It’s been so long.
Do you remember this? On Wednesday 28th April 2010, Nick Clegg began a final push for students to vote for the LibDems.
“Labour and the Conservatives have been trying to keep tuition fees out of this election campaign.
“It’s because they don’t want to come clean with you about what they’re planning.
“Despite the huge financial strain fees already place on Britain’s young people, it is clear both Labour and the Conservatives want to lift the cap on fees.
“If fees rise to £7,000 a year, as many rumours suggest they would, within five years some students will be leaving university up to £44,000 in debt.
“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.
“The Liberal Democrats are different. Not only will we oppose any raising of the cap, we will scrap tuition fees for good, including for part-time students.
“We can’t do it overnight, but we can start straight away with students in their first year – that way means anyone at university this autumn will have their debt cut by at least £3,000.
“Students can make the difference in countless seats in this election.
“Use your vote to block those unfair tuition fees and get them scrapped once and for all.”
Within two weeks of Nick Clegg making this very public promise to get the student vote, the Liberal Democrats were in government, and their pledge was to
end tuition fees for final-year students immediately, with further exemptions introduced over a six-year period until fees were scrapped for all first degree undergraduates.
By November 2010, not six months after Nick Clegg’s urging students to vote LibDem to scrap tuition fees, tuition fees had been raised three-fold, by a majority of 21, winning because 27 LibDem MPs voted for the rise.
LibDem MPs have undoubtedly voted in worse policies since. But there can be no doubt: the tuition fee campaign was public, and the LibDem reversal for the price of a Cabinet seat was brazen. On 12th May 2010, the day after Cameron and Clegg shook hands in coalition, the NUS was urgently reminding the LibDems of their promise not merely abstain on tuition fees but to oppose any rise.
Even as late as September 2010, lookers-on thought the LibDems wouldn’t do it.
But they did.
I don’t doubt that the surviving LibDems will have plenty of time to think this through after 2015, but they should be clear: the electoral wipeout they are headed for in 2015 is entirely and exclusively self-made.
Rob Wilson reports that confidential Liberal Democrat papers prove by March 2010 the real LibDem policy was nothing like the whole-hearted opposition Nick Clegg was still campaigning on weeks later:
“On tuition fees we should seek agreement on part-time students and leave the rest. We will have clear yellow water with the other [parties] on raising the tuition fee cap, so let us not cause ourselves more headaches.”
What students and potential voters did not know is that months before the general election David Laws, Chris Huhne, Danny Alexander and Clegg had met in secret as part of their preparations and decided that the abolition of tuition fees was not a priority for the party. This senior group had for some time been taking seriously the likelihood of a hung parliament and were meticulous in their preparations. In making their plans, the Lib Dems knew with certainty they would not be in government alone.
And they assumed that they could get away with it – with a very public, very cynical act of treachery.
Last night on Twitter Tim Farron was trying to push what I presume to be the current LibDem spin on their 2010 campaign promises – that it’s “Labour’s fault” for instituting tuition fees themselves in 2001. True – in Scotland tuition fees were not instituted because in the first Scottish Parliament, every party except Labour were against tuition fees and Labour could not out-vote them.
But Labour’s treachery in 2001 over tuition fees can hardly excuse LibDems campaigning hard on one issue during the last pre-election days, but all the while intending to ditch that issue as soon as they got into power. Why would anyone think they could get away with that?
The current electoral calculus for the LibDems in May 2015 is 18 seats – they’re due to lose 38 MPs. Labour, despite being only the least-bad option, is likely to have a 14-seat majority – could be more depending how Ukip splits the right-wing vote. Of course if Yes gets the majority in September (seems unlikely, but if it did) and in March 2016 Scotland loses 59 MPs at Westminster, this too could change the balance of power. But it doesn’t look good for the LibDems otherwise…
The LibDems will never recover as a party until they accept that it’s not just Nick Clegg who’s to blame, it’s not the Farage-Clegg debate, it’s not even Lord Rennard, it’s their rotten legacy of betrayal and of voting lockstep for Tory policies since May 2010. Whatever they campaign on in the run-up to 2015, it doesn’t really matter anymore.