Why students should join the Lib Dems
Hats off to Team Clegg for another fantastic piece of spin. The whole of the press lobby in Westminster appears to have bought the line that the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party is discussing abstentions for ministers on the crunch student fees vote to avoid “embarrassment”. How different, and much more embarrassing, the truth really is for Nick Clegg.
From the National Union of Students' pledge that Lib Dem MPs signed, there are only three ways out that do not destroy trust and trash a politician's brand. To vote against a rise in student fees. To resign your seat and stand for re-election in a by-election. Or to persuade the world that the rise in fees is in fact part of a bigger package that is, in the round, a good thing.
Leading his party in voting against is out for Clegg because it would be an explosive violation of the Coalition Agreement and might well lead to a new general election. With the Lib Dems stuck at 10 per cent in the opinion polls, that would be suicide.
Low poll ratings also rule out the by-election route.
Only the third route of persuasion is left. The best outcome here would be for the NUS to endorse the government’s proposals as a decent compromise in hard times and “release” Lib Dem MPs from their pledge. This is why the government has periodically opened the door to the NUS, eg by inviting its president to attend John Browne’s personal tutorial on his proposals with with Clegg, David Cameron and Ed Miliband.
But the NUS doesn’t think the proposals are even close to acceptable. Hence Clegg and Cable have tried to go over the union’s head and appeal directly to students and elected officers in individual universities. As the sit ins this week demonstrate, that, too, has failed.
Next best would be to persuade the Lib Dem party that the proposals are progressive. But - and this is where Team Clegg’s spin has been so brilliant - that, too, has failed.
The Federal Policy Committee has reiterated the party’s opposition to raising tuition fees. And the recent elections strengthened the hand of the social liberals who are so problematic for Clegg on this issue, putting Evan Harris at the top of the poll and installing Tim Farron - an avowed rebel on fees - as party president.
So this is the real reason why Clegg is discussing the option of ministers abstaining on the crunch vote with the parliamentary party. Because voting with the government would be a violation of party policy and he does not want to risk civil war with his own party. His attempt at persuasion, to lead his party to a new place, has failed. Clegg simply doesn’t have the clout of Cameron or Miliband and could be accused of being a prisoner of party activists. Now that really is embarrassing.
But, with the notable exception of the BBC’s Nick Robinson, the press lobby down in Parliament seems to have become so used to Conservative and Labour leaders ignoring their party that it has bought Team Clegg’s spin and forgotten that the Lib Dems have always said they are different and really believe in party democracy. Now the party has proved it, albeit very discreetly.
Clegg is now in a political cul-de-sac. Even if he can twist enough arms and do enough deals to report back to Cameron that he has the numbers to guarantee victory for the government in the crunch vote before Christmas, he has no political cover. If he sticks with supporting the current policy, he is also sticking with a decision to trash his brand.
For universities, the risk is that Clegg decides the brand is more important than good relations with Cameron. In that case, all bets are off and the Valley of Death looms.
For students, there is a counter-intuitive conclusion. If you lean to the progressive side (as presumably most of the protesters do) and want to make a difference, which party should you join? Join Labour and you know you will be turning yourself into cannon fodder. Join the Lib Dems and it is now clear that you really can make a difference. Hang the effigies by all means. But Clegg’s despair is in fact a great reason to get one of those yellow membership cards.