Saturday, 22 September 2012

Liberal Democrats did their best on tuition fees

Nick Clegg's video (by the way, am I the only cynic to suspect that the spoof, so good and so commercial, must have been prepared before the official media release :-) ?) addressed belatedly the difference between a manifesto proposal and a personal pledge.

However, some people are still under the impression that the policy of exempting English students from tuition fees was (a) dreamt up by the campaigns department as an election gimmick; and (b) uncosted.

The reverse is true. There has been a consistent objection by Liberal Democrats as a whole to the student loans system from the time this Conservative idea was implemented by the Blair-Brown government (incidentally reneging on a Labour 1997 campaign commitment). I remember a vigorous debate at federal conference in Coventry in the late 1990s when only a tremendous speech by Lembit from the top table persuaded members that we could not afford to reverse government policy then. A few years later, conference had its way, though in members' defence it should be said that a sense of financial well-being had returned to the country.

Before the last general election, in view of the credit crunch, Nick Clegg and Vince Cable advised the party to reverse policy (as this report of the 2009 spring conference shows). However, once it was clear that the party would not back down, LibDem MPs and the federal policy committee assiduously went over the costings to make sure that the proposals which were a central part of the manifesto would work. Danny Alexander (now Chief Secretary to the Treasury) and Nick committed themselves wholeheartedly to them.

They (and we party members) cannot be blamed for the UK in 2010 voting ten-to-one (in terms of seats) for parties who supported the continuation of the tuition fees system. Having been forced to accept it as part of the price for entering government, Vince Cable worked hard to mitigate it as far as possible so that it was fairer than under Labour and benefited more people.

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