Student fees, broken promises, and the Liberal Democrats

December 9, 2010 § Leave a comment

Later today, there will be a vote on reforming the how higher education in the UK is paid for. The headline fact is that the cap on fees to be paid by students post-graduation will be increased. Yet the Liberal Democrats (the junior party in this coalition) signed a pledge to the National Union of Students stating they will vote against any increase in fees and, further, would make it a matter of policy to abolish them.

The wider discussion as to how good this suite of proposals are, either in being progressive or anything else is wildly contentious (see here for an especially well-informed discussion about them). Instead, I want to cover a bit of applied moral philosophy: have the Lib-dems betrayed their electoral mandate?

Defenses and apologies:

On the face of it, voting contrary to a specific pledge made prior to your election is a prima facie betrayal. What arguments could a Liberal Democrat marshal in defense of the party’s behaviour?

Coalition compromise:

One might say that the pledge is a necessary casualty of coalition government. That although the Lib-dems would love to freeze or abolish student fees, but alas they needed to compromise with the conservative party, and student fees were one of the horses traded to secure a more progressive agenda.

University admission itself is profoundly structurally iniquitous (the upper middle classes are tenfold overrepresented in the Cambridge student population, and similar stories apply across the Russell group) and thanks to this the proposed changes will mostly hit the better-off. So the Lib-dems could go cap-in-hand to their voters and say: “Look, we wanted all these things, but we can’t get them all – we’ve used our influence in coalition to try and secure the most important, and student fees are one of the lesser causes we sacrificed.” Student fees shouldn’t be the biggest social issue exercising progressives. It shouldn’t even be the biggest educational issue exercising progressives.

Unfortunately, manifesto commitments aren’t the same as personal, specific, signed pledges. Lib dem MPs signed up to oppose any increases of student fees in the current parliament. That isn’t something that can be traded away for political expedience – especially so if many votes voted for you because of such a pledge. Perhaps if there was no alternative but anarchy. Yet there was: the principled thing for the Liberal democrats to have done would be refuse to enter into any coalition government which would raise tuition fees – or at least not do so save on the understanding they would vote against them (much like the Tories secured the right to campaign on ‘No’ in the AV referendum). Failing that, sort out a confidence-and-supply agreement.

The Lib-dems had other options, but they freely opted to betray a pre-election pledge because it was no longer politically expedient. Sticking to one’s pledge would be politically unhelpful, and might have even caused the sacrifice of more important progressive goals. If so, that’s the price you pay for pulling a stupid populist stunt: either follow through or publicly state that such a pledge was mistaken and you apologize for making it.

Not what we expected

Instead, one could say that the promise was made under the assumption of circumstances much different from what actually obtained. If Labour grotesquely high-balled the fiscal state of the country, then the economic calculations of the Lib dems would be necessarily misled. Again, they could say something reasonable to their electorate: “We had planned to distribute the public finances to eliminate student fees. However, the financial situation was much worse than anticipated, and we had to change our plans. Unfortunately, one of the things we had to drop was the student loans”.

Fine insofar as it goes – promises made on the understanding the situation would be a certain way aren’t necessarily binding if things turn out be substantially different. The ‘labour screwed up our finances and didn’t tell anyone’ trope gets wheeled out a lot to justify the austerity measures. Yet the Libdems were all to happy to oppose austerity and the fears of a double-dip when angling for seats – it seems a bit convenient that never-before-seen data prompted the change of heart, as opposed to being forced to be conservative bedfellows. But again there is a deeper issue: if the purse-strings were even tighter than anticipated, one should still try and honour one’s promises first. Have the Lib dems prioritized their student fee commitments? Not at all.

Indictment

Nick Clegg in interviews has mashed up elements of both these defenses. Yet neither work – not only because they facts are wrong, but because we know the intent of the lib dem party wasn’t along these lines. Thanks to some leaked memos, we know that they didn’t cling on to their commitments to student fees for dear life, nor horror and rapid recalculation at finding the state of the finances completely contrary to their predictions. Rather, abandoning this pledge was part of a pre-meditated negotiating strategy.

There are arguments to be had about how to fund University. Perhaps, like me, you think university should be a public good to ideally be funded from general taxation; but you also think, like me, that university admission is currently so regressive as to – at least for now – warrant being funded by it’s unjustly fortunate recipients. So if you don’t mind at least this aspect of the new proposals, why should you feel betrayed by the Libdems?

Firstly, it suggests the Liberal Democrats are unable to actually walk the walk. They’ve squandered their clout on little more than referendum on a watered down PR which they may well lose. They’ve passed a budget agreed to be regressive by the independent think-tanks Nick Clegg used to love, and now they nod with deference at the Browne review in the drive to commodify education and raise fees.

The most important issue is this: the Liberal Democrats can’t be trusted to honour their mandate. I was not entirely sold on the Liberal policies on abolishing tuition fees. I was definitely against their opposition to nuclear power. Yet they seemed the best option – sharing parts of Labour’s social agenda, without the habit for quixotic wars and idiotic authoritarianism. So, like I suspect the vast bulk of voters, I picked the best of a middling bunch and signed up to a block which would (albeit imperfectly) represent my interests.

Yet I am only represented to the degree my interests coincide with the venality of the Liberal Democrat leadership – the fact they happen to be dropping policies I wasn’t entirely on board with is no comfort. If they’re willing to sell out on signed pre-election pledges, why should anyone trust a word they’ll say? Why won’t these flat-pack excuses be erected elsewhere when they find their mandate inconvenient to their current role as chamberlains for the Conservatives? The Lib dems were feckless in opposition, and now prove spineless in government.

What now

The NUS is planning to directly campaign against any Liberal Democrat MP who votes in favour of this bill next election. This doesn’t go far enough: they should lobby against the entire Liberal democrat party. Partly because I don’t trust them not to stage a ‘tactical rebellion’ where those in safe seats ‘take the hit’ by voting to allow those in university towns to abstain/vote against, but mostly because there’s little point joining a voting block that can at best draw scattered support from its own MPs for its own manifesto. I want better from a party than an archipelago of principle amongst a sea of duplicity.

Like more than a few first time voters, I now feel physically ill when I think I got suckered in to voting Lib dem. If one wonders about voter apathy, I think episodes like this are an excellent reason why. Want a ‘new kind of politics’? Spoil your ballot.

[Update 10/12/2010: Minor typo squashing. Unsurprisingly, the vote passed.]

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