Oh look, it’s another National Union of Students general election campaign. As someone who was involved in, then worked in student politics and student unions for most of the 90s, it’s somewhat of a surprise that NUS are carrying on with this, given the lack of success they had in the past. Of course, most of them wouldn’t have been born when NUS tried the ‘Target 70’ campaign in the 1992 election, highlighting the constituencies where the student vote could swing the result. It was a great campaign, if you forget the fact that election occurred when students were on vacation, and the backlash from the re-elected Tory government almost destroyed student unions as a whole. There have been others since, but its worth pointing out that spending a lot of time getting politicians to make pledges and not much on making sure students actually voted in 2010 helped create the situation we had today.

My favourite memory of the odd way in which NUS campaigns comes from 1999. The first Scottish Parliament elections had just occurred, and Labour and the Liberal Democrats were in coalition talks to form an administration. The Lib Dems had gone into that election promising to get rid of tuition fees in Scotland, while Labour were perfectly happened to keep them, because their government had just introduced them across the UK. NUS naturally sprang into action and asked student unions across the country to write, fax or email Jim Wallace (then leader of the Scottish Lib Dems) to tell him to ‘hold firm’. The whole campaign made almost no mention of the party he was negotiating with, and definitely didn’t ask anyone to contact them and ask them to give way. That would have involved NUS telling people the Labour Party might be in the wrong on something, and that would be unthinkable.

However, it is important to point out here NUS isn’t a union the way most people (including some in the media who should know better) understand it. Individual students aren’t members of NUS – instead, its membership is the various student unions at FE and HE institutions across the country. The individual unions (and guilds and associations and committees and JCRs and whatever else) all exist independently of NUS and aren’t local branches of it. NUS is basically a membership organisation allowing its individual members to benefit from the economies of scale can bring. I don’t know if it’s still the case, but it used to be that you could only be part of NUS Services Ltd (NUSSL) – the body that negotiated cheap beer deals for student bars, amongst other things – if you were a member of NUS. The same goes for welfare, legal, training, research etc services provided by NUS – by pooling together to provide specialist areas of support, NUS means individual unions can do a much better job at representing and helping their members (who are individual students).

However, access to all of that also involves being part of the political and campaigning part of NUS (and to be fair, there are several areas where NUS single issue campaigning and lobbying has worked) which is one of the oddest political arenas I’ve ever encountered. I know there have been some changes to the way NUS works, but the principal decision-making body is still NUS Conference, at which each individual union is elected by a number of delegates chosen at election by its members. The one thing Labour Students has always been good at as an organisation is getting its members elected as NUS conference delegates (even if in many cases people don’t realise they’re voting for a Labour Students candidate). When Conference comes around, Labour Students usually have a big enough bloc of delegates to pretty much ensure that whoever they want gets elected to the various important positions (though they normally let a couple of ‘independents’ get elected to some of the posts, just to make it look balanced) which means that NUS campaigns do their very best to not make Labour look bad, in return for which the senior members of Labour Students often get nice political careers afterwards.

That’s why the NUS leadership spent most of the 90s trying to push the organisation’s policy away from supporting free education, why Labour are never criticised for introducing and raising fees and why we were all being exhorted to contact Jim Wallace rather than Donald Dewar in 1999. But what it also means is that you shouldn’t tar all student organisations with the same brush. The NUS might be happy to do Labour’s dirty work for it, but that doesn’t apply to individual unions at institutions. They’re normally just doing the best they can for their members and are part of NUS because the benefits outweigh the costs, not because they’re trying to get themselves parachuted into a safe seat in a few years time.

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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.



Via Jonathan Calder, here’s a sentence that tells us so much about how modern politics works:

In particular, her decision not to rebel over the coalition decision to increase university tuition fees, despite building a political career on trying to get them scrapped, marked her out for promotion with the leadership of both parties.

