Opinion: How Lib Dems make policy – or fail to – and the consequences

Causal chains can be very long, with surprising connections between initiating events and final outcomes. Severe violence between protesters and police on the streets of London resulted from the debacle over student fees, broken pledges, and continuing double talk as to whether this is a coalition compromise, or has now somehow magically become best policy. But it has its roots further back in a faulted policy making process in the Lib Dem party. How did an intelligent political party get such policy so wrong less than a year ago, when it already knew all the current economic issues? To understand this, Lib Dems need to dig more deeply to understand the failure of the policy making process.

Higher education funding is not the only area in which Lib Dem policy is faulted and inadequate. Two other examples are i) energy policy and ii) the mansion tax. The party’s manifesto energy policy consisted of opposing new nuclear power generation and new coal fired power generation, unless this was with Carbon Capture and Sequestration. Like the student fees policy, it was very populist in tone, but also like the student fees policy, it was intellectually inadequate and managerially irresponsible in not addressing the full reality of UK energy policy requirements. It has therefore equally crashed and been substantially revised.

What was missing was a fundamental policy of how the UK should generate the 350 TWhr of electricity it currently consumes, which is forecast to rise to 373 TWhr by 2022. A vague mention of conservation policies is insufficient. If LD policy makers believe that UK power consumption can reduce below 350TWhr rather than growing with GDP, then they needed to specify exactly what figure it can be reduced to, by what mechanisms this can be achieved, and what any investment would cost, ie demonstrate that the policy is both feasible and economic. Then the coal / gas / nuclear / renewables fuel mix needed proper specification, taking full account of the end of the UK’s self sufficiency in natural gas, the vagaries of the LNG market, the high dependency on Colombian and Russian coal, the zero emissions of nuclear power, and the very high KWHr cost of renewable power. Policy cannot drive towards very high cost renewable power, without being honest and explicit about the result in very much higher consumer electricity bills. These would undoubtedly cause family income hardship, and would increase fuel poverty, contrary to other policy promises. Simple aspirations for non fossil fuel power generation are admirable, but real policy needs to lead to a definite result which will deliver the electricity needed. Hence the climb down on new nuclear stations, although this equally inevitable policy switch has not yet brought the protesters onto the streets to face police kettling, mounted police charges and baton attacks.

The mansion tax was simply foisted on the party by Vince Cable. Contrary to his protestations, it is not a fair tax. Property taxes are never fair. Two people who have the same funds end up being taxed differentially if one has bought a large house, and the other has bought a cheaper house and done something else with the rest of their money. Houses prices are in any case very different in different parts of the country. Cumulative ‘fair’ taxes on target groups can end up being very unfair in total. The party had known all this historically, and has long and honourably campaigned for a local income tax to replace the old unfair property taxes of rates or the current Council Tax. This was reversed overnight by Vince Cable in a leading example of what is wrong with the party’s policy formulation process.

Why does the party adopt such ill conceived policies, on higher education, power generation, and property taxes which it is later forced to abandon or shelve? It is simply because the party fails to engage the talent it has within its membership to formulate more robust, intellectually defensible policies. My personal experience may well be atypical, but despite a professional career in the energy sector, including authoring International Energy Agency reports on clean coal technology, senior party members did not respond to an offer to help to develop energy policy. Equally I received no reply at all to my response to a party email inviting offers to contribute to policy working groups. Neither did my colleagues in other local wards.

Appointment to these groups appears to be a completely non transparent process. Party members with something worthwhile to say about policy issues are not allowed to speak at conference, unless they have local party endorsement to do so. Again in my case, a request even to meet the local party chairman to discuss such support was declined.

I’m not actually looking for work or a role personally in writing this. Rather, I suspect that in fact my experience is not atypical, but that the party simply ignores or declines the capability it has in its membership to formulate more intellectually robust and politically sensible policies. Local constituency parties are a very mixed bag. Small sub groups of them end up with excessive and unrepresentative power to select parliamentary candidates against criteria that favour Focus delivering activists above candidates with policy convictions. They should not also be a check point for members with capable contributions to policy being allowed to make conference contributions. Their power to do so is a form of censorship. Appointment to policy working groups should be open, competitive, and made against criteria of professional and intellectual capability.

If policy formulation is left to obscure unelected policy groups and to leaders like Vince Cable who appear to be allowed to shoot from the hip, (and who now apparently thinks he has the single handed power to call policy shots capable of destabilising the government), then it is no surprise that indefensible policies emerge, and that these then have to be abandoned. As we have seen this last week, the social consequences of such mistakes can be enormous. Social violence cannot be excused on the grounds of bad policy formulation, but this excuse should not even exist, and therefore not provide an iota of fodder for violent protest.

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40 Comments

  • Foregone Conclusion 27th Dec '10 - 3:37pm

    I know at least one other person who has had a similar experience with trying and failing to get onto a policy working group set up by the FPC, despite having oodles of experience, and instead being replaced by someone less knowledgable but more familiar to Cowley Street. This person was a high-ranking officer in our local regional party – if someone like that can’t get on, then the rest of us are done for (unless, I suspect, you live in London or SE England – although I’d be happy to be proved wrong!) I think that the power of e-mail should mean that every party member should be allowed to know that a policy group is being formed, although I appreciate that the FPC might not relish wading through long lists of candidates.

    I would say though that it’s probably better to distinguish between the two examples you’ve given – nuclear power and the mansion tax – because one is a technical question, and one is a question of ideology and values (define fair?), where the party policy structure is stronger. Also, our existing policy structure does place less power in the hands of our spokespersons/ministers than the two other big parties, meaning that it is less easy (although still very possible) for someone like Vince to ‘shoot from the hip’.

  • Mike(The Labour one) 27th Dec '10 - 4:09pm

    I think it’s clear that the Lib Dems pushed policies in the run up to the general election thinking they’d end up in coalition talks with the Tories. We still haven’t had any clarification over whether the Lib Dem negotiating team told the Tories they’d changed their minds.

    The mansion tax looks like the same thing. Stock up on policies the Tories don’t like so you can swap them in talks for ministerial cars.

  • David Wright 27th Dec '10 - 5:04pm

    If you want to be a Voting Representative at the party Conference, start by getting nominated as one prior to your local party’s AGM. The process for electing voting reps is pretty standardised in the state constitutions – see here and look through the model Local Party constitution. Many local parties find it hard to get enough volunteers, so have places available nearer the Conference date, but if your fills all its places at the AGM you need to be there! The members vote, so it helps if they know you – get involved locally.

  • Geoff Crocker 27th Dec '10 - 5:10pm

    MatGB (itself an obscure way to post?) – Yes, the problem with the structure is that it is pretty impenetrable other than to ‘activists’. That at least is my experience from sincere attempts to engage, and I give some examples in my post – they are real ones. So it’s possible to understand the structure (which you claim I totally fail to – thanks) but not to be able to engage it. As another example, I attend very many conferences in my professional life, but the 2 Lib Dem national conferences I have attended are the only ones from which I have come away not having met any new contact despite determined effort on my part. If policy groups are not obscure, and since you clearly claim to understand the structure and how it works, then please send me a list of them and their members and of how I or anyone else can apply to be a member of them, what the competitve appointment criteria are, who the appointing committee are, where the web links are etc. Geoff.

  • Geoff Crocker 27th Dec '10 - 5:12pm

    David Wright – fine in principle but the local party AGM is about the most boring and unengaging meeting I have ever attended – I didn’t make it past the raffle and the endless contributions about procedure etc from established activists 🙂 Geoff

  • Geoff – a very interesting post which I believe could also apply, in part, to the LP.

    I think there is always a huge difference when formulating party policy, no matter how badly it’s done, with whether there is any prospect of the party being in power or whether it has had recent experience of being in government.

