Stop saying sorry, Nick… or you will be

When a new government takes a gamble on a controversial decision it expects to be unpopular with the public, it’s common custom to act on it as early on in a Parliament as they can. That way, they maximise their chances of portions of the public forgetting, if not forgiving, by the time the next election rolls around in four or five years’ time. More often than not it will pay off, and the government gets away with it.

For the Liberal Democrats, that gamble came in the form of a near-trebling of tuition fees. Nobody in the party was under the illusion that this would not damage their reputation at least in the short term as the issue dominated the headlines. Thousands of students travelled to London from all around the country to protest the measures, and party support in the polls plummeted to single figures. One Guardian/ICM poll showed that only 47 per cent of those who voted Liberal Democrat in 2010 planned to do so next time. All of this made for grim reading for Clegg and his allies, but a sense of optimism remained. After all, they say a week is a long time in politics – and the coalition had another four years to make amends.

Fast forward two of those years, to September 2012. Britain has seen a good deal of changes both good and bad; several round of spending cuts, a £600 income tax cut, military intervention in Libya, a failed attempt to reform the House of Lords and another tax cut for multi-millionaires. Yet when young people – the spine of the party’s old support base – are asked their thoughts on the coalition’s junior partners, in all likelihood the first topic of discussion will still be tuition fees. Clegg’s student dilemma just won’t go away. So, in an attempt to make amends and finally put the issue to bed, he famously took to the public with a full, frank and open apology.

It didn’t work.

After a musical spoof of the apology proved to be more popular than the apology itself, the Deputy Prime Minister turned from public hate figure to national laughing stock in a matter of days. Renewed media focus on fees ensured a drop of Liberal Democrat support from 13 to a worrying 8 per cent. The gamble didn’t pay off; Clegg has lost the war.

Now, in January 2013, reports have emerged from the Independent that ‘senior’ party members are looking into the idea of adopting Labour’s policy of reducing fees from nine to six thousand pounds per year in their manifesto for 2015, with the treasury to make up the £2bn funding shortfall. But anger and distrust for Clegg have still not declined, and his apology proved that continuous highlighting of the reforms will cause him nothing but trouble. For that reason, another U-turn could be verging on political suicide.

History shows that elections aren’t won by incumbent parties that doubt their own decisions; they’re won by parties that show conviction in their ideas and confidence in what they have already achieved. Voters will never believe the word of leader who doesn’t even have confidence in himself. So, plan ‘A’ – sorrow and regret – must be shown the back door, and replaced by a new mantra of optimist and positivity; if the Liberal Democrats are to survive 2015 and retain even the faintest hope that fees are to be forgotten, their message must change. Quickly.

It can be done: despite the fact that students will now graduate with more debt, nobody will pay a penny until their income tops £21,000. That’s a forty per cent increase on the old threshold of £15,000.Those who go onto become millionaires will be asked to contribute more than three times than ever before, and those who don’t go on to achieve everything they aspired to may well end up paying less. The case is there to be made that we now have a more progressive system. All that’s in question is whether the Liberal Democrats dare to go out and convince the public that their gamble was not only one practical sense, but one of fairness, too.

“The paying off system as it stands is proven to be more progressive than Labour’s system, but more work must be done to ensure that no matter what your background, you can afford university. Helping students with their cost of living should be a priority”

Sam Fisk, Co-Chair of Liberal Youth

Many in the party from grass-roots activists to more prominent officials, including Vince Cable according to the Independent, are convinced that this is the line they must take going into the next election. Few would suggest that higher education accessibility is perfect, but there’s a growing sense that the answer for neither party nor country still lies in a promise to directly reduce fees.

This is a change in direction that the likes of Cable and Fisk must work to convince their colleagues of if the party is to mount a serious attempt at rebuilding its support amongst young people. More of the same is no longer an option.

Not for 2015, at least.