Thursday, 9 December 2010

Do the Lib-Dems need media tuition?

Ed Miliband recently told Labour MPs that being in opposition is crap. After 60 years out of office, many Liberal Democrats would no doubt sympathise with that sentiment, but it has to be said, that being a Liberal Democrat has lately been a bit crap too.

On the whole, I have been fairly pleased with the Coalition, which has delivered a number of policies I have wanted to see for some time: from a less authoritarian state, taking low paid workers out of tax, reform of political institutions, changes to the benefit system, prison reform, to the pupil premium. For the party which finished third in the General Election, this is a good return.

Tuition fees however, is the hot topic which looks likely to cause the Lib-Dems serious and long term political damage. This is especially galling, because the policy negotiated has some really positive aspects. If the Coalition had bothered to ‘go on the offensive’ rather than talking to themselves, then the spin from Labour and the NUS could have been exposed.

Aaron Porter: President of the NUS, member of the Labour Party, and if he follows the path of many of his predecessors, recipient of a safe Labour seat sometime in the not too distant future, has been eager to play down any progressive elements of the policy Instead he chooses to express it in as much inflammatory language as he can muster. The NUS have proposed a graduate tax, (as have I), but they have not explained to students that they would pay as much, if not more, under such a system. In essence, both systems are virtually identical.

The problem for the Lib-Dems is not that they are proposing this policy, but that they were naive enough to sign those NUS pledges. The leadership desperately tried to discard the albatross of scrapping tuition fees, on the grounds that it was impossible to implement in the real world of government. But the Lib-Dems are democratic, and activists insisted they kept this policy – it was popular on the door steps and they were realistically unlikely to get into government. The leadership made the same assessment and the MPs signed the NUS pledges. The fact is that the Lib-Dems did get into government and now have been ‘mugged’ by the realities of power.

Let’s be clear. If Labour had won the election, they would be implementing this exact same policy. They promised there would be no tuition fees in 1997, won the election and brought in tuition fees. They promised they would not bring in top-up fees in 2001, won the election and gave us top-up fees. They created the Browne Report, to push the decision to raise fees until after the election, and a graduate tax was not even part of its remit. Under Labour, the Browne Report’s only possible recommendation could have been to raise fees. Labour’s policy now, is rank and naked opportunism – they have twice made election promises about higher education funding, and then broke them whilst in majority governments. They now are pillorying the Lib-Dems for not keeping to their manifesto commitment, as the party which finished third in the General Election.

How Clegg must regret those pledges. It feeds the strong narrative in the leftish media of ‘Tory cuts and spineless Liberal lickspittles’, or simply the ‘Con-dems’. The Tories are indifferent about all this, they are supported by the vast majority of the media, but for the Lib-Dems this is damaging. Much of this could have been avoided by better leadership; talking to the voters rather than concentrating on Coalition management and the party taking better control of its media image. The Lib-Dems are still operating as a second opposition, not as a Coalition partner in government and if this does not change soon, the Labour spin machine will crush them.

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