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We are all bourgeois now

But one day I met a man
With money to spare
He said he would tell me how it is

The State he began
Has been propping up people to long
For far to long
We all got lazy and couldn’t be bothered
To make our way through the world

But we are all bourgeois now
Once there was class war
But not any longer
Because baby we are all bourgeois now
So go out and make your way in the world
We’re free to choose
We’re all free to choose
We’re all free to choose
We’re free to choose

In Booming Britain we all work together
To raise ourselves in the world
Each of us knows someone
Who has done well for themselves
So well for themselves
“Thank you,” I said as I left
I’ll be on my way, I see how it is

When there’s nothing specific I want to listen to, I have a nice big Spotify playlist of various songs I like, so I’m sure it was entirely coincidence that the Manic Street Preachers’ version of this came up while I was reading this story:

Teenagers from the wealthiest families would be able to pay for extra places at the most competitive universities under government proposals that could allow institutions to charge some British students the same high fees as overseas undergraduates.

So, this is how it’s going to be, is it? The plebs get to fight over a diminishing number of places (which they’ll then have the privilege of saddling themselves with a lifetime of debt to pay for) while the rich get to sidestep the entire process, wave their chequebooks at an impoverished Registrar and walk straight in to the course of their choice. That, of course, will be after they’ve paid their way through an independent school or crammer to make sure they meet the entry requirements. (Assuming that the rules are tight enough to prevent entry requirements being defined as being in possession of a beating heart and a bulging chequebook)

I’m prepared to accept that this is the sort of idea that springs fully-formed from either of David Willetts’ brains, neither of which seem that connected to reality as experienced by most people, and that is where they should remain. Implementing a policy like this would be to throw any remaining notions that we have equal access to higher education out of the window, replacing them with a world that institutionalises and legalises the backhander and puts a price on opportunity that most can’t afford. It’s ‘EasyCouncil‘ writ large, where everything has a price tag and you get the services you can afford.

Vince Cable should have the power to kill this idea now – I’m going to be watching closely to make sure he does.

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Worth Reading 24: Still a better channel than ITV News

Yes, we still have links, even if we don’t have much other content:

The Battle for the No Campaign and a Prime Minister in Peril – Interesting WSJ piece on the AV referendum. I’d question some of the assumptions in it, but worth reading nonetheless.
Tuition Fees: Did The Coalition Get Its Sums Wrong? – Just in case you thought the whole tuition fees issue wasn’t a big enough debacle, here’s another complication.
The Beasts in the Arena – A free short story in the Romanitas universe from Sophia McDougall. Works as a good introduction to the series if you’ve not read them.
NUS President will not stand again – What I find most interesting about Free Radical’s thoughts on the NUS is that I heard most of them twenty years ago when I was involved in student politics. I’m not sure that NUS has ever been properly representative, or has ever had a strong idea of what it’s for. (via)
David Cameron: Gun Slut – Justin McKeating on what David Cameron’s doing after talking up democracy in Cairo: selling weapons to dictatorships.

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Worth Reading 4: Great Justice!

Hello world! Here are things to interest you:

Beware those who sneer at ‘human rights imperialism’ – Comment is Free finally publishes a counter-argument to their worst article of 2010. Sohrab Ahmari makes some powerful points explaining just why universal rights are important.
Browne’s Gamble – Probably linked to and seen by a lot of you back in November, but I’ve only just discovered it. A rather depressing look at what the effects of the Browne Review will be on higher education.
The barren weeks, the amnesiac years – Excellent post by Phil Edwards at The Gaping Silence on some of the posturing going on around giving prisoners the right to vote.
Egypt’s Muslims attend Coptic Christmas Mass, serving as ‘human shields’ – When the world’s feeling pretty crappy, it’s always nice to have some good news of people doing decent things for each other
Tragedy in Tucson (about five miles from my house) – One of Gabrielle Gifford’s constituents talks about her shooting and the social climate in Arizona.

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One of the advantages of the size of the Lib Dem blogosophere is that very often someone else will say just what you’ve been thinking, which saves you the trouble in having to write it all out yourself. So, thanks to Neil Fawcett for summing up my views of today’s fees vote:

For me the lead up to this vote, and the implications for the party I have campaigned for for 23 years, are profoundly depressing.

I do accept that in a coalition we will have to make compromises. We have 57 MPs in a House Commons where the two dominant political parties both believe that individual students should make a substantial contribution to the cost of their first degree. I understand and accept that.

But what I find depressing is the way in which our party leaders, Nick Clegg and Vince Cable in particular, appear to be more willing to argue that black is white rather than stand up for our party’s clear policy and the principles behind it.

As they still say (I believe) in blogging circles, read the rest.