Friday 10 December 2010

Explained: the reason why the LibDems made THAT pledge - and the parallel universe where it all worked out fine

It seems certain to enter the annals of British politics as one of the most dramatic of political own goals.

Yesterday was a most difficult day for the LibDems. They LibDems hit 8% in a poll - their lowest for 20 years - on the eve of the university fees vote. With 11 backbenchers and 17 frontbenchers voting for the policy, with 21 against and 8 abstentions, it looks as though almost three-quarters of Nick Clegg's backbench MPs did not vote for his policy. It was the biggest Liberal rebellion since 1918 and beyond. Is Clegg to end up like Lloyd George, ultimately the victim of a Tory cohabitation?

In the time-honoured fashion of governments who have lost a public argument, Ministers put it all down to difficulties of "communication". But whatever errors they made since May pale into insignificance compared with the hole they dug beforehand.

Like control orders, nuclear power, marriage tax breaks and VAT, tuition fees were always going to be a hot policy potato for LibDems in a Coalition government.

But not like this.

Without the decision to sign THAT pledge, to pose for the photos, to make the now cringeworthy videos saying "it is time for promises to be kept", claiming a unique level of integrity and trustworthiness in politics, this could have been just another u-turn in an everyday tale of Coalition folk. It would not have had such billing as a national Whitehall farce seeming to confirm every negative stereotype that anybody has ever held about politicians.

Yet the mystery has not been satisfactorily explained. How did the LibDems get into such a fine mess?

The orthodox argument is cynicism. The LibDems asked for votes on a pledge they never intended to keep. They wanted the votes of students, secretly knowing they would have to break the promise if they ever had any responsibility. (Nick Clegg still confusingly flips between Panglossian claims that this is the best possible policy in the world we live in, and arguing that the LibDems would have acted differently with a majority).

And the cynicism charge appears strengthened because we know that the LibDem leadership were against their own policy before they campaigned so vocally for it. They didn't believe in it - but once stuck with it by their Federal Policy Committee, they could see how it could be used to maximise votes.

Yet the cynicism charge fails to unwrap the enigma. It offers motive, means and short-term opportunity only sufficient to make the yellows the most inept of Machiavellian schemers. The price must be paid for a Faustian pact. How LibDems now regret the decision to maximise the student vote in May 2010 - and so set back the painstaking work of a generation. It is true that this often involved pitched a curious cocktail of genuine political idealism and anti-political stuntery. As every Tory commentator praises the LibDems for growing up, could it ever be glad confident morning in their appeal for yoof votes again?

So perhaps it was not cynicism, so much as stupidity? Was the LibDem problem of seeking short-term electoral gain, but not thinking beyond the election to the potential fallout? But this doesn't really convince either. Danny Alexander and David Laws and the rest of the LibDem negotiating team are not stupid. Far from it.

So the mystery recurs: how would a party which boasts of having made the most detailed preparations for hung Parliament scenarios not even spot that they were pointing a loaded revolver at their own foot? The idea that they didn't think that a u-turn would be such a big deal seems implausible, as they would hardly have made the campus tour such a major theme of their election campaign if they didn't think it was salient.

LibDems don sackcloth and ashes to tour the studios saying it was a mistake to make a pledge they could not keep - but none has offered a satisfactory account of why they did so.

Here's the only explanation I can see that makes sense of the pledge campaign strategy. Perhaps it could be more cynical still, but it isn't stupid anymore.

The parallel universe where the Clegg pledge worked like a dream

If Nick Clegg and the LibDems were sure that the Tories would win the election then everything about the pledge campaign suddenly makes perfect political sense.

The LibDems may have prepared for a hung Parliament, but they didn't expect to get one. If they did get one, they didn't expect a Coalition, rather than supply and confidence, where the choices might have been different, mass abstention might even have looked reasonable, and where the LibDems could have determined terms from outside government.

Their were two motivations for the pledge.

In the short-term, overestimating Cameron's electoral appeal meant they were scared of being wiped out in a Cameron surge of LibDem-Tory marginals. Enthusing the students would help here.

But they may well have been thinking ahead too. For didn't the NUS campaign position the LibDems quite beautifully if you take a trip with me to a parallel universe where David Cameron did win a Tory majority of 12?

In this world, does anybody believe you would have heard Nick Clegg acknowledge a single point he has made this month? (Though I do rather like to think that Vince Cable may have still made a more grown-up speech, about the way a graduate contribution/tax could work, rather similar to his July speech which the Browne review seems to have ignored).

