Lib Dem credibility is on the line over fees

How can Vince Cable credibly abstain on his own higher education policy?

After Vince Cable's torturously-worded email put paid to hopes of a graduate tax, the coalition is facing the prospect of its first serious rebellion on fees. The coalition agreement allows for Lib Dem ministers to abstain from votes on higher fees, but how can Cable, whose departmental brief includes universities, credibly defend a policy that even he isn't prepared to vote for?

As one Lib Dem minister points out:

Frankly, it's going to look pretty awful for us if we're in a government that's putting forward a policy that we're not prepared to vote for ourselves. And it's going to be worst of all for Vince if he proposes something in Parliament then abstains on it.

Meanwhile, between 20-30 of the Lib Dems' 57 MPs are expected to keep their pre-election pledge to vote against any increase in fees. Chief among them is Sir Menzies Campbell, who last week told the BBC: "I will vote against any increase in the level of tuition fees. My root objection is to students being saddled with mountains of debt by the time they leave university."

Other Lib Dems, particularly those who represent university seats such as Cambridge, Leeds and Bristol, remain unambiguously opposed to any rise in fees. The creation of a US-style market in higher education -- with variable fees between different universities and courses -- is rightly seen as intolerable.

The Tories have attempted to sweeten the pill by promising that higher-earners will pay higher interest-rates on their loan -- a de facto graduate tax -- but the proposal remains unacceptable. Ed Miliband's promise to "work with anybody" who wants a progressive system of university finance -- a thinly-veiled attempt to woo disaffected Lib Dems -- only heightens the political dangers to the Lib Dem leadership.

One suspects that the Tories, like Labour in 2004, will manage to sneak the measure through Parliament. But the long-term credibility of the coalition -- and the Lib Dems -- is on the line.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Gang of Four’s David Owen says Labour should “proudly and coherently” work with the SNP

The former Labour politician and SDP co-founder tells his old party to “face up to reality” and agree to ally with the SNP.

We don’t have an effective opposition. The question is how to make it effective. I think they should start to discuss with a view to deciding at a conference this summer on its policies. It’s just got to stop for a moment, have a pause on personalities. They’re going to have to return to personalities, they have to have a new leader. But at the moment, the issue should be: let’s get the policies right. I’m sure there are areas in which people want to see changes, but they’re obviously completely incoherent over Europe, so just let that incoherence lie.

If Labour party MPs can’t start to talk about why young people were attracted to Jeremy Corbyn, they won't find the solution. Corbyn – you can trash him like the right-wing press do every day, but they've always done that with every form of Labour leader we've ever had. I’m not defending Corbyn, I don’t think he is the right person to be leader of the Labour party and become Prime Minister.

They've got to widen their base, and they've got to widen it in an election. That doesn't stop the party having more values. The Labour party instinctively, like the country, needs to move a bit more to the left. I'm not afraid of talking more about socialism and social values. I think that would be matching the mood of the country.

Clement Attlee and the Labour party came in in 1945, and shocked everybody, including all the pundits and newspapers – they responded to a mood in the country that wanted a difference. I believe there is a mood in the country that wants a difference. They don’t want recycled Blairism.

You’ve just got to face up to reality. The fundamental thing is, where we slipped up in [the last] election, is that we were not able to answer the question – when they were ravaged and savaged about the SNP – Ed Miliband should've lost his cool. All he said during the attack about working with the SNP was that it ain't going to happen. Well, it obviously was going to happen.

What they needed to say is proudly and completely coherently: if the electorate send a Parliament back which has the SNP in substantial numbers, it is perfectly legitimate for the Labour party to work with them. Health policy – a pretty good step would be to take what’s happening in Scotland and more or less mirror it.

That is the nature of the beast, which is democracy. Even without changing the system of voting, we now have multi-parties, whether we like it or not. We were told the route through was not to create a Social Democratic Party alongside the Liberals, you had to merge with them and that there was no room for more than three political parties in Britain. Well, it’s absolute nonsense. We now have seven, you could argue. We have to live with that reality. You have to be ready to talk to them. You won’t agree with them on separation but you can agree on many other areas, or you certainly should be trying.

I think it’s asking a hell of a lot to be leader of a party, asking to be Prime Minister, when you've never performed yourself in government, you've never held a serious job anywhere else. It's a very, very big thing. He didn't want to be leader of the party, he didn't expect to be leader of the party, he stood on the basis that he was the person they all turned to on the left, and he did it, and he surprised us all. The fact that he won should be a serious message to us. The reason he won is because everybody was totally sick and fed up with the other people. We've got to face up to the fact that this has happened now twice. Is the Labour party going to go on churning out a sort of mollified form of Blairism?

David Owen is an independent social democratic peer and co-founder of the SDP.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

Lord Owen was Foreign Secretary 1977-79, a founder-member of the SDP and is now a crossbench peer.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition