Opinion: Tuition fees – grasping the nettle

We have not sold Joe Public the idea that ‘equality of opportunity’ is in the soul, in the very DNA of Liberalism, and the Liberal Democrats, and that was why we pledged free higher education.

Ordinary people do not credit us with Scottish zero tuition fees. They do not realise our non-negotiable condition of joining with the Scottish Labour Party was our policy and that it flew in the face of national Labour Party manifesto then, and since.

And certainly, we have never leveraged the soul-searching and pain we had to go through in our deciding to break our pledge. There is no appreciation that in 2010 we accepted this damage to our integrity for the good of the country.

This was after we found the Tories setting their faces against our having both our nil tuition fees policy and our increased tax allowance for poorly paid workers. That it was they who held that Labour’s deficit and the dire state of the nation’s short term economic prospects were too precarious, whilst holding on to Trident.

Well, we certainly paid for our lack of a determined management of the expectations of the populace… and then some.

Instead of straightaway shouting from the rose garden onwards that we, as a coalition partner, had had such a stark choice – we take the hit on our credibility after breaking our pledge, or we stand on the side-lines and watch the nation slide into yet another general election, chaos, and lack of confidence in the markets.

We have never quantified the financial battering, the increase in billions in higher interest payments, we would have suffered from the financial markets to fund Labour’s structural deficit – an expense we avoided directly from our agreeing to join with the Tories.

(I guess this saving as at least £10 billion a year, but I will defer to the more informed.)

Perhaps we were too in the thick of Government to look up, or to have the bandwidth to keep selling the nobleness of this choice of ours.

And I know it was difficult, but Nick Clegg’s two minute apology just did not tell the whole story – how we anguished over our decision, and fought over ensuring low-paid ex-students would pay hardly any of their student debt.

It is now desperate, however painful, that we revisit nil tuition fees.

I suggest we face the situation head-on and place free tuition fees, suitably modified, right at the heart of our manifesto.

There are several ways to do this.

My suggestion of a first step is to begin a non-contributory ‘college fund’ for every newly born child to be invested in Government bonds in that child’s name but solely to use for higher education fees, to subsidise an apprenticeship or any other vocational qualification during that child’s life.

We can retain financial credibility by beginning this slowly with a means-test so that children, having public money invested on their behalf, are only those born to parents on benefits or on tax credits or falling into similar criteria or being dependent on parents who suffer an abject downturn in their finances.

Higher tax band families should have a fund automatically set up for their child’s higher education but government contributions would only become available as UK finances allowed. However, they could volunteer an adjustment to their tax code to transfer painlessly regular payments to their child’s college fund from wages and salary.

The effect of this build up of funds would be that poorer families could look forward to the opportunities such a fund would give their children to gain proper qualifications and skills, and, crucially, the confidence, aspirations and hope to make better their future lives.

I believe also that we should, as a policy, tell those now facing tuition fee debts that, as circumstances allow, there will be a gradual reduction in the present 30 year debt write-off period and/or a raising of the contributory earnings trigger.

We now know our power to influence Government policy in a coalition. We cannot run away from the nil tuition fees debacle.

Having the gumption to make them again a flagship policy as above, or some variant, will confound our critics, grab the initiative and give hope to millions.

* Jim Murray is senior partner at James Murray Solicitors – a major high street litigation law firm in Liverpool. He is an ex-Sefton Councillor. He was a PPC for some twenty years in Merseyside Constituencies and now appointed PPC for Bootle Constituency Liverpool.

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41 Comments

  • “My suggestion of a first step is to begin a non-contributory ‘college fund’ for every newly born child”

    We largely had that in the Child Trust Fund, which also didn’t limit the investment to government bonds… Remind me who was it who stopped all payments into existing CTF’s and scrapped them…

  • Julian Tisi 21st Jan '15 - 2:51pm

    No, disagree.

    Essentially this sounds like a complex way of getting taxpayers to pay for tuition fees up front (based on means testing and estimated cost of courses).

    The new tuition fees regime is one where graduates pay for their tuition, but their contributions depend on their post-qualifications earnings, subject to a pretty high lower limit and a 30 year cut-off.

    In both cases fees on attendance are avoided – and there is some element of the richer paying more to subsidise the poorer students. But on balance the new system that we have now is much fairer. I’d go so far as to say that the new system is pretty fair overall, being a graduate tax in all but name.

