>I am extremely perturbed by reports that Lib Dem Business Secretary Vince Cable may abstain in the Commons vote on tuition fees. Not because he doesn’t believe in the scheme, but in some misguided attempt to preserve party unity.
Apparently, them higher ups in the party are a bit concerned that our MPs might split 3 different ways. I actually despair if they think that’s the greatest thing we have to worry about at the moment.
Frankly, whatever we do in this vote, we are going to take some serious pelters for it. I actually think all of us abstaining would be the least satisfactory outcome. I mean, we argue that we deserve power and when it comes to a crucial vote, we don’t bother taking part? And it would be completely disingenuous, corralling people into a synthetic unity in a way that just stores up trouble for the future.
To me, credibility and common sense are much more important than unity. As a Scot, I don’t have much right to stick my beak into matters affecting England, but that hasn’t stopped Stephen either blogging about it or being one of the 104 candidates from the General Election who wrote to Vince Cable yesterday.
I agree with all of those people that tuition is free for the student at the point of learning is where we should be and it’s what a Government should introduce. But, let’s face it, we are just 57 in a Parliament of 650. If people had been given the Parliament they voted for in May, we’d have maybe 140 MPs and consequently would be a much bigger force within the resulting Government. The cold hard facts are that within that House of Commons, Conservative and Labour together make an overwhelming majority for the principle of tuition fees existing. In that climate, there is no way we could ever have hoped to pass our policy.
We’ve known this would happen from May. We had our Special Conference where the Coalition Agreement was debated. I know that some people feel that they would like to have seen a more strongly worded statement on tuition fees, but in the end of the day, Conference voted for it, overwhelmingly. All the Coalition Agreement ever allowed us to do was abstain.
I might not agree with the position on the Browne Review taken by Vince and Nick – but as I wrote when this issue first exploded, I think they’ve come up with the fairest possible scheme in the circumstances.
The Lovely Elephant has pointed out better than I ever could,exactly how our system is very similar to the one proposed by the National Union of Students – but fairer because those on the lowest incomes actually pay less. Nick Clegg, at Deputy PM’s Questions today actually put some flesh on the bones of it all. He pointed out that someone on £21000 would pay around £7 a month under the new scheme where someone on the same income paying Labour’s fees right now would be paying £81. That’s £74 extra that new graduate has to spend a month. That’s round half a month’s Council Tax where I come from. These figures are the sort of thing we should have had when this scheme was first mooted.
Vince Cable has had a lot to do with the way the Government’s proposals have been put together, lobbying Lord Browne before he reported and tweaking afterwards to ensure maximum fairness. I think he needs to own these proposals by voting for them. The same for Nick Clegg, who supports them too. I suspect that there will be others in the Parliamentary Party who, given the choice, would vote for them too. Equally, there will be others, like new President Elect Tim Farron, who feel it is more important to honour the pledge they signed, who want to vote against. Forced abstention will make neither of these groups happy, even if it could be accomplished. I suspect the outcome will be pretty much the same as us abstaining anyway as those voting for will cancel out those voting against.
The media likes it when parties are disunited – they get all in a frenzy and try to poke the wounds between people, so I guess that’s why people want us to all vote the same way. But, really, if we do that, we sacrifice any attempt to remain credible. We’ve put together a system that’s fairer because of our influence. Unless at least some of us vote for it, we’re going to look incredibly silly. I think the best chance we have of recovery from this as a party, as well, is not to be too control freaky. If Government Deputy Chief Whip Alistair Carmichael
needs to threaten a few unfortunate souls with his wand use some extra special powers of persuasion to get his numbers right, then that’s up to him, but let’s not try to manufacture a unity that’s not there and that nobody would believe. There’s a lot that binds the Parliamentary Party together. This is but one issue where there’s disagreement. Anyone in any sort of relationship knows that you disagree sometimes, and that it’s much better to accept the disagreement and deal with it like grown ups.