If Clegg wants to keep tuition fees he needs to rename them

The Lib Dems (and students) would immediately feel better if tuition fees were renamed as a 'capped graduate tax'.

Unlike the Independent, I’ve not been privy to the 'Learning and Life' paper that is apparently being presented to Lib Dem conference in September, which suggests we should go into the next election without making any, um, pledges, on how tertiary education should be funded. Just a bit of a vague promise to take a look at it when we’re in government  - by all accounts:

 …we have thoroughly examined the current system and the alternatives – a graduate tax and lowering fees – and concluded that we should stick with the current system and review it once it has been given a proper chance to bed in

Now, I know us foot soldiers are all meant to be on our best behaviour and act like grown ups right now , so I will be considered and patient and wait until I read the paper before throwing all my toys out of the pram and shouting 'this is madness isn’t it?'; but can I make one small suggestion to the good folk in the working group? We could just rename 'tuition fees' as a 'capped graduate tax' and everyone would immediately feel a whole lot better.

I’ve suggested this before and I willingly admit that there’s more than a tad of the snake oil salesman about it. But there’s no doubt that while the phrase 'tuition fees' is like a red rag to a student bull, a capped graduate tax is not.

Renaming an unpopular fee as a more acceptable 'tax' is effectively just behavioural economics, beloved by the No 10 Nudge Unit and, indeed, popular with the PM himself. It would have been a neat solution to avoiding a lot a lot of unpleasantness for the Lib Dems right from the start.

I’ve never been able to understand why we didn’t go down this road. When I originally asked the question, I was told it was because ministers had been advised by civil servants that they couldn’t do it. So I put in a freedom of information request to see this advice; this revealed that not only were ministers not advised that they couldn’t just call tuition fees a 'graduate tax' - in fact they were given the opposite advice:

in some respects, the loan repayment is equivalent to a capped graduate tax (and presentationally there is an advantage in describing it as such).

So why don’t we do it?

Now, is this what I want to happen? No. I’d like a full on debate on tertiary education funding at conference and actual implementation of our current policy. But apparently the leadership isn’t so keen on that. Not good for the cameras. And not very grown up.

So this seems a fairly good compromise, delivering what the Lib Dem working party want (the status quo), the grassroots would buy (no more tuition fees), and be better for tertiary education to boot (because more people would buy into it).

Any takers?

Nick Clegg speaks at last year's Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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Not for the first time, James Brokenshire is making things worse in Northern Ireland

The Northern Ireland secretary's questions on Jeremy Corbyn and the IRA are valid. But he shouldn't be asking them for the sake of the Tory campaign. 

Consensus is an elusive thing in Northern Irish politics. But ask anyone how well James Brokenshire is handling his brief, and the answer from many is almost inevitably a variation on “not very”.

There are plenty of reasons for this. Some are fairer than others. But an overriding concern among nationalist and cross-community parties is that the Northern Ireland secretary cannot and has not acted as a neutral or honest broker in his time in office. They believe him to be both too close to the DUP and all too ready to take nakedly partisan lines on the issues that continue to disrupt the business of devolved government.

The legacy of Troubles violence is one such issue. By far the rawest of the disagreements looming over Stormont, neither Sinn Fein nor the DUP have brooked much compromise. That Brokenshire hasn’t been able to solve these issues in his 11 months in office isn’t all that remarkable.

One might even sympathise: few cabinet wickets are stickier than Northern Ireland, more so now than at any point in the last decade. Some – though not all – nationalists are instinctively hostile to his presence and think talks ought to be handled with kid gloves, preferably worn by a grizzled American senator.  

What is remarkable, however, is how prepared Brokenshire has been to make that situation worse – this time apparently for the sake of influencing an election his party is almost certain to win. On Monday, the secretary of state – who appears to have spent most of the general election campaign in his Bexley constituency – issued a statement via the Conservative party that challenged Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell (whose party, unlike the Tories, do not stand in Northern Ireland) to clarify their record on the IRA.

Whether these questions are valid – and they are – is irrelevant. What matters is whether they ought to be being asked by a serving secretary of state for Northern Ireland at this stage in an election. It is, to put it lightly, pretty difficult to conclude that they are. Here, not for the first time, we see Brokenshire moving in lockstep with the right-wing press away from the consensus – or at the very least sensitive, though not uncritical, engagement with both sides – so desperately necessary for the restoration of devolved government.

As I wrote when Theresa May called the election last month, the impasse at Stormont means this election cannot be siloed from the mainland campaign. I predicted that electioneering pitched at middle England will feed into the culture wars that still dominate Northern Ireland's politics. The province's troubled past remains a live issue and continues to disrupt the business of devolved government. It was clear that attacking Corbyn with the Lynton Crosby playbook will do nothing to defuse it.

And so it hasn’t. The IRA dead cat was of course to be expected, but for Brokenshire to be the one throwing it on the table is almost ridiculous. Some might argue, as they have before, that he has derelicted his duty as secretary of state for the sake of the shortest-term political expediency. Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams says the flurry of Tory-provoked interest in Corbyn’s record on the IRA is a “distraction”. Well, he of all people would. But the underlying truth is this. If we can learn anything from the fitful past few years at Stormont, it’s that arguments over legacy issues are nearly impossible to mediate.

Not for the first time, Brokenshire has made his own job – if he intends to stay in it – much more difficult. And if he is destined for pastures new in May's victory reshuffle, then his successor will not thank him for the febrile and distrustful atmosphere he has helped create. 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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