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Liberal Democrats: the student debt trap PDF Print E-mail
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Wednesday, 01 December 2010 12:31

Let it be admitted that student finance is a thorny problem at any time, and especially when the coffers are empty. Concede, too, that the Labour party ? which was making mischief in the Commons yesterday ? itself double-dealt over fees while it was in power and has no clear alternative to the government\'s plans. Accept, finally, that graduates are less vulnerable than the frail and the impoverished who are suffering from other cuts. These are all truths that ought not to be buried, and yet the indignation of the students who took to the streets yesterday was nonetheless justified ? and not just because the coming fees hike is both big and ugly.

Before the election the big parties entered a conspiracy of silence on fees, while the Liberal Democrats promised their phased abolition, picking up university seats as a result. Students heard not a squeak about how the cost of studying would double. The process has been the antithesis of democratic debate, and as such damages the standing of all politicians, but the dangers for the Lib Dems stand out. Vince Cable recognises that his party is in an extraordinary mess that calls for an extraordinary response, although there is no guarantee that the messy solution he proposed yesterday will work. Despite being the secretary of state responsible for universities, he may refuse to go through the aye lobby this month to support his own department\'s crunch vote on raising fees.

It sounds like student politics, but Dr Cable is showing a sounder grasp of his party\'s predicament than some of his frontbench colleagues. One reportedly described the pledge not to raise fees as "a legitimate position for an opposition party to take", but not for "a party with responsibility". Such talk does not merely suggest the party is growing too comfortable with power; it undermines the party\'s ideal of a new straight-talking politics that this newspaper and many others found so attractive last spring.

Claims about the unexpectedly wretched state of the Treasury\'s books offer no credible escape: the Office for Budget Responsibility\'s forecasts this week only underline that Alistair Darling\'s pre-election forecasts were broadly accurate. The business secretary argues that detailed tweaks to fees and loans will be progressive in the technical sense of increasing the relative burden more on the rich than the poor, and although new analysis has queried this claim, it is backed by some solid research. This narrow notion of progressivity, however, is precisely the one that Nick Clegg rejected when the spending review as a whole failed the same test. It is also the gauge that Gordon Brown thought he could use to sell the budget that abolished 10p tax. Few Liberal Democrats will accept the verdict of a Treasury spreadsheet as a reason to renege on their word.

The only argument that might wash is that the Lib Dems have had to give up on some cherished policies in order to form the coalition with a Tory party that also had to slaughter some sacred cows. Dr Cable struggled to say that yesterday, as he scrambled to deter his colleagues from stepping into a procedural snare laid by Labour. His hope is that abstention may provide a means for the party\'s coalition ministers to hang together with its coalition sceptics. That would never suffice for the MPs who most fear a backlash for backsliding on their words, since the coalition\'s arithmetic makes mass abstention tantamount to acquiescence in the fee rise. The strategy might, however, provide the party with a way of muddling through, since it is consistent with the coalition agreement that members overwhelmingly endorsed. The difficulty is that Liberal Democrats have not been hearing a sufficiently distinctive message from their wing of the coalition, making such totems of identity as fees more important than ever. The leadership badly needs to learn how to sing in harmony, as opposed to in unison, within the coalition choir. Until it does, it will struggle to escape the student debt trap.

This ia a Guardian or Observer editorial column.

Courtesy to guardian.co.uk.

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