Saturday 11 December 2010

The Tution Fee Vote - How did it get this close?

Well, the motion to raise University Tuition fees from about £3500 to £6000-9000 a year passed.  For once I get to actually see how accurate one of my predictions was (which you can see in full just below this article).

I suggested there would be 296 Conservatives and 24 Lib Dems in favour giving 296+24=320 votes for.  And that there would be 8 Conservatives, 18 Lib Dems and everyone else voting against giving 281+8+18=307 votes against.

The actual result was 297+28=325 for and 277+21+6=304 against.  Pretty close.  I was almost exactly right on the number of Conservatives voting for, and everyone else voting against (no big surprise there), I underestimated how many lib dems would actually vote rather than abstain, but by about the same amount on each side, and a couple of Conservatives abstained rather than voting against, making the government's majority slightly larger than I predicted.  Still, not bad, not bad at all.  On the other hand since this was pretty much all using information that was easily in the public domain, I won't apply for my soothsayer's licence quite yet.

The government won.  But this was certainly the tightest vote since the Coalition began 6 months ago and offers a fascinating look at the truly unique parliamentary mechanics of this most unusual of British political organisations.  So, How did it get so close but still pass?  And, how did the government end up in this tricky situation on this of all issues?

In a normal government with a decent working majority the only way the government can lose is if the leadership propose to do something that runs so counter to either their parties natural instincts, or public opinion in general, to outrage a significant enough number of their MP's into rising out of their customary sheep-like slumber to vote against their own party, or just refuse to turn up to vote at all.

This basically only occurs when the party leadership gets so delusionally out of touch with either public opinion or their own party that they lose all sense of perspective and propose something completely barmy.

The reason this ever happens is in a usual one-party government in Britain what you generally have is a core group in around the leadership, generally those MP's in the government itself, that is thinking up plans and solutions and trying to drive the country in a certain direction, usually with one eye on what is pragmatically possible, one eye on what would be politically popular, and only their peripheral vision on  whatever their party might actually think about it.

You then, however, have all the mass of backbench MP's who actually give the government its majority, but have little other obvious purpose.  These simple creatures are kind of like a large inertial mass.  They sit around dozily content with whatever ideology and prejudices their party generally holds to, certain of their superior righteousness and intellect. Only rousing themselves to occasionally wave their order papers at the opposition at PMQ's and be herded by the government through the correct voting lobbies as needed.  They are generally a docile and unconcerned bunch but they do have two features that mean they can at times cause trouble for the leadership.

The first is that they are generally closer to ordinary party activists, particularly in terms of their prejudices and their beliefs, than the party leadership, who are generally an out of touch bunch with their heads more or less in the clouds, whatever the party.  This is probably a good thing, it means that meritocracy actually exists, and political parties generally choose their elite to lead them.  But elites, as night follows day, are generally distinct from the majority in most ways, not just their particular skill.  The other thing is that whereas a party leadership are generally insulated from public opinion by both their important ministerial jobs, which mean they have more important things to deal with, very important one might say, and by the fact they have generally found their way into very safe seats, which means they don't have to particularly worry about getting unelected.  Backbenchers on the other hand are often in marginal seats, and have little else to do but worry about their re-election.  These together mean that, however crudely, backbenchers are normally, as a mass, more concerned, in touch with, and likely to act upon public opinion, and more likely to want to act in accordance with their party's general beliefs and ideas.

This means that the dynamic of a government, as far as votes goes, is a struggle between the party leadership who are constantly trying to branch out in strange, new, and hopefully effective and vote-winning directions, and their mass of MP's, who want to sit around doing things that are either (or preferably both) popular and in accordance with their party's core ideas.  The MP's can generally be herded, as the leadership wants, through a mix of encouragement, threats, and motivational partisan slogans.  Sometimes though, as I've said, the leadership gets sufficiently delusional and/or out-of-touch that even their own MP's refuse to vote for their proposal and they are defeated in the Commons.

So that is the way things usually go in a one party government.  In the Coalition though things are different.  We have a leadership who are more or less coherent as a group with a plan, and then not one but two inertial masses of backbenchers with quite different underlying beliefs and prejudices: the Conservative backbenchers and the Lib Dems, both who are needed to make the government's majority.

