Monday, September 26, 2011

Now it is Labour's turn (again) to kick the students

When I entered university in Aberystwyth, many years ago, the then Thatcher government had just ended housing benefit for students, were bringing in the poll tax, were slashing grants, and introducing student loans. We thought things could not get any worse. How very wrong we were.

This weekend’s announcement by the Labour party that they would have tuition fees of £6,000 completes the circle. Student grants are just a memory, the Labour government introduced tuition fees and then ‘top-up’ fees, the Conservative party want unlimited fees, the Liberal Democrats backed a policy of trebling fees, and now Labour are back saying that instead they should be doubled.

It seems that no-one is prepared to back the students. Even former NUS President, Aaron Porter, who initially impressed last year, has now abandoned his opposition to raising fees and is backing the new Labour party policy – perhaps putting his own ambitions before principles (ironically something Lib Dems are often accused of).

The years of higher education are a great experience. For many, it is the first time they have lived away from their parents, where you can meet new friends, enjoy studying topics of interest, and get a sense of independence. Students make mistakes in life, as do we all, but most former undergraduates look back on those years with very fond memories – especially if you went somewhere as nice as Aberystwyth.

Student life is not for everyone, of course, but it should be an option for those of any background who is prepared to work hard enough to get there and stay there.

The country, in return, gets a generation of graduates whose talents and skills have been proven and developed by study and academic qualifications – doctors, lawyers, businessmen, even politicians, all go on to play their part in the country’s future.

Fees, simply put, are a deterrent. £3,000 a year with a final debt of £9,000 to pay off does not sound too much – but remember you also have your living costs, hall fees, books, food, bills – and that is before anyone thinks of any socialising.

The priority should be simple – the best potential students should not be deterred from entering university whatever their background.

The short term aim should be to freeze tuition fees at no more than £3,000 a year.
The medium term aim should be to abolish tuition fees completely.
The long term aim should be to restore some sort of maintenance grant.

The question that we should be discussing is: how can we as a country find the money to invest in our future? Not to compete with each other, or play party politics, by discussing how much debt with which we can lumber the brightest amongst our future generation.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Number 54 - Thank You

This is to thank all of you who voted for my blog in the Total Politics Blog awards 2011. I was delighted to make my debut in the lists and come in at Number 54 in the Lib Dem blogs – thus allowing me to use the button on the left.

The approach I have taken on my blog is not to repeat Lib Dem policy, indeed I have often disagreed with it, but simply to put forward my opinions.

Others will, of course, have their own opinions – that’s what makes politics so interesting. I am simply a Liberal Democrat because their views are the closest to my own.

For example, my interests are:
- Mass political reform, including a written constitution, voting reform and an English parliament.
- Fair taxation for all – with cuts in VAT and the top rate of tax when feasible (i.e. not now!)
- Investment in higher education – the abolition of tuition fees across the UK and, in the long-term, the return of a maintenance grant.
- An active and positive involvement in the European Union (but not to include a single currency).
- Pro-family, supporting measures to strengthen marriage and the family unit, including restoring the marriage tax allowance.
- Pro-Clegg and pro-coalition – agreeing with the equidistance principle that we should be prepared to work and co-operate with any other party. Power is not a dirty word, we should not be here just to run a few councils.
- Opposed to everything the Daily Mail says (this is the national paper I read more than any other for sheer amusement value).

Thanks again for voting. To those of you who agree with me, I hope you join the cause. To those of you who don’t, please feel free to comment. And I would encourage everyone to join a political party, whichever is closest to your views, and get involved.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

After the coalition - some thoughts for the 2015 election

Some Tories have turned their thoughts to the next election and are putting ideas on paper to open a discussion about how David Cameron can win a majority government. Of course it would be a brave man to predict events of the next few years, but this seemed to be a good idea so these are my own thoughts from the Lib Dem point of view.

Many in the party are dreading the next election. Our poll ratings are in single figures, we will be losing many councillors over the next few years, and we will be hit by boundary changes. The media are hoping for our MPs to be reduced to at least the six the Liberals had in 1970. But I think there are some reasons for optimism.

So let’s assume the coalition lasts its full term and we prepare to do battle on Thursday 7 May 2015. I think there are two main points to make.

Firstly, for the first time since the 1920s, we will have a record of government to defend. We need to produce a list of achievements and how much of our manifesto has been successfully implemented (which will be about 75%). Examples will include taking the lower incomes out of tax, the pupil premium, the green investment bank, linking pensions to earnings – and so on. You know the list.

We must hammer at this list again and again. This is what we have achieved. It would not have happened without us. (For example, at the time of writing, many Tories seem more interested in reducing the tax of the higher paid rather than the lower). Hopefully by 2015 the economy will have recovered and we will have returned to growth and job creation and take the credit for that.

Secondly, our 2015 manifesto assumes greater importance. Never again can anyone say that Lib Dems can promise the earth because they will never be a position to put it to the test.

Of course we aim for sole government, but it is possible that after the election we may be in coalition or some sort of agreement with either of the big two. We can put across the message that the more votes we get, the more policies we will be able to implement.

