Ever since the Liberal Democrats agreed to form a coalition government it has been important to remember that Liberal Democrat Party remains a distinct party with different policies from the Conservatives and different policies from the coalition. Coalition policies must be a compromise.
On Student tuition fees the coalition government agreed in May 2010 that it would: 1) await Lord Browne’s report. 2) judge its proposals against four criteria and 3) “If the response of the government to Lord Browne’s report is one that Liberal Democrats cannot accept, then arrangements will be made to enable Liberal Democrat MPs to abstain in any vote.”
Against that we have a pledge that I signed in November 2009 “to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative”.
So the coalition agreement binds the government to making arrangements to enable Liberal Democrats to abstain. On the face of it that is not offering a great deal, since every MP on every vote has the ability to vote for, vote against or abstain from voting. The implication of including it in the agreement is to imply that there will be no government criticism of any Liberal Democrat MP who abstains.
So were I an MP I should have to consider a promise that I made personally, in the light of the Browne report published nearly a year later and the government’s response to it, which we still have not seen. I should be aware of the fact that the coalition government would like me to abstain. Most importantly I should look again at the issue.
Given that I believe:
- that student tuition fees are unfair,
- that it is poor policy to engender a culture of debt in our young people,
- that not only students, but society as a whole and employers also benefit from having a well educated workforce,
- that we already have a system of taxation that means that higher earners pay more tax,
- that the system of administering student tuition fees and debt repayment is complex and cumbersome,
- that I and most MPs benefited from free university education,
I believe, hope and expect that I would still intend to vote against any increase in fees.
And finally let me point out that there are also some notable Tories who believe that we should not saddle our children with enormous debts. In view of this I might hope that some Conservatives would also vote according to their conscience and oppose any rise in student tuition fees.
George Osborne, May 2010: it would be “deeply irresponsible to continue to accumulate vast debts that would have to be paid off by our children, and our grand children for many decades to come.”
David Cameron, October 2009: warned that “our children will be saddled with debt for decades to come.”
George Osborne, October 2009: “I want my children to think that our generation paid off its debts, valued its savers, rewarded responsibility, invested in their future.”