On the receiving end of a tuition fees protest

I recently spent the day at the office of a Lib Dem MP, who’s been targetted for a protest about the proposed increase in tuition fees. As a veteran of quite a few protests myself, especially back in my student days, it’s interesting and quite fun to be on the receiving end.

My personal view on the Lib Dem tuition fees position is one I’ve previously written about.  With hindsight, the pledge was clearly a mistake and our MPs shouldn’t have made it.  However, we are where we are and MPs have to consider not just the pledge but actually doing what’s best for students.

There’s a very strong argument that Lib Dem MPs in Government are letting students down if they keep the pledge.  As it is, they’re able to engage with the Conservatives and negotiate the best deal for students (and what’s being proposed, whilst far from perfect, isn’t nearly as terrible as the NUS would like you to think – poorer students will get more help to go to university and poorer graduates will pay less that they do now).

So, onto that day.

We didn’t know what to expect.  Would hundreds turn up, or just a handful?  Should we hide the fire extinguishers?

The police told us this morning that around 14 people were expected.  They’d spend the morning knocking on doors around the area, then have a protest with a banner and come to the office to present a petition and some pledges.  The MP was keen to meet the protestors and was able to re-organise his diary.

As the road outside the office is a busy one with a narrow pavement, the police weren’t too keen on the protestors gathering there, so a space was found for them to set up nearby to protest and get publicity shots, and a time agreed for two to come.

Thank you to the police.  From our side, they looked to be doing what they could to get the balance right between permitting the protestors to do their thing and get their publicity without compromising public safety (I did speak to the protestors about their dealings with the police and, if they had complaints, they didn’t mention them to me).

In the event, I saw six protestors – all of whom I spoke to and all of whom were very pleasant, with not the slightest hint of trouble.  I don’t know if any were from the constituency.  The MP spent well over half an hour in discussion with two protestors.  It’s safe to say there were disagreements, though interesting that the protestors didn’t want to offer any alternative to tuition fees – they simply wanted him to keep his pledge and said it was up to MPs to come up with another solution.

Part of being in power – at local or national level – is making the difficult decisions.  Many will be between the option you don’t like and the option you think is even worse, and there’d be something very odd with the world if at least some people didn’t think you’d got it wrong (and sometimes you will get it wrong – so listening to your critics isn’t a bad idea, even if you don’t normally end up doing exactly what they want).

I’m sure this won’t be the last protest against the Coalition, and quite right too – every government has its detractors and they’ve every right to peacefully make their case.

On this occasion I disagree with the protestors.  For the Lib Dem MPs, making the pledge was a mistake, but I think going into negotiations with your hands tied because you’d already committed yourselves to keeping it would also be an error.  By focusing on the pledge and not engaging in what the Coalition should be doing, the protestors may succeed in scoring political points and harming the Lib Dems, but they aren’t acting in the best interests of the students of today and tomorrow.

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26 Comments

  • Anthony Aloysius St 22nd Nov '10 - 6:41pm

    “As it is, they’re able to engage with the Conservatives and negotiate the best deal for students …”

    How is it, then, that Vince Cable has modified Browne’s recommendations to make them so much _less_ progressive?

    A recommended repayment threshold of £21,000 has turned into £21,000 in 2016 money, which will be raised to allow for inflation only every five years. In other words, the effective threshold will be only about £17,500 in today’s money – or about 3% more in real terms than the threshold of £15,000 introduced by Labour in 2006.

  • Tony Dawson 22nd Nov '10 - 6:44pm

    I understand where you’re coming from Iain, but your sign-off sounds a wee but patronising to the students. To voters, 99 per cent of whom do not get involved in detailed policy, the position is still that Nick & Co are not worth trusting with ninepence. The detail of proposed student fees is actually a side-issue in the student fees debate in the country as a whole. The ‘normal’ people out there think very simply (no doubt egged on by media) that if the Lib Dems’ ‘promise’ on student fees meant what it meant in common parlance and, if it didn’t go well beyond the manifesto level then, in making it, and milking it, they were either (a) very dishonest/cynical or (b) very stupid. neither helps the election prospects of hundreds of Lib Dem councillors this May.

  • “With hindsight, the pledge was clearly a mistake and our MPs shouldn’t have made it.”

    With hindsight your honour, the murder was clearly a mistake and my client shouldn’t have done it.

  • Liberal Neil 22nd Nov '10 - 6:52pm

    Think yourself lucky. We had a student protest outside our office last week and we didn’t even win the seats!

  • Iain – our argument if extended beyond student fees issue suggests that no manifesto or extra-manifesto pledge is binding. Where does that leave the electorate esp if coalition politics becomes the norm ? LD’s have to show that coalition is better than winner-takes-all but if the price of coalition is that all pledges are off pending coalition agreement then the electorate cannot know what they are voting for, which I think is not acceptable.

    Re: student fees issue – you assert that the proposal is fairer and in the best of interests of students, a neat piece of slithering away from the fact that HE funding will become market driven with all the unclear consequences that entails. Moreover, some kind of financial calculation will be in the mind of every prospective student. Is that what higher education now boils down to – future income prospects ?

