I am on record as saying that once upon a time, not so long ago, I had political ambitions. I was one of those strange people who actually desired to sit in the House of Commons in order to try make our country, and the world, a better place. Yesterday was the first time I actually felt glad I didn’t make it. Because, as also previously mentioned, I am a LibDem, and sitting as a LibDem MP yesterday would have been excruciatingly difficult. But then, no-one ever said being an MP was easy (well, actually, lots of people do seem to say it, but my experience tells me that they’re wrong – or at least that being a good MP is not easy, maybe there are those who find it easy but I’d argue they’re not doing it well!) If I had been an MP I would have agonised, I think, over whether to abstain (I believe in coalition government, the Coalition Agreement allowed for LibDems to abstain, and I also believe that the current philosophy of education present in government, and amongst many in society, does legitimately allow for fees) or whether to break the whip and vote ‘No’ (I could not, in all conscience, as someone who campaigned against fees when Labour first introduced them, have voted ‘Yes’). I hope and pray I would have had the strength to vote rather than abstain – just as 21 LibDem and 6 Tory MPs did (including my MP here in Cambridge, Dr Julian Huppert).
The reason I hope I would have voted ‘No’, the reason I disagree with fees, is summed up in one simple point – the proposal was introduced in the House by the Rt. Hon. Dr. Vince Cable MP, Secretary of State for
Education Business! (You see what I did there?) Yes, that’s right, a proposal regarding a change of education policy in this country was introduced by the Business Secretary. Universities are places of education and policy relating to them therefore belongs within the remit of the Department for Education – if the plans were to be brought then they should have been brought by Michael Gove and not Vince. Yet, of course, discussions regarding education, or certainly political discussions regarding education, all seem to operate within a thought-stream that thinks of HE not as a place of education but of economic development and support, and so universities are expected to operate like businesses and not institutions of education. Therefore they have customers, not students, and those customers are expected to pay (whether up-front or on credit, they are expected to pay). Don’t get me wrong, I used to work in educational customer service teams, and there are things education, and the whole public-sector, can learn from successful business, but those things don’t include basic philosophy of education or funding models. And so it was that the Secretary of Business introduced the plans.
That said, had it been the Gove and not Cable introducing them, I would still hope I would have voted ‘No’. Because while fees are a logical outcome of a philosophy of HE such as the economic one mentioned above, I do not believe such a philosophy is appropriate. Education, all education, is not about economic success, of the individual or the society, but about something much greater than that. It’s about helping people become the best person they can be, about helping people be a useful and worthwhile member of society, about showing people the world and helping them work out how to make sense of it. One of the arguments thrown at students is that they are lazy layabouts, who spend little time in lectures when they are at university. Well, firstly, as someone currently studying at Cambridge I can assure you that I’m not sitting around doing nothing – my diary is as rammed full as it used to be when I was working in a full-time job (or at least it is during term-time). Secondly, education doesn’t just happen in lectures, education happens outside of the lecture hall too. It happens in the conversations, in the meetings, in the social interactions, in (indeed) everything that goes on around and about one’s life as a student. If you want a good second-class degree by all means go to lectures, make copious notes, cram them, and learn to answer the question. But if you want a First you need to do something more – you need to quickly work out that the stuff you do outside of class is relevant to what you write in your essays and exams, and you need to work out how to question the question before you write an answer to it! Put it another way: yes, it looks from the outside like a student’s timetable can be quite empty (and that’s generalising, there are courses at some universities that require vast amounts of class time), but a student on a humanities degree who does no learning outside of their formal timetable will only succeed in being taught some further knowledge, not actually gain an education.
But enough of that aside, my point is simply that education should not be, is not, about simply putting yourself on the path to a better salary – there are plenty of people out there (Sir Richard Branson, Lord Sugar to name but a couple) who demonstrate that economic success is possible without a degree, and plenty of people who demonstrate that having a degree is no guarantee of a vast income (I’m one of them – when I complete my second bachelor degree, from Cambridge, I will earn less than the proposed re-payment level for students for the rest of my working life or until the Methodist Church collapses into non-existence, whichever comes first!) If education is about economic success then fees are a logical way of paying for it – I disagree with fees not because they’re the wrong mechanism for the right philosophy but because they are the right mechanism for the wrong philosophy! (And before those who voted Labour shout their agreement I would like to point out that it was a Labour administration who first moved universities from the Education to the Business department.)
That said, what do I think (being as I wasn’t one of them) of those MPs who did face the difficult decision yesterday? Well, the first thing to say is that I think they all made a mistake. No, not in joining the coalition – as mentioned, I believe in coalition governments and I believe that means working with people you wouldn’t choose as first preference, but now is not the time for those particular arguments. I believe they were wrong to sign the pledge that has got them into such difficulties in the first place – if I had been a candidate I wouldn’t have signed it, not because I agree with fees (as stated above, I don’t) but because I believe candidates should not make cast-iron guarantees over specific policies, only over guiding principles. MPs are elected to use their reason, intellect, conscience, and judgement when considering and voting on new laws. To do so they must take into account the current situation and to promise to vote a particular way before you know the situation faced when voting is, quite frankly, daft. I would have been honest with my constituents, I would have clearly demonstrated my philosophy on education and how I feel fees are anathema to such a philosophy but I would not have signed the pledge because things change, and MPs must be free to change their mind given a new situation that hadn’t been envisaged prior to the election. (I note with interest that Ed Miliband, sensibly in my opinion, has apparently refused to state that a future Labour government would reverse the decision.) Having made the pledge, I do think those who voted ‘Yes’ have done damage to the party and to politics in general. Those that abstained were understandable in their actions – as a party we believe in coalition, fees were one of those items in our manifesto we compromised on in order to get other policies into the agreement, yet the agreement also allowed all LibDem MPs to abstain and therefore not make a complete u-turn (although I accept this is not good enough for many people), therefore those who abstained kept within the coalition agreement without voting for something they didn’t agree with. Those who voted ‘No’ will be seen either as courageous heroes, or will be ignored in the general stampede to bash the LibDems – a course of action even Ed Miliband has cautioned against since taking on simply the LibDems on this and other policies will not do the left any favours come the election, when the LibDems may well be decimated but the Tories will remain up in the polls unless they too can be tarnished.
Finally, I am left with the decision of what to do myself with the Membership Card that currently sits in my wallet, especially since my annual membership runs out at the end of this month and I need to decide whether to renew. This vote, this policy, since it has been supported by half the parliamentary party, is clearly a significant factor – unlike many I don’t begrudge the LibDem MPs who voted ‘Yes’ their right to change their mind and vote that way (though, as mentioned, I believe doing so is damaging and wrong – people often disagree on issues within a democracy) but I do feel like it is allowing us to be moved into an area of policy where we could have maintained a distinctive voice, and I really do disagree with the idea of education as an economic tool. That said, I believe there are parts of this package yet to be voted on (yesterday was simply a vote on fees) that wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for LibDems in government – the removal of upfront fees for part-time students, the raising of the income level for pay-back, the monitoring of access on an annual rather than 5-year basis. I am genuinely glad that there are LibDems in government attempting, as best they can, to temper the worst ideological excesses of their Tory colleagues (whether they are being as successful at it as they could be is another matter). And I have to ask myself, where else could I go? I may not be a rabid anti-Tory (I have a former SU colleague who is a Tory backbencher, and I acknowledge Winston Churchill as one of my political heroes) but I’m certainly not one myself – I do not believe in total free-market economics, that the market will always do the right thing if given time, that the smaller government is the better. I am no socialist either (though Clement Atlee and John Smith are further political heroes, and I realise some might disagree with labeling them socialists anyway) – I do not believe that the state (being the tool of the people) should own the means of production, that the tax system (or at least the income tax system) should go beyond progressive and be punitive. I am not a Labourite either (though I have many wonderful friends who are members of a party that has done much good for this country) – here my difficulties are more personal: in the days after the election, and in recent days given the tuition fees vote, too much of what I have seen and heard from Labour people has been incredibly tribalist, of the ‘if you’re not with us you’re against us’ kind of thinking that I have great difficulty with – I prefer debate and measured disagreement, an openness to being wrong as well as an ability to argue why one is right, and too often for my liking the response from some Labourites (and I acknowledge not all are alike) has been, “You’re a LibDem, your party sided with the Tories, you clearly don’t understand, oh and by the way that makes you a [add name(s) here]”. And then there’s Phil Woolas – the justice system says he broke the law, yet large numbers of MPs seemed to want him kept in the party and derided their leadership for getting rid of him (eventually) – if the situation had been reversed and it was a LibDem I would have left the party if he hadn’t been chucked out! In England (I admit there are other options elsewhere in the UK) that leaves the Greens, and I have to say that too often their policies jar with me – I’ve seen Green literature in the past that has seemed too anti-Europe, too localist in attempting to tackle global issues – maybe they’ve changed, maybe I’ve mis-read them, but since I’ve never lived in an area with a major Green presence I’m afraid I don’t know (maybe I should do some research!).
I am pro-Europe (though I recognise entry into the Euro is a no-go currently, if ever), pro-immigration, pro-civil liberties, pro-progressive tax, pro-debate, pro-Proportional Representation, pro-education as education not economics, and pro-participation in politics (both inside and outside of political parties). Of all the parties it seems to me that the LibDems are still the party that best matches my political thinking. Can I bring myself to leave them after what is (relatively) a pretty long time – I have been an active supporter, voter, Member and party worker since I first developed an interest in politics in the mid-90s? I really don’t know. Just like the LibDem MPs did over the past days and weeks I will agonise over this decision – and it is right that I do so. Politics is important, and like so many important things it is neither easy nor is it always a case of black-and-white.
NB Feel free to comment, and to disagree, argue, tell me I’m wrong, but please keep it civilised – this is not the public domain but my blog and I will delete comments I feel are being deliberately spiteful, wounding, or are engaging in simple heckling rather than discourse – emotive arguing I can handle, verbal assault will not be accepted.