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Have the student protests on Tuition Fees harmed our cause?

Just to get this clear from the start, I’m fully in favor of free higher education and I’m totally opposed to Tuition Fees. It’s one of the reasons I joined the Lib Dems in the first place. This blog post stems from a couple of conversations I’ve had with friends, voters and others on the internet, the doorstep and other places over the last few weeks.

The student protests over the decision to raise fees, were important in places violent and certainly vocal. They set the stage and quite rightly gave a good slap to all the Lib Dem MPs who broke the pledge that they made not to raise them. Even as a loyal party member, I’m still annoyed at those MPs who did break the pledge.

However, it is possible that in wider public, the protests which were both about the decision to raise fees and the fact that we’d promised if elected we’d try to scrap tuition fees actually backfired on the protestors?

The first conversation alluded to earlier was with a friend who I knew before I came to university. He’s currently on a gap year and is filling his time with the TA until he heads off to university next year. A slightly unfortunate turn of circumstances bearing in mind that had he been able to head off to University last year, he’d have been paying just £3000 in fees. He was telling a story of having been at a mess dinner and told someone that he was on a gap year. The revelation that he was a student apparently caused uproar. Not because it was unusual, but because the others present apparently viewed students as believing themselves a “privileged elite” who felt entitled to free education. We’re not talking about a bunch of bankers or politicians saying this, we’re talking about a group of guys who take their spare time out to form the reserve force for our Armed Forces, who lets face it, get a fairly raw deal in comparison to students. Even under the new fees regime.

Leading on from this I was out canvassing last weekend and was having a conversation with a woman who correctly discerned, most likely from my appearance that I was in fact a student. Logically the issue of fees came up and after explaining why I was still out canvassing for the Lib Dems explained that whilst she too would like to see education free, she didn’t think it was particularly feasible in the current economic and political climate. But what really got to her about the issue was that she perceived to be was that at a time when everyone was suffering, students felt that they alone had a right to be protected from cuts, or in this case an increase of fees.

Obviously I wouldn’t completely agree with these statements, but for two people within a handful of days to come out with something, totally unprompted and so completely in sync with each other surprised me and to be honest it got me thinking about my own motives. On the one hand I believe that the best way to open up University to those who are most able to benefit from it is for there to be no fees. Those who are capable, should be able to go, without hindrance. It’s also my opinion that education is an investment, the government by funding Higher Education will benefit longer term in vast proportion to the initial cost outlay. But to be honest it’s not just about that, there’s a sneaking little bit of selfishness in that. I don’t want to have to pay back my tuition fees, I don’t want my brother to pay them and I don’t want my kids to have to pay them back either.

But to answer the original question, did the student protests harm our cause? I’d say it’s highly probable that in a time when everyone is getting hit, students who don’t exactly have the worst lot in society demanding that they pay back a grand total less money after they graduate (the new system does at least have lower monthly repayments) was perhaps a tad unrealistic and perhaps even a smacked a tad of entitlement.

Longer term, I doubt that this will prevent us from achieving a long term goal of free higher education, if not for all then at least for those who most need it. There will be other challenges that this one in achieving that particular goal. Mostly electoral and political ones. But for the time being, there may be a certain level of alienation between students and normal people due to this particular interpretation of the student protests.

To sum up and leave you with a positive note, I figured I’d call on the superb writing of Aaron Sorkin and the writing staff of the West Wing, which very much encapsulates my outlook on the issue of fees in higher education, with this memorable line from Sam Seaborn:

“Education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don’t need little changes, we need gigantic, monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. The competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be making six-figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to its citizens, just like national defense. That’s my position. I just haven’t figured out how to do it yet.”

Posted in Education, General Election 2010, News, NUS | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

NUS’s unforeseen hurdle – Why decapitation may prove tricky

As has been tweeted by Aaron Porter and reported by the Guardian and announced through a new website (in a remarkably unified manner) the NUS has launched it’s campaign to “decapitate” the Liberal Democrats, by ousting leading Liberal Democrat MPs from their seats through the usage of the planned “Right of Recall” powers.

This may however prove trickier than they expect. The first issue, is that the powers haven’t actually been introduced yet. The Number 10 website, through its new transparency initiative informs any of you willing to go and have a look on the status of various elements of business. Including planned constitutional reform:

The fact that the reform has yet to begin & won’t be introduced to Parliament for a year and a half (and hence is likely not to be on the statute books for some time) would be a slight hurdle. Or so you might have thought, but apparently, that’s an area of research that didn’t seem worth doing, for when I inquired as to whether or not Aaron Porter was aware of this, I got the following reply:

You’d have thought before launching such a campaign, you’d ensure the legislation to carry it through is actually in place. But no apparently not. Now I’m beginning to understand quite why nobody was watching the anarchists on Wednesday….

The second hurdle, is actually contained in the Liberal Democrat Manifesto. When speaking of the right to recall, our manifesto had the following to say on the subject:

Give you the right to sack MPs who have broken the rules. People have rightly beenfurious about the expenses claims of some MPs but there is absolutely nothing they cando about it. If an MP has acted egregiously and breaks the rules, there should be a mechanism by which they can be sacked. The Liberal Democrats would introduce a ‘recall’ system in which a small percentage of constituents could force a by-election for any MP suspended for wrongdoing. Power should be in the hands of voters at all times, not juston Election Day.”

That seems, to me at least, to preclude the usage of this right to recall your MP in the event that they happen to change their minds. Or break a pre-election pledge. The key segment is:

force a by-election for any MP suspended for wrongdoing”

Or in other words, in order to try and use the right of recall, the NUS will first have to get the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards to suspend an MP for wrongdoing & then force a by-election under the right to recall powers, with the caveat that we presume this is how the system will operate. Unfortunately, corroboration from the Conservative party manifesto is a little bit more tricky, as all they have to say on the issue is:

“We will bring forward legislation to introduce a power of recall, enabling voters to force a by-election.”

Slightly more ambiguous. However, it seems clear to me that in the right to recall policy, there will be safeguards to prevent people abusing the right & generally just launching spurious recall petitions, which would ultimately merely damage the system, it seems likely that the model lain out in the Liberal Democrat manifesto will be followed.

I commend Aaron Porter for his enthusiasm, but perhaps next time, he should make sure these things have been thought through, because this idea has holes in it gaping wide enough to drive a super-tanker through. It may also be worth him not aiming this attack solely at Liberal Democrat MPs. As I pointed out the other week, in order to win the votes, we’ll need MPs from all parties to vote with us, hence for this threat to be sufficiently effective, it’ll need to cast a wider net than just the Liberal Democrats in Parliament. Don’t forget, there’s only 57 of us. Aim this at everyone, because at the end of the day, everyone needs to keep to the pledge, not just the Liberal Democrats.

-Greg Foster

PS: It should be remembered that many Lib Dem MPs have said they’ll stick by their pledge, including Ceredigion’s Lib Dem MP, Mark Williams: http://bit.ly/9UgaUd

Posted in Constitutional Reform, Education, General Election 2010, News, NUS | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Why I still support the coalition

On Wednesday, I left my house at 4.30am. Having travelled up the hill, I then got on a bus and after an exceptionally long journey, I disembarked in Central London, to join 50,000 of my peers to protest against the coalition government’s policy on Tuition Fees. And I did so proudly wearing my Liberal Democrat Hoodie.

I fundamentally disagree that raising the cap on fees is the best way to fund Higher Education and even given the significant mitigating proposals that came through from the Browne review, I believe that this is still the wrong course. In an ideal world, the coalition would have scrapped fees, in a pragmatic best case scenario, we’d have a system which moved towards the graduate tax model, but without some of that model’s drawbacks. Tuition Fees up to effectively £9000 isn’t quite the worst case scenario, but it’s still not a good one. But in spite of that, let me be clear, I still support the Lib Dems remaining in the coalition to the end of the term.

