Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Nick Clegg says sorry over tuition fees pledge

Nick Clegg has recorded this video - you can read a full transcript of his words on the party's website.

It was released to journalists this evening (as well as being made freely available on Youtube) and will be shown as the Liberal Democrats' conference broadcast on Monday.

My reading of the video is that Nick is apologising, not for the party's policy at the last election, but for the pledge that he and (so Wikipedia suggests) every successful Liberal Democrat candidate signed before the last election:
“I pledge to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative.”
I also take him as apologising, not for breaking this pledge, but for making it.

I think Nick is right to make this apology, because he should never have signed the pledge in the first place. As I argued at the height of the fees row in December 2010:
Whatever your view on the tuition fees issue, there are good reasons why candidates should not get involved with such pledges. 
Because they are often signed out of fear. A campaign group asks candidates from all parties to sign a pledge and they sign it, often regardless of the importance of the issue or the coherence of the group's ideas, because they are afraid of bad publicity. No one wants to see a headline like "Lib Dem candidate refuses to support fluffy kittens" (or it may be sad orphans or puppies with large trusting eyes). 
Nor is it helpful for candidates to commit themselves to the fine details of policy in this way. I can see that a candidate might think that, say, improving educational opportunities for children from poor families is not negotiable, but I can see no good reason to wed yourself to a particular mechanism of achieving it. Good government does not consist in implementing your manifesto regardless of changing circumstances.
But then I am unusual among Liberal Democrats in that I never saw our policy on tuition fees as particularly admirable. I have a great deal of sympathy for the case recently made in a guest post on this blog by 'Dr Anonymous' - that too many of what he calls the DMC (dull middle class) go to university.

The rapid expansion in higher education over the past 20 years has made it inevitable that the state will be less generous to students than it used to be. If that expansion had seen far more youngsters from poor homes benefiting then I would feel more inclined to see financing students as a priority. But as things stand, giving more funding to students does not seem a priority nor even a particularly radical policy.

The hope now is that the tuition fees will not now dominate the public's view of the Liberal Democrats. In particular, voters do seem to have grasped that it is us who they have to thank for the substantial income tax cut enjoyed by lower earners. The hope is that we can build on this at Conference and beyond.

Incidentally, this is rather impressive on the part of those voters, given that the press coverage of the Budget centred on pasties.

One other point...

The email from Nick Clegg to Liberal Democrat members was headed "No easy way to say this...". I thought for a moment he was leaving me.

1 comment:

Charlieman said...

There's a slightly wider concern about policy making. The no tuition fees policy may have been affordable prior to the economic crash but from that point onwards it was unrealistic. Raising it as a key campaign point was mistaken and is now viewed as cynical electioneering by friends and opponents.

The policies that we make in good times also have to work in lean times.