An Open Letter to Liberal Democrat MPs


Dear Sirs/Madams

Today, as you are no doubt aware, is a hugely important day. It is also the biggest test of your moral fibre that you will undergo, I suspect, in this Parliament.

This is the pledge, clear and unambiguous, which you all signed. It meant something then. Does it not now?

You have been considered the “party of students” since the Blair government introduced tuition fees in 1998 (Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998, c.30), and since then you have campaigned relentlessly on this. I’d point out that in elections following this, you gained 17 seats (before the 2010) election, something in which I posit your student-friendly stance played a large part in.

 

And at the election in May, you took it one step further. Every one of your Prospective Parliamentary Candidates signed the NUS’ “vote for students” pledge. Maybe I should remind you what it said:

“I pledge to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative”

It’s a remarkably clear political promise, don’t you think? And for every one of your party’s candidates to sign it sent a powerful message to students: ‘Vote for us, and we will fight for you. We will oppose any attempt to raise fees as our principle concern’ And it worked. You might have lost seats at the 2010 election, but I can assure you that you were viewed by students as the best choice, and they voted for you en mass, precisely because of your pledge.

Now, I understand that coalition means compromise. I understand that you weren’t going to be able to get all of your policies. But what sticks in the craw is that despite the fact that you were elected on this promise (I’ll be honest with you, only the real hardcore of Lib Dem supporters, and people with an active interest in politics care about electoral reform- most of the general public just don’t care) you didn’t press for it.

Your party has meekly and quietly accepted the rise in tuition fees, and I would highlight this passage in the coalition agreement:

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.

I honestly don’t see how this is a victory. What it says, is if the government decided that they were going to raise tuition fees, Lib Dems would still have to break their promise, only through abstention rather than actually expressing their views. You have been, in other words, gagged. The agreement you signed was not to not vote for an increase, but to vote against an increase.

The end result of this will be that prospective students will be dissuaded from university by the prospects of massive debts. It makes no odds that you’re giving token gestures to make the repayment less harsh, people will still look at £27,000 worth of debt and think “No thank you”. Hence a great many capable, brilliant, but poor students will be put off the higher education that could be the gateway to their future success, and the country will lose out as a result. We benefit nothing from higher education becoming the purview of the rich and privileged.

If you look outside Parliament this afternoon, you will see thousands of people there protesting. If you go to any of the major university towns and cities, you will find their centres besieged by protesters. They aren’t there because “they don’t understand” the measures. They aren’t there because the NUS has misled them. They are there because these measures are massively unpopular, and yet you who promised to oppose them are lining up behind the Conservatives on this. Motions have been proposed to delay the vote, in order to give time for a proper investigation into the impacts, and the possible alternatives. You have even voted against those.

Today, as I said above, is a hugely important day, for you especially. This day, and your response to it, will be long remembered. Some of you will vote for the increase, and be remembered as turncoats and spineless opportunists. Some of you will abstain, and be remembered as cowards who let others walk all over the promises they had made. Some of you will vote against the measures, and be remembered as heroes.

It’s not often that a chance to be a political hero comes along. I hope that you will make the correct choice.

 

Yours faithfully

 

Matthew S. Dent

Student

13 comments

  1. And Ian Swales MP (Redcar) is the first to reply to my mass email. Cudos to him:

    “Dear Matthew,

    Thank you for your email on the proposal to raise university tuition fees.
    You raise some interesting points that I have also had to consider.

    First of all, let me assure you that equal access to education –
    regardless of financial circumstances – is very important to me. In fact,
    my party’s opposition to Labour’s introduction of tuition fees was one of
    the reasons I first stood for election as a Liberal Democrat.
    Unfortunately, the Coalition Government has found itself in the tricky
    position of dealing with our country’s massive deficit, whilst also
    needing to reform higher education funding so that universities have the
    money they need to provide the best teaching.

