Nick Clegg speaks at the Liberal Democrat spring conference in York earlier this month. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Will the Lib Dems oppose a tuition fee rise in 2015?

With the Tories refusing to rule out another increase, Clegg's party will soon need to decide where it stands.

With the new tuition fees system threatening to become more expensive for the government than its predecessor (owing to a non-repayment rate of 45 per cent), the question of how to sustainably fund universities has risen again. There are three ways in which ministers could attempt to plug the blackhole (which stands at over £1.5bn a year): a reduction in the earnings threshold for graduate repayment (currently £21,000), an increase in state subsidy (funded by higher taxes or greater cuts elsewhere), or a rise in tuition fees (provided that this does not similarly result in a higher bill). 

When challenged to rule out the latter option in an interview with Channel 4 News on Saturday, universities minister David Willetts notably refused to do so, merely stating that "we will have to see how the income of universities performs. But we have a structure for £9,000 and £21,000 and that is working". Pressed again by presenter Cathy Newman as he was leaving the studio on whether another increase was on the way, he revealingly replied: "could be". 

One option known to be under discussion in Conservative circles is the removal of the cap on tuition fees all together (the policy recommended by the 2010 Browne Review), with universities free to charge as much as they want in a pure market system. In order to ensure that the new model is affordable, institutions could be required to provide loans to students to cover the share of the fee above £9,000. One figure commonly proposed by vice-chancellors is £16,000 (the annual cost of educating an undergraduate). 

With the Tories likely to go into the general election refusing to rule out another increase in tuition fees (if not ruling one in), the question is raised of where the Lib Dems, the party more associated with this policy area than any other, will stand. After much internal angst, the party endorsed the current system at its autumn conference last year while retaining a commitment to review the system after the general election and abolish fees "if possible or necessary". The latter ambition is rejected by ministers, who rightly warn that a pledge of this kind would not be regarded as credible by voters. But while the current limit of £9,000 has been accepted, and dreams of abolition have been abandoned, this leaves unanswered the question of whether the party will promise to oppose a new rise in fees. Nick Clegg has previously reassured students, "Don't worry, we're not going to raise tuition fees to £16,000", and plenty in the party will want this evolve into a formal election pledge. 

But recent history means Lib Dem ministers will be understandably wary of such a commitment. It was the party's promise in 2010 to vote against any increase in fees that led to its post-election humiliation when fees were tripled by the coalition; it cannot risk a repeat. Yet any refusal to oppose an increase will lead to accusations from Labour that the party has pre-emptively accepted Conservative plans for a rise. With Ed Miliband expected to propose a reduction in fees to £6,000 (not least on the grounds that it could save money), the Lib Dems risk being further disadvantaged in the battle for the student vote (on which the survival of several of their MPs rests). How to resolve this dilemma is a question Clegg will soon need to answer. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change