Cynical, yes. But effective, opportunist opposition politics too.

This issue would give the appearance of outflanking Labour to the left in the universities and on the letters page of The Guardian, yet doing so on an ideal issue to get under the Tories' skins in the affluent south-east and southern marginals where parents and students would see the LibDems on their side.

Take a different turn and Nick Clegg could have been heir to Charles Kennedy after all.

They didn't get good at by-elections for nothing you know.

And there would be no need at all for Nick Clegg lectures telling people the party was not a receptacle for the politics of conscience and protest, when he would be so busy leading the protests himself.

Oh, how commentators like David Aaronovitch would growl cogently at the lack of any LibDem policy honesty or credibility. I rather think Nick Clegg would live with that, presenting himself as "the man who is not scared to take on the Establishment".

Far from burning Clegg in effigy, students would not be able to keep him off a campus again. How LibDems would tweet those pledge pictures around.

So how Clegg would bash Labour still, claiming it was Labour who had sold the Tories the pass for, in this universe, fees would never been necessary at all, as he would revive his now forgotten and rather tribalist realignment claim that his party would vanquish the other lot on the centre-left.

Remember that Nick Clegg's main stated political objective for his party was to double his party's seats in two General Elections. If we were in the parallel universe that Clegg anticipated, the NUS pledge was designed to help to put him on that path, instead of creating a massive risk of the party halving their seats.

So perhaps the LibDem leader bet the house on blue, not when he formed the Coalition, but in gambling on the political world he would live in after the election.

Was the fatal flaw of the Clegg strategy that he over-estimated David Cameron's electoral popularity? To be fair to Clegg, his was a mistake that almost everybody else made too, and continues to make still. Overestimating David Cameron has been a central distorting theme of almost all British political commentary for five years. But it may be Clegg and his party who pay the heaviest price.


Who wins the Thick of It Award for political dignity?

It is surely astonishing that former higher education spokesman Stephen Williams, who has given the most candid account of spending years trying to ditch the old LibDem policy finally ended up abstaining yesterday.

Especially when he had serially denounced the very idea of abstention in the strongest possible terms when castigating his predecessor.

Betrayal: Thousands of students and parents will be wondering what the point is of an MP who can't take a stand on such a major issue. Stephen Williams concluded "Bristol West needs an MP who says what he means and means what he says. All we have at the moment is the embarassing spectacle of an MP stuck on the fence.

He said - and then abstained. You couldn't make it up.

Despite stiff competition over the fees issue, Williams surely takes The Thick of It Award.


Gary said...

The most coherent explanation yet offered on this connundrum. And also the most likely. Real clarity of thinking (and writing). Congratulations.

Just the one potential error - you describe Labour as 'left of centre'. Richard Murphy over at Tax Research posits yesterday that New Labour were in fact "a bunch of right of centre neo-liberals" (1).

I guess it depends on where you draw the centre line in British politics.

But a great piece.


Zio Bastone said...

Buzkashi is, I think, that polo-like game which Afghans play with dead goats. It’s widely written about and watched and sometimes even played.

Yes it’s true that the Liberal Democrats do keep falling off their horses, riding their horses backwards into ditches and so forth. But still I feel for that poor goat. It was badly injured by New Labour. (I disagree, as it happens, with one of your earlier posts: to suggest that the Coalition’s higher education policy is an extension of New Labour’s seems to me far from ‘misleading’.)

And now the goat is dead or, at the very least, it’s dying. Unlike the Coalition.

Gradually, but not gradually enough, we are Americanising our educational system even as serious US academics (vide the recent open letter from Brandeis’s Professor Pletsko to the President of SUNY Albany) are questioning precisely the sorts of destruction that we are now deliberately visiting upon our higher education system. New Labour did the same sort of thing in foisting a US based transfer pricing system onto the NHS, of course. But then who wants to learn?

What we are faced with now is not just the obvious further commodifying of education through the hike in tuition fees; it’s also the virtual abandonment of any real State funding of either the Arts or the Humanities. Against this background, it seems reasonable to expect something more (and better) than silly little commentaries about Liberal Democrat tactics.

‘All life in societies where modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an enormous accumulation of spectacles. All that was directly lived has distanced itself and become a representation.’ (‘Toute la vie des sociétés dans lesquelles règnent les conditions modernes de production s'annonce comme une immense accumulation de spectacles. Tout ce qui était directement vécu s'est éloigné dans une représentation.’ – Guy DeBord)

Must we really continue sitting in our deckchairs, watching (and sniggering at) the navigational skills of Captain Smith? Is the iceberg not more important and more ‘direct’?