    The fact that the LibDems have never previously been in that position I would suggest is bound to create a certain ‘weakness’ in at least some of their policies and, indeed, the thinking behind them. Policies can survive in Opposition with no real problem that quite simply wouldn’t survive for 10 seconds in Government.

    The LibDem policy area that I think best typifies my view is the non like-for-like Trident replacement one where I don’t think a lot of technical expertise is required to formulate the basic party policy decision but to then see it through and fully implement the policy in government takes immense technical and specialised knowledge covering a huge number of disciplines.

    I think a lot of people recognise that we are in a world that could potentially become more dangerous because of nuclear proliferation in countries like Iraq and North Korea as well as elsewhere although I readily accept that this is not the position of the majority of LibDem members or party activists although I really wonder what Clegg’s actual position on this will be when he is forced to nail his colours to the mast.

    In September the Lib Dem Conference overwhelmingly supported an emergency motion to include Trident in the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) which then delayed final decision for 5 years and reduced warheads carried. On the face of it a victory for party policy but planning for the like-for-like replacement continues as we discuss under ‘Initial Gate’.

    *** Perhaps at this stage the detailed knowledge for policy-making that Geoff talks about is required as to whether a modern Trident or a land-based delivery system is the best replacement – if land-based does the local community get a veto on siting 🙂

    What criteria should be used? Should we go beyond just cost or accuracy and think about ability to evade enemy detection and many others such as the much higher vulnerability of Cruise missile compared to Trident ones.

    Warhead reduction is something that has been ongoing for sometime and to be honest with more accurate targeting and yield I need an expert to tell me whether reduction is actually more than just mouth music but I don’t think it takes an expert to know that even a reduced number of warheads and missiles is capable of horrendous mass destruction.

    Another bonus for political parties who make it into government is that they then get an army of civil servants and experts who can take their basic party policy and flesh-it out with the detail required to make it a fully functioning government policy although without a knoweledeable political oversight much important control of the detail can be lost.

    Also the membership profile of different parties does vary and this could affect the work experience and expertise available to the party which is a pity because I think we can end up with embedded party policy totems that are difficult to remove once they become established and yet, if there had been informed debate to begin with then they quite possibly would have been voted down as a policy option.

  • Simon McGrath 27th Dec '10 - 6:01pm

    All good points, and rather extraordinary that there was no room in the formulation of energy policy for someone who knows so much about it.

    But surely what happened with tuition fees was that seeing the opposition from Clegg once he had been elected Leader (against the wishes of many activists) the Social liberal forum secretly arranged to run a slate of candidates to take control of the Federal Policy Ctttee so that it could be forced into the manifesto against clegg and cable’s wishes?

  • I know nothing of the party’s internal organisation so I shan’t comment on that. But in my view the Lib Dems need to learn lessons from the tuition fees issue. It is perhaps a one off issue. Increasing anxiety about the cuts yet to come, many on the left opposing the coalition, and many students and young people voting for the Lib Dems solely because of tuition fees policy which led to them feeling betrayed all conspired to making this the problem it became.

    I think to regain trust the Lib Dems are going to need to publicly show the country that they have learned lessons from this. Explain to the country what those lessons are and how changes will be made to ensure something like that doesn’t happen again. It may be that the next election is too soon to rebuild public trust and the Lib Dems will take a hit because of it, but beyond that, if the party is to move forward after the next election then it will have to tackle this in my view.

    Asking the question of whether like whether to promise to abolish fees in the first place was genuinely sensible could be a good one.

    There has been no public discussion on tuition fees, and after the Browne Report it seems the policy was rushed and the main focus of the coalition was to placate the media and the public. It doesn’t seem to have taken much of the burden off the tax payer, merely just taking more of the cost ‘off the balance sheet’ waiting to be paid at a future date. It looks pretty clear that this will have to be revisited at a later date, if any government ever has the stomach for it.

    Perhaps as the most likely for of government the Lib Dems will be in at this moment in time will be coalitions, the Lib Dems should think about designing strong policies that could be accepted by other parties as well, and not just for a majority Lib Dem government.

