Monday, 29 November 2010

Jeffrey Archer is right

"Jeffrey Archer is right" - not words that are likely to endear me to many Liberal Democrats. He spoke on today's Daily Politics about the petition presented by 100 failed Lib Dem candidates about tuition fees. I am one of around 600 failed Lib Dem candidates from the General Election, around 100 of whom (or a mere one in six) have signed this petition, and I most certainly did not sign. What Lord Archer says, among other things, is that the Liberal Democrats have got a leader who is trying his best to make the coalition work and these candidates should be supporting that leader instead of "making a lot of noise" - hear, hear! He also says that the important words are "failed to get elected" and he's right - these candidates, and I, could, instead of petitioning each other, get together and write a book called How to Lose Elections for all we know about how to succeed in politics. The Lib Dem MP Stephen Williams, who was our Higher Education Spokesperson before the General Election, was really interesting on this on The World At One today (about seventeen minutes, forty seconds in). Of course, I received an email asking me to sign this petition; here, from 4 November, is my reply:
Thanks. I fully appreciate the strong feelings that colleagues have on this. I am very angry about Labour’s having introduced tuition fees and I fully supported our manifesto commitment to abolish fees over time; I did sign the pledge to vote against a rise in fees if elected (I obviously wasn’t elected!). However, I will not be signing this peition, as I am a loyal supporter of our party’s elected leadership and of the Coalition; implicit in the Coalition is the need for both parties to compromise on things that they would dearly like to do, including tuition fees. As a party, the process by which we entered into the coalition was a democratic one, with overwhelming votes in favour of going in. The Coalition Agreement guarantees that our MPs do not have to vote in favour of a rise in tuition fees, but are instead allowed to abstain – sounds reasonable to me. This situation is politically difficult for our party. I ask: does this petition make it easier, or harder, for our party to manage that difficult situation? If the latter, then why would any Lib Dem Parliamentary candidate wish to get involved? We have ample ways of discussing these matters internally, without publicly petitioning our MPs, etc. If everyone objects publicly every time the Coalition does something that we do not like, then how will the Coalition be sustained? And we need the Coalition for the good of the country, at a time of economic crisis. They used to say that loyalty was the Tories’ secret weapon – perhaps we Lib Dems should borrow that weapon from them? If I thought that this petition, or any other public campaigning, was actually likely to lead to a change in Government policy on tuition fees, I might support it, but since it definitely won’t achieve such a change, I believe that it will do nothing other than generate damaging headlines for our party.

I would add that the rise to tuition fees is only one part of a package of Coalition measures being proposed in response to the Browne Report. The Report is being published today and I have not read it yet. Has anybody? Surely a rise in fees, however regrettable, is only one element. What if the salary threshold at which loans become re-payable rises from £15,000 to £21,000? What if the pool of people who qualify not to pay fees in the first place is expanded, so that more people are again eligible for free tuition? What if more is done, as part of this package, to encourage universities to take more students from poorer households? Would such measures as those not mean that, overall, the situation for students has improved under the Coalition compared to the situation under Labour, despite a rise in tuition fees? And to the argument that we have betrayed our voters – well, a lot of voters in my constituency were motivated by a desire for a change of government from Labour (they’ve got that), a proper effort to cut government debt so that we can have a lasting economic recovery (they’ve certainly got that) and a Government that finally included Lib Dem Ministers, influencing what the Government does (and they’ve certainly got that). So I am proud that our party is in government, delivering on so many of its pledges (even if tuition fees have to rise). I keep meeting members of the general public who are so impressed by what we are doing in government – their impression of our party has become more favourable, not less, as a result of the Coalition. Perhaps things are different in student circles, but in the wider community, our party’s stock has arguably risen, not fallen – because, after so many decades in the wilderness, we are now finally participating in government again, and a lot of people like what they see of Vince Cable, Nick Clegg, Chris Huhne and our other highly impressive ministers. That is certainly the case in my part of London, which is as much “the real world” as anywhere else in Britain.


  1. Ah, our party's rabid right show their true faces - wanting to impose collective subservience to a leader rather than allow individuals to follow their own consciences!

  2. My conscience tells me that the country needs the Coalition Government to succeed. Any political party is a balance between individual conscience and collective responsibility.

  3. I think the words that are unlikely to endear you to Liberal Democrats (or any sort of democrats, frankly) are 'candidates should be supporting [their] leader instead of "making a lot of noise"'. Like hull they should. The hollowing out of the Labour Party to create nothing but a cheerleading group for its leadership, a career ladder for the ambitious (with the right background), and a pack of worker-drones to get them elected is one of the tragedies of modern British politics. To see the same thing happening to the Lib Dems would be Marx's second act of history - the farce.
    The job of candidates, including yourself, is to represent those who selected and campaigned for them and those who vote for them. "Supporting the leadership" comes way down the list.

  4. Thanks, Malcolm. We elect the leader to lead. Sometimes in politics, when the leader's fighting for the good of the party and the country in difficult circumstances, the best thing that candidates can do is fall in behind him and join in the fight. If we accept, as I do, that Nick Clegg is acting in good conscience and doing what he thinks is right, then I am prepared to back him to the hilt.