Reading last week’s issue of The Badger it would have seemed to any fair minded person, that Nick Clegg was about to turn up at your door with a cheeky grin, and give you a nice £45,000 fine for being intelligent. Lord Browne would be somewhere behind, chuckling and wearing blue, and the not-so-saintly Vince Cable would be carrying out a long list of things that he never had any intention or will to do.
It would seem fair to me to argue that the opinion sections last week were born of the Daily Mail school of hysteria. It is absolutely understandable that we would be worried about the recent changes in policy regarding student finance. The most worrying thing for me, is the perception that this actually is a change in policy for the Liberal Democrats. Overnight we’ve gone from being nice people in sandals who want peace to being the same Tory-types who steal money from poor people.
I think what is needed here, is a good dose of reality, and then we can assess whether Nick is blue through and through, or whether actually he’s just been a rather naughty boy.
The first thing to point out in this debate is that none of this is set in stone. As Vince said last week, the coalition agrees with the ‘main thrust’ of the Brown Review. What we have seen since really has brought this into question. At least fifty percent of Liberal Democrat MPs intend to rebel on this vote, suggesting that all is not quite well. Similarly, if Red Ed is to be believed, Labour won’t be supporting the bill either.
One can only surely argue in this sense that any bill hoping to change the nature of student finance to this degree will not glide through the house with as much ease as might be hoped. Of course we can all help that argument along, by marching in various ways. I personally will be marching with the Liberal Youth movement, who oppose this too.
The next point to make is that a Graduate Tax is a wonderful idea. Even I don’t dispute this. However, in the real world, at this point in time – it isn’t going to happen. The very nature of a Graduate Tax would mean that the government, and thus the taxpayer, would have to spend a huge amount in the first instance.
The fees and maintenance of at least three waves of students would have to be found from the public purse before any money from repayment started to trickle back in. With the economy in the state that it’s in, this doesn’t seem like the wisest solution. The wisest solution would have been for the Labour Party, that great progressive force, to have introduced such an idea in 1997, when the sun was shining and the holes in the roof hadn’t started letting in water. What they did instead was to introduce the current system of landing Joe Student with a whacking debt at the end of his degree. I support a Grad Tax.
As a Liberal, I support a University education free at the point of use – but the sad truth is that now is not the time. Next, we need to clarify where this whole mess comes from. The Browne Review was commissioned by the Labour Party while they were still in power, and has taken until now to be published. The bottom line, that needs to be stated, is that every policy that comes forth from the Coalition Government is not a Liberal Democrat policy. The Liberal Democrats campaigned on nuclear disarmament, and it fell by the wayside.
The Liberal Democrats campaigned against a cap on immigration from outside the EU, but our policy didn’t make it through. The Liberal Democrats are not the coalition. Just as the Conservatives are not the scrapping of ID Cards, or the cutting of tax completely for people earning less than 10K. I wish almost more than anyone, that everyone had woken up on May 5th, and thought ‘Yes! I’ve got it! Those yellow guys! They’re the answer.’ But it didn’t happen. Our party holds fifty-seven seats in a House that has six hundred and thirty-one. Thus far in Coalition Government, we have punched a fair way above our weight, forcing through policies of tolerance, of fairness and of equality, but we cannot expect to win every fight. I don’t support the findings of this review.
I believe that Lord Browne was asking the correct questions – HE Funding needs to be looked at, we’re starving some of our finest institutions of funding they desperately need – and coming up with the wrong answers. Vince may support it, but the clear fact is that Liberal Democrat MPs and Liberal Democrat members do not. In a recent poll, 59% of members polled disagreed with this u-turn, 29% understood why MPs felt the need to reassess the situation, and only 11% supported what Vince calls the ‘main thrust’ of the review.
Finally, the idea that the Liberal Democrats and Nick Clegg have ‘sold out’ needs debunking. Nick Clegg said repeatedly during a month-long election campaign that if no party was returned with an overall majority, he would seek to form a coalition with the party who gained most popular support. You may wish that the coalition was Yellow and Red, even I do, but sadly the country did not agree. People went to the polls in the very clear knowledge that a vote for the Liberal Democrats was likely to be a vote for coalition. The sad truth is that nobody likes to compromise, but this is the situation we’re in.
Shoot at Nick if you want to but I see in him a man doing the best with an unenviable situation. Nick doesn’t believe in suffocating students in debt, but he does believe that a solution to the national deficit needs to be found. I don’t agree with his support of Lord Browne, neither do you I’d imagine but what is clear is that these are the actions of a man doing the best he can.
The findings of the Sam Phripp Review? This is not Liberal Democrat Policy. This has never been Liberal Democrat Policy. This will never be Liberal Democrat Policy. Hells, the Liberal Democrats as a whole don’t even support it. If it was policy, you’d see the tatters of my membership card scattered around Falmer House. Now is a particularly troubling time to be one of us, even I am having to hold my breath, and see how this plays out. Ed will, of course, have all of the solutions. Of course he will – because he has none of the problems. The Liberal Democrats are currently a party in flux, but nonetheless a party whose ideology is based in equality, tolerance and fairness for all – student or otherwise. In that sense, yours was not a wasted vote, your support was not an empty gesture, and your opposition to this policy should not go unheard. Now, if anyone sees Nick, tell him I want a word.