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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Calum Kerr on Governing the Digital Economy

With the publication of the UK Digital Strategy we’ve seen another instalment in the UK Government’s ongoing effort to emphasise its digital credentials.

As the SNP’s Digital Spokesperson, there are moves here that are clearly welcome, especially in the area of skills and a recognition of the need for large scale investment in fibre infrastructure.

But for a government that wants Britain to become the “leading country for people to use digital” it should be doing far more to lead on the field that underpins so much of a prosperous digital economy: personal data.

If you want a picture of how government should not approach personal data, just look at the Concentrix scandal.

Last year my constituency office, like countless others across the country, was inundated by cases from distressed Tax Credit claimants, who found their payments had been stopped for spurious reasons.

This scandal had its roots in the UK’s current patchwork approach to personal data. As a private contractor, Concentrix had bought data on a commercial basis and then used it to try and find undeclared partners living with claimants.

In one particularly absurd case, a woman who lived in housing provided by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation had to resort to using a foodbank during the appeals process in order to prove that she did not live with Joseph Rowntree: the Quaker philanthropist who died in 1925.

In total some 45,000 claimants were affected and 86 per cent of the resulting appeals saw the initial decision overturned.

This shows just how badly things can go wrong if the right regulatory regimes are not in place.

In part this problem is a structural one. Just as the corporate world has elevated IT to board level and is beginning to re-configure the interface between digital skills and the wider workforce, government needs to emulate practices that put technology and innovation right at the heart of the operation.

To fully leverage the benefits of tech in government and to get a world-class data regime in place, we need to establish a set of foundational values about data rights and citizenship.

Sitting on the committee of the Digital Economy Bill, I couldn’t help but notice how the elements relating to data sharing, including with private companies, were rushed through.

The lack of informed consent within the Bill will almost certainly have to be looked at again as the Government moves towards implementing the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

This is an example of why we need democratic oversight and an open conversation, starting from first principles, about how a citizen’s data can be accessed.

Personally, I’d like Scotland and the UK to follow the example of the Republic of Estonia, by placing transparency and the rights of the citizen at the heart of the matter, so that anyone can access the data the government holds on them with ease.

This contrasts with the mentality exposed by the Concentrix scandal: all too often people who come into contact with the state are treated as service users or customers, rather than as citizens.

This paternalistic approach needs to change.  As we begin to move towards the transformative implementation of the internet of things and 5G, trust will be paramount.

Once we have that foundation, we can start to grapple with some of the most pressing and fascinating questions that the information age presents.

We’ll need that trust if we want smart cities that make urban living sustainable using big data, if the potential of AI is to be truly tapped into and if the benefits of digital healthcare are really going to be maximised.

Clearly getting accepted ethical codes of practice in place is of immense significance, but there’s a whole lot more that government could be doing to be proactive in this space.

Last month Denmark appointed the world’s first Digital Ambassador and I think there is a compelling case for an independent Department of Technology working across all government departments.

This kind of levelling-up really needs to be seen as a necessity, because one thing that we can all agree on is that that we’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to developing the link between government and the data driven digital economy. 

In January, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the New Statesman convened a discussion on this topic with parliamentarians from each of the three main political parties and other experts.  This article is one of a series from three of the MPs who took part, with an  introduction from James Johns of HPE, Labour MP, Angela Eagle’s view and Conservative MP, Matt Warman’s view

Calum Kerr is SNP Westminster Spokesperson for Digital