Opinion: Young Liberal Democrats – Life After the ‘F’ Word

The last year has obviously been a rather interesting one in which to be a Liberal Democrat, particularly a young one. Sadly, as a result of some coalition decisions, notably the increase in tuition fees, some young people have chosen to leave the party. More worrying are the people that may now never join. I have always believed that the Liberal Democrats are the party that best advocates policy for young people. However, the question remains, how do we engage more young people in our party after fees?

Personally, I feel that the fees decision, and its future effect, comes down to two conflicting issues:

Firstly, allowing tuition fees to be up to £9000 was wrong, and many first time voters felt deeply let down by it.

Secondly, many aspects of the new payback system are very good indeed, and they would not have happened without Liberal Democrats in the cabinet. Ultimately, promoting these things better could have lessened the effect on future voters and members, but the party didn’t use the right channels to speak to the right people.

As someone who works in online communications and campaigning, clearly I believe the Internet provides a huge opportunity for youth engagement. It is also an area in which we as a party can still do more. For example, when the decision on fees happened, why was it left to the Conservatives to produce the ‘Facts on Fees’ website? Why was video footage of Nick Clegg discussing the issue only released after the vote and the protests? When it was eventually released, the footage required a lot of commitment as it was in three different sections and half an hour long!

The way the Liberal Democrats do politics also needs to change if we are going to encourage more young members. Delivering leaflets at 10am on a Saturday morning probably isn’t going to draw in a huge under 25 crowd! More sociable, discussion based sessions, where new young members can make their voice heard and meet new people might have a more positive effect. Providing more relevant training, so young members gain new skills, as part of their membership would also help. Medium term, local parties may even find that such initiatives provide more young limbs to deliver those leaflets too.

Advertising party events in places where younger people will see them could improve things too. Again social media and online play a vital role in this because, as useful a resource as Lib Dem News can be, I’m not sure it has a significant youth readership. Of course Liberal Youth have, can, and should be a key way by which this engagement is achieved, but things must be done at both a federal and local level too.

If fees have cost us young members, and it undoubtedly has, it is because the party used the policy of scrapping them as a key recruiting sergeant prior to being in government. This approach meant that huge amounts of young people felt let down directly by the Liberal Democrats when our MPs could not keep that promise. It was also a misguided approach because many of our policies, including some now being implemented by the Government, directly help young people. During the general election campaign these were not highlighted enough.

There is though life after fees. Young Lib Dem members have been vital in raising the issues of the gay blood ban, of children of refugees being kept behind bars, and the environment. Furthermore, they continue to run for council seats and work with local parties up and down the country. Only by engaging in the right places and in the right ways will we be able to recruit, and keep, the next generation of Liberal Democrats.

Charlotte Henry blogs at Virtually Naked. She works producing and online communications with campaigning organisations, and is Vice Chair Communications of Liberal Youth.

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  • The short answer is slowly, and I will have a guess that it will be when any young people now 2010 forget to tell their grand kids how bad Liberal Democrats are, 2050 30 – 50 years.

    Oh you will get some but I do not think you will see the support again Liberal Democrats had pre election.

    Those broken pledges and promises are seen as complete lies told to the electorate to gain votes.
    That’s why Liberal Democrats are now only showing 8% and I cannot see how or where Liberal Democrats can go.

  • Thanks for a perceptive article and some very good ideas on how to engage with younger voters. Two points to lob into the debate:

    1 – How can we persuade younger people that the reason they get such a raw deal from governments of all political persuasions is that their age groups have some of the lowest turnouts, while older demographics, especially pensioners, have some of the highest turnouts? How can we get the point across that the reason they often feel powerless and ignored is because their collective unwillingness to vote makes them powerless and allows – even encourages – politicians of all stripes to ignore them? If more young people would only bother to vote – I don’t even care who for – then maybe government decisions wouldn’t be so skewed in favour of the over 65s.

    2 – What is the point of university education? I don’t mean this facetiously – there are many potential benefits as to encouraging people to spend 3 years studying some obscure topic, but which of these is the reason for our traditional unwavering (until recently) support for free university access?