  • Ed Shepherd 21st Jan '15 - 6:01pm

    Lifelong education should be free at the point of delivery and funded by a progressive taxation system. It should never take the form of a debt against an individual. The proposal for upfront funding set out above has some merits but sounds complicated, involving means tests that would have to take account of rapidly changing circumstances. Easier to just pay for education from progressive taxation. Nick Clegg’s first degree at Cambridge was given to him free by such a system. Generations of future young people should have the same free higher education that Nick Clegg received.

  • “We have not sold Joe Public the idea that ‘equality of opportunity’ is in the soul, in the very DNA of Liberalism”.

    Equality of opportunity is not in the soul of liberalism. Equality of opportunity is in the soul of social democracy, not liberal democracy. The Lib Dems are a centre right, socially liberal party that tend get the support of the white, British upper middle classes who are a too open minded to vote for UKIP and believe the things in the Daily Mail.

    The liberal democrats are not a centre left party any more and nor do they still have the values of the old SDP. They are now an Orange book liberalism party, the British version of the German FDP. Everybody seems to know except for the Lib Dem rank and file members apparently. The results of the Scottish and European Elections where the Lib Dems lost every Scottish Constituency on the mainland and went on in the Euro elections to do worse than the Greens were not a blip, they same sort of results will be repeated at the General Election.

    The Lib Dems will not convince the voters that they believe in social democracy or equality of opportunity. You don’t enter a formal coalition, increase tuition fees to £9,000, cut the top rate of income tax for those earning over £150,000 a year whilst the country sees the rise of things like food banks and convince people that you’re a social democratic party.

    If you believed in equality of opportunity you would have policies like abolishing private education and having an education system like Finland’s. Or a welfare system like Denmark’s. etc…

    The Lib Dems offer nothing radical, they are a slightly more tolerant, slightly more liberal version of the Conservative Party and very much part of the establishment.

  • Tony Dawson 21st Jan '15 - 7:21pm

    And why do ordinary voters not credit the Lib Dems with zero Scottish tuition fees? Total lack of any ‘focus’ of the parliamentary and Party ‘leadership’.

  • @ Ed Shepherd. Couldn’t agree more. It’s also the unreasonable level of the fees that I find upsetting. As I commented in a previous article, it works out at around £40 or more per lecture for students with an average of 10 hours of lectures a week (and some students have even less hours); I think this is too much. One could get a private tutor for that – but students may be in a lecture theatre with hundreds of others. Of course universities have huge overheads but I believe some students are being ripped off. And masters courses are now £10,000 or more. Education has also become big business with universities chasing overseas students who pay even higher rates for their education.

    A combination of some fees (maybe at around £1,500 as in the Netherlands) and progressive taxation must be a fairer solution.

  • @Tony Dawson: “And why do ordinary voters not credit the Lib Dems with zero Scottish tuition fees? Total lack of any ‘focus’ of the parliamentary and Party ‘leadership’.” – In Scotland we used to. But that was then, this is now, all that good work has been undone by being in coalition with the Tories.

    Lastest Scottish wide poll has the SNP on 52% and the Lib Dems on 4%. This is a place that returned 11 Lib Dems in 2010. This time you’ll be lucky to get 2 Scottish seats.

  • The tuition fees issue sacrificed Lib Dem credibility. Any doubters are on another planet. The tragedy lies in the fact that there was an imbalance in funding towards tertiary education compared with early years. The policy redresses the balance. The incompetent political handling (doing the right thing in the wrong way) is a given. The political issue is compounded by the irony of complaints from our opponents that it is too expensive because the payback from graduates will leave a black hole in future years. Quite an a political achievement isn’t it?!!

  • Matthew Huntbach 22nd Jan '15 - 10:25am

    Mr Wallace

    If you believed in equality of opportunity you would have policies like abolishing private education and having an education system like Finland’s. Or a welfare system like Denmark’s. etc…

    Yes, and do you suppose that the 307 Conservative MPs in the coalition would respond to 57 Liberal Democrat MPs if they demanded this “Ok then, we’ll drop all we used to stand for and support your ideas instead”?

