What an incredibly difficult time it has been for Liberal Democrats right across the party. The tuition fees debate has been a real test of strength and character for individual members, government ministers, backbench MPs, the wider party and the Coalition. I have found myself feeling a real mixture of emotions during the last week and often conflicting emotions. Whilst I do not support raising the cap to £9,000, and was incredibly frustrated during the debate and vote, I can acknowledge just how difficult a position our MPs were in. Do we follow our instincts and back the pledge and our manifesto, or do we support the government as set out in the coalition agreement? Effectively, a choice between backing a rise in fees that the majority of our members and voters do not support, and causing a potentially fatal split within the Coalition.
We as Liberal Democrats support electoral reform, plural politics and coalitions, and so we know better than most that coalitions involve compromise and difficult decisions. If we become angry every time policies that are not our own are put through parliament, the coalition will be in big trouble. We cannot expect the Tories to back our policies, if we do not back theirs. It can be incredibly hard to stomach at times, but that is the nature of coalition governments, especially when you are the junior partner. That is why I can sympathise with those that abstained or voted for the policy. If anything, I am frustrated that the negotiation team did not fight harder for more of a compromise than an opportunity to abstain on the vote, and that the party leadership did not handle the subject much better in public. I think, in hindsight, the Tories did much better in the coalition negotiations that we initially realised. Putting Vince Cable in charge, and only giving us the right to abstain really has put us in a very difficult position on a policy issue that is very iconic to the Lib Dems.
However, despite the criticisms, I think it is only fair that we acknowledge that had we not been involved with the policy it could, and probably would, have been much worse than it was. The most recent report by the IFS has argued that it is fairer than both the current system and the proposals put forward in the Browne review. As Evan Harris pointed out in the Guardian: "An unadulterated Tory (or Labour or Lord Browne) policy would have been one with no cap, fewer progressive repayments, total fee variability and a free market, no national bursary system, nothing for part-time students and less generous maintenance grants."
The key issue that the tuition fees debate has highlighted is that coalitions involve compromise and are only accountable to their agreed programmes. People are entitled to expect that pledges are kept to when a party wins an outright majority. However, they need to understand that a coalition government can only be held to account on what is in the agreed coalition programme, and not on what is pledged in individual manifestos, hustings etc. Nick Clegg has not betrayed students. Had we won an outright majority and then tripled fees, it would have been a betrayal. The worst charge that Nick should receive is that himself and the negotiation team should have done more to gain a better compromise during the negotiations or that we should not have entered the coalition in the first place. Our party voted to accept the coalition programme knowing that all it included was a right to abstain on a fees vote.