    Do we believe university education prepares people for professional employment? If so, I’d seriously question that (except in a few areas such as medicine).

    Do we believe it develops people’s intellect (more so than other activities)? There’s little evidence of this.

    Does it further people’s social development and make them more well-rounded individuals? Probably, but is this goal worth spending the huge sums of money required?

    Does it give people access to better-paid jobs? Undoubtedly, but only because companies use universities as a cheap recruitment factory. I doubt many bosses really believe 3 year’s worth of Medieval French History or General Relativity is going to make their employee better at their job. But someone with good enough A-levels to get into university is likely to be a good employee, and that same person with 3 years’ extra maturity (at no cost to the employer) would be even better.

    It’s only society’s high rate of university attendance that makes a degree a passport to career opportunities – if less people went to uni, more employers would offer equivalent opportunities to non-graduates, who would be just as well-qualified.

    We’ve always sought to be the radical party – perhaps it’s time for a radical new direction in our approach to education. Maybe university courses should be trimmed down to 2 years, or even 1 year? Or maybe 3 years but part-time? With a finite pot of cash, maybe the funds used for university access should be channelled into further education instead? Or into early-years education? Should ‘vocational’ subjects be given degree status, to address the snobbish stigma that attaches to ‘non-academic’ subjects?

    What is the real value of a degree? What makes it worth the money?

  • I am a bit disappointed that you fail to acknowledge the issue of the breaking of the personal pledges on tuition fees – I find that annoys young people more than the breaking of party policy on the matter. The two are quite distinct and the young people I have asked about it are well able to distinguish and understand that.

    But you’ve lost a generation of students and young people I reckon in terms of large numbers of members.

  • Depressed Ex Lib Dem 13th Feb '11 - 1:51am

    We’ve always sought to be the radical party – perhaps it’s time for a radical new direction in our approach to education

    Fine. Lovely. Whatever.

    Just have the decency to tell people what you’re going to do BEFORE the election next time.

  • Eddie Holobert 13th Feb '11 - 1:53am

    I still think those at the top of the party don’t get it. Here’s the thing: you made a pact with students. Your MPs promised to vote against tuition fees if the students promised to vote for you. They kept their promise, but you broke yours. This agreement was not prefaced with the caveat of going into coalition. There were no extra terms and conditions: you simply broke your promise. And the worst people to break your promise to is idealistic young people, often getting involved with democracy for the first time.

    But it doesn’t matter. As we are now seeing, the LDs are in the process of dissolving their electorate and finding a new one. Because if people don’t agree with you, it’s not because of wrong policy, it’s the (now mostly ex) voters’ fault.

  • @Catherine. A thoughtful but irrelevant piece. Please go back to basics and read, re-read and digest what EcoJon, Depressed Ex Lib Dem and Eddie Holobert say here. It will only be when you truly understand what damage the LibDems inflicted upon themselves, how they did it and why they are so unpopular, that you will be able to “move on”. Unfortunately your party seem incapable of this, preferring to believe that you are still regarded as the pre-election “nice party”. You are most definitely not.

  • Leviticus18_23 13th Feb '11 - 9:55am

    Get rid of Clegg and anyone who didn’t vote against fee increases (and those who abstained). Then you can blame it all on the previous regime…

    Failing that, I wouldn’t expect to get a sniff of power for another 60 years.

  • Grammar Police 13th Feb '11 - 10:02am

    I think the fact that a number of our MPs broke the pledge to vote against any increases in fees (let’s not forget a decent number didn’t!) is terrible; to that extent EcoJon is right – that’s what has damaged us. I think the repayments scheme is much better than the current Labour one, and am dismayed that the debate misses this out.

    However, I want to challenge a misleading assertion pushed by Jim and Eddie.

    It’s simply not true to say that we reaped massive electoral benefits from the policy, nor that millions of students voted for us for this reason (and this reason alone) and have now been personally misled. Official figures show that around 30% of 18-24 year olds who voted, voted for us. Only around 50% of 18-24 year olds voted at all.