    If there really was a choice in 2010, and there really could have been a workable Labour-LibDem coalition, so it’s all the Liberal Democrats’ fault for “putting the Tories in”, then why isn’t Labour offering the terms for that coalition, and why wasn’t it doing that throughout this government and criticising the LibDems for not accepting them? If there really was an alternative to this coalition, isn’t it just as much Labour’s fault for not offering it? If they want to prove it’s not equally their fault, then they should go ahead and offer it, offer more generous terms to the Liberal Democrats, the sort of concessions to LibDem policies they are criticising them for not managing to squeeze out of the Tories, then it can undoubtedly be said it’s the LibDems’ fault for not accepting them. But Labour won’t do this because it can’t. It knows very well there was no workable alternative. That’s Labour all along for you, that’s how Labour always acts, instead of building a constructive case for the left, and arguing on the basis of reality, it thinks it can win power just by throwing abuse and pretending there are easy-peasy solutions to difficult problems without actually saying what they are because actually it doesn’t have a clue.

  • Matthew Huntbach 22nd Jan '15 - 10:38am

    brianD

    The tuition fees issue sacrificed Lib Dem credibility. Any doubters are on another planet.

    Despite the constant accusations otherwise, no-one is doubting that.

    The real point is were the Liberal Democrats in the position to be able to insist on abolishing university tuition fees, and if they did, what would be the knock-on costs? Suppose they actually had insisted on this policy above all others, what would the Tories have done to accommodate it? Accept the higher taxation needed to pay for it? Or make massive cuts elsewhere? Or accept it at the cost of reducing the taxation burden it imposes by a massive reduction in the number of university places? I can see doing the latter working well for the Tories – it wouldn’t be the universities that top Tories send THEIR children to that get closed down, and any protests about university closures would be met with “The Liberal Democrats forced us to do it so they could keep their pledge – blame them”.

    See the huge cuts that have been made to local government under this government. I am absolutely sure that had universities been kept paid for mostly out of direct taxation, we would now be seeing similar cuts made to them.

    Despite what Judy is saying, university tuition fees only cover the real costs. They have not brought big new money to universities. As a university lecturer I have seen my salary steadily decline in real term for many years, with constant below-inflation levels of pay rise. The salary I get after 25 years in the job is what someone who does well in the module I teach will get in a year or two after graduating, thanks largely to what I teach. Private training courses in what I teach cost something like £500 a day, and are done at a far more superficial level – not the lengthy coursework and detailed assessment and feedback which I give my students and is where my time goes doing it.

  • @Julian Tisi “I’d go so far as to say that the new system is pretty fair overall, being a graduate tax in all but name.”

    So if it so fair have you made a voluntary contribution to the treasury of 9% of your income to cover your tuition fees. It’s only fair afterall for you to pay as much as new graduates.

  • Tony Rowan-Wicks 22nd Jan '15 - 11:03am

    I have often voiced my concerns about the leadership of the party. But it is clear that our pary constitution must be terribly inadequate to allow policy-making on the hoof by parliamentarians, suported by an executive committee which is almost secretly [s]elected. Can such a centrist process be liberal? That is how this tuition fee saga came into being isn’t it? Badly considered by a few, jumped on as vote-winning, and now used by every commentator to show the folly of a great party which was not consulted adequately by the few.

    There comes a time when the few making the foolish decisions should stand down. When they will not, their future will be determined by the voter. Meanwhile, those of us who remain liberal will reform our party when the time comes.

  • David Evershed 22nd Jan '15 - 11:16am

    It was the free tuition fee pledge which was the mistake ………

    ………. not the coalitions new scheme that that those who financially benefit most from a free university education then pay an ‘extra tax’ out of their earnings.

    The increase in disdvantaged students attending university demonstates the wisdom of the scheme although there is a potential problem with graduates going abroad to avoid the ‘extra tax’ on earnings.

  • It’s often heartening, in these dark days, to read Tony Rowan-Wicks’ comments, as they’re proof that there are still Lib Dem members that have a realistic view of what has happened. I’m not sure anything he’s said is inherently incompatible with David Evershed, and I agree largely with his point too. It was’t a bad idea, it was the way it was mismanaged and presented to a public that was still angry with politicians after the expenses scandal.

    The day Nick made that announcement he took the mantle of the expenses scandal, and it’s burnt a hole through the centre of the party. All I’ve been saying for 4 years is that associating with someone that bares the public wrath in this fashion will destroy the party, in a few months this prediction will complete.

