The politics of the tuition fees vote

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ConDemed, with the emphasis on Con. In every sense. Tonight was a triumph of Conservatism and a triumph of lies. Or not so much lies as simple U-turn. Before the election, the Lib Dem candidates signed agreements that they would vote against any increase in tuition fees. The Coalition agreement made that null and void. It said Lib Dems could abstain on the vote. But abstain they did not. In an act of outrageous perfidy the Lib Dem ministers all voted in favour of the Bill. That left 21 of the 57 to fulfil their pre-election pledges, and oppose. Labour opposed; so did the smaller parties. Most of the votes- 295 of them- came from the Conservative party. A tenth of that number were Liberal. That tells you all you need to know about the origins of this Bill.

So the politics is exceedingly complicated. The Lib Dems were divided; and if they had not divided then every different step would irritate somebody. If they had all voted against it would destroy the Coalition and result in a general election which the Tories would probably win. If they abstained the bill would pass. If they voted for they would tear up their principles, their agreements, and their independence as a sovereign party. To get round these problems they made like Cyril Smith’s trousers, and split. As they do over everything. That tells you all you need to know about the Lib Dem position.

The Lib Dems are the centre of this story because the other parties are quite staunch. The Conservatives are in favour of reform. The motion- you might have forgotten- will raise tuition fees to £9000 a year, with a minimum of £6000. I cannot see a rational reason for this. Probably the Tories want to make universities more independent; perhaps they want to tackle the deficit; maybe they think it will help the poor in some way. Labour proposes a different option: students pay, but it’s a tax. A graduate tax. This makes no practical difference. Your human rights are still forfeited: you have to pay for education. If you are poor you will be just as penalised. When asked if he could guarantee that students would pay less under Labour, Ed Miliband replied that he could not. That tells you all you need to know about the Labour position.

Of course the main issue was not debated. How universities should be funded is important. But there are other questions too. What they are for; how many people should attend them; what they are supposed to teach; whether they should even exist in their present form. These are all imperative questions. They were not addressed. That tells you all you need to know about the quality of British politics.

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