    There are around 2 million UK students, and even if we ‘generously’ assume that 50% of them voted, and we ‘generously’ assume that those that voted for us voted for us solely because of our fees policy – then a majority of students still voted for parties that wanted to increase fees – or just simply didn’t care enough about it to vote at all.

    So if we did make a “pact with students” – it’s actually not one they were particularly interested in.

    Please note that I am not claiming that no one should be upset by the fees fiasco; just that the idea our MPs swept into office on the back of millions of young people’s votes that we cynically manipulated over fees is more than a bit of a fantasy.

    Ironically, if we’re talking about reducing the cost of university education for those who go on to be low-ish-median earners – fees may be higher, but they’ll actually pay back quite a bit less than they do now. Eg under current scheme a graduate earning £22,000 might have loans for about £20K and will pay around £700 a year back for 25 years (circa £17,000) . Under the new scheme they’ll owe more, about £28K, and will pay £90 a year back for 30 years (circa £2700).

  • You are correct of course, but 23% down to 8%-10% in less than 8 months needs some explaining, it is not just the students though is it, it is the parents of those students who also supported Liberal Democrats… but no matter it is all speculation in the end.

    It does not matter what the fees are, or whether they pay less in the long run, it is about principles and credibility, Liberal Democrats made promises and pledges then failed to keep them, if the polls are to be believed over 60% of those who polled in May 2010 have gone elsewhere, and gone before any cuts start to hurt, when those hit I think 4% – 6% is the floor.

    Of course it is all speculation until May, and we get to see LE and possibly a referendum then we will have a better idea

    Until the next GE, we will not know how many MPs get swept away because of those broken promises and pledges, some seats were so close that yes a few students and family may well of made the difference it does not take a massive amount just a few hundreds or thousands in the right place.

  • A good piece but I feel your are overestimating the medium term effect of The Student Movement, it was noisy & destuctive but it only lasted 2 months – it was all over by Xmas.
    Will the ” Nick Clegg = Judas ” meme still be at the front of those ex-students minds by the time they start to vote ?

  • Grammar Police 13th Feb '11 - 11:03am

    @ Jim, I’m not denying there’s been a hit in the polls, and I’m not denying that fees probably have something to do with it. There are very good polling reasons not to think that YouGov (especially) is accurately reflecting the Lib Dem share of the vote, but nonetheless we’re certainly down.

    But then again, it’s actually democracy in action if we do lose MPs – for the first time in nearly a century we have a record in national govt (as opposed to just local or devolved administrations). There is an irony that Labour might benefit from this, especially given it was quite clear from their 2010 manifesto what they expected from Browne.

    You’re right that the issue is about principles. I don’t doubt that keeping a pledge is a principle – and I think that’s the hit 27 of our MPs deserve to take. But there are other principles at work. The policy of phasing out tuition fees is an expression of any of a small number of political principles – perhaps that education should be free, or perhaps that no one should be discouraged from attending university because of cost. Most policies are just reflections of those principles, and as the situation changes then those policies may change to support the same principles.

    Imagine, if you will, you’re in a position where you can sit on your hands, and know that the Tories will put in place an uncapped funding scheme, where the repayment scheme is £10K below the median salary, and has been since 1998 . Or else, you can fully engage; you can do the best you can by your principles – you can ensure that most part-time students won’t pay up-front fees, that you can raise the repayment threshold and ensure it keeps pace with earnings, you can change the repayment terms so higher earners pay more, you can make it so that although most will have higher “loans”, the vast majority will never pay back anything like that. Indeed many will pay less than now. You can do all that, but the price is breaking your pledge.

    What do you do then?

  • @ Jim
    “You are correct of course, but 23% down to 8%-10% in less than 8 months needs some explaining”…..

    Having to sort out the massive mess of the public finances left by Labour while at the same time trying to salvage what is left of the productive side of our economy (i.e. not much).