  • AC Trussell 22nd Jan '15 - 5:36pm

    Of course the tuition fees “event” was made an event by the other parties and their media outlets, doing their job(nasty as it is) and attacking the Lib-Dems for it; relentlessly, at every- and any, opportunity.
    They failed to mention that the majority of people voted for the student fees to be increased ; by voting Labour or Tory(565 seats ;against the Lib-Dem’s 57).
    They also never explained what a coalition entails ;being pragmatic(grownup) and voting for things you don’t like to actually get something you want. (listening to Labour- they will never be in Coalition)
    I think it should be talked about more, because all the negatives and miss-information has been said.
    Perhaps people will start to see how difficult a situation it was for the Lib-Dems.
    Would they have preferred them to stick to their principles and in so doing having another election whereby (most agree) a Tory government would have been elected- giving higher student fees? I seem to remember one party saying £12,000 and the other no limit at all! So the Lib-Dems achieving a situation where a student pays nothing and a graduate on average wage (£26,500) will only pay £9 a week for a university education, makes them the students savior!
    At the election; I think the Lib-Dems were very close to winning,(sounds daft now I know) but the “I agree with Nick” people bottled it and stuck to their old party for fear of the other getting in. Now the “conditioning” against the Lib-Dems has taken a toll.

    I didn’t know the Lib-Dems were responsible for Scotland’s zero fees or ; the choice was between student fees and lowering the tax threshold- and I am a Liberal Democrat!!
    The main problem is that the media’s opinion runs people’s minds – as most people can’t be bothered or to busy to find out more of what is going on.
    Being a Lib-Dem is difficult; but it is the best party for the future; when people leave their ideologies and prejudices, and have more empathy and work together.

  • @Mathew H “…….position to be able to insist on abolishing ”
    please correct me if I am mistaken but the signed promise for our candidates was “not to vote for an increase”
    My point was that, Irrespective of the needs of Universities, there was a funding imbalance between the needs of the early years & primary sector relative to the Tertiary sector. This is obviously unsurprising given the expansion of the Tertiary sector. The outcome which amounts to a graduate tax along with investment in pupil premium and meals for the early years is an effort to redress the imbalance.
    This has been achieved in the most politically incompetent manner imaginable.

  • “Mr Wallace

    If you believed in equality of opportunity you would have policies like abolishing private education and having an education system like Finland’s. Or a welfare system like Denmark’s. etc…

    Yes, and do you suppose that the 307 Conservative MPs in the coalition would respond to 57 Liberal Democrat MPs if they demanded this “Ok then, we’ll drop all we used to stand for and support your ideas instead”?” – No they wouldn’t.

    But my point is neither do the Lib Dems. The Lib Dems did a deal for no real, meaningful change. The Lib Dems are largely a status quo establishment party. My point is the difference between Labour, the Lib Dems and the Conservative Party is tinkering around the margins, not the prospect of meaningful change. There are no meaningful differences between the three of them.

    Many of your ex-voters now realise this and will vote Green now. Pretty much everyone knows this, bar the Lib Dem activists. Do you understand my point now, even if you don’t agree with it?

  • Alex Sabine 22nd Jan '15 - 7:26pm

    Abolishing private education is certainly not “in the soul of liberalism”, I agree with you there Mr Wallace. I’m pretty sure you’ll find it hasn’t been the policy of any social-democratic party in British history, either, though it would have gladdened the hearts of a Tony Crosland or Roy Hattersley.

    I’m not sure even the Green Party is proposing something so authoritarian, although I’ll admit I find it hard to work out their current policy platform from their website.

    If it is Green policy to abolish independent schools I would be interested to hear the party’s one (privately educated) MP Caroline Lucas being interviewed by a state-educated broadcaster on the subject. Andrew Neil perhaps?

  • Matthew Huntbach 22nd Jan '15 - 7:50pm

    brianD

    My point was that, Irrespective of the needs of Universities, there was a funding imbalance between the needs of the early years & primary sector relative to the Tertiary sector. This is obviously unsurprising given the expansion of the Tertiary sector. The outcome which amounts to a graduate tax along with investment in pupil premium and meals for the early years is an effort to redress the imbalance.
    This has been achieved in the most politically incompetent manner imaginable.

    So what would you say is the competent manner in which it should be done?

