Published On: Fri, Dec 10th, 2010

The Great Student Swindle

How the Lib Dems tricked their way into power via promises they never intended to keep


Nick Clegg launches the 2010 Manifesto (Photo: Lib Dem Flickr Stream)

Election season 2010: as the country prepares to go to the polls, Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats whip up the student vote by signing the National Union for Students’ Vote for Students Pledge to vote against any rise in tuition fees and attempt to introduce a ‘fairer alternative’. Signatories included the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, Business Secretary Vince Cable and every single Liberal Democrat elected to Parliament.

However, even while they encouraged their candidates to sign the pledge, and emphasised their student friendly credentials in the media, in private, party leaders admitted that they would not be able to honour the pledge if they reached government. Indeed, in May 2010, Nicola Dandridge of Universities UK told the Times Educational Supplement:

"Even though the leadership has told us it is complete nonsense, it is pretty clear the grass roots feel passionate about [the NUS pledge]"

This lack of commitment to the pledge quickly became apparent following the indecisive May election as the Liberal Democrats were courted by both Labour and the Conservatives. As a Lib-Con Coalition became ever more likely, news was leaked that the deal included an agreement for Lib Dem MPs to abstain from votes to raise tuition fees. The experienced parliamentarians on the Lib Dem negotiating team had to realise that the abstention of their MPs could not on its own prevent the Tories pushing through a tuition fee hike. What was previously a key stone of the Lib Dem manifesto had become a face saving ‘get-out-culpability-free’ card for Lib-Dem members of Parliament.

Shortly after the Coalition Government came to power, Business Secretary Vince Cable sent an email to Lib-Dem members with the subject “We can do better than a pure graduate tax – and we will”. In this email, Cable outlined his sudden revelations that a graduate tax “fails both the tests of fairness and deficit reduction” despite his previous frequently stated support for just such a tax. The email closed with Cable emphasising Lib Dem commitment to a “progressive system of graduate contributions”, but it was clear that opinions had begun to shift amongst Lib Dems at Whitehall, if they were ever truly held in the first place.

Activists scrambled desperately to prevent a Lib Dem capitulation. Aaron Porter of the NUS stated:

"Liberal Democrat candidates made an en-masse, cast iron commitment by signing our pledge to vote against any rise in tuition fees in the next Parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative. They were elected to Parliament on that basis and are now duty bound to honour their promises. It would be intolerable for those MPs to backtrack on their personal pledges to voters."

The Liberal Youth, the Lib Dem student organisation, called on its party to honour their promises but it was becoming increasingly clear that a policy reversal was on the horizon.

Sure enough, on Tuesday the 12th October, following Lord Browne’s review of the Higher Education Sector (on which Russell Group – which the University of Liverpool belongs to – lobbied heavily for uncapped fees) Vince Cable read a prepared statement to Parliament in which he outlined the ‘progressive’ argument for an increase in fees to £9,000 establishing the most costly public education system in Europe. The pledge made to the NUS and the public had been unequivocally abandoned.

The saying that ‘power corrupts’ has become a cliché, and perhaps in this situation a more appropriate statement would be that ‘prestige corrupts’. The Liberal Democrats, out of power for so many years, compromised themselves absolutely for the slightest taste of government. That they may have destroyed their party in doing this seems not to faze ministers who harp on about Liberal influences over what would otherwise be completely regressive Tory policies. But why, if Ministers recognise that government policies are so unpalatable to the general public and Lib Dem party members did they support the Conservatives in the first place? David Cameron never had a clear mandate for government, and whilst it would be absurd to claim that Gordon Brown did have a mandate, the Labour party (who previously set the bar for being corrupted by power and abandoning their principles) had very belatedly begun to return to progressive politics, echoing Lib Dem policies of a graduate tax and proportional representation.

With the passage of the new tuition fee bill through the Commons by a narrow majority, the Lib Dems have one remaining policy to bank their scant political integrity upon. Should the public referendum next year reject adopting the alternative vote system (already a compromise on the long stated Lib Dem policy of full proportional representation), the concessions the Lib Dems made to join the Coalition will have been for nought and they must return to opposition, from where they may (finally) be able to act as a tempering influence over the rapacious ideological budget slashing of David Cameron and George Osbourne.

James Griffiths

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  • Anonymous

    Very interesting analysis of the present political situation. The Coalition Government are,I believe,moving too fast with their right-wing agenda. The radical proposals for education,health and welfare will essentially lead to the privatisation of these services. Whether the Coalition have a mandate for these changes is highly debatable. A slower pace, with trials in selected areas, might give some understanding of the impact of the reforms.In addition
    a slower pace might make such fundamental reforms more palatable to the general public.