MP's getting the Coalition up the mark and then the mass of 57 Lib Dem MP's pushing them comfortably over it.

The obvious problem though is that this mass of MP's is really made of two separate parts, coming from very different directions.  One would think that the surprising thing would be that this has not happened already.  The problem of coalitions according to the traditional wisdom then is that the government cannot afford to do anything that sufficiently annoys either part, or its majority will fail, and hence it is more hamstrung than a single party government.  Forced to stick to the lowest common denominator of policy.  The remarkable thing about this Coalition though is that this has not happened.

The Coalition has been more radical than anyone could have imagined pre-election, and the two halves have, until now, cohered better than anyone could have expected.  The reason seems to have been that the reality of knowing they are in coalition has made everyone involved more careful, more aware of the need to compromise and justify what they are doing, and hence less likely to wander off into delusional la-la land from which they are incapable of escaping with any dignity.  Also it gives the leadership a clear excuse for any policy that is reasonably sensible, but anathema to one wing or another, by just blaming the other lot for forcing it on them.

The other thing is that for once we have a government with both an effective left and right wing (and of course a centre).  Normally one gets a government with two poles, with normally a leadership in a vaguely centrist position and then the bulk of its party to its left or right.  Or very occasionally a party in a more centrist position with a leadership out on one wing.  Here for once though we have a government with a leadership in the centre and roughly similar blocks of MP's out to its left and right.  This may oddly lead to a much more stable government platform than the traditional two pole system.  Thus counteracting the inherent difficulties of working in coalition.

On top of this dynamic is the evident wish from both sides to make this coalition work.  The Lib Dems need to prove they can be trusted with government, and are plain desperate after 80 years in the wilderness.  Politicians who have spent their 30 year careers in doomed, 3rd party impotence don't want to spend the rest of their careers there.  The Conservatives, having failed at their best chance in 13 years are equally desperate to not spend another 5 in the constant humiliation of opposition.  The evident personality connection between the Cameroon Tory leadership and the Orange-Book Lib Dems has been the oil that has made the whole thing not just cohere but also run smoothly in a manner it would otherwise have not.

All these features have kept the Coalition unexpectedly stable until now.  But now, all bets are off.  It has taken a special piece of legislation to get them to this point.   A normal compromise or piece of backpedalling would not have done it.  But this was truly something.  Along with Iraq, one of the main issues that made the Lib Dems stand out, and contributed to their unprecedented success in both 2005 and 2010 was the issue of tuition fees.  Labour introduced them and the Conservatives moved to supporting them, but the Lib Dems and they alone opposed tuition fees for higher education.  And a lot of students voted for them on this issue.

In 2010, even knowing how bad the deficit was, even facing the possibility of actually entering government as the polls tightened and even knowing the Browne commission was due to report almost certainly recommending the increase in fees, the Lib Dems still went into the election promoting their unique policy of abolishing tuition fees as a spending priority.  They even went further.  When the NUS, professional troublemakers to the political classes, came along with nice, photogenic pledges, individually committing each MP to vote against any increase in tuition fees, they eagerly signed up.  Anything to try to secure a few thousand more vital votes.

And then the unexpected actually happened.  The scenario the Lib Dems had been hoping for for decades, a hung parliament, with their votes needed for one of the larger parties to form a stable government.  And then they actually had to deal with the completion of the Browne Report.  The Coalition agreement said surprisingly little about this core Lib Dem policy, with only a brief mention of a right to abstain should the Lib Dems not be able to reconcile themselves to the policy recommended by the Browne Review.

The Browne review itself is a curious entity, and almost certainly a political trick.  A politician in Britain only calls a review on something when he wants either to delay an important decision, for political reasons, or he wants some political cover to make a decision he knows is going to be bloody unpopular.  Reviews can do both or either.  In the case of the Browne review it was originally called to avoid the Labour party having to have a potentially unpopular position on University funding before the election.

It was however also useful to David Cameron, because it also allowed him to not have a policy on university funding during the election, and having won the election, it allowed him to have cover for a policy that would not be popular.  If he had gone into the Coalition with raising tuition fees in the manner they have as a Conservative policy, the Lib Dems would never have swallowed it, even to the extent they did.  But with it being a policy recommended to the Coalition by the Browne review after the Coalition had been formed, he had just enough political cover to get enough of the Lib Dems, including the Lib Dem payroll vote, to back it to get the policy through.