When we went into coalition, I doubt there was a party member out there who believed we’d be happy with every decision that the Government has made, nor do I believe that any party member believed we’d be able to get everything we want or that was in our manifesto. And lo and behold, we as the minority party haven’t gotten everything, we’ve had to sit through Liberal Democrat ministers speaking for the government, on the government line against our policy and sometimes, against some of our core principles. That’s a fact of coalition. And the Tories, particularly the right wing, grassroots members are having a much harder job coming to terms with that. They haven’t been advocates of coalition & compromise for quite as long as us.

However, in coalition there’s only one group of people who have to agree with everything that the government does. That’s the ministers who are bound by collective responsibility. I as a member am free to say when I disagree. As is everyone else. I’ll admit there are times when I seriously question why we went into coalition. Then I remember back to May, I remember the maths. I remember the state the Labour Party was in. I remember the up & downs. Most of all, I remember Special Conference and I remember raising my hand to vote for the coalition deal. I did that knowing full well what we, as a party were getting into, what the risks were and what it meant. Everyone there pragmatically knew we weren’t getting everything, but equally everyone there broadly endorsed the coalition document, with of course exceptions. And ultimately, that deal has lead to and will lead to the implementation of more Liberal ideas in government than we’ve seen for more than 90 years.

And to those of you who harp on about us selling out our principles for ministerial cars, I ask you this? The party almost unanimously endorsed the coalition deal as well. I’ve not got a ministerial car. And to those of you who say we should have stayed in opposition, that’s lovely. But I didn’t join a pressure group. I joined a political party and in with any political party the ultimate goal is to attain power, so that you can implement policy, ideas & principles. That’s why political parties exist. That’s the only way they can change anything. If you don’t want that, then perhaps a political party isn’t the place for you.

At the end of the day, we can all realise that the coalition isn’t perfect. But it’s the best government that both Britain and Liberal Democrat supporters can get from the Parliament we have. Over the longer term, I sincerely hope that the coalition government is a success. Even if it’s not perfect.

-Greg Foster

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The Government Dilemma

Last night, there was much angst on Twitter about Jeremy Browne’s performance on Question Time. We were at points faced with the farcical situation where Jeremy was blocked into defending the government position, when all others were against it and indeed against the party line. Especially on the issue of control orders. Frankly, I feel sorry for him. It wasn’t a position that I’d have liked to be put in and it wasn’t an easy position for him to fight back from.

But here’s the dilemma. Liberal Democrat Ministers, no longer speak for the party. Even when they’re on Question Time. By the same measure, neither do Conservative Ministers. So even though we may want them to defend the party to the hilt, it’s an improbable request at best. Under the requirements of the principle of Collective Responsibility, Government Ministers must stick to the government line, or they must resign.

It’s a simple concept and one that has held the Executive Branch of our government together through the toughest of situations. That decisions are taken together and if you can’t stomach them, you resign. And when in public, you join your colleagues in backing them & arguing for them, even if you personally are against it.

The purpose of the principle is essentially that  if a vote of no confidence is passed in parliament, the government is responsible collectively, and thus the entire government resigns. It also ensures that the Government is able to act in a unified & co-ordinated manner to present a united front to both Parliament & the electorate.

Of course the protocol has never come under quite such a strain as it has done over the last six months and will do over the next 4 and a half years, there are serious policy & ideological schisms within the Cabinet and between ministers and indeed, this is why this principle is even more important than ever. The only way for the government to function, is as a unit. If we allow every disagreement & alternative policy to be aired freely, not only will government grind to a halt in a whirlwind of backstabbing & empire building, but likely the coalition will fall apart.

What we do need to do a better job of though, as a party and a government is explain why Ministers now seem to be backing policies they publically derided before the election. We need to explain to the electorate that Ministers have to back every decision of the government, regardless of their personal & party views.

