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That Guardian article and my ask of Tim Farron…

November 13th, 2010 Posted in Liberal Democrats by

Today’s Guardian has the most alarming headline…”Revealed: Secret documents show Liberal Democrats drew up plans to drop flagship student pledge before election”.

Hmmm. Whatever happened to standards over at the Guardian? The fact that the Liberals did a U-turn on tuition fees is not news. Welcome to the world of coalition politics…you stand firm on some stuff and have to give way on other stuff. And if we are being accurate, the Liberals drew up some contingency plans in the unlikely event of a hung parliament..but lets not let the facts stand in the way of a sexy headline.

Just for the record, had the Liberals managed, by some miracle, to be majority party, all the evidence points to the fact that they would have honoured the pledge to students  (having the option to scrap other areas of spend (eg Trident) to pay for it). Indeed the Guardian main story actually has a line buried in the article that states.. “The leaked document showed that during the preparations for a hung parliament the Lib Dems still intended to fulfil that commitment.” and  reiterates this point it in the Wintour and Watt piece   The Alexander document made clear the party was determined to maintain that pledge.”  

What this story reveals is the unexpected, and highly impressive, foresight of the leadership. They recognised that, in the unlikely event of a hung parliament they would need to negotiate, stand firm on some issues (eg electoral reform) and be prepared to give ground on others. And so they dedicated valuable election-strategy time to plan for that unlikely scenario- a hung parliament. Come the day, they had a well crafted plan (and thank goodness they did, given the furore that surrounded those few days of post election negotiations) . As for deciding that tuition fees would be one of those areas where they would give ground, well why be surprised they gave way? Given the Tory party and Labour party commitment to tuition fees we would very likely have seen coalition negotiations go on for weeks had the party chosen to draw the line in the sand on this particular issue. 

And to be honest u-turns in tuition fees is hardly new (witness the Labout party u-turn when it was the majority government). It seems a little rich to then condemn the Liberals for doing something similar in a coalition.

So,the story is not “Lib Dems planned to drop student pledge” they didn’t. Nor is it “Lib Dems do u-turn on tuition fees” thats not news..It’s not even “Lib Dems  show mature approach to politics shock” ..well that’s a bit more of a story to be honest.

So what is the story if indeed there is one?

To my mind the story is “Lib Dems must grow up fast” .

But given that the leadership show every sign of having done that, what else should be done?  Well (and here I address our new president directly)..for a start we must now change the undemocratic and frankly ludicrous system of allowing a few hundred activists at conference to determine Lib Dem policy – regardless of what the leadership want or believe – or wider party membership views . Firstly it makes the job of leader of the Lib Dems an almost impossible task  – constantly second guessing “what conference wants” and engaging in compromise and deal-making behind the scenes to shape the policies he wants. It is a handicap too far. Secondly, this out-dated policy making process is absurd. How can the Liberals argue so vociferously to the nation for AV because it s a fairer more democratic system than FPTP, I wonder, yet exclude 90% of their own members from having a vote in the formation of Liberal policy?

It’s time to modernise. Give Nick the power to put forward his proposed policies to the membership- and invite the whole of  the membership to take a vote on them. A modern system would not prohibit conference discussion ahead of the wider membership vote. It would not prevent other points of view being put to the membership. But it would give the party – and especially those facing Paxman et al on a daily basis – clarity.

As an ordinary party member, the idea that you have to suffer the vagaries of the local party system, curry favour with the local chairmen and their cohorts, deliver x number of focus leaflets and generally making sure “your face fits”  just to get a “conference voting pass”  (which you must have to have a vote on policy) is just plain mad. Is this an old boys network or a viable political party?

In case our President has not managed to meet the many thousands of members who don’t have a right to vote at conference, he should know that many (though certainly by no means all) local party hierachies hand these passes out like treats – and usually to those of like-minded views. Over time this has meant that conference voting views have fallen out of kilter with the wider Lib Dem member  (who largely take their cue on what they see, hear read from the likes of Clegg, Cable Huhne etc on TV, radio and newspapers). We have a blockage in the system between the face of the Liberal Party (the MPs) and its members. And that blockage is conference.

Maybe that did not matter when we were the permanent third party with no hope of actually implementing our policies. But times have changed. And so must we. We need a more realistic, modern and (because we love this word) “fairer” way of making policy. One that engages the wider party and unfetters Nick from back room deals with his own party to avoid humiliating defeats from the peculiar conference collective.

