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.
Matthew S. Dent