Today’s Observer carries a letter from Adrian Sanders, Liberal Democrat MP for Torbay, on the much-criticised U-turn of his party over university tuition fees, defending the party’s record by attacking Labour:
Where was the National Union of Students when Labour broke their pledge on university top-up fees? … Despite having promised in their 2001 manifesto: “We have no plans to introduce university top-up fees and have legislated to prevent their introduction,” they used their 160-seat majority after the election to bring them in. At least the Liberal Democrats can claim still to oppose fees given that we are 270 seats short of a majority that would allow us to implement our manifesto in full.
Vince Cable has made similar points in an interview with the BBC’s Politics Show today, claiming that the party are bound by the coalition agreement rather than pre-election promises.
To deal with Sanders’ first point, where the NUS were in 2002 when Labour introduced top-up fees was on the streets protesting against it, just like they have been this time. The hypocrisy Sanders tries to pin on the NUS simply does not exist.
The idea that “coalitions are about compromise” and that the Liberal Democrats could not possibly have implemented their entire manifesto upon joining the government are superficially convincing. The party’s supporters will usually take this opportunity to trot out a long list of things that “wouldn’t have happened” under a solely Conservative government, and can thus be ascribed entirely to the Lib Dems’ stabilising influence.
Whether or not that’s the case, Sanders – and the other Lib Dems who take the same position – are missing the point. This is a party that promised to restore trust in politics, after the latter part of the last Parliament was dogged with scandals surrounding MPs’ expenses and the general uselessness of our politicians. Nick Clegg’s message at the general election was that a vote for the Liberal Democrats would be a vote for a party that could be trusted, with his “new politics” supplanting the old ways of the two major parties.
The problem is not really that the Lib Dems have broken a manifesto commitment. Other governing parties have done the same, and far worse, in the past. The case of New Labour and top-up fees is a particularly striking one, since how we pay for higher education is again the concept being discussed, but it’s far from the only example. Successive Labour and Tory governments have routinely reneged on manifesto promises throughout their time in power. One could say that’s the fault of an electoral system that gives winning parties too much power in the legislature and the executive – but that’s another story, and another thing the Lib Dems have promised but failed to deliver on.
The point I’m making is that rounding on the Liberal Democrats for breaking their manifesto commitments would be unfair, both in terms of the circumstances of the government they’re in and in terms of other parties’ records. But the anger over Lib Dem turncoats is not about manifesto promises; it’s about pledges.
Every one of the 57 Liberal Democrat MPs currently sitting at Westminster signed, prior to the 2010 general election, a personal pledge to vote against any rise in student tuition fees. That’s not “abstain from” the vote, as the coalition agreement allows the Lib Dems to do, but actively vote against it. Such a signed commitment, from an individual candidate, makes them far more accountable to their own electorate than a manifesto written in party headquarters, with little or no input from most of the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidates around the country.
It is the violation of these pledges, signed supposedly in good faith by Lib Dem parliamentary hopefuls, that the NUS and others are getting so angry about. I’ve talked about the specifics of whether or not tuition fees are a good idea elsewhere, but this is a separate point. The Liberal Democrats have incurred the wrath of student voters because they plan to break personal promises.
Those Lib Dem MPs who intend to honour the pledge made to their electorate, such as Charles Kennedy, should be applauded. There should be no sympathy for the rest – they were elected to serve their constituents, not their party, and personal commitments to those they represent should be expected to trump any request for cooperation from their government.