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Abstention tension

05/12/2010

It will hardly have escaped readers’ attention that this week, MPs vote on the proposal to increase the maximum level of tuition fees, following the Browne review. Much ink has been spilled on the plan, and in particular, the LibDems’ reaction to it.

It’s little wonder: they are, traditionally, the party that opposed any kind of university tuition fees, though we forget that at last year’s Conference, Nick Clegg tried and failed to park that for the time being. Of course, Clegg himself soon forgot, visibly signing an NUS pledge to vote against any increase in tuition fees. Not “not to vote for”, note, but “vote against”. Very clear words.

Within a year, we now have the sight of a Liberal Democrat Secretary of State implementing a rise in fees. No wonder people are angry!

Worse still, the dithering from the LibDems is rather dreadful. They’ve had since Coalition negotiations began to decide what to do in this situation, yet we won’t find out until this week. And to put the icing on the cake, Vince Cable’s decision to vote for his own policy had to be dragged out of him kicking and screaming.

But then, it’s little wonder. The LibDems have four options, all of them bad:

1. Vote for the proposals. This would, of course, be a complete 180-degree turn but would show commitment to the Coalition and clear direction. However, it would be a total betrayal of everything the party has advocated up to now, and hard for most LibDem voters (and, judging the 2009 Conference, most of the activists) to stomach. The best case scenario would be that a handful of LibDem MPs rebel. The worst case scenario (and I emphasise that this is a suggestion of how bad as bad can get for the LibDems, not a prediction) would be that it’s the beginning of the end for the party: a split into those who prefer the Coalition (who get ever-closer to, and perhaps indistinguishable from) the Tories and a smaller independent party, shorn of most of its big-hitters.

2. Vote against the proposals. This would be the principled thing to do, honouring the manifesto and the pledge. However, it would kill the Coalition and all hell would break loose: with the Fixed Term Parliaments Bill not passed, there is nothing to prevent an election taking place before 2015, particularly if the Coalition Agreement is rendered null and void by what would be the LibDems’ decision to break it. And with the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill in jeopardy, the most likely outcome is that instead of the AV referendum clashing with the Holyrood, Senedd and Stormont Elections next year and then a Westminster election clashing with their timing in 2015, the AV referendum would disappear into the ether and the Westminster election would come forward by four years. At which point, the LibDems, having burnt most if not all of their bridges since May, would get completely and utterly tonked.

3. Abstain. The Coalition agreement allows them to do this, but it would be the worst of all worlds. Yes, they’d stay in Government (though again, surely Ministers have to vote for their own policies), but by abstaining, they hand a de facto majority to the Tories anyway, so fees are implemented, and they’re still breaking the pledge to vote against a fee increase. Also, having heard lots about LibDems making tough decisions in government, in this case, the LibDems would have decided not to make a decision. Yes, their consciences might be salved in that they didn’t vote for fees (though again, surely Ministers would have to?), but they’d be implemented anyway, they’d still have broken their pledge and they’d look like total cowards. Also, if there’s a rebellion, and some MPs do vote against it, again, we’re in Coalition-breaking country again.

4. Vote every which way. Again, this isn’t good. Assuming that LibDem Ministers vote yes (which would surely hand the Government a majority anyway), the rest of the party would be free to vote no, so some MPs would honour the pledge, while others honoured the Agreement. But then such a Janus-faced approach would create a real split in the party. And besides, eyes would turn to Simon Hughes, and also Jo Swinson. Hughes is Deputy Leader of the Federal Party, so for him to vote against would damage Coalition relations. But keep your eye on Swinson: Deputy Leader of the Scottish LibDems. The Scottish LibDems are trying to get out of this hole by pointing out that they still oppose fees – which, at Holyrood, is correct. But the credibility of this stance is already undermined by the sight of Scottish LibDem MPs voting in favour, which Danny Alexander, as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Alastair Carmichael, as Deputy Chief Whip and Michael Moore, as Secretary of State for Scotland, would surely have to do. To see the Scottish LibDem Deputy Leader vote in favour would blow the line completely out of the water, but to see her, as a LibDem in a senior position within the party, vote against (and so vote against the Coalition agreement that she supported in May) would surely be an embarrassment.

Of course, the reason this all hangs in the balance is that Labour are now opposed to fees – in England and Wales, at least. That they implemented the first tuition fees, and then top-up fees, despite stating that a Labour Government would not introduce them, has been forgotten: Tony Blair complained that Tory opposition to fees under Michael Howard was opportunist; now the boot seems to be on the other foot. LibDem protestations to that end are, broadly speaking, correct. I remember in 2005 how despite having voted for top-up fees, Nigel Griffiths became the students’ champion in Edinburgh South, because he opposed an idea to introduce a limit on the number of HMO Licences in Marchmont – a proposal which the LibDem candidate, Cllr Marilyne MacLaren, supported and which would have made the already difficult task of finding decent, affordable student accommodation even harder. Griffiths may be gone, but the Labour Party as a whole is going to pull off a similar feat. Still, I suppose if this proposal affects you, if you want it stopped, then it doesn’t matter who’s on your side or why – what matters is they’re voting how you want. The enemy of the NUS’s enemy is the NUS’s friend, and the traditional closeness between the student union and the Labour Party means that opportunist or not, the current roles of each player seem a little more comfortable to all except the LibDems.

Inevitably, LibDems will argue (and they will be right) that the election result nullified all commitments: no party got a majority so all manifestos are void, and it’s the Coalition Agreement which holds sway. But this doesn’t say that the parties will or won’t increase fees, simply that they await the outcome of the Browne Review, will judge its proposals and will allow the LibDems to abstain if they find the proposals unpalatable. However, candidates’ commitments on student fees weren’t a manifesto commitment for Government, they were a pledge for how, if elected, they would vote in Parliament. By signing up to the Agreement, LibDems broke that pledge.

And this, I fear, is the problem. The LibDems painted themselves into a corner in the Coalition negotiations – which they were all, by the end, in a hurry to sign up to once it was drawn up. And despite the pupil premium, it’s increasingly clear that the LibDems have got the bum end of this deal. Progress on civil liberties has come, but the parties were agreed on this anyway. On matters such as universities and nuclear power, the LibDems can abstain and hand the Tories a majority (but in both cases, it’s LibDem Secretaries of State – Vince Cable and Chris Huhne – whose departments will implement policy). On taxation and spending, it’s the Tory approach that’s won the day – and Danny Alexander has to help carry it out (everyone said the sight of Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander sitting forlornly behind George Osborne while he delivered the Budget was humiliating for the LibDems: for me, the more cringeworthy sight was that of Iain Duncan Smith and Chris Grayling roaring their approval as Danny Alexander gave the wind-up speech). On the new Scotland Bill, the proposals don’t quite go as far as Calman, and Calman didn’t really go as far as the LibDems wanted to – but it’s Michael Moore who will have to argue for them (and why we shouldn’t go further).

Then there’s the AV referendum. The Tories don’t want a change from First Past the Post. The LibDems want a proportional system, which AV isn’t. But while it’s a step in the right direction, it’s a half-hearted one which, whatever the outcome of the vote, kills off any further notion of electoral reform for a generation: vote yes (and I intend to), and that’s as far as we can go for now – time to let the system bed in; vote no, and it’s a rejection of any reform – a victory for First Past the Post. And again, it’s Nick Clegg who has to make it happen.

I will try (though I make no promises) to go easy on the LibDems this week: they are in an impossible position. But I will not feel much sympathy for them either: yes, they’re in a hole, but LibDem MPs dived into it wholeheartedly just over six months ago. That the hole is looking more and more like a bottomless pit is their problem.

Sadly, it’s students who will, quite literally, pay the price.

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