Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Liberal Democrats should abstain on the tuition fees vote

When you doubt, abstain.

This might come as a shock to some people but the Liberal Democrats didn't win the election, if you want Lib Dem policies go out and vote Liberal Democrat, tell your friends and family to do the same. Democracy is sometimes confused with 'my view is right', it is, but if no one else existed.

And so we have compromise, or in the UK until 2010, ‘majority rules’. Labour have not got a leg to stand on, who introduced tuition fees after pledging to scrap them in their manifesto? I'm sure Ed Miliband will tell you, he would have voted against had he been an MP at the time. And who forced the abolition of tuition fees in Scotland?

Dems would have voted against. It will be interesting to see how Labour votes now.

I've been thinking about the tuition fee debate and the Lord Browne report over the last few weeks, is it good on balance given the economic circumstances? (for instance fairness for part time students). What are the good bits that can make me feel less bad about £9,000? I won't debate that here, several others have done so. But let me make this clear, fundamentally, university should be free. A free education is part of the DNA of the Liberal Democrats, we know it is the great leveller, it's in our Constitution:

...no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity. and ...[everyone has the] right to develop their talents to the full. ...we believe that the role of the state is to enable all citizens to attain these ideals.
Let us not kid ourselves, we knew it was coming. Nick Clegg tried to pave the groundwork towards the end of 2009 to see the reaction from the party; we debated it at conference and hinted at it back in January.

But here's the thing. Manifesto aside (which was clear on the economic circumstances the country faced and which included a plan to phase out fees over six years) we made several pledges. All our MPs signed up to the NUS pledge and at our special conference in Birmingham - days after we started this coalition we passed Amendment 4:

...calls upon Liberal Democrat ministers and MPs to ensure that on any decision made on Lord Browne’s report on higher education funding, they above all else take into account the impact on student debt. Conference affirms the Liberal Democrat objective of scrapping tuition fees.
Martin Shapland, the current Chair of Liberal Youth wrote a great blog post on why we should not head down this path, a journey started by Labour, because it will be so much easier for Labour and the Conservatives to head forward than to turn back.

But how do we balance our pledges and our manifesto against the constraints of government. I think we know how, we did it already; it's called the Coalition Agreement:

If the response of the Government to Lord Browne’s report is one that Liberal Democrats cannot accept, then arrangements will be made to enable Liberal Democrat MPs to abstain in any vote.
Some may vote against, which is encouraged, but all should at least abstain to signal to the party and the country where our heart lies.

I started this post by saying when you doubt, you should abstain. I don't think there is any doubt of the existence of doubt in these proposals.

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