Lastly, we need to be doing a much better job of fighting back and defining our identity within the coalition, because quite frankly, both the party and the government are taking too much flak from the press & the Labour Party and we’re taking it lying down. If we’re to get through the next four and a half years in good health, we need to start doing it fast too.

-Greg Foster

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21st of October – A Day in History

When I awoke this morning, turned on my laptop I looked at the date and my brain immediately went “Ah it’s Trafalgar Day”. Just before you think I’m being crazy nationalistic, Admiral Horatio Nelson is one of the people I’d personally consider to be a hero & someone I look up to, hence I’m often quite happy when Trafalgar Day comes around.

Then, shortly afterwards, I was reminded of another event on this day, for which I must give a hat tip to Mark Cole, who reminded me that today is the 44th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster. As an Englishman, who went to school and for the first 18 years of my life, I’d occasionally heard of the Aberfan disaster, usually when it made it onto the national news.

This then spurred me to investigate more about what happened that day and for those of you who like me, don’t (or didn’t) know much about it, I definitely recommend a read of Mark’s blogpost. It’s a sobering, sad tale.

Looking at both of these events, we see a stark contrast, from the triumphal, innovative and hard fought victory which cost Lord Nelson & around 15,000 British, French & Spanish sailors & marines their lives and ended any hope for Napoleon of invading Great Britain. Placing this in perspective with the terrible disaster that was Aberfan, which was brought on by, as the Davies report at the time put it:

“the Aberfan Disaster is a terrifying tale of bungling ineptitude by many men charged with tasks for which they were totally unfitted, of failure to heed clear warnings, and of total lack of direction from above. Not villains but decent men, led astray by foolishness or by ignorance or by both in combination”

Two very striking stories. And incase you were wondering, yes many other things have occurred on the 21st of October, including:

  • 1512 – Martin Luther joins the University of Wittenberg’s Theology faculty.
  • 1600 – Tokugawa Ieysau wins the Battle of Sekigahara, leading to the foundation of the Tokugawa Shoganate, which will rule Japan until 1867.
  • 1774 – Colonists at Taunton Massachusets raise a flag bearing the word Liberty in defiance of British rule.
  • 1824 – Joseph Aspdin patents “Portland Cement”
  • 1854 – Florence Nightingale & 38 nurses leave for the Crimea.
  • 1867 – Medicine Lodge Treatyis signed by southern Great Plains Indian leaders. The treaty requires Native American Plains tribes to relocate a reservation in western Oklahoma.
  • 1921 – President Warren G. Harding delivers the first speech by a sitting President against lynching in the deep south.
  • 1944 – The first kamikaze attack: A Japanese plane carrying a 200 kilograms (440 lb) bomb attacks HMAS Australia off Leyte Island, as the Battle of Leyte Gulf began.
  • 1945 – Women’s suffrage: Women are allowed to vote in France for the first time.
  • 1963 – Józef Franczak the “the last Polish anti-communist resistance fighter (or “cursed soldier) is ambushed & killed by government forces.
  • 1967 – More than 100,000 war protesters gather in Washington, D.C.. A peaceful rally at the Lincoln Memorial is followed by a march to The Pentagon, during which clashes ensue.
  • 1979 – Moshe Dayan resigns from the Israeli government because of disagreements with PM Menachem Begin over policy towards the Arabs.
  • 1987 – Jaffna hospital massacre is carried out by Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka killing 70 ethnic Tamilpatients, doctors and nurses.
  • 1994 – North Korea and the United States sign an agreement that requires North Korea to stop its nuclear weapons program and agree to inspections.

Take from that list what you will, but it’s a very interesting mix of events, that will hopefully make you think….

-Greg Foster

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Higher Tuition Fees – The Maths

Putting aside for a moment, the arguments for and against the various forms, hybrids & systems that are currently being thrown about the Tuition Fees debate, how will the maths of the issue actually break down in Parliament should a rise in Tuition Fees come to a vote?