  • paul barker 22nd Nov '10 - 7:24pm

    The thing about all this that annoys me is that all the attention is wasted on the Fees issue & the more important question of the Educational Maintenance Allowance is largely ignored. I would far rather see our MPs fighting to maintain the EMA which is desperately important to a lot of poor teenagers than worrying about a pledge they should never have made.

  • This article very nearly made me tear up my membership card on the spot, and I support the Coalition generally. Appalling, disgusting sophistry.

    “There’s a very strong argument that Lib Dem MPs in Government are letting students down if they keep the pledge. ”

    Don’t you think those who signed the pledge ought to have thought of this before?

    Those who signed the pledged should consider;

    a) the damage they do to their own and other’s reputations if they break their promise. .

    b) that those who work for them do so in the expectation that they will do what they say they will do. Why should I bother in future if I cannot rely on them to put their promises into effect?

    c) the extraordinary damage being done to the party;

    d) that’s it’s all unnecessary: the coalition agreement provides that Lib Dems MPs may abstain;

    To put it another way, the issue is about moret han the “right thing to do” for students. It’s also about the rapid destruction of a Lib Dem USP, that the party is unlike others an can be expected to break promises.

    5) if they really believe that fees are the right way forward, how could they live with signing the pledge in the first place?

    6) That if enough Lib Dem MPs rebel (said to be 28) the measure will fall. There’s no prospect of a general election on the back of this.

    7) “Part of being in power – at local or national level – is making the difficult decisions.”

    You don’t say. Thank you for that profound insight. Those of us who have been councillors etc do indeed know all about this. We are entitled to think that prospective MPs might have thought about it too. Anyone who thought a hung parliament was not going to happen was an idiot: polls had been prediciting it for months.

    8) By focusing on the pledge and not engaging in what the Coalition should be doing, the protestors may succeed in scoring political points and harming the Lib Dems.

    This begs the question of what the Coalition should be doing. Most of us protesting are engaging in what the coalition should be doing, which is NOT raising fees but abolishing them.

    A question for you Iain: did you put out literature in your name with the pledge on it? If so, why?

  • And another thing:

    By focusing on the pledge and not engaging in what the Coalition should be doing, the protestors may succeed in scoring political points and harming the Lib Dems

    If the pledge is kept, even now, there will be less harm harm to Lib Dems, and probably credit gained.

    I am so angry. I cannot find anyone who is impressed with the Party’s stance. it’s impossible to defend. Saying the other parties (Labour ) are just making political capital is not the right anser: this is about direct breaking of promises. It’s like Thatcher promising low taxes and turning round to increase the top rate of income tax.

  • In that case, why don’t the MP’s resign from their seats in the Parliament, and re-contest their seats in a new election after retracting the pledge? If they still have the people’s support and get elected, they are free to do the “right thing”.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 22nd Nov '10 - 8:20pm

    I must say if you’re going to break a promise, I don’t think it’s a good idea to attack the people whose trust you’ve betrayed. It’s just adding insult to injury, particularly when the attack is couched in such sanctimonious terms as the one above.

  • @Iain Roberts”
    As a veteran of quite a few protests myself, especially back in my student days,”

    And your fees were? And your debt is?

  • So after having demonstrated in your student days, then presumably graduating and getting a job, how much debt did you have ?

    How long will it take to pay back?

    It may only have been a few students at this demo, but don’t forget the 50,000 in London. Or their parents, or the parents of future students. These articles and the Vince Cable’s performance yesterday (which Comical Ali would have been proud of in 2003) do nothing but more harm to the party. Some people just cannot accept that the day they vote for the proposals they make themselves, and everyone who campaigned for them, liars.

  • I signed the pledge not to increase tuition fees and got myself much photographed with the students and talked a lot about a new era of honesty in politics. But I forgot to tell the students that I know much better than they do what is best for them and that means ditching the personal promise that I made and voting in favour of the increase in tuition fees that I promised to vote against. I must say I have very little sympathy for those students who are causing trouble and have the ridiculous notion that I meant what I said when I made the pledge

    I hope that is clear and that my party will keeps its hard-earned reputation for honesty and that black is white if I keep repeating that it is.

  • Incredulous 23rd Nov '10 - 9:27am

    Chololate rations have just gone up from thirty grammes to twenty. Rapt applause is in order.
    How can those silly students who picket nice LibDems’ offices not understand that £9,000 a year would be so much less than the £3,000 a year they pay already? That’s exactly why we should only ever fund maths degrees.
    Interesting how students just want their MPs to keep their pledge – fascinating isn’t it?
    But I am sure we can all still count on the student vote in Oldham East and Saddleworth. After all, we all agree that you have to get rid of MPs who lie in election campaigns to win their seats.