  • Matthew Huntbach 22nd Jan '15 - 7:51pm

    Mr Wallace

    But my point is neither do the Lib Dems. The Lib Dems did a deal for no real, meaningful change.

    So what would you say was the alternative deal they could have done with would have offered real, meaningful change?

  • Matthew Huntbach 22nd Jan '15 - 7:56pm

    Mr Wallace

    Many of your ex-voters now realise this and will vote Green now. Pretty much everyone knows this, bar the Lib Dem activists. Do you understand my point now, even if you don’t agree with it?

    I understood your point of view perfectly well in the first place. When we have lost every council seat in the borough where I used to be Leader of the Opposition and we once held 18, why do you suppose I and other activists and former activists there and elsewhere where similar has happened aren’t aware of the big drop in support we have had?

    By the way, please try considering how well the Greens did when they were in the coalition government in Ireland 2007-11.

  • Matthew Huntbach 22nd Jan '15 - 8:00pm

    Mr Wallace

    My point is the difference between Labour, the Lib Dems and the Conservative Party is tinkering around the margins, not the prospect of meaningful change.

    Well, ok, what “meaningful change” do you want and you think people would vote for? People say that sort of thing, but they tend to shy away when they see the details. I’d like to see big property taxes, for instance – but see the outrage that gets expressed at the tiniest hint of the idea called “mansion tax”. Personally I’d like to see inheritance taxed at the same rate as earned income, but I’ve always found it very difficult to get people to agree with me on that.

  • Matthew Huntbach 22nd Jan '15 - 8:11pm

    David Evershed

    It was the free tuition fee pledge which was the mistake ………

    The mistake was to make it without clearly pointing out the balancing increases in taxation it would require, and to make it without consideration of all possible outcomes of the election.

    So, somehow people have got the impression that tuition fees are a policy on their own, not something that has to be paid for – the problem is not abolishing tuition fees, but persuading 307 Tory MPs to break THEIR pledges and agree to the tax increases it would have required to do so.

    As I have already noted, whatever people say they want from government, they tend to not to agree with what would be required to pay for it.

  • @Matthew Huntbach “Well, ok, what “meaningful change” do you want and you think people would vote for? People say that sort of thing, but they tend to shy away when they see the details. I’d like to see big property taxes, for instance – but see the outrage that gets expressed at the tiniest hint of the idea called “mansion tax”. Personally I’d like to see inheritance taxed at the same rate as earned income, but I’ve always found it very difficult to get people to agree with me on that.”.

    Inheritance tax at the same rate as earned income? I agree with that as a minimum. My advice would be just say that is what you believe if you honestly believe it, if the electorate don’t just let them vote against you, but don’t pretend to believe in something you don’t.

    The Lib Dems can say they want a ‘Mansion Tax’ but if they ever get into a position of being able to make it so they will u-turn. It will not happen under the Lib Dems. Nothing will happen under the Lib Dems that is a meaningful deviation from the status quo.

    There is nothing wrong with believing that things should be largely as they are and wanting to keep things that way, but that makes them an establishment party and nothing else.

    As a Scot I know that my fellow Scots don’t believe in Status Quo and will largely wipe the Lib Dems out, what people will do in other parts of the country might very well be different. But just don’t pretend that the Lib Dems aren’t what they are, a centre right establishment party.

  • @ Matthew Huntbach: “Well, ok, what “meaningful change” do you want and you think people would vote for? ” Those are two very different things, what do I want and what people would vote for. But unless you stand for something regardless of it if popular or not you’re not worth voting for at all. Either way.

  • Sorry to comment again but this is just it in a nutshell Matthew “@ Matthew Huntbach: “Well, ok, what “meaningful change” do you want and you think people would vote for? ” there is nothing the Lib Dems will stand for as a point of principle.

    Therefore there is no point in the Lib Dems and there is no real reason for them to exist as a political party.

  • Matthew Huntbach 22nd Jan '15 - 9:27pm

    Mr Wallace

    The Lib Dems can say they want a ‘Mansion Tax’ but if they ever get into a position of being able to make it so they will u-turn. It will not happen under the Lib Dems. Nothing will happen under the Lib Dems that is a meaningful deviation from the status quo.

    But we aren’t “under the LibDems”. We’re under a government which is five-sixths Tory.

