Saturday 11 December 2010

A Less than Hearty Welcome to the Fib-Dems

Three cheers for the 21 Liberal Democrat MPs who kept their word and voted against any rise in student fees, and two cheers for the five who abstained. Unfortunately as a result of those who so publicly broke their highly publicised pledge we now fully deserve the sobriquet, "the Fib Dems" (and that's one of the kindest.) It will take years of hard campaigning, and the avoidance of any similar situations in the future to restore our credibility.

The main loser in this debacle is not, however, the Liberal Democrats, but the democratic political process itself. Labour has cynically and predictably exploited the Liberal Democrats' embarrassment without acknowledging that they themselves first introduced tuition fees, themselves broke their manifesto promise not to top them up, themselves set up the Browne enquiry, and have as yet made no constructive response to it. The Tories pretend that there is no alternative to a rise in fees when there clearly is (an increase in corporation tax, close a few tax havens, get round to collecting all that uncollected tax) The cynicism of the public that no party is playing straight with them is entirely justified.

There are three lessons to be learned. The most obvious is that no party should make pledges unless they intend to stand by them whatever the circumstances. There will be few, if any, pledges, if this is understood.

The second is a revision of our view of the nature of the manifesto and the doctrine of the mandate (the latter always rather an "iffy" concept.) The present theory is that a party will put into practice everything it proposes in its manifesto, and has the moral right to do so because the people have voted for it. If the days of (at least) three party politics and coalitions are here to stay, and in spite of this debacle I sincerely hope they are, than all parties, and not just the Liberal Democrats, should admit, and the media and public understand, that manifesto proposals are aspirations rather than firm commitments, statements of what the party would like to do, the road if would like to travel, unless diverted by the necessities of "events", lack of resources or compromise with another party.

The third is (as already argued in a previous post) that it is ridiculous for exhausted politicians to try to cobble together a coalition agreement in the weekend immediately following an election campaign. A ten day transition period should have highlighted the fact that student fees were a "red line" issue for Liberal Democrats, and the right to abstain was not enough. The Tories saw this in relation to electoral reform. A pity our negotiators, and the conference that endorsed the coalition agreement, were not more alert. More time should give more opportunity for the inconsistencies to show, and to resolve them before they become damaging.

I have my fingers crossed that the damage in this case is not fatal.


  1. When I asked the Labour Cabinet member his views on Tuition Fees at last Wednesday's Kirklees Full Council meeting it provoked comments from prominent Lib Dem Councillors defending the Coalition on the policy. Interesting that they are generally out of step with the views of local Lib Dem Parliamentary Candidates and with the 21 Lib Dem MPs who rebelled. So does this make them hardnosed Cleggite Economic Liberals? I don't think so just defensive and probably wound up because I asked questions on things they'd rather not talk about.

  2. Sorry I completely disagree with Peter. We saddled ourselves with an unworkable policy. We signed a crazy pledge. We put ourselves in the position of either wrecking the coalition (and setting the LDs back for another 30 years) or breaking the pledge. Fortunately some brave backbenchers did vote with the govenment. Allowing the rebels the luxury of voting against without suffering the consequences. By way, does anybody think a deal with Labour would bring about the abolition of tuition fees?

  3. Thanks for signing up, Bernard. I sincerely hope that the breaking of the pledge does not set us back for another 30 years.

    As we now realise we had saddled ourselves with two incompatible commitments: the "pledge" and the coalition agreement which permitted us simply to abstain. So one of these commitments had to be broken. It is a matter of judgment which would have done the most damage. I think we chose the wrong option and that the breaking of so publicly proclaimed a pledge damages not just us but, more importantly, the reputation of democratic politics itself.