Nick Clegg must resign

Before we are taken into Hallam in a handcart, the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg must resign.

There are many reasons to be cheerful as a LibDem supporter:

*Sure Start protected, social care fund of £2million, income allowance up by over a grand next year with a promise to reach the manifesto pledge of £10,000 by the time of the first ever fixed-term parliament, referendum on voting reform, museum charges still free, end of ID cards, end of the DNA database, scrapping of Section 44, increase in Child Tax Credits and available to more families by 2012…..

…..and then…..

Then there’s the shadow. The dark, thick, acrid smoke covering all the good news, turning it inside out like the toxic fog that does for the chrous-line Simpsons. The scare-story in today’s Guardian today – I assume the headline “LIBDEMS REALISED THERE WOULD BE A HUNG PARLIAMENT AND ACTED ACCORDINGLY” was considered too pedantic – nevertheless taps into the problems right at the heart of our Party and its role within the Coalition.

Clegg has delivered exactly what all activists and Councillors and voters wanted; LibDems in Government, giving the Conservatives a liberal accent on civil liberties and tax. But it’s the shadow, the darkness, the storm…

A few days ago, whilst returning on train from Manchester, I struck up conversations with students coming home from the NUS march in central London. All 5 of them – two each from Manchester and Salford, two from UCLan – agreed with despondency and regret that the march had largely been a disaster. As one said; “It was a great march, until we came out from a 20 minute break in Costa to find all Hell had broken loose.” Another said “We picked up stragglers who just wanted to start a fight, we won’t be on the middle pages never mind the front page.”

But any ire focused at the SWP and pick-n-mix anarchists ruining the march was nothing compared to what they had in store towards Nick Clegg. Not Liberal Democrats generally, I noticed (talking with them as a ‘supporter’, assuming telling them how I was a committed activist and former Councillor would colour the debate somewhat). Specifically Nick Clegg. One told me;

Clegg came to every Uni, day after day, telling us ‘Vote for me and I will help abolish tuition fees. My vote was to him on that one promise, and now that promise is broken. I feel betrayed.

Another said;

All I can see now is Nick Clegg lying about tuition fees and a left wing Labour leader wanting them scrapped. That’s it for me, and all our branch (of the NUS) feel the same. Labour will get thousands more student votes now and it’s all because Labour are taking the right words on scrapping fees, that’s just what we want

A few days later, a mate of mine talking on this issue said;

Clegg just comes across like Phil Woolas, lying to get elected. What’s the difference? He should be done for fraud

Each and every attack on Clegg – their voice hoarse, their hearts deflated, their LibDem support utterly compromised – rang in my ears like church bells. Although I don’t believe “Clegg = Woolas” (whilst Phil knew his election material to be untrue, Clegg had no notion of the election result until it happened), the substantive point still stands. The one policy which was our magnet for support has become repellent, abhorrent.

Partly due to bad PR, implementation of the Browne Report has tainted our Party as dream-stealers. The proposals for tuition fees deal with the unholy mess handed to us by Labour. Increasing the pay-back salary to £21k and rightly dismissing the grossly unfair Graduation Tax is amongst the better of very limited options. It’s not right, it’s not pretty, but here is where we find ourselves…

…I just have to blame Clegg for getting us here. During our Leadership Election – “Calamity Clegg”, remember that? – I voted for Chris Huhne as my first preference and spoke against Nick at every opportunity. At the time, he did not convince me. I didn’t like him at the time and I don’t trust him now. His leadership has become toxic. “Word Association” with Liberal Democrat buzzwords comes up negatively everytime. We’re achieving too much good whilst in Government to have the tuition fees mess drag us out of office.

I support all those LibDems – such as my Presidential preference Tim Farron – who won’t just abstain but vote against the fee proposals. This is the kind of progressive and independent matter of conscious actions I would expect from anyone on the LibDem backbenches. Such matters of principle clearly shut down when Clegg’s ministerial car opened.

For the good of the Party – maybe even for our survival as a Party in the longterm – Nick Clegg must stand down. I had no idea of the strength of opposition to him, the manner in which his personal standing is dragging the whole party in the mud. To get anywhere near the standing before the election, his actions now have to ensure elections later are not ballot-box killing fields.

I want the Party to remain in the Coalition, doing all it can for the people of Britain in the aftermath of Labour’s disastrous economic illiteracy. To do anything in this regard, the one man whose role is causing dense fog to cloud all other considerations of our Party must to the honourable and right thing.

Nick Clegg must resign as Leader as soon as possible.

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NUS – the problems with issues

First things first, the old-fashioned, good old facts. I am against tuition fees, always have been, from the moment Labour introduced them in 1997 while I was just starting out at college. “Where did this policy come from?” we asked, in somewhat stunned confusion. Well, nowhere, for Labour sprung them onto the nation without much introduction.

(The same, of course as top-up fees, another post-election surprise from Labour)

I don’t know what the NUS have been smoking, but their current violent attitude spilling across the centre of London really does nothing to make them look like the mature counter-argument to university funding. The NUS have got this completely and utterly wrong. By promoting millions of pounds worth of damage to persons and property across London as part of their “debate”, the NUS “leadership” is showing the very worst characteristics of student politics. Shouty, slogan-sore ignorance on a national scale.

Their collective amnesia is stunning. Labour’s introduction and promotion of tuition fees have brought us all to this state, where the only affordable option is to keep the system going with the improvements suggested by Liberal Democrat MPs now in Government. There is no point, at all, in solely blaming the LibDems, as the NUS are doing with all the coherence of a bus-stop drunk.