    There, done it.

  • @Rob C – Yep. Got it.

  • Depressed Ex 13th Feb '11 - 12:06pm

    @Rob C – Nope. If that were the only reason the Tories would be on 12-15%.

  • @Grammar Police

    Well, while I agree with lot of your points there was a simple solution to your quandary: The LD leadership could have either not joined the coalition or at least demanded a a free vote on the issue within the coalition agreement. They did not. The only conclusion you can draw from that, was the issue was neither a priority nor was the pledge important to the leadership. Why was a personal pledge fro all their MPs not important to the leadership? The most obvious explanation is that at the time they did not mean it, or at least not as a cast iron promise. We can certainly argue about the merits/flaws of the new scheme but it is somewhat irrelevent because at the time when all of the leadership signed the pledge, when they were talk up the era of ‘New Politics’, they were being dishonest on this issue. That is what the first-time youth voters will remember about 2010 elections and why they are so (justifably) angry.

  • @ Robert C. “Having to sort out the massive mess of the public finances left by Labour while at the same time trying to salvage what is left of the productive side of our economy (i.e. not much).” Yes it is a fact that this deficit had to faced and corrected. BUT, people who voted LibDem expected (and had ever right to expect) the Liberal Democrats to support the gradual approach to debt reduction as per the LibDem manifesto. We have now a Tory “slash and burn” debt reduction, at total variance to what we voted for. And the killer fact is that most erstwhile LibDem voters appear convinced that Mr Clegg and other top LibDems believed in the Tory approach before the GE, but were happy to campaign for the very different LibDem policy. Those of us who voted LibDem had a right to expect Mr Clegg, when told he had to accept the Tory debt reduction policy as part of the price for a Coalition, to make a principled stand and walk away. Not doing so was a massive strategic error for which the LibDem will pay electorally for years.

  • Foregone Conclusion 13th Feb '11 - 2:53pm

    I don’t think that we should have broken our pledge on fees, but the idea that there was ever a ‘pact’ with students, or that the fees issue will be some monstrous Mark of Cain for the next half-century is just silly.

    Students voted Lib Dem for a number of reasons (and although we don’t have the figures, I would guess that only about a third of students who voted actually did vote Lib Dem, and as has already pointed out, only half of students actually voted!) A few reasons off the top of my head in no particular order:

    – Scrapping tuition fees.
    – The environment
    – Gay rights
    – Electoral reform
    – Get rid of Labour (and there were a lot of those…)
    – Tactical voting
    – The economy
    – Personal voting (not very prevalent among students, but it still exists to a certain extent in some places)
    – Civil liberties
    – Cleggmania (that is to say, no rational reason whatsoever)
    – OhmygodnickcleggisSO FIT! (women and gay men only)

    If I was asked to name the most compelling for students (rather the one we campaigned hardest on), I would go for the environment. Tuition fees might come in at two or three.

    Have we been hit by tuition fees? Sure. We’ve been hit hard with students and young people, very hard, and there’s no way of dancing round that (the pisspoor way we handled it probably didn’t help either). But I have two reasons to be hopeful: (a) as Cleggmania showed, politics among young people, who as yet generally don’t have a settled political identity, can be very volatile: and (b) there are many other reasons for students to vote Lib Dem. I’m the head of a university branch, and this year’s freshers’ fair was one of our most successful ever. We certainly ain’t dead yet.

  • If Liberal Democrats want to believe the reasons they are so unpopular is because of midterm blues, or being in government and if you truly believe it is
    “Having to sort out the massive mess of the public finances left by Labour while at the same time trying to salvage what is left of the productive side of our economy (i.e. not much).”
    Then that is entirely up to Liberal Democrats.

    I personally don’t believe that, just as I believe if Liberal democrats continue on the present course; that the party has chosen to follow, it may well see the end of the Liberal Democrats as we know them, which I also believe will be really bad for the country as a whole.

