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Before the 2012 Liberal Democrat Conference, party leader Nick Clegg released a video apologising for breaking a pledge to not increase student tuition fees. Mr Clegg said: “It was a pledge made with the best of intentions – but we shouldn’t have made a promise we weren’t absolutely sure we could deliver.” The Liberal Democrat leader stated that, given the other two major parties in British politics were in favour of increasing tuition fees; it was difficult to uphold their pledge.
“I pledge to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative.”
Over 500 Liberal Democrat candidates signed that pledge, along with 250 Labour candidates and 16 Conservative candidates. It was also signed by candidates from the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru, UKIP, the Green Party and Respect. Prior to the election, an Endsleigh poll of students suggested that the candidate’s stance on tuition fees was “an important factor in deciding how to vote”. All of the elected Liberal Democrat MPs had signed the NUS’s pledge.
Of the 57 Liberal Democrat MPs in the House of Commons, 28 of them voted to increase the cap on annual tuition fees from £3,290 to £9,000. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, Business Secretary Vince Cable, Bath MP Don Foster, Yeovil MP David Laws and Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander all voted in favour of increasing tuition fees.
In 22 Days in May, David Laws revealed that both he and Nick Clegg were always dubious about making a pledge on tuition fees. Laws also regretted that rigorous changes had not been made to the party’s Higher Education policy, and the commitment to completely abolish tuition fees remained putrefying in their manifesto. He described this policy as a “comfort blanket” for Liberal Democrats and an “electoral gimmick” for voters. David Laws, now an Education Minister, said on Radio 4’s Today programme that it would have been “technically possible” to implement the abolition of tuition fees if his party had a majority in the House of Commons. On Newsnight, Vince Cable reiterated that: “It was an unwise commitment to have made and we regret that and that was the basis for the apology.” Mr Cable also said he believed the basis for the commitment on tuition fees was that the Liberal Democrats formed a majority government.
At the Liberal Democrat conference, party president Tim Farron asserted that a rise in tuition fees “should have been a red line, in my opinion.” However, David Laws stated in 22 Days in May that the four key policy priorities for his party in the pre-coalition negotiations were fair taxes, political reform, the ‘pupil premium’ in schools and the green economy.
After the 2010 General Election, there was a hung parliament, with 306 Conservatives MPs, 258 Labour MPs, 57 Liberal Democrat MPs and 28 members of other parties. The Liberal Democrats had sought a coalition with either the Conservatives or a constellation of other parties, led by Labour. An intrinsic part of coalition politics is that manifesto commitments are dissolved and mixed between the composite parties. However, this was an extra pledge not to raise tuition fees, separate and insoluble. It was worded to encompass the scenario of a hung parliament.
Regardless of the efficacy of the tuition fees system, or any of its alternatives, Nick Clegg’s party had pledged to not increase those tuition fees over the next parliament. When clear commitments are openly broken, it debauches the currency of manifesto promises. Undoubtedly, the Liberal Democrats will be punished harshly at the next election. Ultimately, Nick Clegg has not only apologised for breaking a pledge, but for making one.
Tim Farron: Lib Dems should have pushed harder on fees by Justin Parkinson (BBC)
Lib Dem Conference: Paddy Ashdown says fees pledge opportunistic by Justin Parkinson (BBC)
22 Days in May: The Birth of the Lib Dem-Conservative coalition by David Laws – review by Jonathon Powell (The Guardian)
22 Days in May by David Laws – book review by Mark Pack (Lib Dem Voice)
Watch: Nick Clegg’s tuition fees apology (Politics.co.uk)
Lib Dem MP Don Foster speaks to Bath University students by Cerian Jenkins (Casteaways)