Graduation Tax proposals were highlighted by the Browne report as being unfair, for they would be levied on students from the moment they earned around £7,000. The new tuition fee proposals, as recommended by Liberal Democrats in Coalition Government, would see repayments START at £21,000, an increase from £15,000. This is an improvement, something the NUS cannot hear above the screaming and gnashing of teeth.

Labour sewed tuition fees into the fabric of university funding. The NUS has to explain what system it would introduce instead of tuition fees, one which would raise AT LEAST the same amount of money. Nobody in the NUS has come up with a credible reason why the entire nation should be expected to pay for university education out of general taxation.

Their “plan” to force by-elections in every LibDem seat is also indicative of their ignorance. There is no “recall MP” law in place yet, that LibDem proposal is still to make it through Parliament (as with the fixed-term parliament proposal, and increasing tax allowances and all other promises made, these things take time). The “right to recall” is only for MPs who have broken the law – such as Phil Woolas. What has Nick Clegg done to break the law? Nothing.

I have great sympathy with anti-tuition fee protesters. BUT I do not, cannot, accept the view that the only organisation responsible is the Liberal Democrats and the only recourse is setting fire to the Square Mile. The NUS has got its argument completely wrong. In the court of public opinion, they resemble the very worst kind of student protesting stereotype.

Labour got us into this mess. If they had increased University funding in line with all other public spending splurges, this mess would not know be realised. There is no point in whinging about the result of the General Election, not trying to rewrite history to present Labour as “friends of students”.

As the sight of the NUS-led protests against “Tony B. Liar” prove, sometimes all the students unions need are reasons to be angry with no solutions to back up the slogans.

I am against tuition fees, now as ever. I am against the NUS setting the HE funding argument as a LibDem witchhunt. It is not accurate, it is baseless in fact and shallow in detail.

open market universities

Lord Browne has released his recommendations for higher education funding, largely covered by the press as ‘the tuition fees increase plan’.

Tuition fees, as a policy, in addition to the 50% “application aspiration” created a trap for successive governments, effectively “locking in” future administrations to the model of an education free market. Remove tuition fees – as Liberal Democrats have campaigned since their introduction by Labour – and the gap needs to be filled by some payment structure of at least equal value. I remember the “march forth on March 4th” anti-tuition fee protests of the time, just as I had started College. I was against tuition fees as much then as now.

Graduation tax, as favoured by Vince Cable and new Labour leader Ed Miliband, would be an additional layer of income tax introduced into an already complex tax regime. Although it seems fairer to reflect immediate earnings in repayments, graduates would pay back money from the moment they earn more than the current income threshold (just shy of £6,500 at the moment, £7,500 or thereabouts next year, aiming for the £10,000 pledged within the Coalition agreement by 2015). Lord Browne suggests removing the tuition fee cap with a minimum “payback level” of £21,000.

Even with this “minimum level”, potential or existing students must see the future of learning as an arduous and expensive ordeal. Those with a level head realise that, as with many investments in life, the initial outlay must be the toughest part. Only education is not – or was not until 1997 – supposed to lie in parallel to buying a house, car, or taking a holiday. Suddenly the University dream became an economic nightmare, one in which those who could afford top-up fees and repayment rates felt marginally less uncomfortable than those who simply could not. Having had the encouragement to apply for Uni – not least through the Labour Party’s 50% “application aspiration” – students should not be forgiven for thinking they have been invited into the educational equivalent of timeshare apartments.

There’s no credible University funding argument anymore, trapped as we all are with a student-focused repayment plan created in 1997 from Lord Dearing’s report and continued by Lord Browne. The market for education has been firmly tied into the fabric of education reform.

Some level of realism needs to sink into this debate. Uni is not for everyone, but neither should it be restricted to the academically able who just happen to be economically restricted. The depressing manner in which Uni as a gateway to mega-bucks jobs and economic stability has been accepted without question is perhaps the more vital question. When did education for the good of the mind become unfashionable? It is this question which has been forgotten by almost everyone involved in the debate.

extra-time needed on tuition fees policy

Uni students were probably not spending this morning at the breakfast table pouring over blogs and Twitter feeds on the hunt for updates regarding the Liberal Democrats and alleged “u-turns” on tuition fees policy. One of the more instantly recognisable policies for the LibDems, opposition to tuition fees is the reason why so many votes came our way in recent elections. Speaking sense on this – and forcing Labour into altering the policy in Scotland – made far more people see the true benefits of voting Liberal Democrat.

Clearly £12bn – the cost of scrapping the charge according to Nick Clegg – is not a figure easily found elsewhere. Even with the very impressive list of cost cutting policies announced today, finding every last penny is going to be a difficult task. Such is Brown’s legacy. Blair’s own legacy – and what a charge sheet that is! – is to chain an education mortgage around the necks of so many thousands of students who wonder why they bothered going to university in the first place. Under Brown’s disastrous leadership there’s not even enough uni places to go round to meet the demand of those who assumed Labour were not lying when they set their “50%” Uni target.

Clegg’s apparent “honesty” on the spending cuts issue was not handled very well. “It’s a policy I support but know we can’t afford” is certainly a refreshing admission but hasn’t gone down very well. There can be no backtracking on tuition fees; it’s almost as though the next policy to go under is opposition to the Iraq war.

My vote at the next election is not going to change, I will always support a Party of genuine progressive politics and honesty. But Clegg needs to be careful. Some policies are worth keeping, for we are surely the party who care more about long-term opportunities than short-term headlines?