  • @Mathew H
    In answer to your challenge.
    How about not requiring candidates to sign a pledge not to vote for an increase then rejecting an opportunity to save the embarrassment by not voting for it thereby sacrificing the reputation of our party and his (Clegg’s) credibility.

  • Matthew Huntbach 22nd Jan '15 - 9:45pm

    Mr Wallace

    @ Matthew Huntbach: “Well, ok, what “meaningful change” do you want and you think people would vote for? ” Those are two very different things, what do I want and what people would vote for.

    Er, yes, but that is rather the point I was making, wasn’t it? The Liberal Democrats did not achieve as many votes as the Conservatives, and so did not win as many seats, so why is it that you think there is something wrong that the Liberal Democrats aren’t able to get any policy passed that they wish? The problem is that people were give a choice, and more of them voted Conservative than for anything else, and we have a distortional representation system (which the people, when given a chance to get rid of it said, no we want it and like its distortion) which means even if the Conservatives got well under half the vote, they got nearly half the seats – enough to make a Labour-LibDem coalition unviable.

    But unless you stand for something regardless of it if popular or not you’re not worth voting for at all

    But that’s a bit of a circular argument, isn’t it? Because the Liberal Democrats did not win enough votes to be able to control the government, you say that means they don’t stand for anything, therefore people shouldn’t vote for them.

    Oh, and please don’t use the word “you” when you mean the Liberal Democrats. I’m not an official spokesperson for the party, and I am so against its current leader and direction that I’ve dropped out of all activity for it. So I’m hardly the gung-ho everything is wonderful I-love-Nick person you seem to be taking me for.

  • Matthew Huntbach 22nd Jan '15 - 9:50pm

    brianD

    How about not requiring candidates to sign a pledge not to vote for an increase then rejecting an opportunity to save the embarrassment by not voting for it

    Er, sorry, you’ve missed my point about payment. How do you propose the Liberal Democrats should have got the Conservatives to agree to the taxes that would be necessary to go on subsidising universities?

    Or do you propose that they should have agreed to the universities not being able to charge tuition fees, along with the Tory budget that stopped subsiding universities so, well, yes, the pledge was kept that there were no tuition fees only there were no university places either on account of the all being closed down due to the LibDems voting against one way of paying for them and the Tories against the other?

  • Rereading Jim’s article, it is clear that he is not actually proposing the removal of tuition fee’s. Education establishments will still charge tuition fee’s, so non-UK EU students would still have to pay tuition fees. He is however proposing to change the system from a pay after to a pay in advance; one of the concepts behind the Child Trust Fund. Personally, I suspect that we will need both systems and let people decide how they manage their finances..

  • Matthew – You make a perfectly fair point about the limits of Lib Dem influence. But various statements by senior Lib Dems since the increase in fees – including the sainted Vince Cable – and also the history of the internal arguments over Lib Dem higher education policy in the 2005-10 period, suggest that many of the party’s leading lights never really believed in scrapping fees, were uneasy with the 2010 policy, but once saddled with it decided to make a virtue of it by signing the infamous pledge. Thus it was a short journey for them to justify and indeed praise the new arrangements and regret the previous policy. Blaming the Tories is too easy.

    You are of course right that in principle scrapping fees and increasing rather than cutting the HE budget was a perfectly affordable policy – provided those advocating it were willing to pay for it in higher taxes or bigger cuts elsewhere. Politics is about priorities, especially in times of austerity. It’s just that they evidently believe now – and probably believed at the time – that scrapping fees was always the wrong priority.

    Also, you imply that the Conservatives are always the big winners from First Past The Post – but as you will be aware, the combination of the geographical concentration of Labour’s vote and the current boundaries mean that currently Labour are the biggest beneficiaries. And ironically the Lib Dems may even have cause to be grateful for it at the next election, if it stymies the UKIP and Green surges and keeps them as king-makers despite a drastically shrunken vote share…

    Mr Wallace – In what way are the SNP not a (Scottish) establishment party and what is the radical change they are delivering for you and your fellow Scots? In many ways they are the epitome of a populist, centrist, defend-the-status-quo party across a wide range of domestic policies, who with two successive skilful leaders have adroitly tapped into anti-Westminster sentiment north of the border but whose policy programme is actually an eclectic mix of all sorts of right- and left-wing and corporatist elements.

  • Matthew Huntbach 23rd Jan '15 - 9:54am

    Alex Sabine – yes, I am very well aware of the points you make regarding tuition fees. What I’m trying to put is the position I have found myself in since the Coalition was formed. I’m very unhappy with the way it has been promoted by the leadership of the Liberal Democrats, yet I also feel most of the attacks on the Liberal Democrats of the sort typified by Mr Wallace are totally unrealistic, and do seem to be based on the idea that somehow 57 Liberal Democrats MPs could have managed to get a government in place that would be 100% Liberal Democrat in policy and that Liberal Democrats (every single one of us who is a member of the party) are bad people and our party deserves to be destroyed because we didn’t do it.

    In many ways I think these two forces are combining to destroy the party – the over-optimistic and exaggerated claims of influence coming from the party’s leadership and public relations people serves only to build up the lines thrown at us by our opponents, that actually we were secretly much more right-wing than we made out, and we are very happy with all the policies coming from this government.

    I’m not at all happy with the loans and tuition fees system, yet viewing it objectively I can see the argument that it was the compromise that works out best. That doesn’t mean, as people like Mr Wallace always allege, that I think the system is wonderful, I would much prefer to have full subsidy paid by higher general taxes. However, the guaranteed loans and generous write-off does mean it’s not too different in actual effect from a graduate tax. As I’ve said, it’s quite obvious the Tories would never have agreed to the higher taxes that full subsidy would require, or would want them balanced by even more horrible things than the horrible things we are seeing from this government now.

    Most of the attacks made on the Liberal Democrats since May 2010 about “abandoning your principles” and “propping up the Tories” just don’t take into account the very limited negotiating position the Parliamentary balance placed the party in. The “nah nah nah nah nah” attacks, and “I hope your party gets completely destroyed” lines thrown at us make that worse, because they are coming from just the sort of people we would want to turn round and look for morale support from when we are trying to push our case within the Coalition. The “nah nah nah nah nah” attacks HAVE been used by the right-wing in the Liberal Democrats to push the line “see, there is no support for us on the left any more, you have to accept that the party has changed our way, you are wasting your time trying to pull it back to where it was”. In that sense I very much see people like Mr Wallace as allies with the Cleggies in destroying the party of which I was once such a keen and active and happy member.

  • Matthew Huntbach 23rd Jan '15 - 10:06am

    Alex Sabine

    Also, you imply that the Conservatives are always the big winners from First Past The Post – but as you will be aware, the combination of the geographical concentration of Labour’s vote and the current boundaries mean that currently Labour are the biggest beneficiaries.

    The Tories and Labour are the big winners from FPTP. Even AV, while not proportional representation, at least makes it easier for other parties to break through by destroying the “Got to vote Tory/Labour to stop Labour/Tory from winning” line. I have been a strong supporter of electoral reform ever since I was growing up in Sussex, on a council estate my parents low waged people, and every MP in the county and neighbouring counties was a Tory who I felt had nothing to say for us and could not represent us. People like us who were not Tories yet living in a supposedly true-blue part of the country were left voiceless thanks to FPTP. I have NO TIME whatsoever for Labour opponents of electoral reform, because so far as I am concerned all they are about is a cosy deal with the Tories – you dominate in your bit and we’ll dominate in our bit and together we’ll shut out anyone else.

    I was sickened, absolutely and totally sickened, by the hypocritical lines coming out from Labour supporters of the “No to AV” campaign – simultaneously attacking the Liberal Democrats for “propping up the Tories” while asking people to block electoral reform on the grounds that the current system electoral system is so wonderful because of the way it distorts representation in favour of the biggest party. That is, FPTP props up the Tories as in did in 2010 by giving them a much higher share of seats than votes, and it was THIS which so weakened the negotiating position of the Liberal Democrats in the coalition.

  • Matthew Huntbach 23rd Jan '15 - 10:16am

    Alex Sabine

    And ironically the Lib Dems may even have cause to be grateful for it at the next election, if it stymies the UKIP and Green surges and keeps them as king-makers despite a drastically shrunken vote share…

    No, no, no, oh PLEASE, NO!!!

    We WEREN’T “kingmakers” in May 2010, as your use of the word “keeps” implies. Why do you so wish to bolster the unfair attacks made on us by our opponents by claiming we were? The whole point I’m making is that the Parliamentary balance, and view by Labour that it was better to go into opposition and then destroy the Liberal Democrats by five years of “nah nah nah nah nah”, meant that we didn’t have that big choice and influencde which the word “kingmaker” implies.

