The results are in, the votes have been counted, and nobody is really surprised that the motion has been carried. Yesterday the coalition government’s plans to raise university fees in England to a threshold of £6000 with a maximum of £9000 were narrowly approved by 21 votes in the House of Commons. The real question of the day is whether the Liberal Democrats as a political party will survive. They have won the vote, but at what cost?
The figures show that a whopping 21 Liberal Democrats voted against the motion, showing a huge split within the party as leader Nick Clegg failed to convince a majority of his MPs to support his own policy. (8 Lib Dem MPs abstained or were absent and 27 voted in favour). This rebellion even spread to the Conservative party, where 8 MPs abstained or voted against, whilst the strength of feeling was made clear by several resignations from both parties on the grounds of the rise in tuition fees.
While thousands of pupils rioted and raged outside at the injustice of the enormous debts to be foisted upon young graduates, a 5 hour-long debate within the House revealed the true extent of the rift between members of the coalition government and between the party factions of the Liberal Democrats.
In perhaps the most telling turn of all, Liberal Democrat party deputy leader Simon Hughes has spoken passionately against the policy, citing his fears that such a “level of fee increase… may have a significant disincentive effect on youngsters going to university” and choosing to astain in the vote. That Nick Clegg’s very own deputy leader should come out against him in such plain terms must be a great blow indeed as the rest of the party seems to have scattered like headless chickens, uncertain of which way to turn. From Vince Cable’s fumbled suggestion of abstention quickly followed by assurances that he would be voting in favour, to Transport Minister Norman Baker’s public consideration of quitting the party over the issue, to the open petition sent to Clegg with hundreds of signatures, begging him to return to party policy, the Liberal Democrats are the very image of a political party in utter disarray.
Labour leader Ed Miliband was quick to seize upon public disenchantment with the party yesterday, as he declared it “a bad day for families and young people up and down the country”. Agree or disagree with the actual policy, few can argue with his assertion that it was “a bad day for democracy as well, because it doesn’t just damage trust in the Liberal Democrats that they broke their promises, frankly it damages trust in politics as a whole.”
The question torturing Liberal Democrats must surely be whether, just as they have finally broken into power after years in the political wilderness, this blow will have damaged their reputation irreparably. Certainly the future looks rather bleak, with the student protesters and public opinion branding them liars and breakers of promises and politicians beginning to see them as weak scapegoats who were bent to the will of the Conservatives at the cost of abandoning their most cherished and fundamental party policy. To be both hated and laughed at simultaneously is a very high political price to pay.
If they are to survive this and continue on as a political party there is a very real chance that a huge change will have to take place in order to restore public confidence and present a new face of the party. One cannot help wondering whether deputy leader Simon Hughes, who kept his promise in abstention and spoke so passionately against the policy, might be cleverly poised ready to do just that.