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Saturday, 4 December 2010

Clegg to decide - third party of protest or coalition partner?

The vote on tuition fees on Thursday is a chance to find out whether the Lib Dems in the coalition government really understand the choice that they made to share power. The decision they need to make is not about the moral issue of charging for university education, but about whether they would prefer to be the third party of protest or a legitimate, responsible member of the executive.

The debate on whether tuition fees should be charged at all is something I have addressed already. There is an argument against tuition fees being charged full-stop on economic and moral grounds. There is an argument that tuition fees should be nominal, so that students who benefit from university education contribute towards it, but the burden is shared with the state. There is also an argument that students should pay for their entire education, as they benefit from it, and in our current financial situation we need to ask them to do so. There are therefore legitimate grounds to oppose, abstain or vote for the rise in tuition fees. Where there is a difference is in the responsibilities of the three main parties.

Labour MPs can vote for or against and not many would bat an eyelid. It has been conveniently forgotten by many that Labour introduced tuition fees in 2002 having expressly committed in their 2001 election manifesto not to do. This, perhaps, is why they have been relatively quiet on the implications of Nick Clegg committing to oppose tuition fees then vote for them in government. Also, the rise has been suggested by Lord Browne of Madingly's commission, which was set up by the previous Labour government. However, as we know now, Labour is the party of opposition, and oppose they probably will, whether they believe it to be right or wrong.

Conservative MPs will vote for, and I imagine will be whipped into doing so, as they are the majority party in government and there should be a certain amount of discipline installed into them. They didn't make any rash promises on this issue before the election and there are few grounds of principle involved on which they can vote against or abstain.

Then there are the Lib Dems. They made their pledge to oppose tuition fees before the election. That is true, but it was the type of pledge you make when you are a third party and may never need to actually have the responsibility of government. It was an economically-irresponsible pledge considering the deficit, but it has been hung around them like a noose.  Which Lib Dem MPs vote for or against or abstain, depends on what their role is in our new political landscape. To understand what they might do, and what they should do, relies upon the clearing up of two major fallacies that many protesters are either not getting, or ignoring.

1) The Lib Dems are in government. They are in the coalition. If they hadn't joined the Conservatives in a coalition then there would be no effective government, given that minority rule in a time of economic problems is not advisable. When you join a coalition, you have to negotiate and compromise. This means you get to keep some of your promises to the electorate, you have to drop some of your promises and some of your promises will be amended. The Lib Dems secured an agreement that they could abstain in the vote on tuition fees, and Nick Clegg has offered that to his MPs, on the basis that they ALL do so. However, some Lib Dem MPs have said they will honour their pre-election pledge and vote against, thereby breaking the coalition agreement. This means Clegg cannot abstain and has a responsibility to vote for the legislation. As does every other Lib Dem government minister, and there are quite a few of them. Those Lib Dems voting against are saying that they are not prepared to be in power, and that's fine, but they must live with that decision.

2) The actual legislation being voted upon has the hallmarks of Lib Dem intervention, particularly on some of the provisions made to make it more progressive. Because you don't pay until you earn £21,000 you pay nothing unless you are in the top 60% of earners in the country - so you at that point are NOT poor. Because the interest rate charge rises as income rises there is a progressive nature to the payments, with those on higher incomes paying a higher proportion of those incomes. The Lib Dems HAVE had their influence here, and it is therefore a coalition policy, and members of the coalition government need to vote for it or shouldn't be in government. Vince Cable, for instance, should he not want to vote for the policy, needs to resign from the government payroll.

The fact is that Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems are socially liberal but economically conservative. Many who suggested they were a natural coalition party for Labour understood little about their politics. Clegg has managed to pull the Conservative party towards the centre, and should be applauded for that.

I completely understand the anger of students. I have students at school who want to protest and if there is anything they should protest about it is this as they are being asked to pay for the debts dropped on them by older generations.

However, they are also being asked to pay for a university system aimed at 50% of the population. If you want services like that you need money to be spent. If you want money to be spent you have to collect it in taxes. Those taxes could be paid by everyone or by those who directly benefit from the service. It has been decided that those who benefit will pay and there may be no going back on it. They need to receive a service worth paying for and £3000 a year wasn't doing that.

So, many reasons to vote against, although I would hope some of those people voting against could be bothered to understand the actual legislation. Maybe doing so would go against their "narrative". They want to call this a Thatcherite policy (which is interesting as it was a Labour policy, and Thatcher was all for investments in the supply-side of the economy - which university education is).

Let's hope the education they want us to pay for is not wasted on this quoted protester.

"There are no jobs and yet I'm being asked to take on massive debts. At £9,000 a year that's £21,000 of debt"

1) If you don't get a job after university you don't have to pay back anything
2) Do the Maths!

1 comment:

  1. "If you want services like that you need money to be spent. If you want money to be spent you have to collect it in taxes. Those taxes could be paid by everyone or by those who directly benefit from the service. It has been decided that those who benefit will pay and there may be no going back on it."

    I don't recall this being 'decided'! The Blair government certainly decided that students should make some contribution - which I support - but plenty of services are funded in a mixed way. Buses, for instance, or prescription medicine. There's no need for a false dichotomy.

    I think what confuses me most about the Conservative position is that student loans are, essentially, a supplemental income tax for students. Yet none of the arguments levied against income tax by those on the right are invoked against this! Will paying back your student loan weaken the incentive to work? Will it dampen consumer spending and weaken the economy in the long-run? Will richer students simply find creative ways of avoiding paying it back? I'm baffled that opponents of progressive taxation are now proudly re-inventing the wheel in the name of fairness.

    Of course, the silver lining in all of this is the idea that student loans will be collected back from people wherever in the world they move to. If that holds (hmmm) we could be one step closer to more harmonised worldwide taxation, which is badly necessary.

    Anyway, on the actual post about the Lib Dems: I've been discussing this with Tash a lot. Make no mistake - as a Hobbes fan (!) I'm a big supporter of strong executive government, and the public stance of Danny Alexander on QT the other night smacked of extreme desperation. However, I also follow her argument that because this is a coalition, and not a single-party government, we might expect different rules to apply. The fact of the matter is that if the Conservative party was the only group which collectively wanted this legislation, they have no parliamentary mandate to get it through. The Lib Dems are in the government, but they are still a different party, so why not maintain different collective positions? If coalition is about compromise - and so far it seems like the opposition - then public pressure on the Lib Dems could force the Conservatives to compromise on this.

    After all, if they ever actually win an election again they can do what they want...