It’s Lib Dem bashing season. And, in many ways, rightly so: the chutzpah the leadership have displayed in reneging on their pre-election pledge not to vote in favour of rises in University tuition fees is deplorable.
The NUS plan a ‘decapitation’ strategy of Liberal Democrat MPs at the next electionThis will do nothing to help students. Rather, undermining the Lib Dems will help the Conservatives add to their tally of seats, replacing a party who, as a whole, care more about tuition fees and students.
So what about Labour? What of their distinguished recent history of fighting for students? Pull the other one. This is the same party who, in 2001, pledged in their manifesto not to introduce top-up fees – then promptly did so anyway. And, their 2010 manifesto would have raised students’ burden of studying at University. If the Lib Dems might fail in their role of championing students’ interests, it is a role Labour never aspired to.
It is hard to defend what the Liberal Democrats have done. They – or more accurately the party leadership – have behaved despicably. So the case for the defence is a limited one – and, being incredibly angered by their behaviour, I am probably not the best person to make it.
But here goes. The uproar over their readiness to ditch their policy on scrapping tuition fees must be considered in light of the political climate. Both other main parties supported rises in tuition fees in their 2010 manifestos – so, if the Lib Dems were going to form a coalition, the dominant party were always going to advocate increases. Realistically, they could ensure crucial progressive measures like increases in bursaries and limits to the increases – and they have. The blame lies not so much in their legislation, over which they have limited control considering the Tories have over five times as many MPs, as the pledge – which was always going to be unrealistic.
The Lib Dems are victims of double standards. When the Conservatives or Labour freely abandon manifesto pledges, it is evidence that politics is a tricky business. You need to be pragmatic to succeed, after all. When the Lib Dems do the same – notwithstanding the fact that, by nature of being the junior coalition partner, they have to, it is the betrayal of the century. The backlash, especially from the NUS, is totally disproportionate to the one Labour faced after abandoning their 2001 manifesto promise. This is perverse in the extreme. Labour were in government when they made the election pledge – so had full access to accounts and the civil service; and they were in sole power, and with a huge majority, when they reversed it. The mitigating circumstances the Lib Dems can cite simply did not exist for Labour, yet that hasn’t stopped anyone lambasting them far more.
Why, then, have the Lib Dems received such merciless criticism? More than anything, it’s because they appeared to represent something different – an appeal to idealism. Their election campaign and emphasis on representing the ‘new politics’, with a distinct sense of moral superiority, inevitably created mileage in any story of their moral fallibility. Moralising Nick set his party up to be judged differently from the others. And judged differently they have been. The anger is certainly understandable, but the moral standards expected of the Lib Dems seem not to apply to the other political parties. Fundamentally, all parties should be judged with the same scrutiny.
The Liberal Democrats remain a party with great regard for students. But the party leadership – distinct from the party itself – has been taken over by the centre-right – Clegg, Alexander and Laws – for whom tuition fees are a much less significant issue than for the vast majority of the membership, who are generally much to the left of the leadership. Students have every right to feel anger at the Lib Dems but the tendency to scapegoat them is unproductive. If the enemy is the tuition fee rises, than the NUS’s strategy is completely wrong. However odious the rises are to many, few could deny they would have been greater still without Lib Dem influence. And what would the ‘decapitation’ strategy achieve? Above all, it would help the Conservatives, whose views on tuition fees are just what the NUS are trying to oppose.
What can be done? It is time for the Lib Dems MPs who signed those notorious pledges to fight back against the takeover of the party. Rather than lay into the Libs mercilessly, students should do all they can to pressurise their MPs to rebel against the fee rises – a much more constructive course of action.