    Having said that I really don’t know what Liberal Democrats can do, I can see a rebellion coming and possibly a split within the party including MPs, will that cause an early GE, I don’t know, I would expect enough to take refuge with the Conservatives to hold to a later suitable date for GE.

    If the Conservatives think they are going to bomb out in the polls, I can see a snap election as a form of damage control, there was an article suggesting a Liberal Democrat minister in September forecast cons 25% and LD 5% at the next GE, I don’t know if the Conservatives will wait for a poll that low, they will try to limit the damage before that I think.

    Not a forecast by any means, just a guess, not the first, just a reminder really.

  • Two brief points: However vocal the support may have been, the younger vote did not turn out for us [1] and secondly, our party policy remains to scrap fees over a period of 6 years. Our argument should not be to surrender this ground. Speak to many a protester and they will not support the graduate tax either and yet when you tell them that is what both Labour (post-2010) and the NUS support their eyes may widen.

    There is still a battle to be won here, though all the other campaigns are sound.

    What will be interesting will be when the AV posters saying ‘AV will give Nick Clegg more power’ come out. Hopefully the NUS’ response will be ‘Good, because the more power to Clegg, the more power to the Liberal Democrat voter and their manifesto’… fat chance.

    1: http://www.google.co.uk/search?hl=en&rlz=1I7GZAZ_en-GB&q=politicalbetting.com+NUS+deal+side+turnout&aq=f&aqi=&aql=&oq=

  • Chris Riley 13th Feb '11 - 4:31pm


    “It’s only society’s high rate of university attendance that makes a degree a passport to career opportunities – if less people went to uni, more employers would offer equivalent opportunities to non-graduates, who would be just as well-qualified.”

    That’s also Vince Cable’s rather naive hope, but he’s wrong as well (and he’s been told that) because he didn’t – as you haven’t – asked any major graduate employers.

    Here’s what will happen when we produce fewer UK graduates – employers will either get graduates from elsewhere in the EU (as some do already for some of the harder-to-find technical skills), or they’ll pull out of the UK. Ask anyone who has actually asked the companies that employ our graduates on a regular basis.

    The brutal fact is that non-graduates are *not* as well qualified and employers do not want them, which is why, even though they’re cheaper, employers don’t employ them and they have an eye-watering unemployment rate. Merely wishing really hard is not going to make employers who don’t want non-graduates suddenly want them because we have absolutely loads to spare at the moment and nobody wants them now. This is because VInce (and you) don’t seem to be aware of how much the global labour market has changed in the last 15-20 years, and don’t seem to be too interested in listening to people who are. Interestingly, one of the best people on this issue is the just-quit former CBI, Richard Lambert. You might remember he’s not a big fan of the Coalition’s current economic strategy.

  • Oh dear…

    Don’t Liberal Democrats understand at all, as long as Liberal Democrats try to ignore why you are where you are now, how can you move forwards…

    There is such a thing as cause and effect, and Liberal Democrats are stuck suffering the effects, and will continue to do so until you sort out the cause…

    And to be honest I don’t think anyone knows where to start or what to do, which is probably why Liberal Democrats are just crossing fingers and closing the eyes.

  • @Jim – we know full well why we are where we are, and it is because of the fees. Most members also know that what’s needed is for Nick to apologise, and admit that – if this is what he believes – that the sums simply didn’t make it possible for us to carry out that policy. We also, though, have to move on, despite the best efforts of Labour supporters and supposed ex-Lib Dems to stop us.

    Charlotte – couple of things. Firstly, remind students that it was actually Labour who introduced fees, and Labour who launched the review which everyone knew was likely to result in an increase. Have a look in Andrew Rawnsley’s most recent book on Labour, and you’ll see that the whole idea for the fees structure has the handprints of a certain Messrs. E Miliband and E Balls all over it.

    On a more positive note, remind students that it was the Lib Dems who abolished tuition fees in Scotland against the wishes of the Labour Party coalition partners. It is also still Scottish Lib Dem policy that tuition fees will not be reintroduced here – that was re-emphasised after the decision in England by a vote at the Autumn Conference in Dunfermline. Remind students that it was the Scottish Lib Dems who got the SNP Government to include in its 2011 budget an additional £15 million for further education bursaries, £8 million for an additional 1200 college places and the support for that, 1500 additional Modern Apprenticeships, and 2000 additional flexible training opportunities.