Sunder Katwala said...


Thanks. The marketisation objection was what I was driving at in the post on Michael Gove's argument for privatisation.

That is - at least in its intensity - a different approach in the ideological preference for full state withdrawal (that, and the 80% cut, and variability) is the case for non-continuity.

I accept there is some continuity (some graduate contribution, etc).

I am often positive about the LibDems. But I do object on this occasion to a party surfing an anti-political of purity and then making such a flagrant ditching of everything it said.

But do please offer further advice on how we should avoid the iceberg.

Unknown said...

I disagree with it as it happens. I think clegg tried to change the policy at the last party conf. before the election and failed. 1 year out yellow forsaw an hung parl with blue, and knew there would a compromise on tuition fees.

Not many people have given consideration to the Lib Dem manifesto policy on tuition

1. Under Charlie Kennedy, it was a straightforward, "we wil abolish them"

2. Under Nick Clegg the policy was "we wil labolish them within 6 years. [that is to say not this parliament but the next one"

clegg has all this stitched up before they went to the polls. It is one of the reasons I tried relentlessly for people, not ot take a long hard look at thte Tories, but instead take a long hard look at the libs.

Sunder Katwala said...


If that is right, the NUS pledge and campaign become "cynical/stupid".

They are planning the u-turn. They want to maximise student votes first. But they are heading for a car crash after.

Occasionally, LibDems may say: the detail of our manifesto shows we are downgrading the prioritisation (eg 6 years, eg not promoted as key priority). But this is disingenuous, since the public presentation - espcially towards students - was of giving it a high priority, by making an absolute pledge.

Unknown said...


I agree. the NUS have been ineffectual for some time. I noticed they tried to get the upcomming LD candidate for Old and Sad to sign the pledge.... Barmy. The have amde their bed, let them lie in it. BRinging more pledges or offering them avenues out is ridiculuous.

Two very worthwhile articles to understand Nick Clegg are the following..

1. December 2007 his acceptance speech as leader. If you read it carefully, you will see that he had this planned for a long time. It is full of cameron Jargon.

2. An interview Clegg gave to the New Statesman in May 2009. He made it clear there that if parliament was hung he would not do a deal with reds..

His party conference [2009] stitch up on tuition fees was masterful. arguably, Clegg is the less scrutinised man ever to hold high office.

Zio Bastone said...


The Gove piece is hardly revelatory. More importantly, it’s about deckchair management (this will unsettle the Tories) where it should be tackling icebergs, ie real world problems and effects.

The Belief in a Smaller State has two specific components.

One is Adam Smith, whose invisible hand was Thatcher’s answer to determinist views of History. Just as the Mensheviks went into Trotsky’s 1917 dustbin so too will unsatisfactory, uncompetitive universities, courses and students end up in Gove’s invisible one over the years to come.

But surely it ought to be possible to criticise this sort of thing for what it is, even if it does mean abandoning the neo-liberalism that had characterised New Labour when in office?

Then there’s the individual as the vector of social change, the perception that Society is immanent in each individual action and can’t simply be hypostasised as the State, imposed from above or evoked through fugitive concepts such as ‘public opinion’ It’s a view that’s been quite strong since the late 1960s and is shared (the ‘desiring subject’ for example) by what remains of the libertarian part of the Left. It still speaks to those (quite numerous) ordinary people (‘Get off our backs’) who feel quite disempowered.

So why then has New Labour still not come to grips with it, preferring instead to deal in mass effects and population based statistics as substitutes for some Fordist era ‘class’, instrumentalising everything in the cause of unhelpful abstractions? Indeed the whole ‘social mobility’ argument seems part of that basic error. And why too, given that the Tories are also extremely weak on Society, not because they don’t believe in it but because they lack any coherent model that isn’t based on ‘business’, does New Labour remain, on the one hand, stuck in a vapid notionism which vitiates all critique and, on the other, torn between (a) aping (without, however, understanding it) the Tories’ ‘business’ approach and (b) reverting to outmoded Fordist views of how the collective works.

You don’t believe me as regards how bad New Labour’s position actually is? Well we had Andy Burnham claiming on Friday’s Any Questions that resisting the fees hike was ‘unsustainable’, clearly implying (even though he’d just voted against it along with his party) that had New Labour been in office they would have raised them too. And now today Ed Milliband is reported as seeking to make common cause with those few Liberal Democrats who had actually kept their word.

One really couldn’t make this up.