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

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.