  • While I entirely disagree with the poster about the tuition fee policy (I think the policy is about right and that the Conservative led government is wrong), they do have a fair point. The process (which has all the worst hallmarks of a hangover from the SDP) is not as transparent as it should be. While FPC itself is partly elected by conference reps, it, along with other federal committees, is elected in a way that persistently skews its membership disproportionately towards the largest regions (ie London and the “home counties”). However, the various sub committees of FPC that look at specific policies are not made up on any kind of transparent basis. It appears that their membership is down to the patronage of the members of FPC. It would seem to the outsider that the qualifications of living in or near London (where all the meetings seem to be and has no one there even heard of video conferencing?) and being a personal friend of one or more members of FPC carries far more weight than actually knowing anything about the subject matter the committee is supposed to cover. When they do have “expert” members, they represent producer interests disproportionately rather than having dispassionate and unbiased expert knowledge.

    In short, our federal committee system needs a serious overhaul so that it represents the full diversity of the party across the whole country in a transparent way and makes better use of the skills and knowledge within it. Of course, those who control the party have no interest in doing any such thing!

  • It is a very interesting post, and I am going to apologise upfront for a slightly critical tone. I do not mean to be critical, not least because I think that there are good points here. It’s just that there are two points that rather get my goat.

    1) I realise that this may go against the grain, but…

    ‘Property taxes are never fair. Two people who have the same funds end up being taxed differentially if one has bought a large house, and the other has bought a cheaper house and done something else with the rest of their money. Houses prices are in any case very different in different parts of the country’

    Utter nonsense. Property inflation is not fair either, but no one ever seems to have a problem with that!

    Leaving that aside, property can not up and head to a foreign tax domain, property is localised in nature, allowing local flexibilities and property tax can not easily be avoided. Most other countries have a property tax of some sort for these reasons alone. But beyond that, why should assets and not income be taxed – the boomers get a sweet deal out of the current arrangement. Bluntly, if granny wants to minimise her tax liability, she can move. The imperfect property tax is, arguably, one of the reasons for our lucicrous house price hyper-inflation.

    People with the same funds are taxed differently if they choose to buy, say tobacco or petrol than if they choose to buy other things. Why should property be a special case? Indeed, it is entirely arguable that if we taxed BTL landlords at a more appropriate rate we would have fewer property market problems.

    There are – I do not doubt – arguments to be had about improving the current Council Tax. But another property pander to the boomers should absolutely be off the agenda.

    2) The HE Fees and Energy Policy are good illustrations of the ‘problem’ – and it is a problem for the party. But isn’t this a symptom not of poor policy-making, but poor politics? There has been an issue, and it is one about which I have had reservations for some time, about this party trying to be all things to all people. Locally, you can get away with this, at least to a point. With national office these tensions, which I don’t think are all that novel, have just been exposed in a pretty stark way. There are limits to how far differences can be accommodated. In 2011, the party may have to be a bit more ruthless, for want of a better term, in how it projects itself. HE fees always looked like an accident waiting to happen, energy looked like hopey-changey stuff. Frankly they always looked more like political positioning and less like something a government could do.

    The problem may or may not be the internal party sturcture, I don’t know nearly enough to comment. But the internal party has to work with the hand it is dealt and I would hope that the leadership become rather smarter about holding out hostages to fortune.

  • Andrew Suffield 27th Dec '10 - 7:25pm

    rather extraordinary that there was no room in the formulation of energy policy for someone who knows so much about it

    Not really that, it’s just that the party’s internal organization at the federal level is notoriously opaque.

    About the only good thing you can say about the federal party’s democratic structure is that unlike the other two big parties, it has one. By any objective criteria, it’s an embarrassment.

  • Sam – Just a response to your comment. However the HE fees abolition (whatever that means in practice) policy was reached, as I understand it every Lib Dem candidate for Westminster signed the pledge. Someone, somewhere must have been pretty sure of themself to make something on that scale happen. Don’t forget that several candidates actively courted the student vote too, so one way or the other it looks like a strategy.

