Thursday, November 11, 2010

Why the Liberal Democrats' broken promise on tuition fees wasn't just another manifesto pledge

I felt for Simon Hughes as he was faced with two scathing student leaders on Newsnight, as clearly his instincts on the subject of tuition fees are in the right place - which is more than can be said for most of his party's government ministers. But nevertheless I found myself getting increasingly irritated by the way in which he was defending the Liberal Democrat stance - that their opposition to tuition fees was one manifesto pledge, it would have been implemented had they won the election, they didn't win the election, a coalition was formed, compromises had to be made, etc, etc. I think most people understand perfectly well that you can only realistically be held 100% to a pledge about what you will deliver in government if you actually win the election outright and form a majority government - although admittedly some London scribes seem to struggle with that concept when they innocently ask why the SNP haven't "held the referendum" yet. But the pledge the Liberal Democrats signed (virtually in blood) on tuition fees wasn't a standard manifesto pledge about what they would hypothetically deliver as a majority government - it was a very practical pledge about how they would vote in parliament, one that they would have been in a position to honour in full whatever the outcome of the election. The only conclusion a reasonable person could have drawn from the pledge was that any coalition the Lib Dems entered into would at the very least have to be conditional on allowing the party's MPs special dispensation to vote against (not abstain - the pledge was very specific) any increase in tuition fees.

Some would have us believe that the pledge was idiotic and nigh-on impossible to fulfil. But there's actually nothing hard about voting in the Commons in the way you solemnly promised to - all you have to do is put one foot in front of the other.


  1. I find it fun to compare their behaviour in this instance to their behaviour after the 2007 election. When the SNP won that election, everyone assumed the Lib Dems would step in as coalition partners again. But they didn't, and the main reason they gave (whether or not it was the real reason is, of course, debatable) was the SNP's refusal to drop their pledge to hold an independence referendum.

    The key policy which is most associated with the SNP is, naturally, independence. The key policies you would associate with the Lib Dems are proportional representation and student welfare. After all, just as the majority of Scottish nationalists vote for the SNP, the majority of students vote for the Lib Dems. The SNP stood by their key policy, rather than binning it just for the sake of a majority, and let's be honest, they would certainly have had justification since it was clear from the outset that the referendum was never going to happen unless one of the three unionist parties relented on their position. They were prepared to be a bit flexible on it, by allowing a third option, but the Lib Dems weren't interested. So despite their common ground (replacing council tax with a local income tax, gaiinig more powers for Holyrood etc), the Lib Dems turned their noses up and just left the SNP to it.

    Contrast this with how their Westminster counterparts have behaved. PR was binned instantly, despite Nick Clegg standing on the steps of Lib Dem HQ on the saturday after the election, promising the crowd that he would not go back on his pledge for "political reform" (as soon as he called it that, it was patently obvious that their proportional representation pledge was going to be sold off). Now they've slaughtered their other sacred cow.

    A bit of consistency would be nice. 3 years ago, I was disappointed with the Lib Dems for being so pig-headed, but at least it could be argued they had principles. You can't say that of them now. You can't really say WHAT they stand for now. Their only defining factor now seems to be that they are just another unionist party, putting the union above all else, including protecting the poor from right-wing ideology-driven cuts. Why would anyone vote for them now? If anyone intends to vote for them in May, I'd genuinely love to hear the reasons.

  2. Doug, what I find incredible is that they've apparently been actively voting against PR in the House of Commons!