Friday, December 3, 2010

Can we stop digging please?

Let’s face it – the tuition fees issue has been a disaster. We have handled this very badly. The only consolation is that our poll rating can’t get much lower. Amongst students our poll rating has fallen from 45% at the election to 15% now – and even that’s higher than we might expect.

Unfortunately we are still digging .. and it’s time to stop.

I have great respect for Vince Cable. He has been a great Treasury spokesman over the last few years and is proving to be an astute Business Secretary. He did a brilliant speech at regional conference. But as I said earlier, he and I differ on this one point in that I felt we could have done more for students.

So I was astonished to read that the Lib Dem MPs are seeking a 'common position' for all 57 MPs which might involve Vince abstaining on his own policy! There can’t have been a precedent for this. Equally Danny Alexander, who is proving to be a good Chief Secretary, got into a mess in justifying this view on BBC’s Question Time. This doesn’t help things, chaps.

There is no problem with one party voting different ways, as the others have done occasionally, so the solution is clear. The Liberal Democrats which are part of the government should vote in favour of the policy under collective responsibility. The MPs who are not in the government should honour the pledges and vote against. If the opposition get their act together (unlikely) we may send out a clear message even if we don't defeat the plan.

The government of Wales have decided to freeze the tuition fees and make up the difference from their budget. I welcome this but remain suspicious of mischief making. Wales is run by Labour and Plaid Cymru and there is a general election in five months. I think their crafty plan is to use this against the Lib Dems, see them off at the election, and then afterwards, should they still be in power, they will then put the fees up anyway and blame the Westminster government. Hopefully I will be wrong.

Initially I was impressed by Aaron Porter, the NUS President, in his campaign. But after seeing his recent TV appearances I am now concerned he is becoming a Labour stooge. He is right to condemn the government’s proposals but wrong to target the Liberal Democrats so ferociously. He should remember that we are split on this issue and hundreds of parliamentary candidates (including myself) have signed petitions calling on the government to think again. He should also remember Labour's record on fees.

Had Labour won the election this year, and Gordon Brown still in Number 10, would Labour have rejected the Browne report, considering they set it up and their previous enthusiasm about fees?

And surely no-one seriously thinks a Conservative government would have given a better deal? In that case there would have been no cap, and fees of up to £15,000 and beyond.

So although we have let them down, the fact remains that of all the major parties, the Liberal Democrats remain the most student-friendly party. We abolished fees in Scotland, we are still committed to abolishing fees throughout the UK, and the vast majority of the members still back that view. Many of us intend to keep the campaign going and hopefully, in financially better times and a budget towards the end of this parliament, we can make a start on lowering and abolishing fees.

I would like to see our new president and party leadership in close discussions with the NUS to establish where we can go from here. But if the NUS think they will get better deal by wiping us out and putting one of the others in, then they might be in for a shock.

However we have done ourselves no favours by continually working away at the hole we are in. Let’s stop digging and start thinking.

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