Taking policy away from the membership?

Tonight, the Liberal Democrats are sharing their next Party Political Broadcast with the media. The video features Nick Clegg apologising to the British public for breaking the pledge on tuition fees… or does it?

As we’ve heard from the leadership before, the party is adamant that voting for increased tuition fees was not a mistake but that making the pledge in the first place was. This is very contradictory to a lot of Liberal Democrat values and, while I hope the video goes some way to regaining the trust of the British electorate, I’m not sure that the message is going to get a lot of support from party members.

Firstly, the focus is very much on the pledge that all Liberal Democrat PPCs were instructed to sign ahead of the 2010 General Election. Although the pledge was good media for us, it was not a Liberal Democrat campaign. ‘The pledge’ was a campaign run by NUS that we jumped on as a way to broadcast our policy. Nick is saying, quite clearly, that signing the pledge was a mistake but are we also to take from this that he is declaring, as Party Leader, that the policy itself is also an error?

In the video, Clegg says that “we shouldn’t have made a promise we weren’t absolutely sure we could deliver” and he also says that he “shouldn’t have committed to a policy that was so expensive”. It isn’t much of a secret that Nick doesn’t support free tuition fees and this broadcast, along with previous similar statements, shows a huge disregard for the majority of the membership with regards this particular policy.

The Liberal Democrats pride themselves on being the party whose policy is made by its members. How true can that be when a policy that is strongly supported by the membership is disregarded in government and then publically damned by our leader? Forget letting down the voters for just a second (and I do mean ‘just a second’, that is not something to be sniffed at) – what about the members? What about the campaigners and supporters that got the party to where it is today? To keep the policy for free tuition fees after this broadcast would be political suicide! We are now left with two options:

1. Revoke our policy on tuition fees. This won’t be popular with the membership and would probably have to come from ‘on high’, thereby contradicting our value of having policy made by members; or

2. Maintain our existing policy and face further ridicule for a meaningless and disingenuous broadcast.

Those aren’t options that I like very much.

Secondly, the video suggests that the policy was not something that we, as a country, could afford. The DPM then goes on to promise that we won’t make any more policies that we aren’t certain we can uphold. How can he say this when another thing that the party prides itself on is being the only party to have costed policies? We had a 6-step plan for tuition fees. We campaigned on tuition fees by marketing that plan on the doorsteps! If we knew all along that, actually, the plan wasn’t accurate; could we not have changed the policy BEFORE the 2010 campaign? Signs of recession were certainly there before the GE campaign started so there’s no excuse for keeping a policy that we apparently knew was unworkable.

As for the promise that we won’t make new policies that we aren’t certain we can deliver on – how exactly will that work? Policy is made by the members. Are we now to reject any policy debates that don’t make more economic sense than Vince Cable’s 6-step tution fee plan? That is a very big ask and if that’s the case, Brighton Conference is going to be very dull next week when Conference Committee have had to cancel all the debates for lack of workable policy.

It took us two years to ‘hold our hands up’ and finally apologise for what we did in government on tuition fees for promising a policy that the membership had overwhelmingly (and repeatedly) supported. I really think that, as a party, we need to move on from tuition fees and focus on all the good we’ve done in government. I do not support free tuition fees as a policy and I am very pleased with the new system for fees and with everything else that we’ve achieved in government. However, I do believe in democracy and this policy was major enough that we can reasonably assume it played a part in getting some of our seats. I also believe that the best thing about being a Liberal Democrat is the ability to make and vote on all Liberal Democrat policy.

Hopefully this video will help lay to rest the tuition fees fiasco and allow us to move forwards in the eyes of the public. Hopefully this video will fulfil its purpose of regaining some trust from the public and perhaps even some respect from voters who have been waiting for an apology.

I am glad that Nick listened to party members and to the electorate and has stood up to apologise. I do not, however, think that he has apologised for the right thing and I, like many other party members this evening, am disappointed.

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