Untie the hands of Nick and we would not see him feeling the need to engage in silly unsustainable election stunts. The reason why the Guardian story has any legs at all is because off the over-the-top pledge made by the MP’s on tuition fees. And why was that stunt undertaken?..because of deals made with certain people around certain conference votes.  Plain and simple.

More generally allow the whole party to be involved in the decision making process and you may well find more people becoming engaged and get better policy as a result. And by the way, if we can democratise our own party and may be we stand a chance of convincing the electorate that our stand on AV is a principled one. 

It’s not the only change we need. But it would be a start.

14 Responses to “That Guardian article and my ask of Tim Farron…”

  1. Simon Grover Says:

    You seem to be entirely (deliberately?) missing the point of the story. A story which is quite understandably upsetting huge numbers of people who voted for/worked for/stuck up for/had hope in the Lib Dems earlier this year.

    The point is that the leadership were making serious plans for how they might drop the key pledge on tuition fees, whilst at the same time stating categorically that they wouldn’t do so.

    This issue was not like other “policies”, which of course might be watered down once in coalition, or even once faced with the realities of power. This was a pledge to vote against a rise in fees. Plain and simple. Policies aren’t promises. Pledges are.

    I gave up on the Lib Dems years ago, and joined the Greens. At least they’ve got some principles. I suspect others will be doing the same.

  2. Dave Page Says:

    Depressing that your description is wrong there. To become a local party voting rep, you have to be elected at the AGM of your local party. There’s no “currying favour” about it, just democracy. Some local parties ballot all their members for contested elections; others simply ballot those in attendance at the AGM, to which all local members should be invited.

    There are problems with the system as it stands, and at least you’re not advocating one-member-one-vote at conference which would introduce clear geographical and financial biases… but let’s not go inventing problems where they don’t exist, eh?

  3. Angela Harbutt Says:

    Simon I have not missed the point. The leadership was NOT making plans to drop a pledge – they had every intention of honouring that pledge. Even the Guardian accepts this point.

    They were also making plans about what to do in the event of a hung parliament. Some Tory policies and some Lib Dem policies had to be dropped to reach a compromise.

  4. Angela Harbutt Says:

    Dave ..

    My description is not wrong on how you get to be a voting rep. Yes you should have to be elected and yes that is often a vote at the local party AGM..But many local AGMs are small and as a result a stitch up – mates deciding amongst themselves who gets a pass and who doesn’t. The idea of electing “local reps” works fine in theory but it just doesnt work in practice in too many areas. If you have not seen this for yourself you have been very lucky indeed.

    As for “inventing problems where they dont exist”… i think it is you who are on the wrong track here… it might be a bit of “shutting the gate after the horse has bolted”..maybe even “stating the bleeding obvious”.. but it is a real issue and does need addressing if we are to avoid such easily avoidable embarrassments in the future and, more importantly, build a coherent narrative for the future.

  5. Niklas Smith Says:

    @Dave Page: Apparently the Scottish Lib Dems have adopted one-member-one-vote at (Scottish) Conference. They clearly feel that it’s preferable to the current system (though I can see an obvious objection that it would be favourable to people who live near the Conference venue since they could all turn up if they were willing to pay the registration fee).

  6. Simon Grover Says:

    Angela you are again missing my point, that a policy is entirely different from a pledge. One can be up for compromise, the other cannot. Or should not!

  7. Angela Harbutt Says:

    Simon… manifesto promises are a load of crap and we should ignore them and only listen to pledges? Are you a lawyer? What is the difference between a promise and a pledge?

  8. Simon Grover Says:

    Angela, there is no difference between a promise and a pledge – see dictionary. The point about ‘policies’ is it is a reasonable defence by the Lib Dems to say the coalition obliges them to negotiate on policies. But that is not true for a pledge. Again, the central problem here is: how can someone give a solemn, public promise to do something, whist at the same time make plans that include the possibility of breaking that promise? The reason people are so furious is that not only did they break their promise, they forsaw *while they were making it* that they might do so.

  9. Angela Harbutt Says:

    So Simon..

    You confuse me. You agree that there is no difference between a PROMISE and a PLEDGE.. put the word MANIFESTO in front of both those words – manifesto promise and manifesto pledge – no difference.. really there isnt.

    So how is it that you believe it is reasonable for the Liberals to negotiate (and yield in some areas inevitably) on manifesto PROMISES, yet not OK to negotiate on (and yield in some areas) on manifesto PLEDGES.

    Can I remind you that throughout the general election the lib dems made it VERY clear that the four main themes of the manifesto were fair taxes, more chances for children, a fairer and greener economy, and cleaning up politics. Nick also made it VERY clear EVERY SINGLE TIME that he was asked about possible discussions with other parties – that he would be guided by those Four principles. No “special mention” of tuition fees anywhere.

    That you did not listen to all those dozens and dozens of interviews is hardly the Liberals fault – every one else in the country seemed to be very clear – to the point of being bored by it – that any discussions with any other party would be based around those four principles…. I am not sure how much clearer they could have been.

    Your anger therefore appears to be around the reasonable activity of planning their negotiation strategy during the election. That really isnt a robust criticism how ever angry you are. x

  10. Simon Grover Says:


    I’m not angry, but a hell of a lot of Lib Dems are. I’m not a Lib Dem. If Clegg oversees the collapse of the party’s immediate electoral fortunes that’s fine by me. I’m surprised to find a few LD bloggers like you about defending this fiasco when the vast majority of comments I’ve seen by LDs are so virulent.

    The pledge I’m talking about is not the manifesto policy, it’s the stand-alone NUS pledge that Clegg, Cable and all the top Lib Dems signed and waved in front of students as their commitment to oppose fee rises.

    It said, as I’m sure you know: “I pledge to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative”.

    I’ll try one last time to spell out that this kind of stand-alone promise, which every Lib Dem in parliament, including the leadership, is free to stick to, is completely different from a manifesto of policies that a party would seek to enact IF they were in (exclusive) power. The reason for the anger is a. the leadership moving towards supporting raised fees, and b. the revelation that they considered the pledge conditional, whereas everyone else took it for what it seemed to be – a pledge.

    The Lib Dems set themselves out as “different”, but people are increasingly seeing them as “just the same”.

    Personally, I’m baffled as to why Nick Clegg finds it so necessary to do this massive U-turn on fees. You’ll recall he also said: “If fees rise to £7,000 a year … that would be a disaster. If we have learnt one thing from the economic crisis, it is that you can’t build a future on debt.” Weird.

    I won’t take up any more of your blogspace. Good luck!

  11. Angela Harbutt Says:

    Thanks for the contribution to the discussion. I think we both agree at least on the fact that the pledge on tuition fees was an error. Take care.

  12. Jon Says:

    I see nothing wrong in any political party looking at Manifesto pledges/commitments/policies in the light of changed circumstances and wondering if they should be changed.

    I would accept that the possibility that being part of a coalition government would qualify as changed circumstances.

    Obviously different political parties might have different criteria as to how these changes would be endorsed by their party members or whether they would be a secret for an elite cabal.

    What seems strange is that after the decision to ditch most of the manifesto tuition fee commitment we then have the personal signing of the NUS tuition fee pledge by all prospective LibDem parly candidates without any hint of the policy/manifesto change.

    Did the pledgers know of the change or were they in the dark – that is a key question not just for party members but for students and voters.

    But things have moved on apace from the Guardian article and it now appears that there may have been contact going on at senior Libdem and Tory levels for quite some time prior to the GE to clear the decks for a coalition if no party ended up with a clear majority to form the government.

    The days ahead will be interesting and who know what information might emerge.

  13. Andrew Says:

    Jon You are wrong on this one

    Read the Guardian article.

    It says that the documents they have make it clear that the party was determined to maintain the tuition pledge.

    Dont be taken in by Guardian spin. It’s a non-story.

  14. Angela Harbutt Says:


    I don’t know if the Torys and Libs were in discussion ahead of the General Election. I would not be surprised…Blair reached out to Ashdown ahead of the 1997 election (then back tracked when he won a landslide).

    Personally I hope that there were some grown ups in the political parties working out what they might have to do in the event of a hung parliament. Better still if some of the ground had been cleared ahead of the election.

    Would you really have preferred NO preparation for the possibility and what…sat back end enjoyed the spectacle of lots of people running around like headless chickens – for weeks?