If you watch senior Lib Dems being interviewed about the education reforms – and in particular about the now-notorious pledge pretty much all of them made to vote against tuition fee increases – there’s a particularly irritating rebuttal which they all keep coming out with: basically, they’re suggesting that people attacking them for their hypocrisy just don’t understand how coalitions work. In the past week or two I’ve seen both Danny Alexander and Vince Cable come out with some variant of this, and I’m sure if I made more of a habit of watching the news I’d have heard it a lot more. This line of argument is facile, misleading and frankly pretty fucking patronising, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to try and lay it to rest.
The argument they’re trying to make is very simple: During the election the Lib Dems promised a lot of things, but because they’re in a coalition it’s naive and unreasonable to expect them to be able to follow all of them through. Entering into a partnership with the Tories inevitably meant that certain compromises had to be made, and it so happened that the tuition fee pledge was one of them. So (implicitly) we should all stop whining, understand that that’s just how grown-ups do politics, go home and behave ourselves.
This is – and I really can’t emphasise this enough – a total and utter pile of crap. It’s deliberately conflating the plans which a party sets out in an election manifesto – which are indeed conditional for their implementation on a party forming a majority government – and promises made by individual MPs. The tuition fee pledge was the latter. Before the May general election, every sitting Lib Dem MP signed the NUS pledge stating that they would vote against any rise in tuition fees. This was categorical. There were no caveats about being in government, about the state of the economy or anything else. Every Lib Dem MP who votes for the higher education reforms – or even abstains – will be breaking that pledge. It really is as simple as that.