Lib Dems fall out over fees

The party’s grass roots are engaged in a frantic dialogue as tuition fees threaten to destabilise th

A falling-out among friends is never pretty – and a falling-out is exactly what tuition fees triggered among the Lib Dems.

Feelings are running high. When I look across the "walls" of Lib Dem Facebook friends, there are scores of discussion threads that run for upwards of 30 posts. Most posts are from Lib Dems who take opposing views.

One post, from a former chair of the Young Liberals, captures the feelings of members who think Clegg is plain wrong: "Nick Clegg has had his Iraq war moment. Unlike Tony Blair there was no dishonesty but there was the same mistaken belief in the public good and the same indecent haste to please a powerful friend."

This is my view, but it is still fairly easy to find loyalists who deny the Lib Dem platform is on fire. One former councillor said: "Understand the views and disappointment but surely the comparison with Iraq is ludicrously overblown? One million dead, come on!" Another former staffer, meanwhile, said: "Now is the time to unite and more forward."

Party members are arguing on principle. When words like "Judas" are used, it isn't by fellow Lib Dems. Inevitably there is some electoral politics in other responses – like this one: "It is about credibility. No one is saying (well, I'm not anyway) that the two votes are morally equivalent, but this is the day Clegg's public standing was irrevocably shot to pieces."

There is clear frustration from loyalists who are starting to realise that they can't even get their arguments out the door. When a former Labour parliamentary candidate pops up in one discussion (using lines he clearly wishes the public were hearing), a Lib Dem loyalist replies: "Your party said it would never introduce fees in '97 and promptly did a year later! Oh, and is it Labour Party policy to introduce a graduate tax? Have you had a vote on that yet? Johnson only came round to it a few days ago."

What is interesting is how divisions in the party are being recast along lines that look semi-permanent. Lib Dems who were against the formation of the coalition were also the most vocal in calls for our MPs to vote against tuition fees. Some think the Lib Dems just have to hold their nerve. "By the time of the next election, this will be four and a half years behind us, and people will have moved on," commented another activist.

At the time that the coalition was formed, I noted the disquiet and opposition of many grass-roots Lib Dems. It didn't point to an obvious split – the parliamentary party was united. In any case, the party is used to dividing along what were SDP and Liberal lines.

Each "wing" is now represented in government, while opposition to coalition policy is spread among both, too. New alliances are being formed as old ones are shed. What those who are opposed the coalition's direction of travel now have, and didn't have back in May, is 21 MPs who are willing to dissent, including the recently elected party president, Tim Farron.

A split in the party is not certain, but it is possible. This is a destabilising force on the coalition, and places enormous pressure on Clegg's leadership. MPs who voted against the rise, or members who approve of voting against the rise, are sounding a lot more at ease with themselves than those who voted for it.

And no wonder.

The Facebook wall of one MP who voted against tuition fees, resigning from the government to do so, was inundated with positive messages. "I am so proud of you, it can't have been easy," read one. "Well done for standing up for your principles, and thank you. Lots of love x."

By contrast, as of yesterday, two ministers who voted with the government have reset their Facebook accounts to prevent even friends writing on their walls.

Eduardo Reyes is a journalist and former Liberal Democrat election agent and council candidate. He also worked for the Lib Dems in parliament and was vice-chair of the Student Liberal Democrats.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear