Breaking up is hard to do
On January 5th the Independent reported that the Liberal Democrats had hit an all time low in the polls of just 11%. Part of this is down to students falling out of love with the Lib Dems, just 15% continue to support them according to YouGov in November. As recently as last May this figure was 45% and ‘I agree with Nick’ was a slogan popular on campuses nationwide. Where did the love go?
Students fell in love with the Liberal Democrats over Iraq and stayed in love over the unaffordable promise that taxpayers continue to pay 60% of the cost of 50% of all British kids studying for three years. It was never a relationship with stable foundations.
For all the sound and fury at the time Iraq receded as an issue. This left the unaffordable promise.
The promise had been made in more carefree days when no one had to worry about how it would be paid for, the Liberal Democrats were never going to get elected so who cared? Not since Sonny serenaded Cher had lovers been so blasé about the bills.
Then the unthinkable happened. The Lib Dems actually did end up in government. Curiously, many of those who voted Lib Dem were upset at this outcome; it seemed they had voted Lib Dem to bring about a Labour government.
Faced with actual power the Lib Dems were forced to dump the unaffordable promise on fees and as the old folk song went the hottest love was the soonest cold. The sweet nothings of May had been replaced by angry chants of “Nick Clegg, shame on you, shame on you for turning blue”
But like any break up the blame isn’t all on one side. Students who voted for the Lib Dems on the strength of their pledge on tuition fees need to ask themselves a question; why was it that the only party willing to sign it was the party that had no expectation of actually being asked to deliver on it?
Both Labour and the Conservatives went into the last election with the possibility of forming a government. Both made some pretty wild pledges but even they ran a mile from the tuition fee pledge. The Lib Dems probably knew they couldn’t keep it but didn’t think they’d have to so persisted in the fantasy that the taxpayers pockets were bottomless. It’s often asked whether students would have voted Lib Dem if they hadn’t made their tuition fee promise. An equally pertinent question is would the Lib Dems had made the promise in the first place if they’d thought they’d have to honour it?
But surely that fact that no party with a realistic proposition of power was willing to make this promise should have set a few alarm bells ringing among the student leadership? Surely they should have asked why this was? They are clever people, that is why they believe the taxpayer should to continue fund their education. But they fell for a fantasy. If they chose Lib Dem fantasyland over the real world then shouldn’t they take a look at themselves and take some responsibility?
The death of the Liberal Democrats may well be the consequence of this most acrimonious break up since The Smiths. But so what? The Lib Dems have always offered an alternative, but not an alternative to the policies of Labour and the Conservative,s but an alternative to grim, real world politics where money doesn’t grow on trees. What’s left of the Lib Dems is moving on. The student leadership should too.
Printed in London Student, 17/01/11