Clegg Tries to Head off Liberal Democrat Revolt on Tuition Fees

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg
U.K. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

U.K. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg will try to persuade his Liberal Democrat lawmakers this week to back a policy they oppose, seeking to assuage concerns that they’re the fall guys for unpopular measures by David Cameron’s Conservative-led coalition.

The House of Commons votes on Dec. 9 on plans to let universities charge students as much as 9,000 pounds ($14,000) a year for tuition, almost triple the current level. While it’s one of many measures being taken by the government to cut the record budget deficit, it goes directly against a pledge signed by Clegg and other Liberal Democrat lawmakers before elections in May to “vote against any increase in fees.”

The vote highlights the difficulties faced by the Liberal Democrats as they get used to being in government for the first time since 1945. Their lawmakers are having to walk a line between keeping pre-election commitments, satisfying party supporters they have not become adjuncts to Cameron’s Conservatives, and taking the tough decisions that come with sharing power. That’s hitting the party’s support.

“The Liberal Democrats have been forced to act as human shields for unpopular policies,” Andrew Russell, a lecturer in politics at the University of Manchester, said in a telephone interview. “They are now facing up to the fact that this is a Conservative government with some Liberal Democrat ministers.”

‘Mass Lobby’

A YouGov Plc poll for the Sunday Times newspaper conducted Dec. 3-5 showed support for the Liberal Democrats at 10 percent. The party took 23 percent of the vote in the May 6 elections.

Students opposed to the increase in fees plan a day of marches and demonstrations tomorrow followed by a “mass lobby” of lawmakers on Dec. 9. Previous marches turned violent. On Nov. 10, activists among 50,000 protesters broke windows at the 27-story complex in central London that houses the headquarters of the Conservative Party and burned effigies of Cameron and Clegg.

“The reality is many more students from poorer backgrounds will simply choose not to go into higher education,” John Leech, a Liberal Democrat who represents a Manchester district with a large student population and who intends to oppose the increase, said in a statement. “Inevitably those from poorer backgrounds will be put off from going to university.”

Liberal Democrat lawmakers meet in London tonight and again tomorrow to discuss how to vote.

“The government will win on Thursday, but it is almost certainly going to be a three-way split within the Liberal Democrats, with ministers voting in favor and others abstaining or voting against,” said Philip Cowley, professor of politics at Nottingham University and an expert on parliamentary revolts.

The Conservatives have 305 lawmakers in the House of Commons, while there are 57 Liberal Democrats. The 253-stong main opposition Labour Party has instructed its lawmakers to vote against the planned rise.

Duty to Vote

The changes to university funding are being overseen by Business Secretary Vince Cable, a Liberal Democrat. After first suggesting he might abstain on the plans, he told his local newspaper, the Richmond and Twickenham Times, last week he had a duty to vote for his own policy.

“I think this delicious difficulty that the party’s in over this issue is testament to the Tories’ cleverness in putting Cable in charge of pushing through a policy that was bound to cause them trouble,” Tim Bale, professor of politics at Sussex University, said in a telephone interview.

Russell said he predicts “trouble ahead if the Lib Dems don’t have any impact on policy in future,” citing the speeding-up of public-spending cuts by the Conservative chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, as one area where the Liberal Democrats have already made concessions.

According to Cowley, though, the vote will not have a direct impact on the stability of the coalition government, even if there is short-term damage to the Liberal Democrats.

‘Can’t Pull Out’

“Events such as these actually make the coalition more stable,” he said. “Because the Liberal Democrats have taken a hit, they can’t pull out of the coalition early before the election planned for 2015.”

Still, Clegg may benefit from looking decisive, Cowley said. “The decision to vote this way may be right, it may be wrong, but it is a brave decision nonetheless.”

About a dozen Liberal Democrat lawmakers have said they plan to vote against the plan, though numbers may alter depending on Clegg’s success at the meeting tonight. The government gave him some ammunition to tempt waverers on Dec. 5 when it said it will pay the fees of the poorest students.

For individual lawmakers, taking a stand against the government may not prove beneficial in the long run, Bale said.

“Those Liberal Democrats who think a vote against or even an abstention is going to make much difference to how they’re regarded by their constituents at the next election are indulging in wishful thinking,” he said. “There’s very little evidence to suggest that taking a stand against one’s own government earns you brownie points with voters, most of whom aren’t paying attention now and won’t remember what you did in a few years’ time.”

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