    If we are put in the same situation following the 2015 general election, of supposedly being “kingmakers” but actually having very limited influence, it will push our party further to destruction. If another Conservative-LibDem coalition emerges, it will be IMPOSSIBLE to escape from the general view that we are just a Conservative-ally party, and we WILL be destroyed, just as the National Liberal Party was, living on for years in a shadowy token existence while in reality being just an electoral peculiarity reflecting forgotten history.

  • OK, Matthew – It was a sloppy choice of words, let’s say ‘hold the balance of power’ then. My point is that the Lib Dems might well find themselves in this position again in 2015, despite a drastically reduced vote share, thanks in large pat to the likes of UKIP and the Greens (who may even outpoll them) being thwarted by FPTP.

    Doesn’t mean they should now abandon their belief in electoral reform – but I’m cynical enough to think it would make their failure to secure it a little more palatable 😉 A silver lining to the cloud, you might say…

  • Matthew Huntbach 23rd Jan '15 - 3:55pm

    Alex Sabine

    OK, Matthew – It was a sloppy choice of words, let’s say ‘hold the balance of power’ then. My point is that the Lib Dems might well find themselves in this position again in 2015

    Yes, and you use the word “grateful” for that position. By using that word you imply that it’s a good thing for us and we have done well out of it, when we haven’t. So you feed the lines of attack of our enemies, who say it’s all OUR fault that we have this current government, and every time we sound pleased about it, our support goes down because in effect it sounds out the message “We have this horrible right-wing government thanks to the LibDems, and the LibDems are very pleased with themselves about that”. Crunch, bang goes another % point in the opinion polls.

  • Alex Sabine 23rd Jan '15 - 4:56pm

    I said the Lib Dems might “even have cause to be grateful” about their failure to reform the electoral system, in the quotidian sense of the word “grateful” (ie thankful) and in the specific context of how the election results look like they might play out in 2020. I’m perfectly aware that FPTP has been a major handicap for the Lib Dems throughout their previous existence (and before that the Liberals/SDP/Alliance).

    I’m not just thinking about the relationship between vote share and number of seats, but the relative position of different small parties in terms of votes/seats conversion, and who might be in the position of holding the balance of power in a hung parliament. There is no need to be so touchy about it. To be clear, Labour are likely to be even more “grateful” for FPTP if (as looks quite possible) the Tories outpoll them but end up with fewer seats.

    I thought it was more or less an open secret that the Lib Dem strategy in May will be a purely defensive one of shoring up their strongest seats and trying to minimise losses by pouring all their resources into carefully selected ‘winnable seats’ and fighting 75 (or however many) by-elections?

    This may be what it is compelled to do by FPTP, but ironically it is the party’s very success in doing that over a long period that means it will probably weather the expected battering better than some commentators who talk of a ‘Lib Dem wipeout’ are predicting. By the same token, the problem for UKIP and the Greens is that their support is too thinly spread geographically and they do not have the incumbency factor working for them. So they are the ones who will really be screwed by FPTP in May and are unlikely to have a significant role in forming the next government.

  • Alex Sabine 23rd Jan '15 - 5:30pm

    Sorry, obviously I meant 2015 in the first sentence of my comment above. I don’t think many people are betting money on the outcome of the 2020 general election from this distance!

  • Matthew Huntbach 24th Jan '15 - 2:53am

    Alex Sabine

    I said the Lib Dems might “even have cause to be grateful” about their failure to reform the electoral system, in the quotidian sense of the word “grateful” (ie thankful) and in the specific context of how the election results look like they might play out in 2020.

    No. You said the Liberal Democrats should be grateful to be kept as king-makers. As I’ve pointed out, to the electorate that comes out as us saying we chose to put in this current government, and we are very pleased with ourselves about that. You may not have meant it that way, but that’s how a lot of what the Liberal Democrats nationally have been saying comes out as, and it means crunch, bang, whallop, down goes our vote because people take it as meaning we like all the horrible right-wing things this Tory-dominated government is doing. I’ve been trying to argue in defence of our party against people like Mr Wallace, and then people like you come along and essentially back up all Mr Wallace is saying and undermine all the defence I’ve been trying to make about the difficult position we were left in after the 2010 general election.

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