Believe it or not, Liberal Democrat policy on higher education funding is still to abolish tuition fees. Yes, as it stands the Lib Dem manifesto in 2015 would call for the same approach as the 2010 manifesto.
Scrap unfair university tuition fees for all students taking their ﬁrst degree, including those studying part-time, saving them over £10,000 each. We have a ﬁnancially responsible plan to phase fees out over six years, so that the change is affordable even in these difﬁcult economic times, and without cutting university income. We will immediately scrap fees for ﬁnal year students.
- Liberal Democrat Manifesto 2010
We’ll be laughed out of office and out of our 57 seats.
The tuition fees pledge was probably the biggest mistake the Liberal Democrats have made over the past few years. Yes, the impact on voters is nothing compared to benefits changes or the NHS Bill, but it’s the issue that has most taken trust away from the party.
It seems obvious to me that we can’t maintain this policy for the next election and it makes sense to change it sooner rather than later. Trying to change tuition fees policy will be controversial. There will be an almighty row with the Liberal Left and perhaps the Social Liberal Forum. The row will remind voters of the whole tuition fees balls up once again. Do we want that to happen in 2014, just before the next election?
Personally I’m quite happy with the Coalition higher education funding package. I think Vince Cable did good work in negotiating a fair package for students. The new system is basically a time limited graduate tax, which is pretty close to what many Liberal Democrat members wanted. I also think it should be given time to bed in and prove itself. So my vote would be to more or less maintain the status quo.
Whatever the detail of eventual party policy, I just hope we can get it debated and agreed quickly. As we get closer to the election we need to be talking about our real successes in government, not pointing to our failures.
Today sees the launch of Liberal Reform, a new group within the Liberal Democrats that exists to promote what it’s calling “four cornered liberalism”, that is personal, political, social and economic liberalism.
There have been a few groups launched in recent months in the Liberal Democrats, the most successful being the Social Liberal Forum, which has built up an effective network of local organisations and secured a great deal of media coverage for its activities.
Inevitably there will be cries of “splitters!” at the formation of another group, or jokes about the Peoples’ Front of Judea, but I for one think that is misplaced (although I’m all for a good joke). That we have these groups springing up is, in my view, a sign of the health, vitality and maturity of the party.
The fact is, the Liberal Democrats as a party of government now matter more than ever. The stakes are higher in terms of the party’s policy direction and so members are looking for ways to make their voices heard. We have discovered to our cost what happens when you find yourself in government with some flaky policy commitments. It is of vital importance that the Lib Dems go into the next election with a fully-costed, innovative and coherent manifesto, and the more robust the debate during the formation of that manifesto, the better.
After all, the same thing happens in other parties, no-one suggests that the Labour party is about to split because Compass, the Co-Operative Party, Blue Labour, the Fabian Society, Tribune, the Socialist Campaign Group all exist.
I join the majority of Liberal Reform members when they say that they have no wish to be a gratuitously antagonistic voice within the party. I admire the work of the SLF and there is absolutely no reason why members won’t find themselves at home in both groups. But I do believe there is a need for an organisation to speak up on issues beyond social policy and to freely disagree with voices in the SLF if necessary. There is a debate to be had on the 50% tax band, for example. Many members of Liberal Reform share my view that if this tax rate is not bringing in significant revenue and is hurting Britain’s ability to generate wealth, then it should be scrapped.
Too often the Liberal Democrats have been positioned as the ‘internal opposition’ to the government or the ‘brake’. David Laws once said that he wants to see the party as the ‘engine’ of reform within government, which is an aspiration that I wholeheartedly share. It’s not enough for us to go into the 2015 election saying we stopped the Conservatives from enacting this and that policy. We need to go in with positive achievements (of which there are many) and a plan for more radical reforms should we be lucky enough to win the next election or form part of another coalition government.
The debate following the formation of this group will inevitably be around whether this is a centre-right counterweight to the centre-left SLF. But the real point is that for many Liberal Democrats the old left / right labels are meaningless. I was 11 when the Liberal Democrats were formed in 1988, so I neither attach myself to the old Liberal Party or the old Social Democratic Party. I’m of the Liberal Democrat generation. As a party we’ve been at the vanguard of promoting liberalism and fairness in Britain. And now those policies are being implemented in government. It’s an exciting time and I’m confident that Liberal Reform will help push our radical reform agenda further.
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