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.