    I believe that we are having a real impact and have done a good job in
    making sure the old system for university funding is more progressive than
    the one introduced by Labour, given the current fiscal situation. For
    instance, under the Coalition Government’s proposals, no one who earns
    less than £21,000 a year will pay anything, meaning that 20% of graduates
    will be better off than under Labour’s fee system. As well as this there
    will be grants for students from poorer backgrounds to encourage these
    young people to go to university, along with enabling part time students
    to defer payment instead of being crippled with up-front fees. These are
    very positive changes and demonstrate the Liberal Democrat influence in
    government in ensuring that the Coalition’s higher education policy is as
    fair as possible.

    However, I still feel that raising the fees cap to £9,000 is not the
    answer. I will vote against the Government’s proposed tuition fee rise.

    Thank you again taking the time to contact me about this. Do feel free to
    get in touch again should you have any other queries.

    Yours sincerely,

    Ian Swales MP”

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  2. And now John Leech MP (Hastings) replies:

    “Dear Matthew,

    Thank you for contacting me regarding the issue of tuition fees and for giving me the opportunity to add my views to the Browne Review into higher education funding and the Government’s response.

    I have already publicly stated that I will vote against any increase in tuition fees and did so at the tuition fee debate on Tuesday 30th November; you can watch the recording from this on my blog johnleechmp.wordpress.com.

    Although I am opposed to any increase in tuition fees, I would like to point out that the Liberal Democrat influence in Government has greatly improved the proposed changes that have been made. Students from the lowest 25% of households will be better off under the new proposals than they were under the old system of tuition fees due to the far greater offers of maintenance grants and that fact that students needs only pay back the fees once they are earning a minimum of £25,000 rather than £15,000 under the old system. I must emphasise that no student will have to pay back anything until they have finished their education and are earning at least £21,000.

    It is a tough decision for my party colleagues to make and not one that will be made lightly. Any changes to the current system need to make payments fairer, but they also need to ensure that they do not put people off from going to University. I fear an increase in fees will do this, even if the new system is actually progressive.

    Nevertheless, I will be voting against any increases to tuition fees, and I will continue to try and persuade my colleagues to do the same.

    Kind regards,

    John Leech MP”

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  3. And now Mike Hancock (Portsmouth South):

    “Thanks for your email on tuition fees. My position remains that I am opposed to an increase in tuition fees and I will vote against an increase. I believe that there should be a substantial element for all courses met from general taxation. I don’t believe that there is a need due to difficulties that we face in the Government finances to increase fees – especially as except for technical accounting matters, this will not improve the finances or decrease borrowing for many years to come.

    I hope this helps. Thanks again for your email.

    Best wishes
    Mike Hancock”

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  4. And now Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire). She doesn’t come out and say it directly, but I think she means she’ll vote against.

    “My view remains that the best solution is for higher education to be paid for from general taxation. Sadly, the voters did not agree, and with fewer than 1 in 10 MPs in Parliament, the Liberal Democrats are simply not in a position to deliver on all of our manifesto policies. Despite the current protests, at the election even the majority of students who voted chose parties who support tuition fees and jointly set up the Browne review which was widely expected to recommend a rise in fees.

    We have worked to make the system fairer – by ending the unfair discrimination against part-time students, by ensuring the repayments are progressive and by introducing tough conditions on improving access for poorer students for any Universities who wish to go above the £6,000 cap. Under the proposed new system, every graduate will pay a lower monthly contribution than currently, and richer graduates will subsidise lower-earning graduates – around 60% of graduates will have some of the overall amount written off.

    Thanks for getting in touch. I hope you understand that I will not be able to enter into further correspondence unless you are a constituent, and I would encourage you to contact your own MP about this issue.

    Kind regards,
    Jo Swinson MP”

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  5. This is the kind of response I like! Good on you, Mark Williams (Ceredigion)!

