Lib Dems rally Labour support for anti-top-up fees campaign

September 19, 2003

The Liberal Democrats plan to ambush the government's forthcoming top-up fees legislation with a campaign to rally opposition inside and outside the Labour Party.

The campaign "Learning is for life, not just for children" will be launched a fortnight before the top-up fee legislation is introduced later this year.

Lib Dems education spokesman Phil Willis, who is to deliver a keynote speech on higher education at next week's party conference in Brighton, said that it would incorporate an emphasis on the party's proposals for the abolition of tuition fees and restoration of £2,000 grants.

Labour backbenchers are threatening to vote against legislation to bring in fees of up to £3,000 a year from 2006. Almost 140 Labour MPs have signed a parliamentary motion opposing top-up fees.

It could take 100 Labour backbenchers, voting alongside the Lib Dems and Conservatives, to inflict the first Commons' defeat on the government.

Mr Willis said: "Basically, the government doesn't trust universities.

Despite talking about giving them greater freedom to raise their own income from fees, it is a centrally driven agenda to pass the buck for funding from the Treasury to the students. I think that's fundamentally dishonest."

He warned Tony Blair that his popularity as prime minister and party leader might not be enough, in the wake of the war with Iraq and subsequent events, to ensure the loyalty of many backbenchers who are worried that they could lose their seats in the next general election because of top-up fees and other controversial issues.

The Lib Dems are prepared to vote with the Conservatives against the legislation despite pouring scorn on the recent Tory policy switch from supporting tuition fees to opposing them.

The policy change upset some Conservatives who say the abolition of fees, combined with a cap on expansion, flies in the face of fundamental Tory principles of individual opportunity and reducing reliance on the state.

Mr Willis said: "Both Labour and the Conservatives have jettisoned traditional principles on fees and that's why they are so divided.

"The Tories are Johnny-come-latelys to this argument for purely vote-catching reasons. But if they are supporting our opposition, and we have opposed tuition fees from the outset, so be it."

Mr Willis said that his party's stand against fees had paid dividends on the doorstep in the run-up to this Thursday's Brent East byelection.

As The THES went to press, the Lib Dems were running a close second to Labour in the polls, having come third in the 2001 general election.

Mr Willis added: "Top-up fees are incredibly unpopular in Brent East, which has a large Asian population that is highly averse to debt."

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