>Nick Clegg has given an interview to the Independent on Sunday in which he’s talked about all sorts of aspects of being in Government.
I’ll maybe write more about what he’s said later, but I want to separate off his comments about the issue of the moment, tuition fees.
You have to remember that it was the Labour Party who set up the current system, where graduates started to pay back their fees when they earned £15,000. It’s the Liberal Democrats who are raising that threshold by over a third to £21000 and ensuring that students from the lowest income families, those who get free school meals, don’t have to pay fees for two years. Nick Clegg has been passionate about social mobility for as long as I’ve known him. He doesn’t want people to be restricted, their life chances harmed, if they come from a poor background. He wants to free people from the institutional barriers that have held them back.
Labour weren’t bothered enough about freeing people from the barriers that kept them in poverty to do anything about it during the 13 years they were in office. And surely you can’t seriously think that the Conservatives give two hoots about social mobility. They wouldn’t have bothered about the poorest if they were governing on their own.
Now, join me in being utterly heartbroken that we’re not sticking to our policy to phase out fees by all means, but please don’t condemn our ministers for trying to make a positive difference, the best they could in the current political circumstances. We are only 57 out of 650. How would you really have felt to watch them abstain as a Tory plan, with no cap, and no measures for the poorest, was pushed through?
Have a look at what Nick actually said on the Coalition’s plans:
“It’s immensely frustrating to me to see a policy which lowers barriers of entry to university being portrayed as putting up barriers.”
“If you were a care worker starting on £21,000 you pay about £7 a month. Under the current scheme you pay £81 a month and under the 2 per cent graduate tax proposed by Ed Miliband it’s about £36.”
“I believe in this policy. I really think we will look back in 10 or 15 years’ time and think, actually that was quite a brave and bold and socially progressive thing to do.
It’s probably important to mention as well that hopefully by the time the first graduates are paying this, they will also enjoy the first £10,000 tax free because of another major Lib Dem win in the coalition.
I have to be honest. I’d have liked to have seen a little more mea culpa from him. He needs to balance promoting the benefits of the path he has chosen with a genuine recognition that he’s really asking a hell of a lot of the Party. Not only that, he’s asking people to abandon a specific personal pledge to the voters. He is the one forcing this situation on us, therefore he needs to be very sensitive and tolerant of those who find it impossible to go along with him.
I found another of his comments about the situation was quite telling:
“The allegation is made with the heart: it’s ‘you betrayed me’. And the answer is made with the head. When you have that, the heart always wins.
I kind of get that, and I know that the comment comes from somebody who genuinely values heart and head but it’s not so simple. I have body parts strewn on both sides of this argument. My heart says no increase in fees, but it also tells me that these people I have trusted for so long are good people and are doing the best they can in the circumstances. My head tells me that this proposal is probably the most achievable way at the moment of financing university education, but it also tells me that it means that we’ll be investing less in our higher education even than the US. There’s a shocker.
If I were an MP, there was no way abstention could ever be a possibility. I would have to take one side or the other. I would never have signed the NUS pledge in the first place, so that wouldn’t be an issue for me – it was so obvious that the mess we’re in would come to pass, whoever we ended up in coalition with. Every instinct would tell me to vote against, just because I’d like to see no fees. The sorts of things that would persuade me to look again would be a raising of the limit for having fees paid from above the free school meals. I see why it’s been done like that, but I think the evidence suggests that the poorest people are just above that limit. They may be working, but they find that they lose housing and council tax benefit and things like free school meals and prescriptions.
I suspect Nick is right in that in 10 or 15 years we will see some very positive effects of what we are doing, as the Pupil Premium means that kids who would today have no chance have been provided with the tools to make a much better life for themselves. We’ve just got to look at the big picture, see how everything fits together.
Whatever the outcome of the vote on Thursday, Liberal Democrat party policy remains that tuition fees should go. This isn’t over yet as an issue. When this is discussed again, as it is bound to be, Nick and Vince need to approach these talks with sensitivity and emotional intelligence on one side and hard evidence that it’s consistent with our values on the other. Having found a way to phase fees out for this manifesto, finding the money to replace the new system will be more challenging.
My biggest concern is that the party isn’t irrevocably harmed by the polarisation on this issue. I am finding the name calling online by a small number of people from both sides very hard to deal with. We are all Liberal Democrats and there is much more binding us together than pulling us apart. We shouldn’t do Labour’s job for them by kicking lumps out of each other, even when there is a genuine split like there is on this.