Promises, promises

Clegg voiced doubts about scrapping tuition fees before the election but failed to sway party activists, says Philip Cowley

September 27, 2012

See how much of this you agree with: "The Liberal Democrat pledge to vote against any rise in tuition fees was one of their key policies at the last election; it was a promise Nick Clegg made because he thought he would never have to implement it; and no apology - whether spoken or sung - will stop me thinking he's a right shit who deserves what's coming to him."

My guess is that the last bit is probably accurate for most people, and may be rather mild for many. Those who think the Lib Dems risible as a result of what they've done since entering government in 2010 are mostly not going to change their minds as a result of Clegg's apology - no matter how humorously auto-tuned. That said, his ratings, and those of his party, are currently so low it probably can't do much harm trying.

But most of the rest is not an accurate version of events. It's not true to say that the Lib Dem policy at the last election was to vote against any rise in student fees. Sure, Lib Dem MPs - including Clegg - signed up to the National Union of Students' pledge to do just that, but the policy in the party's manifesto went further: it promised to "scrap unfair university tuition fees for all students taking their first degree...We will immediately scrap fees for final-year students."

And yes, times are tough, but they said they'd thought of that one: "We have a financially responsible plan to phase fees out over six years, so that the change is affordable even in these difficult economic times, and without cutting university income."

It is also not true, although it is frequently claimed, that student fees were one of the Lib Dems' top policies during the 2010 general election. The party had four key pledges at the election - summed up as fair taxes, a fair future, a fair chance and a fair deal.

Student fees were not one of them (although I bet it didn't feel like that if you lived in a constituency containing lots of students), which helps explain why it wasn't a key negotiating position during the coalition discussions.

Clegg's role is also much misunderstood. Far from blithely making a promise he had no intention of keeping, the policy on student fees was one on which he expended considerable political capital within the party repeatedly trying, but failing, to amend. Throughout 2009, in a series of party policy meetings, both Clegg and Vince Cable, concerned about the cost of the policy, attempted in different ways to remove - or at least downgrade - it, leading to a series of clashes with party activists.

Sometimes these tensions surfaced but mostly they stayed behind closed doors in the party's policy committees, but they were none the less brutal for that. The worst was a July meeting of the party's Federal Policy Committee held at Westminster. A meeting that would normally last around two hours dragged on for five, until being adjourned at 11pm.

Members of the FPC found the leadership rude and patronising - with particular criticism of Clegg ("petulant") and Cable ("obnoxious", "deeply arrogant"), while the leadership found the mulish attitude of the FPC frustrating ("lovely people, but every time they go into that room they become policy Rottweilers"). The security alarm went off at one point: when the police arrived to investigate, the joke was that it was Clegg calling for help. But, as on every other occasion, the attempt to remove or downgrade (to "an aspiration") the student fees policy failed. Having failed to amend their party's policy, Clegg and Cable went along with it at the 2010 election. That's party democracy, for good or ill.

So when sage observers point out how silly Lib Dem MPs were to sign the NUS' pledge (and the only pledge at the next election, as one Lib Dem MP put it to me, is that there will be no pledges), it was merely the logical consequence of their existing policy. If you are pledged to scrap fees altogether, you can hardly refuse to sign a pledge not to increase them.

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