LibDem MPs need to rebel on tuition fees… perhaps

University Fees – a rare venture into mainstream politics in terms of what I usually blog about. As a result, I have no clue how many people that read this blog will be interested but I’d like to pose an open question. Yes, I sort of already answered the question in the title but I’m by no means certain of the outcome.

I’m going to ignore the mainstream debate over who is right and who is wrong for now, partially because every time I think I’ve figured it out, some new bit of information pops up.

It’s confusing watching everyone on Twitter run around trying to figure out the angle on this when (Takes deep breath) it’s a mixed Conservative and LibDem reaction to a Labour report proposing an increase in something Labour first introduced but the LibDem MPs pledged to vote against but later agreed to abstain in a coalition agreement but then some LibDem MPs are tied by Cabinet collective responsibility… and at this point my head starts to hurt and someone mentions Labour pledged something in 2001? I have no idea what. And that’s before we get university heads saying they’re for the report but students and lecturers against…

I have the advantage that I do not hold an elected position that needs to worry about such things beyond knowing vaguely what my own views are1, so instead I can sympathise with the BBC and other newscasters too: Good luck trying to figure out nice graphics for that on the Ten O’Clock News and make it sound exciting. I suspect the average person not actively involved in politics will probably got bored and switch over to watch the sport on the other side before you get 30 seconds in.

Back to the question, could MPs voting against fees actually be positive for the party? I’ve no doubt we’ve achieved good things by being where we are, but publicising those events is tough. For example, I hear that Nick Clegg opposed plans to scrap child benefit for 16 to 18 year olds. As a result it was never even announced, but because it was never announced there were no big headlines on it.

Instead, what we do get big headlines on is the negative points of the coalition. I suspect I am not alone in getting frustrated that despite being less than 16% of the parliamentary coalition party, we’re “punching above our weight” in terms of influence on policy. Sadly, we just seem to attract the bad press – and quite a lot more than 16% of it. Yes, we’re not getting all our manifesto promises through – because we did not win a majority, nice though it would have been if we had done.

But if the parliamentary party rebels and votes down any tuition fees increases then it removes much of the wind from the sails of those that would attack the Liberal Democrats for not standing by our principles when it really mattered. Yes, it probably be a whipped vote. But you can hardly discipline over half the parliamentary party – there have been suggestions that the NUS already have the necessary 30+ LibDem MPs required to defeat fees – and I would certainly welcome what could be a positive move in terms of standing up for our values.

All good stuff, but what of the coalition agreement? I doubt the coalition would collapse over a matter like tuition fees but it might damage chances of an AV referendum in May. Would the Conservatives fail to whip their MPs as hard if the fees rebellion defeats the increase? If the AV referendum doesn’t happen that will certainly upset a lot of Liberal Democrats… and that could cause problems for the coalition.

1University should be free at the time you attend, which is I understand what the proposals say. I’m a graduate myself and do I believe graduates should at least bear a proportion of the costs of that additional education given the increased personal earning potential, if they can afford it. The debate seems mostly for me to be on how best to recover the cost as if we can increase quality by increasing fees without burdening those that genuinely can not afford it, that sounds positive to me. However, a lot of graduates simply can not afford £30k+ of debt…

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