    “Dear Matthew,
    I can assure you that I will be voting against the Government on the increase in tuition fees today.
    Best wishes,
    Mark Williams MP”

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  6. It’s after the fact, but Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) spins me a crock of shit about why he voted for the higher fees:

    “Dear Mr Dent,

    Thank you for writing to me on the vital issue of higher education funding. Supporting the Coalition’s response to the Browne Review is the most difficult decision I have had to make during my thirteen years as a member of parliament.

    Although contentious, I believe it is the right decision. As I wish to outline, my view is grounded firstly in economics and secondly in politics.

    On economics, Liberal Democrats had been forced to change our policy on fees before the 2010 election. In the past we argued for the immediate abolition of fees. However Britain’s huge deficit, caused by Labour’s spending plans, meant our 2010 manifesto called instead for a six year phase out.

    Yet, in Government, we faced the actual scale of the mess we had inherited. Despite proposing larger cuts than the other parties at the election, it soon became clear that even deeper cuts were needed.

    The tuition fees’ decision has to be seen in the context of Britain’s record deficit.

    But it is only one part of a deficit solution, which includes the banks levy, an increase in capital gains tax on the better off, cutbacks in military spending, less grant support to councils, reductions in welfare spending, closing tax loopholes for the rich, the VAT increase, a cull of quangos and a renegotiation of public sector contracts with private providers.

    The second driver for the decision on tuition fees is politics. The coalition is made up of 306 Conservative MPs and 57 Liberal Democrats. The Coalition Agreement was a compromise between two parties and, not surprisingly, the Liberal Democrats did not get 100% of our manifesto.

    Nor did the Conservatives, however, and I’m delighted we are implementing our policies on raising the state pension, on increasing the income tax allowance to take the lowest paid out of tax, on extra education spending on the most disadvantaged and so on. Yet this is not, I regret, a Liberal Democrat majority government: no single party won the 2010 election.

    Lib Dems have fought for a fairer package than the current funding arrangement. I want to set out the actual policy on tuition fees, as some newspaper headlines are misleading.

    I divide the policy’s implications between what it means for students and what it means for graduates.

    Most students will have more money in non-repayable grants or loans for their living costs than now.

    No student will pay upfront for university and everyone will get higher education free at the point of entry. This is not the case at present, with part-time students and full-time distance learners paying tuition fees upfront. Many of those are from poorer backgrounds or adults coming to higher education for the first time in their late 20s or 30s. I am proud that their financial situation will be improved.

    Over half a million students, in particular those from lower income families, will be eligible for more non-repayable grants for living costs than now.

    The maintenance loan for students will be improved, with almost one million students to be eligible for more overall maintenance support than now.

    It is true that some graduates will pay more, but this will be taken over 30 years and many will in fact pay less. Every student will repay less per month under this scheme than currently, thanks to the higher repayment threshold of £21,000 (up from £15,000 today).

    So, in many ways, the new system is fairer than the current one.

    Firstly, no-one will have to contribute towards the cost of university until they are earning £21,000. That helps protect many graduates in their first jobs and those graduates who go into low paying jobs.

    Secondly, because of the above and how interest rates will be structured, the lowest 25% of graduates will pay back less than they do now.

    Thirdly, the top 30% of earners will pay back more than now and any graduates in the middle will pay back only slightly more than now or about the same.

    I sincerely believe this embodies the principle of fairness that lies behind my party – a principle we are fighting for successfully in Government.

    Many students will be better off under the new system, and none will be worse off. Those who end up in lower paid jobs will pay back less than now, but, no matter what they end up earning, they will not pay back, in any one month, any more than now.

    I and my Liberal Democrat colleagues remain committed to delivering the fairest possible deal for universities and students, and I will continue to monitor the proposals with this in mind.

    Thank you again for writing. Please do not hesitate to contact me again if I can help further.