Thus in our next manifesto we need some new and exciting ideas to build on to capture the public's imagination. Further development of the economy, improvement to the public services, and continued job creation will be the main topics – and we mustn’t forget our old friend, political reform and moves towards a fairer voting system.

What we have done – and what we will do. These should be the two pillars of our campaign.

And what of our leader? No-one can have had such a spectacular rise and fall as our Nick Clegg has over 2010. But as deputy Prime Minister for five years he will have grown in stature, if not in popularity. (Mrs Thatcher was never popular but it didn’t stop her winning three elections).

There have been some who have suggested a change of leader before the next election but I disagree. I am sure in the debates that Cleggy will be able to out-debate Cameron once again and he can return to being an asset to the party.

The 2015 general eletion will be a big test, certainly the party's biggest test in the history of the Liberal Democrats. It is also a challenge, one we must not be afraid of.

Overall, if we can fight an active campaign, be proud of what we have done, and put forward a positive programme for further change and fairness, then I think we have nothing to be afraid of.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Our mistakes in government - a personal view

As we end the summer break and approach the conference season, it is an appropriate time to give ourselves an assessment of what has gone wrong and how we can improve. Recently ConservativeHome ran a piece on David Cameron’s ten biggest mistakes – an article which caused much debate. In the same sense, I would like to list what were, in my view, our biggest mistakes over the last 18 months.

Tuition fees:
No problems identifying the biggest error. This will rank alongside the poll tax as one of the greatest political blunders of our time.

We had rightly made this a flagship issue during the campaign, and got a great deal of support from students and their families as a result. We could have nurtured that confidence, maybe even developed it into the presence of new young members and campaigners. And then, at a stroke, an entire generation of potential supporters was wiped out!

Given the economic circumstances, and the fact we are in coalition, I think we would have been forgiven for putting the timetable back a bit – we could have frozen the fees for now with the intention for at least a partial reduction by 2015. But to see the fees triple, and our guys leading the way in defending this, gave rise to the belief that the Liberal Democrats are a party that breaks its promises – a belief the media will only be too eager to perpetuate and will take many years for us to break down.

Yes, the resulting system is a fair one and many students will benefit, but we cannot get around the fact that fees have been increased. Many members of the party, including myself, were very unhappy about this.

The National Health Service:
It is a well-known fact that you cannot trust the Tories with the NHS – so there must have been particular care at negotiating this part of the coalition agreement. It was a bombshell therefore when the proposed NHS changes were announced to let the market into the system.

What for me was a sickening spectacle was the immediate photo call – where we had our leader, Nick Clegg, join David Cameron and Andrew Lansley on a televised walkabout of a hospital – thus implying that they were at one with the proposals. This gave us a few arguments during the canvassing earlier this year.

During the election campaign, nurses told me about the bureaucracy and over-management of the NHS, so reductions here were necessary – but to jump on board the Tory plan so quick is blunder number two. Fortunately, the party members and the admirable Shirley Williams are leading the way in calling for a rethink, so this cause is not yet lost. But it would have helped if we had not been so eager to endorse the reforms in the first place.

Public sector pensions:
The Tories do not like the public sector or those who work in them. That’s OK, as we don’t like them much either. However it was a mistake for Danny Alexander to join in the attack on public sector pensions – again it is us doing the Tories' work for them. It is agreed that the funding of pensions need to be looked at, especially in the private sector, but we must seek a fair settlement here. When I see the Daily Mail congratulating Liberal Democrat ministers, then I get very worried.

Boundary reviews:
I think agreeing to this concession will come back to hit us very hard. If you look at a map of England coloured by constituency, you will see swarms of blue and seas of red, with a few dots of yellow here and there. These are areas where local Lib Dem parties have gradually built up constituency support over a period of time primarily on local issues.

However, boundary changes will result in blocks of Tory or Labour voters being moved onto these areas and upsetting the balance. The last estimate is that we would lose a quarter of our seats on these moves alone. Sarah Teather successfully held off a fellow MP but are others prepared to work just as hard?

People will always choose to have fewer politicians – but I fear such drastic changes will hurt us.

AV referendum:
In return for an agreement to equalise the constituencies, we got a possibility of a voting system we didn’t really want. Not a fair exchange.

Anyone who follows European politics knows that referendums are never reliable and are inevitably decided on completely irrelevant issues (as became the case with the AV referendum).

Our Scottish colleagues demanded STV for local council elections in return for a coalition with Labour. As many council wards are multi-member, this would have been possible to implement. I think this should have been our demand in England. It would benefit us, further our representation, avoid having councils with over 90% from one party, and get people used to voting 1-2-3.

Finally this was one from the campaign itself. Immigration was one of the most common issues raised on the doorstep, and we adopted a good workable but politically disastrous policy. The words ‘illegal’ ‘immigration’ and ‘amnesty’ were enough to have the media screaming. The Tories ‘cap’ (although not possible) won them support while we should have adopted Labour’s no-policy policy.

This is an entirely personal view of our mistakes. The decision to form the coalition, however, was correct given the result of the election. There is 75% of the manifesto in place and no longer can people dismiss Lib Dem policies on the basis they will never be put into practice.

Nick Clegg and the party leadership still deserves much praise for the successful work they have done over the last 18 months. But we can do better, and must do so, to recover the trust of the electorate.