The betrayal of the Liberals

Posted on October 11, 2010

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The leadership of the Liberal Democrats must surely be bracing themselves for what promises to be a difficult few days. With Lord Browne’s review of higher education funding set to be unveiled tomorrow, it seems most people already know what he is set to propose. And these proposals look set to divide the Liberal Democrats, and thus the coalition.

For years, not just at the last election, the Liberal Democrats have opposed the very principle of tuition fees, let alone of removing the cap. It was  a major plank of their domestic policy, and one which won them many supporters amongst younger voters turned off by the rightward drift of Labour under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Candidates campaigned against fees in the run up to this year’s election. All Liberal Democrat MPs have signed a pledge to oppose them. Yet now the party could play a huge role in making higher education more infinitely more expensive.

The Lib Dem leadership is so concerned about the alienation of its support base and rebellion amongst backbenchers that it is attempting to soften the blow with “progressive sweeteners”, including raising the repayment threshold. Yet the evidence suggests that, as with many of the coalition’s repressive economic measures, the rich will suffer less than the middle and working classes. It remains to be seen in the next few days whether Nick Clegg, Vince Cable et al can cajole their party into betraying their principles and voting with the Conservatives on raising tuition fees, all in exchange for a handful of seats at the top table.

I argued back in June that the Lib Dems might begin to feel the pressure if they turned their backs on prized and popular policies for the sake of their presence within the coalition. Condoning an increase in tuition fees is one of those policies that the Liberal Democrat rank and file will not be able to stomach. When Tony Blair imposed tuition fees, Labour backbenchers instigated one of the biggest rebellions of the New Labour era, and it was only Tory votes that forced the measure through. Now, with the Lib Dems so crucial to David Cameron’s hope of removing the cap, we can only hope that backbench MPs have the strength to stand up to their compromised leadership and vote with Labour against Lord Browne’s proposals. They must make the Tories go it alone, if only to prevent another nail from being hammered into their party’s electoral coffin.

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Posted in: Issues, Politics