    It is difficult to see HE fees as a rogue given how many candidates signed up.

  • I’m sure I’m going to be shot down… but it seems to me the only people who defend the FPC and the policy committees are the members of said committees and that they have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. It’s good that several FPC members contribute to this site, so at least I have some idea what they stand for – though I can say I profoundly disagree with some of views.

    I would also imagine that many of the recently joined members of the party are more Cleggite than the FPC and that they joined because the party had begun to reform and look more professional. It’s dispiriting to see an internal group working against the leadership. And yes, I’m amazed that people with professional experience in energy, media, PR etc aren’t asked to use their skills on behalf of the party.

  • Just as a point of interest, here are the results of a LDV survey (perhaps not a representative sample of the party, but still…):
    Do you believe Chris Huhne is right to say that nuclear power, alongside oil and gas and renewable sources, should be part of the UK’s energy mix?

    41% – Yes, nuclear should be part of the mix as long as there is no public subsidy
    27% – Yes, nuclear should be part of the mix even if some public subsidy proves necessary
    25% – No, nuclear power should play no part in the UK’s energy mix
    4% – Other
    4% – Don’t know / No opinion

  • Though I’m not too familiar with the policy-making process, how about the following?:

    – shift the emphasis from superficial motions for conference to those that begin with a policy paper
    – plan in advance what PPs will be done that year and let members and think tanks know
    – have a ‘call for evidence’ at the beginning of each paper where members and think tanks can contribute
    – allow particularly well qualified party members to nominate themselves for the PP working group
    – have a transparent process for choosing the working group
    – upon completion, maybe circulate a draft paper for comments and suggestions before conference
    – submit the thorough policy paper to conference for further discussion and a vote
    – refer in the manifesto to [the conference-approved parts of] PPs and ensure that MPs to some extent stick to them

    As I said, I’m not sure which bits of that already happen, but the system does need to to give the best possible, well-reasoned, thorough policies and provide transparency and allow members to contribute. The party needs to be its own think tank.

  • Geoff Crocker 27th Dec '10 - 10:09pm

    Thanks for the responses.

    1 I agree with Ecojon that it is tempting to treat policy making in opposition as an easy free ride, but my point is that a serious responsible intelligent party should not do this. It should develop workable defensible policies. Businesses have to do this with their products before they are marketed. Failure to do this has led to shock policy reversal and street violence, a terrible outcome.

    2 Alex M suggests that a mansion tax would divert investment to productive uses. Well housebuilding companies would regard housing as productive. An investment-attractive tax might be zero CGT on any asset/business created from scratch, but this would be unlikely to gain LD support. Dora says that my statement about property tax is ‘utter nonsense’. This isn’t conducive to the good respectful policy debate we need. My comments are not nonsense at all but are entirely rational. Property tax is in any case double taxation as the property has been bought from taxed income. I agree that sales taxes are flawed in the same way and are usually regressive so that income tax remains the fairest, as long as it never rises above 50% because what incentive is there for extra work if the person working gets less than half the value of what they do?

    3 Nigel Ashton is correct and I am wrong – it is voting at conference which needs local party approval, not speaking. However I suggest that all voting should be OMOV, or one person one vote to be truly democratic as various responses claim the LDP is. Why should members need local party approval to be able to vote at conference? It is all at least mildly exclusive, and unnecessarily so.

    4 Al thinks I mean that the current tuition fees policy is correct. Actually I do not think this. I edited this part of my post down, but it was meant to say that IF the current policy is now said to be correct by party leaders, how come we got it so wrong before. I don’t mean that we did get it so wrong before. But something that is wrong with the HE fees debate is the view that only students benefit from HE. This simply is not true. The whole of society benefits from being an educated society. For example, everyone benefits from pharmaceuticals which require well trained graduates to develop them. There are huge externalities from education and it is not only the student who benefits. Also given that the present income tax system is progressive, with higher incomes taxed at 40% and those over £100,000 at 62.5% due to the loss of personal allowance, then higher earning graduates are already contributing back to education. All these factors need to be more carefully considered in the HE funding debate.

