The Liberal Democrats are preparing to ditch their policy of abolishing tuition fees. Nick Clegg told the first day of the Lib Dem conference in Bournemouth that, while he opposes tuition fees, it is necessary to be “realistic”.
“But I can make this pledge — at the next election we will have the best, most progressive package for students of any mainstream party.”
Given that both the Labour government and the Tories are committed to a deregulated system of fees in higher education, that is not claiming very much!
Many students are attracted to the Lib Dems; in a number of cities, Cardiff, Cambridge and Sheffield, for instance, they have provided the party with its margins of victory. The reason is a more general disillusionment with Labour and the Tories, and the appeal of the Lib Dems’ marginally more enlightened policies on issue like asylum and civil liberties. The question of fees has also played a role.
Now the Lib Dems are preparing to drop the policy, as part of their call, keeping up with the Tories and Labour, for “savage cuts” in public spending.
In fact, the Liberal Democrats have never backed “free education” — at various points they have proposed some variant of a graduate tax — and they have never supported a universal, living student grant.
In any case, there is a more general problem with the Lib Dems — they have always been a right-wing, capitalist party.
As part of the “savage cuts”, their leadership is also advocating a freeze on public sector workers’ pay, slashing public sector pensions, and means-testing child benefit. They advocate stronger anti-union laws, including powers for the government to ban strikes “against the national interest”.
The record of Lib Dem councils across the country is exemplified by Leeds, where the Lib Dem-led coalition privatised the city airport and is currently seeking to push through cuts of up to a third in refuse workers’ pay.
Even in today’s heavily bureaucratised, right-wing Labour Party, there is still trade union and some left-wing support for free education. MPs like John McDonnell have a left-wing position on this and many other issues, from taxing the rich to trade union rights.
No such political layer exists in the Lib Dems. The standard bearer of the party’s “left”, Simon Hughes, boasted during the London mayoral election that if elected he would “sort out” the Tube union, the RMT.
No wonder David Cameron says that there is, on policy, only a cigarette paper between the two parties.
We have always and will continue to warn students against giving any support to or having any trust in capitalist parties like the Lib Dems. Only the labour movement can be a reliable ally in our struggle for free education.