    Yours sincerely,

    Edward Davey MP”

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  7. Right, to just finish this up, I also received an email from Stephen Gilbert’s (St Austell and Newquay) Parliamentary Researcher, containing a pdf document outlining his position on the increase, and why he was voting for it:

    “…after serious consideration, I have decided to vote in favour of the Coalition Government’s proposals today.

    I know that my vote today will be controversial but I simply ask you to read the proposals in full and understand the judgement I’ve reached has been one of the most difficult decisions of my life. I believe however that in the circumstances we face in Coalition Government and as a country, these proposals offer graduates a fairer deal than under the current system and this would not be the case were it not for Liberal Democrat influence in government.

    Best wishes
    Stephen Gilbert”

    I particularly like the part about how this wouldn’t have been possible without the Liberal Democrats in government (such as, perhaps, 21 Lib Dem ministers).

    (Incidentally, I have the full PDF of Stephen Gilbert’s statement. If anyone wants it, drop me an email and I’d be happy to send it on to you)

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  8. Also, a few days ago (and in response to a different email) I received this from Lee Scott. He was one of two Conservative MPs who signed the pledge, and in the event abstained from the vote (which is still a pledge breach in my book). This is what he said in reply to my urgences to vote against:

    “Dear Matthew the one constituent who came to see me with regard to the pledge has emailed thanking me for my stance ,also I also am working up proposals to help situation that I am hopeful will be adopted next year ,I have maintained I am not voting for fess increase and I am honouring that Regards Lee”

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    1. And here it is:

      “Dear Ms Ale

      Thank you for writing to me about yesterday’s vote on raising the cap on
      tuition fees.

      This has been an extremely difficult decision for me; on the one hand I support the Coalition Agreement which means that for the first time in decades we have a Liberal party in government enacting liberal policies.

      On the other hand, I have also signed the NUS pledge to vote against any rise in tuition fees, and I do realise that this was the reason that many young people voted for me at the General Election. Eastbourne has always been my absolute top priority, and that is why my promise to the people of our town has got to take precedence over my promise to the Government.

      Consequently, I have voted against the rise in tuition fees.

      With best wishes

      Stephen Lloyd”

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  9. It’s a bit late, but this morning I received this…interesting justification for supporting the fee rise, from David Ward (Bradford East):

    “Dear Matthew

    I voted for the Government’s measures on Thursday because I believe they represent the best deal we could get for students.

    When a 1966 World Cup winner was asked how to deal with a corner he said “get to the ball fist”. When asked what you should do if you can’t get to the ball first he said “stop the other team from scoring”. At nearly 300 seats short of a majority we did not get to the ball first. But we have stopped the Tories from scoring. We have stood between students and uncapped tuition fees and a wholesale marketisation of higher education. We have fought for measures to ensure that students from poorer families get the support they need to get to university and for graduates who do less well when they leave university to get a fairer deal. The Institute for Fiscal Studies this week found that just over 20% of the least wealthy graduates would be better-off under these proposals.

    Not only will no one pay a penny until they are earning over £21,000 but under the new system every single graduate will pay back less each month than those who went to university under Labour’s system. A nurse earning £22,000 will pay back just £7.50 each month as opposed to over £50 currently. These proposals will mean that wealthier students pay back more over their lifetime, but it is right that in difficult economic times those with the broadest shoulders should pay the most. This is a very different and significantly fairer policy than either a Labour or Tory Government would have introduced.

    I hope that people voted for me on my ability to take tough decisions rather than on any specific pledge. This was a tough decision but I believe that voting for this package was the right thing to do. Voting against these measures would have meant voting for the status quo in which the poorest graduates pay the same as the wealthiest, part time students are barred from university by up-front fees and where students from less well off families don’t get the support they need to meet their living costs. That was not something I was prepared to accept.

    Yours sincerely

    David Ward
    Member of Parliament for Bradford East”

    Like

    1. Eh, it’s just another way to try and get out of breaking a promise he made. I’m not particularly amused, and haven’t found a single excuse to be worth a hill of beans.

      Like

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