only option was the first. It’s devastatingly simple, yet this situation is being used every day as a stick to beat us with and a means of scapegoating us for everything under the sun – from the lack of wage rises to the fact it rained this summer. Meanwhile, the Tories and Labour, who connived in the whole situation and would have both done exactly the same thing, except in a less fair way, have been let off scot free.

    It sickens me, it really does.

  • It was a shame that this event happened when there were no students around and that he didn’t have the time to properly visit the place he studied in. As one of Robinson’s most famous alumni it is disappointing that he doesn’t take more of an interest in his college, which would greatly appreciate any support he could give it. As far as I am aware this is his only official visit back to the college and it seems to be for entirely political reasons.

    As a current Robinson student his approach to his old college is saddening and his approach to the student fees situation is disheartening. An open and frank discussion on the real reason for fees going up rather than blaming the money grabbing universities would have a much more positive effect on student opinion than a flash visit to the college where the only college members he met were conference organisers and a fellow who is a Lib Dem Councillor.

    One last thing it seems to have been forgotten that it was the governments cut to funding of courses exactly like the one he studied that has caused the raise in tuition fees. To be frank if you called tuition fees a “capped graduate tax” people would stop complaining. As that is what it is you never see the money and you only pay it off when your earning a certain amount, the only people who pay tuition fees upfront are those who can afford it. The fact that people insist on calling it a loan only makes prospective students from poorer backgrounds less inclined to apply.

    As some of the cleverest people it the country it never ceases to amaze me the stupidity of the government, there was no way that they could cut student fees entirely and most people were well aware of it make a pledge to do the near impossible was foolish.

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