It was pretty close though.  Here we had one of the most blatant examples of a political u-turn.  A manifesto commitment is bad enough, a manifesto commitment that has been at the core of your party's popularity is even worse.  But a manifesto commitment that has been at the core of your party's popularity backed up by personal signed pledges, complete with nice pictures of all your MP's holding said pledges in all the papers, that is really bad.  That is the mother of all political u-turns, and in the full glare of the public eye.

Personally I didn't particularly like the Tuition Fees policy.  I don't think it is the end of the world like some people seem to, (Ooh, the Horror!  Graduates who earn above the average wage will have to pay somewhat higher taxes for some years.  Ooh, the Horror!) but I don't particularly like it.  But I see it as necessary because it is not just a policy on its own, it is tied up with the government's whole deficit reduction plan.  To put it briefly, students are suffering because the NHS, schools, ID and the EU budgets have all been protected, but the government is still trying to save £81 billion, so some things have to get it in the neck.  In this case higher education.  And since I broadly support the figure of £81 billion, and can't think of anywhere better to chop away, I am left supporting the rise in fees, at least for the moment.  I hope the policy can be fine-tuned at a later date when the country has a bit more money though.

But, for this reason, I also think the Lib Dem MP's should have supported the Fees rise.  The policy comes as a part of the government's whole policy, and especially the deficit reduction plan.  It was also the policy recommended by the Browne review.  If they didn't like it then they should have negotiated an out at the coalition agreement, or before the bduget.  They did not, and now they have to live with it.  If that means going against a pledge they made before the election, well then, they will have to bear the voters anger at that at the next election.  But to vote down the plans now would be to throw the government's entire financial plan into disarray, and to renege on the agreement they made when the government was formed.

But who cares what I think about it.  The fact is the policy has now passed.  Half of the Lib Dems voted for it, about a third voted against it and the rest abstained.  The next question is, what the hell happens now?  How will this division, almost completely down the middle, affect the Lib Dems as a party?  Especially as they are reminded of this choice again and again and again, especially in what were, until now, their university heartlands.

Firstly, David Cameron and Nick Clegg must be relieved.  And not just because they won this vote.  This was almost certainly the most difficult issue that the Coalition will face, as far as getting the Lib Dems to vote for things they would perhaps not naturally support.  If they were going to rebel on anything, it would be this.  Having got enough Lib Dems to vote for this, enough to give a full majority of the Commons, they must be reasonably content that they can get the rest of the Coalition programme, in all its gory detail, past the Lib Dems.

Nick Clegg has some cause for concern in the short term.  His party has both sunk lower in the opinion polls than it has for 20 years, and has annoyed more people than it probably managed in the last 20 years combined as well.  But I think he has already accepted this for now.  He has the grizzled, slightly jowly, set expression on his face of someone gritting his teeth and walking forward through a rainstorm.  I think he has accepted pretty much any short term low poll rating or savaging in the media in the hope that by the next election, more than 4 years from now, it will pay dividends.  There is something to this.  Fours years from now many more things will have happened to doom or rescue him, and few people apart from perhaps students themselves, will be voting on the basis of an issue that only effects students, and a pledge made and broken more than 4 years before.

That is all if things do go as planned over the next 4 years, with the economy and with reform of the public sector, and the Lib Dems begin to reap the rewards of this.  But if they don't relatively soon then there is a risk that the patience of certain Lib Dems will begin to run out.  There is a risk the almost even split on this issue will fester into an open wound; as the Lib Dems are reminded again and again of their 'betrayal' of their previously loyal student vote, as their party's integrity is dragged, without discrimination, through the mud; and the Anti's blame those Lib Dems who voted for the motion for getting them into this position and ruining their name.  It is possible to foresee in the not so distant future, if the Lib Dems continue to take the heat for the Coalition's unpopular policies, but gain little of the credit for its successes, this division being the basis for a more serious and permanent split, between those MP's who have lashed themselves to the Coalition's mast, with little other alternative, and those MP's who see their only hope as breaking away from the Coalition while they still can and rejecting its legacy.

But that is all somewhere in the still distant future.  And nobody really knows now which way it will go.  All that can be said at this stage is that time will tell, time will tell.


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