    The real difficulty will be in avoiding the usual trap of local parties seeing new young members as “leaflet fodder” – but it is an important way of trying to get people involved. What about combining the social aspect with a leaflet delivery – for example, by arranging for a group to go from one town / university to help out at another over a weekend, with crash accomodation provided? The normal local party fundraisers of coffee mornings and rubber chicken dinners are unlikely to appeal, but why not try something different – such as a Burns’ Supper (you don’t have to be Scottish to do that) or something similar?

  • Young Voter 14th Feb '11 - 5:50pm

    As a young individual (My first vote in a general election was to Lib Dems … boy do I regret that).
    I can confidently say that there is no one in my age group – In College and even in Uni I know who will ever vote Lib Dems. I have also convinced all my relatives and their friends to not vote Lib Dem again.
    Not only have you lost Students, you have lost their parents and friends.

    I suppose I should thank you Lib Dems. You have taught many of us first time voters what it takes others years to learn. That all Political Parties are liars and will back stab their electorate in a heartbeat for some power.
    Far from making me disinclined to vote, I am now more than determined to vote and vote against your party in every election coming up this year, including the AV referendum. (Quite clearly a AV Referendum was good enough to threaten to walk during coalition discussions but not a personal pledge/promise to one of your core base … nice to know where your loyalties lie)

    Oh and I find it highly amusing some people here are deluding themselves that Students have forgotten. We are the ones who will be paying up to 9,000 fees. It is us who is being punished for the Con-Lib Coalition and Liberal Democrats u-turn. There is no way we will forget this.

    Personally, I’ll vote again for Lib Dems the day I finish paying off my tuition fees.

  • Young Voter 14th Feb '11 - 5:53pm

    **We are the ones who will be paying up to 9,000 fees (For many who choose to go to Oxbridge but many of us will have been doubled to 6k a year)


  • @ KL
    Liberal Democrats problems are more complicated than just the fees, way more so than I think Liberal Democrats believe or understand (I may be wrong), asking Mr Clegg to apologise would I think actually do more harm than good. (As for the fees, yes Liberal Democrats could have kept faith by simply voting against.).

    Just reading some articles and posts in response shows no awareness I am afraid, or the faith from the core is blinded or in truth they believe it is right, and that is quite scary.

  • @Jim – there is awareness of the problems, certainly amongst those I speak to, but at the same time there’s a reluctance to discuss it openly for fear that it would actually cause more damage than good. We’ve seen the media’s reaction to the Times letter from council group leaders over the weekend, and that was directed at Eric Pickles – can you imagine what the reaction would have been had the criticism been directed at Danny Alexander or Nick Clegg? I do think that with a number of activists & councillors there’s the hope that “if you keep repeating the message to yourself, then you might start to believe it.”

    Personally, I’m not convinced by the depth of the cuts though I do think the speed is necessary – I thought Jim Murphy (not someone I particularly like) made a valid point on Five Live this morning when he pointed out that once something’s been cut, it’s gone and unlikely to come back. Problem is, there’s no real, viable, detailed alternative being posed – Alan Johnson didn’t do it, and Ed Balls is failing to. I know that, in opposition, you scrutinise rather than come up with alternatives, but if Labour are realistic at trying to convince Lib Dems that the cuts aren’t the way to go then they do need to come up with definite, clear alternatives otherwise it’s not going to happen.

  • I am a bit disappointed that you fail to acknowledge the issue of the breaking of the personal pledges on tuition fees – I find that annoys young people more than the breaking of party policy on the matter. The two are quite distinct and the young people I have asked about it are well able to distinguish and understand that.

    and that where I live – the Lib Dem candidates for the council elections are knocking on the door saying that they are the party who will get rid of fees.

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