Lib Dem MPs have a duty to vote against higher fees

Rebellion grows as Michael Gove announces new cap of £9,000 on tuition fees.

Michael Gove's announcement that university tuition fees will be capped at £9,000 – £2,000 higher than originally suggested by Vince Cable – spares us the unlimited market proposed by the Browne review.

But this still represents a significant increase from the current limit of £3,290 and Lib Dem backbenchers, all of whom (including, as shown, Nick Clegg) pledged to vote against any rise in fees, are understandably concerned.

In what looks like a damage-limitation exercise by the coalition, Gove announced the increase on the Today programme this morning and David Willetts will make a Commons statement at 12.30pm. Cable, who is officially responsible for universities policy, is nowhere to be seen.

The coalition agreement allows the Lib Dems to abstain from any vote, but many, particularly those who represent university seats, are determined to honour their pledge.

The latest rebel is Jenny Willott, MP for Cardiff Central and PPS to Chris Huhne. She said: "I will not support an increase in tuition fees and I'm deeply concerned about increasing levels of student debt." Should she stick to her pledge to vote against any increase in fees, she will be required to resign or be sacked as a PPS.

Other rebels include the party grandees Ming Campbell and Charles Kennedy, Greg Mulholland, MP for Leeds North-West, Julian Huppert, MP for Cambridge, Stephen Williams, MP for Bristol West, and (of course) Bob Russell. In total, as many as 20 of the party's 37 backbenchers are expected to vote against the government.

The coalition isn't heading for a Commons defeat – that would require at least a dozen Tory MPs to join the rebellion – but it is facing the biggest rebellion of this parliament.

Lib Dem MPs should not be bought off by talk of the government "widening access". Nor should the argument that the "situation has changed" since May persuade anyone. The Budget deficit was larger, not smaller, at the time of the election. The Lib Dems have a moral duty to vote against higher tuition fees.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.