It’s not the pledge, it’s the policy

As Jonathan Calder thought earlier, when you get an email from someone with the subject ‘There’s no easy way to say this’ you normally expect the body of it to include some form of ‘it’s not you, it’s me’.

However, the video this email from Nick Clegg linked to didn’t include that, but it was on the same lines, even if it didn’t end with him leaving. The problem I have with it is that all he actually apologises for is the pledge on tuition fees, not the policy itself. A lot of people are putting out the ‘but Labour never apologised for bringing in top-up fees after saying they wouldn’t in their manifesto’, but under the Clegg formulation, all they have to apologise for is putting it in their manifesto, not for the vote itself.

The bigger problem I see is that for years we’ve been telling people that Liberal Democrats care about education at all levels and see it as a public good that the Government should be spending money on. Right back to Paddy Ashdown talking about 1p on income tax for education and beyond, the party has consistently stood up for education. The pledge candidates signed wasn’t just some random electoral gimmick, it was something that had a long history in the party and had remained a core policy – voted for by Conference – despite the leadership trying to water it down or abandon it. We stuck with it – as well as committing the party to other high-profile educational policies like the Pupil Premium – because access to education for all is an important liberal principle.

Politicians are known for saying one thing and doing another, but the issue here is that education – and particularly higher education – was seen as a key Liberal Democrat issue, so a sudden volte face on that hurt the Liberal Democrats a lot more than changes on other issues might. This wasn’t the usual trading of policies and compromise that’s an inevitable part of coalition, but abandoning what the public – if not Clegg himself – saw as a fundamental part of what the Liberal Democrats were about. Saying that the pledge was the problem and claiming it wasn’t affordable, despite the party’s manifesto clearly showing that it was, is to try to turn this into a story of political process, when it should be one of political principle.

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