Look who bought the myth

we as a party still support the policy of moving towards the abolition of fees and I suspect that we will have something like that in our next manifesto.Tim Farron MP, President of the Liberal Democrats

Let’s get this straight.

Firstly, the Lib Dems’ collective volte-face on tuition fees has done enormous damage to the party’s credibility on any issue you care to name. To put it bluntly, why should we believe anything they promise ever again? As for believing promises on the specific issue of moving towards the abolition of fees… words fail me. We are not going to be fooled again in the same way, by the same people, on the same issue. I’m sure lots of individual Liberal Democrats, up to and including Tim Farron, are unhappy about the way the vote went; I’m glad that so many Lib Dem MPs (including both Farron and my own MP) voted No on the day. But that day is over. For better or worse – mainly worse – the Lib Dems are not, now, a party that supports the abolition of fees. Voting Lib Dem doesn’t even mean voting for a party that supports fees being frozen, or linked to inflation, or doubled. Voting Lib Dem, as of now, means voting for the party that made it possible for the Tories to treble fees – and, failing some fairly radical developments over the next few months, that’s what it always will mean.

Secondly, there’s an argument going round (notably from Vince Cable) to the effect that we shouldn’t set too much store by what the Lib Dems said before the election – which, just for the record, was:

We will scrap unfair university tuition fees for all students taking their first degree, including those studying part-time, saving them over £10,000 each. We have a financially responsible plan to phase fees out over six years, so that the change is affordable even in these difficult economic times, and without cutting university income. We will immediately scrap fees for final year students.

We shouldn’t hold them to that undertaking, Cable told us, because it related only to the eventuality of a Liberal Democrat majority government; once they actually had to negotiate from a position of weakness, why, naturally all bets were off. There’s one obvious answer to this, which is that the promise which was signed by 500 Liberal Democrat candidates wasn’t about what the party was going to do: each of those 500 candidates (including every sitting Lib Dem MP) pledged “to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative”. Not a huge amount of wiggle room there. But I don’t think the party collectively can get off the hook that easily, either. 6.8 million people voted Liberal Democrat in May; I doubt that very many of them thought the party was going to form a majority government. Nobody in the Lib Dem leadership ever said “there will have to be negotiation and in practice not all of this will get done”, because nobody needed to: Lib Dem voters were well aware that the best the party could hope for was to enter government as a junior member of a coalition. Everyone knew that what was implemented in practice would be a complex set of trade-offs, with only a few policies surviving unchanged and most being heavily watered down. But what Lib Dem voters did expect, quite reasonably, was that the party’s leaders would at least attempt to keep their promises and to implement a diluted version of their policies – not to shred their promises, implement the diametric opposite of their policies and then plead political realism.

Thirdly, a promise is not just a promise: every commitment on a single issue takes its meaning from a broader set of arguments and values. The politician who promises to keep a military shipyard open is affirming his belief in the armed forces, imperialism and the glories of war; the politician who privatises hospital cleaning services is stating her love of profit, her contempt for public service and her hatred of trade unions. (Not invariably, obviously, but I think these are good rules of thumb.) And the politician who – like Nick Clegg, before the election – commits himself to abolishing university tuition fees is also committing himself to a belief in higher education and public provision. People understand this. Clegg, Cable and the rest of the whole sick crew have not just ditched a promise; they have made a handbrake turn on two of the most important issues in politics. It’s not too much to say that they’ve gained power by promising to do the right thing, and used it to do the wrong thing.

There are three distinct but related political fallacies here. The first point – like Farron’s incredible comments – relates to the fallacy of good intentions: ask not who we are, where we’ve been or what we’ve done, ask what we can do for you next time! The second fallacy you could call the fallacy of executive omnipotence: the assumption that electoral promises relate only to the situation in which the party is powerful enough to have a free choice about whether to implement every single one of them; if those conditions don’t obtain (as they never really do), all the promises can be shelved, or turned into open-ended statements of aspiration. The third is the fallacy of the single promise: the idea that individual political promises are simply that – single items on a list of promises, like beads on a string – so that a politician should be held to account, at most, for the number of promises he or she fails to implement. In any case, they couldn’t realistically have been expected to implement all of them (fallacy 2) – and isn’t it more important to think about what they can do for you next time (fallacy 1)?

Instead of judging politicians on their record and on their overall political direction, we’re implicitly being asked – by Farron as well as Clegg – to look at policy commitments as free-floating mood statements, and give our vote to the politician who seems to be making the right kind of noises. Taken together, this adds up to a formidable depoliticisation of politics, as well as a Get Out Of Jail Free card for individual politicians.

Or you could just call it base, cynical vote-whoring. And from the Liberal Democrats, too – I’m shocked, shocked.

Update If you want to know what the fees issue is really about – and why the reaction of so many academics has been one of incredulous horror – read this. As Colin rightly points out, a graduate tax could have forced students to pay just as much money for their education, and would have been easier to administer – and easier to make more equitable – than the nightmare system we look like being landed with. However, a tax would also have been channelled through the state, effectively keeping universities publicly funded; it also wouldn’t have set universities competing against one another on price, and hence on cost (if you can deliver the same teaching with fewer staff, you won’t need to charge your students as much). As our Vice-Chancellor recently commented, few of us went into higher education with the aim of working in the free market, but that’s where most of us look like ending up.

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