  • Grammar Police 23rd Nov '10 - 9:50am

    @ Incredulous.
    You’re using an ironic name given that I find it quite difficult to believe that you could compare deliberately lying about an opponent’s personal conduct in order to whip up race-hate, with a very public u-turn on an NUS pledge. The Guardian itself reported that the Lib Dems planned to stick to the pledge whilst preparing for the coalition, and that the u-turn is a later decision – so there was no “lying” to win seats. I would also point out that the vote hasn’t happened yet, a number of Lib Dem MPs will adhere to the pledge.

  • @ Grammar Police
    When you say “The Guardian itself reported that the Lib Dems planned to stick to the pledge whilst preparing for the coalition, and that the u-turn is a later decision”, is this the Guardian article you are referring to? http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/nov/12/lib-dems-tuition-fees-clegg
    The one that reports that “Liberal Democrats were drawing up plans to abandon Nick Clegg’s flagship policy to scrap university tuition fees two months before the general election” ?
    Ahem…
    Touring campuses and publicly signing pledges in those two months and getting students to campaign and vote LibDem on the basis of these pledges sounds like “false representation made recklessly, careless whether it be true or false” that legally defines the term “fraud”. And yes, I am still incredulous at the “new kind of politics” where LibDem pledges to Tories are binding and LibDem pledges to voters are not.

  • Iain, another good piece of real research!
    Also interesting and encouraging is that although you posted this on Sunday, by Tuesday pm only 13 have written back as regular objectors to the student finance deal. And only about 14 on the actual demonstration. Neither figure very impressive.
    The point you raised about the double whammy, ie that some MPs will vote against a deal that will benefit all students more than our manifesto graduate tax, because they signed a pledge that in changing circumstances turned out to be undeliverable, will be interesting to watch.
    I cannot believe that Charles and MIng as former leaders do not understand that compromise is the art of politics; it is more likely they are watching their own backs.
    Elizabeth.

  • We have had 3 recent examples of politicians lying in order to gain votes.

    Phil Woolas lying about his opponents views on Islamic Extremism, Nadine Dorries lying on her blog (she calls it fiction) to give the impression that she spends most of her time in her constituency house whereas her expenses claim stated otherwise, and the Lib Dem MPs who signed the pledge to vote against any increase in Tuition fees without any qualification but have decided not to keep to their pledge (calling this a u-turn rather than a betrayal would be perceived by some as compounding the crime).

    Phil Woolas whose crime is by far the most unpleasant of the 3 was roundly condemned by Harriet Harman but to their shame some labour MPs did not agree with her. David Cameron failed to condemn the actions of Nadine Dorries and Nick Clegg did not criticise himself or his fellow ministers for betraying the students.

    Rightly or wrongly, I think the failure to keep the pledge is the one which will do most long term harm to the party concerned because it is so clear cut in the public mind and is the one example most closely associated with large numbers of Lib Dem MPs and the leading figures in the party.

  • Elizabeth you frighten me.
    You state ” because they signed a pledge that in changing circumstances turned out to be undeliverable,”

    Not true they simply vote against and the pledge is delivered!

    You state “by Tuesday pm only 13 have written back as regular objectors ”

    This is because msot people have left the lib dems in disgust.
    Can you not understand this is not about the student loans! It is about what in a democracy we can trust our politicians to do.
    We Know they backtrack on manifesto policies!
    We know they lie in debates
    We know the spin in newspaper articles.
    But to break their written oath takes politics to a completly different level of sleaze. If we cannot trust a politician to stick to a signed oath. What can we trust. Tell me please. If our leaders get away with this what hope is there for democracy we are heading very quickly to the American model. Do we really want that type of politics!

  • Anthony Aloysius St 23rd Nov '10 - 4:09pm

    “The point you raised about the double whammy, ie that some MPs will vote against a deal that will benefit all students more than our manifesto graduate tax …”

    Our manifesto what????

  • David Evans 23rd Nov '10 - 6:01pm

    @ Elizabeth

    “compromise is the art of politics”, may be true, but I thought that we were in politics to change it for the better, not to just join in like the rest.

  • David Wright 23rd Nov '10 - 11:31pm

    I don’t believe the pledge WAS a mistake; I still believe it was the right thing to do, (and don’t forget that abolishing tuition fees is still Lib Dem policy). I also accept that our MPs are doing their best to make the proposed increased fairer. And we know that Labour introduced tuition fees, then promised no top-up fees, then broke that promise.

    But that is all secondary: the key issue is that most (not all) Lib Dem candidates signed a personal pledge to vote against any increase in fees. As a matter of honour and integrity, they must keep to their pledges. If they don’t, we’re no better than the other parties, and as said above we lose our most valuable selling point. I am pleased that many MPs, including our new President Tim Farron, have confirmed that they will keep to their pledge, but very disappointed with some others.

  • Journalist William Cullerne Bown, has revealed a briefing by Universities UK to Vice-Chancellors which suggests a sizeable rebellion of Lib Dem MPs and even ministers over tuition fees. Of course, any chance of a rebellion stopping a rise in fees depends upon the hypocrisy of the Labour Party, who introduced fees and would put them up if in power.

  • Grammar Police 1st Dec '10 - 1:03pm

    @ Incredulous: Perhaps you should read the article, rather than the headline written by a sub.

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