Firstly, let us consider if only English MPs were to vote on the issue of Tuition Fees, which is an unwise position for all concerned based on reasons I’ll delve farther into later on in this article. But firstly, the tally as it stands in England:

Con: 297
Lab: 193
LD: 44
Green: 1
Speaker/Deputies: 4

This maths, essentially hands the Tories a free reign to do whatever they like. Should only English MPs vote on the issue. Even if every Lib Dem MP, even government ministers were to rebel, the noes would still be 59 votes short of victory. Now, I have issues with the idea that only English MPs would vote on this issue, because as we know many Lib Dem rebels will come from Scotland & Wales and the Labour Party will likely be whipped into voting against under their new leader. The Nationalists will also probably vote against, although as it is an English only issue, there’s no guarantee of that. It’s not like the LibDems or Labour could offer them anything to vote against, so we’d be relying on them standing up for English students. Although perhaps, if only to try & stave off pressures to raise fees in England and Wales, they may join us.

The next scenario is much more plausible, wherein the two major parties whip their national parties into voting either way and the Lib Dems across the country rebel (based on NUS’s information, at least 30 rebellions are expected at present) also joining these are the Northern Ireland allies of the Labour Party & Liberal Democrats, but none of the Nationalists and “non-aligned” Irish parties get involved (with obviously, Sinn Fein abstaining).

Con: 306
Lab(+SDLP): 261
Lib(+Alliance): 31
Green: 1
Speaker/Deputies: 4

Using this scenario & the information provided to the Independent, which is the most information  I have access to at the present moment as to voting intention, I’m able to build this picture, given that Cabinet Ministers & PPS’s will probably follow the coalition agreement and abstain, that takes 18 Lib Dem MPs out of the running. Discounting the Nationalists, Other Irish Parties (and independents) & the Speaker & Deputies (Because they don’t vote), 45 MPs in total, who under this scenario would abstain, there are then 604 in play.

This puts the vote at 302 For (with 4 Tory MPs defecting) and 297 against. But this scenario still leaves 9 Lib Dem MPs unaccounted for. If five or more of these join the against Lobby, a tuition fee rise would be defeated. If four or less of these were not to cross the floor, then we’d have a Tuition Fee Rise.

My third scenario, posits that all those MPs in Parliament who are opposed to a tuition fee rise were to vote against it, but with Lib Dem MPs & PPS’s still abstaining. This would put the Nationalists (9 MPs) in the Against column, as well as the DUP (whose party policy is at least nominally against fees) (8 MPs). For the purpose of this scenario we’re placing Sinn Fein, the Speaker/Deputies & the Independent (Sylvia Hermon, because I don’t know where she stands on the issue) in the Abstain column along with the Lib Dems in Government. I shan’t recount the numbers again, but that would essentially add another 17 MPs to the against column, with 28 outside of consideration, putting 622 MPs into play. Again, as with before, the For column is filled with 302 MPs, this time however, the Against column, being bolstered by 17 MPs from other parties placing them on 314 MPs, effectively defeating the motion.

The final scenario is that of either the DUP or Nationalists being tempted to the For column in return for some level of benefit, what that would entail would depend on the offer, but if either the DUP of the Nationalists were to be drawn away, the vote would be lost, by between 4-6 votes. This could however, be made up by the 9 unaccounted for Lib Dem MPs if sufficient of them could swing the vote back in their favour.

To conclude, should a rise in Tuition Fees come to Parliament the vote on it will literally be on a knife’s edge. If just a handful of MPs decide not to rebel, or just not to vote, or if a handful are tempted to vote for for some goodies, the vote could be lost. This reality does however make me more confident that Vince Cable and his team at BIS will find an alternative solution to raising Tuition Fees, a very dangerous decision which could lead to an exceptionally embarrassing defeat for the Coalition. This much is certain however. It’s going to be a proper West Wing style drama over the period until any vote on student funding is brought to the House.

-Greg Foster

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