Be liberal, Clegg

The Liberal Democrats cannot belong to a centre-right government and yet insist to supporters that t

I'm sure Nick Clegg's inbox bulges sufficiently with advice without his reading list of suggestions being added to by a Tory activist (that is, a deliverer of leaflets) from Hackney (that is, a deliverer of unread leaflets), but, you know, I'm coming at this from a different angle than most. I'd quite like Nick Clegg to succeed, for one thing, which perhaps gives my advice a different flavour from that of Simon "And We've Just Lost Sheffield, Nick Clegg's Backyard!" Hughes.

I'll get to the advice in a minute. But first: do you know the best thing about Twitter? No, not the superinjunction feeds. Twitter's greatest advantage is that you no longer have to sit through dull-as-ditchwater documentaries, or endure Question Time, to know what the political class are saying to one another; you just scan through the timeline of people who are paid to watch these programmes.

Which is why I know, without having seen it, that the best line in last night's Andrew Rawnsley Channel 4 programme on the coalition came from David Davis, who said: "The Liberal Democrats have got the best seats in the plane, but no parachutes."

I don't quite agree with the imagery. The Liberals do have good seats in the plane, no doubt. But it's not so much that they're not wearing parachutes – or, at least, not just that. It's more that the behaviour of some senior Liberals is akin to the co-pilot coming back into the cabin, mid-flight, opening the aircraft's doors and yelling impotently at the ground 37,000 feet below: "Just cos we're flying this plane doesn't mean we want to go to its destination. We'd really rather it went somewhere much, much further to the left. Look, I've got a flight-plan agreement written last May and everything! D'you hear me?"

The resulting rapid diminution of the distance between ground and aircraft renders the lack of parachutes (not to mention the yelling about preferred destination) a moot point.

I'm not actually a huge fan of coherence in politics: prioritise the human, not the (ideology) machine. But on the axis of coherence, the Liberal Democrats are suffering because they're too close to the 100 per cent incoherent end of the scale. My point is this: you cannot belong to a government of the centre right, but continue to insist to (erstwhile) supporters that you are secretly still on the left, and expect to gain the respect of anyone.

Now, I know what Liberal Democrats will say to this: first, they somehow defy convention and don't belong on that old-fashioned left-right axis ("It's so 20th century, my dear!" Blah, blah). Sorry, but policies do, insofar as any particular policy maps on to a particular point on that axis. (Or its near analogue, the freedom/equality scale. Do you want to build a policy machine that will make every school the same? Or do you want to let thousands of different people open schools and let parents choose for themselves?).

Second, if they admit to belonging on any political axis at all, they'll say that it's a special place with its own values, quite distinct from those found in the Labour or Tory tribes. But nearly every policy debate within both the "old" parties can be seen as a discussion between a liberal and a conservative point of view. There's nothing special about the adjective "liberal" when it's used by someone wearing a bright yellow rosette.

So this is my advice to Mr Clegg. If you continue to invent dividing lines between your party and ours, and shout loudly about those differences, you'll continue to fail. All dividing lines are fiction. (Remember Gordon Brown? Dividing lines were his sole political tool, his entire tactic to insist that all truth, and goodness, and reason, were synonymous with his name.) And what's more, with a coalition government, voters are more aware of this than ever.

If you want to succeed, however, then turn your back on the social-democratic wing of your party and emphasise your inner liberal. It is that instinct which most aligns you with a large number of Tories – and it's not a different liberal instinct from ours because you wear a Lib Dem badge and we wear a Tory one (which is why, for example, if you decide to prevent the election of police commissioners you won't be scoring a point over the Tories which will be congratulated by a grateful electorate; you will only be underlining your current incoherence).

You are more likely to be successful the more you work with, and not against, Conservatives. This isn't a message that either Mr Huhne or Dr Cable will want to hear. But that brings me to my last bit of advice, to underline your commitment to the coalition: get a proper cabinet job. Remove Mr Huhne and Dr Cable from the government, and replace them with yourself and David Laws. Show Dr Cable that it is not only Tories who are capable of being ruthless in pursuit of success.

Graeme Archer is a regular contributor to ConservativeHome hoping to remain on the Tory party official candidates' list. In real life he is a statistician. On Twitter he's @graemearcher.

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It's a stab in the dark: the myth of predicting your student loan repayments

Even the company responsible for collecting repayments admits that it can't tell students what they'll be.

In response to renewed calls to overhaul the student finance system, the universities minister Jo Johnson insisted last week that the "current system works". He pointed out that a university degree boosts "lifetime income by between £170,000 and £250,000".

What he failed to mention is that not even the people administering the loan system can tell students what they will be expected to pay back each month, because they can't work out what they'll earn. 

When asked by the New Statesman why it had pulled an online calculator designed to tell students what their repayments would be, the Student Loans Company (SLC) said it wasn't "possible to answer customers' questions about how long it will take to repay their loan or how much they will owe at a point in the future because there is no accurate way of predicting their future earning".

The confusion around student loans stems from the fact that, unlike loans from banks, their repayment is income contingent.

Until May last year, the SLC had a calculator on its website which students and parents could use to predict how much they may have to repay in the future. But after Andrew McGettigan, a higher education journalist, emailed the SLC noting that the calculator did not take into account gender inequality in future salaries, it was swiftly taken down. 

It was in response to queries about this calculator from the New Statesman that the SLC admitted that there was no accurate way to predict future repayments. The organisation added that it was "exploring new and better ways to present information" to its customers. 

This admission appears to undermine Johnson’s “fair and equitable” description of the student finance system. If even SLC can't say what repayments could look like, how do we know? 

Further controversy around student loan repayments is expected when a report is published later this year by the Department for Education on student finance and expenditure. This is expected to highlight the discrepancy between the maintenance loans students receive and rising rent costs. 

There are still a range of unofficial student loan calculators on the internet, but many use overly optimistic projections for future earnings. McGettigan says this is because they are based on salary trends from the 1980s to the 2010s. He also adds that these unofficial calculators are all based on the official one that was removed – and that they also do not take into account the impact of Brexit. It's a stab in the dark.

The SLC notes that "every student who applies for their student finance online must navigate a page of key repayment information that outlines six points". Student loans are inherently complicated by design, but as Amatey Doku, NUS vice president (higher education), makes clear, this has consequences for fair access to higher education. “We know that BME and poorer students are more worried about high levels of debt than any other group, but the current system does not provide adequate support for those about to enter it.”

Students seeking advice from an independent body will be hard-pressed to find one. The independent Student Finance Taskforce set up by the coalition government in 2011, which sought “to reassure potential students about what they can expect when applying for university and beyond”, was quietly discontinued and never replaced. 

Read more: Jeremy Corbyn's opponents are going down a blind alley on tuition fees

Further confusion surrounds the government’s framing of student finance to sixth formers. Beyond the debate surrounding tuition fees, there is the assumption that has never been made explicit by either political party, which is that students who have a household income of more than £25,000 are expected to have some form of financial support from their families for living costs.

Are parents made aware of this before their children apply to university? Unlike in America, where parents are encouraged to put money away into a “college fund”, the British government never openly encourages parents to save specifically to send their children to university. 

Although there is “no specific date” for its publishing, the Department for Education's report is is believed to argue that, much like the NUS’s debt report did in 2015, that the current system results in poorer students having to take excessive part-time work during the university term. Some also have to take on commercial loans. The stress of both can have an adverse effect on students' mental health.

All this, and not even the organisation responsible for collecting repayments can tell students how much they will be paying back.