    5 It’s interesting that many posting responses state they do not know how the party structure works. This alone is an indication of the failure to inform and involve committed party members in the policy process.Many state that appointment to FPC and its sub committees is an obscure and opaque process. Many think it is subject to patronage. Given the way Paddy Ashdown is allowed access to the party membership e-mail list to promote his preferred candidates for party leader and party president, this claim does not surprise me. It may be ‘democratic’ but by what form of democracy? Elections in the Soviet Union were democratic.

    6 So Gareth Epps does not know who I am. I’m not sure what this means or why it matters? I also don’t know who Gareth Epps is. I am an LD member in the Bristol West constituency. If Gareth wants to know more he can Google me as I did him. He also says thay my claim about unelected policy groups is complete nonsense. I may have to revise what I mean – I have seen no election for these groups. Can Gareth please tell me when such elections happen and who gets to vote as I would like to vote against the current members of the policy groups on higher education, property tax, and energy. More seriously, these roles should be properly recruited, CVs submitted, proper interviewing etc held so that best policy groups are formed so that we get sound defensible policies.

  • Cheltenham Robin 27th Dec '10 - 10:43pm

    A couple of points:

    1) Conference delegates are not (in the main) elected reps from local parties, they are self selecting, i.e. they can afford to go to conference and/or can arrange time off work/away from home.

    2) In debates about nuclear policy /tuition fees, the hall is always packed with self interest groups, Green Liberal Democrats / Students and Educationalists.

    These self selecting delegates do not always reflect the views of the wider party.

  • I thought I would bring a little Xmas humour in the way that the Coalition hopes to make policy in the future:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/dec/27/public-policies-coalition-x-factor

  • Paul Griffiths 27th Dec '10 - 11:01pm

    @ Gareth Epps

    FWIW, Conference had the chance to throw out the Mansion Tax policy at Spring Federal Conference in Birmingham. (I know, because I moved the separate vote.)

  • Thank you for writing this. I hope some of the people in policy-making circles are reading it and doing some soul-searching.

    What perplexes me about the tuition fees policy is that even politically sensible policies that were recommended by the Browne Panel (which had excellent, well-informed panelists, who did thorough homework) were overturned by the Government bureaucracies without any justification with apparently tacit support from the Ministers. For instance, the Browne recommendation was that the interest rate should be fixed at the Government’s cost of borrowing and whatever interest the graduates cannot pay should be rebated by the Government. If the Government followed this recommendation, it would have been able to claim that the tuition fees are not entirely the burden of the students but the Government was acting as a partner. Instead, the Government has chosen to fix a variable rate of interest which goes from 0 to 3% real rate (the latter of which is above the Government’s cost of borrowing). So instead of appearing as a partner, the Government now appears as a vicious money lender. What a difference it makes! Throughout the debate, the Government never managed to communicate what costs it was taking on. What a disaster!

  • @Uday Reddy

    I think the whole problem with tuition fees was that it centred round the argument as to what was the most progressive system for student repayment and there seemed to be no debate or thought as to what percentage burden the state should be shouldering of the university teaching budget and what portion should be met by the students.

    I realise the whole issue was driven by Tory ideology but I have never actually figured out how the LibDems – excluding Clegg and Alexander – actually allowed themselves to be sucked down the plughole as easily as they were. They went along blindly with the Tories and effectively privatised our university education system – why?

    I exclude Cable because I honestly think he has lost the plot and I was saying that long before the Murdoch gaffe and he just didn’t seem to be in command of his brief on tuition fees. I await with interest to see Tuition Fees 2 and, in particular, the definition of the ‘exceptional circumstances’ required for fees to be allowed above the £6K limit.

    It also appears that the traditionally lower fees charged to part-time students will be jacked-up – especially following the income loss since the uni teaching cut-backs that followed the tuition fee vote – so that possibly the only winners out of the whole debacle will now also end up losers.

    We also, of course, have the various assembly/parliament elections in May coming up and I wait to see what the LibDem groups are going to vote for on tuition fees and whether it will be different from the stance taken by the party in England.

    I always thought that the underlying rationale of Browne was flawed but we have now moved well beyond that point and there is no doubt in my mind that the architect of the report will not be held responsible for the flawed policies which are seen by students and the public to be the responsibility of the LibDem party and its pledge-breaking MPs.

  • David Allen 28th Dec '10 - 1:29am

    “As you appear to have no understanding of party structure, your legitimate points are lost amongst the windmills you’re tilting at.”

    Sounds just like Soviet communism!

    That said, I don’t entirely buy the poster’s argument either. It comes across as implying that, because he is capable of writing an expert analysis on the efficiency of burning coal in power plant, therefore his individual view on energy policy should be adopted as Party policy on energy forthwith. Over-reliance on individual experts, who may have individual axes to grind, is not right either!

    Perhaps what we need is a process of robustness testing. For example, we could have called a seminar on energy policy, invited a shoal of outside experts, presented a draft policy, and invited comment. Now that might have genuinely helped us avoid some pitfalls!

  • Andrew Suffield 28th Dec '10 - 1:41am

    It may be ‘democratic’ but by what form of democracy?

    Frankly, it’s the “well-meaning but rather inept” form. This is something that’s fairly well known, but it has continued because it would be a work of many people over a period of years to reform it, and the general opinion within the party is that this sort of navel-gazing exercise is not the most useful way to spend the party’s limited manpower.

    Yes, things would be much better if it was solved. But solving it is expensive, and this is not a good time to focus on party internals.

  • @Ecojon

    Estimates vary, but the best guess is that the State will still be paying roughly half the cost of the teaching, pretty much as it is doing now, but the spending will be focused on the low earners. The trouble is that hardly anybody knows this. The Government has completely failed to explain it properly.

    Cable definitely thought it through. He didn’t sell out. But he is such a lousy communicator that nobody knows what his thinking is. I am surprised to read that he is extremely popular among the Lib Dems. It is hard to see why.

  • To add a futher a point, it is possible that Cable wasn’t even able to explain it to Nick Clegg. If Clegg had understood it, he would have communicated it a lot better. It is an all round disaster.

  • Geoff Crocker 28th Dec '10 - 3:50am

    David Allen’s suggestion that I am arguing for my individual view on energy policy to be adopted by the party is totally unjustified. I neither think nor have written this. Rather I think that open competitive recruitment to policy working groups should be implemented.

    Uday Redday might be correct that the tuition fees decision has some merit, but my point is different to this – it is that one of the policies, ie the manifesto policy and the one recently legislated must be wrong, and that an intelligent party would not have got one of them so wrong. Hence the urgent need for reform of the party’s policy formulation process which Andrew Suffield characterises as navel gazing which will take years to solve. Well if Andrew’s claim is true, it is a further indictment of Lib Dem effectiveness. A good policy process could be determined and implemented quickly by a capable party which considers itself fit for government.

  • Andrew Suffield 28th Dec '10 - 7:44am

    A good policy process could be determined and implemented quickly by a capable party which considers itself fit for government.

    The people who will be (are) in the government and the people running the federal policy process are not the same people. There is only a very small overlap.

    Anyway, have you met a UK government? “Quickly” isn’t a word I’d use in reference to any of them.

  • Geoff Crocker 28th Dec '10 - 9:08am

    Well one point of view is that the present government is doing things too quickly, without sufficient thought, consultation, and careful policy analysis

  • @Uday Reddy

    I don’t want to actually rehash the tuition fee debate other than to obeserve that many felt the steep rise in fees could form a psychological barrier to university entry for students from a poorer background. I really don’t think that past experience is very helpful here and that we might have to wait to see what actually happens. But if it turns out that the steep rise has been a disincentive then we will have blighted the potential of a generation of poorer kids for a political gamble based on Tory ideology.

    Also worth remembering the extra 10,000 uni places are only for this year and next and are then being scrapped and this mechanism of controlling student numbers has the potential to make huge differences in what financial support any government actually provides to universities.

    I may have missed this but I haven’t actually noticed any government announcement of a guarantee of the total figure of loans it will make in future years which of course could have a massive effect on unis if this was cut.

    The Higher Education Policy Institute has dished Browne by stating that his belief that poorer kids won’t be put off by increased fees is merely an ‘assertion’ and the Institute for Fiscal Studies has stated that the poorest 30 per cent of students from poor backgrounds will be worse off under Cable’s changes.

    So I don’t believe he has actually thought it through although, to be fair, the basis of the Browne Report was flawed as was Cable’s tinkering with it. I think his communication skills problem arose because the complexity of the matter actually eluded Vince who is not getting younger and I would suggest is struggling with the pressures of his job.

    And if you seriously believe that Clegg might not have understood the policy then that really is a serious indictment as the matter has damaged his party deeply in credibility and electoral terms to an extent which might ultimately prove fatal.

    But meantime we still wait for the promised publication of tuition fee details to try and make sense of all the contradictory statements issued before the vote. It appears that the average tuition fee that unis require to make up lost funding will be £7.5K which seems to well and truly burst the £6K dam and do nothing to improve the teaching experience for students which seems to make a mockery of the consumer power they were meant to be getting as a trade-off for ending up with larger personal debt.

  • @EcoJon

    You don’t need to rehash the old arguments on tuition fees because I have read all of them. The fact that higher fees will pose a psychological barrier to students from poorer backgrounds is well-understood in the “tuition fee community” (if I can call it that). For instance watch the testimony of Nicholas Barr to the Browne Panel on this page. It begins at 05:22. You are also welcome to watch the entire tape of Shepherd and Barr. It is highly educational.

    The repayment system has been designed so that it doesn’t deter any one. Graduates pay 9% of their income above 21,000 for 30 years. Period. It makes no difference how much tuition fees and living costs they have borrowed. So, what happens to the rest of the loan. Answer: The Government pays it. It is this last point that Clegg and Cable and the rest of the political class have failed to communicate. The “psychological barrier” would be considerably alleviated if the Government comes out and says publicly that they are a partner in every student loan. The Government pays whatever the graduates are unable to pay. As you can see, this is a very important psychological point that can reassure the students from the poorer backgrounds. The only way the Government can reassure the student protesters at this point is to come out and say how much the Government will be spending from its coffers for their education.

    As for Cable, it is well-known that he wanted to pursue a graduate tax approach. But the Browne Panel convinced him that the repayment scheme they hae proposed is very much like a graduate tax, while avoiding the problems of the latter. I am positive that he has a full understanding of this point.

    Cable is not lacking in intelligence. He is lacking in understanding.

  • I thought the link below is very interesting in terms of causal links in that pharmaceuticals manufactured in the UK are being sold to America so they can be used to give death-row prisoners their fatal injections.

    According to the author Cable is ignoring him re the matter but perhaps someone could advise me if this kind of trade is just an example of neo-liberalism in practice.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/dec/28/vince-cable-lethal-injection

  • Andrew Suffield 29th Dec '10 - 7:47am

    Well one point of view is that the present government is doing things too quickly, without sufficient thought, consultation, and careful policy analysis

    Yes, those people are insane. The present government is doing things so slowly that most of the initiatives being discussed today will not come into effect until its term is over – dates of 2016 through 2020 are floating around many of them. For spending cuts they’re working to a 5-year plan – slower is impossible, 5 years is all the time they have.

    Even if Lib Dem policy could be constructed using the government’s resources, it wouldn’t be ready in time for the next election at that rate.

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