Alison Wolf

February 18, 2005

The image of the Lib Dems as champions of the underdog belies their true voter base: the middle-class academic

I think I will have to batten down the hatches this month. Lots of my university friends and acquaintances are Liberal Democrat supporters. Not only that, they assume that this is, self-evidently, a moral and worthy position. I can't see why.

All over the world, most academics feel themselves to be left-of-centre. In the US, well over 90 per cent support the Democrats. In the Harvard faculty, 96 per cent of presidential campaign contributions went to John Kerry, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology it was 94 per cent.

I do not know what the equivalent figures would be for the UK, but look around any senior common room or university library. While some subscribe to all the "serious" papers, where they select, have you ever seen one that takes The Daily Telegraph ?

The Lib Dems are seen as a party of the Left and certainly do nothing to contradict this impression. When they claim to be the only "real" opposition, the sub-text is "and especially for those of you who think Labour is now too centrist, too authoritarian, too Thatcherite".

But never mind the image: what about the policies they promote, and will implement if they get the chance? The two big spending programmes of their current manifesto are free care for the elderly and abolition of university fees.

In Scotland, where they are in coalition with Labour, they have pushed through the former, at far greater expense than was predicted. You can certainly make a case for free care for the elderly, but in politics it is always worth asking, "who benefits?". Answer: the comfortable, property-owning middle classes. They are the ones worried about having to sell or mortgage their home and lose their children's inheritance. For poor pensioners living in rented accommodation, the cost of care is not an issue: the state pays anyway.

Or take university fees. When the Tories came out against the new fee regime, they were castigated - rightly - as vote-seeking opportunists. Why don't the Lib Dems come in for any comparable attack? Does a policy change its nature depending on who promotes it? If it does, I cannot see why.

Abolishing fees would, as every Times Higher reader must by now know, be of disproportionate benefit to the middle classes. They take up the mass of university places. They are also the ones who pay fees.

Students from low-income families do not pay English up-front fees now, and will continue to get a different, better deal under the new income-contingent scheme as well.

The Lib Dems know this perfectly well, so when they make university fees a big campaign issue, they are targeting a particular type of voter.

One of their boasts is that the policy works in Scotland. The Scottish system is not, in fact, totally free. It involves something called a "graduate endowment", which can be levied the spring after graduation.

You might think that something that walks, talks and quacks like a fee could be called one - but not, I suppose, if you want to boast that Scotland doesn't charge its students.

Of course parties need policies that cater to voter interests. Most of us combine a small amount of altruism with a good deal of self-interest, and if you do not get enough people to vote for you, you will never implement your ideas.

What needs acknowledging is the target the Lib Dems have chosen.

It is the wallets of middle-class voters, people much like most university lecturers and administrators.

We, too, are educated, home-owning and fall well into the top half of the income distribution, even if it does not feel that way.

Lib Dem MPs still hold seats in their Celtic heartlands, but the ones they have acquired in recent elections are a roll-call of affluent home-owning England: Guildford, Bath, Kingston, Cheltenham, Winchester, Lewes. These seats have mostly been captured from the Tories.

After all, there is plenty to attract and little to scare your average Tory voter.

Moreover, at the moment voting Tory is seen as rather shameful: pollsters report big disparities between actual and reported voting, because people who voted Conservative lie about it. Whereas if you vote Lib Dem, you can have a warm glow about yourself.

I apologise to all those people whose main reason for supporting the Lib Dems is a principled objection to the Iraq War. I also think we should take them as seriously as they would like to be taken and when the Lib Dems campaign against university fees, let us not pretend that they do so as champions of the poor and underprivileged.

Alison Wolf is Sir Roy Griffiths professor of public sector management, King's College London.

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