Lib Dem fees row

December 06, 2010, 11:47 PM GMT+0

To the old conundrum, what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object, the conventional answer is, an inaudible noise. However, when the Government’s policy on student fees collided with the Liberal Democrats’ election promise to oppose tuition fees and fight any increase, the noise from inside Nick Clegg’s party has been anything but inaudible. Late this week, the House of Commons will vote on the Government’s plans. The Lib Dems could easily split three ways – for, against and abstain.

YouGov tested public attitudes to the Government’s policy, and also asked what Lib Dems MPs should do, in our latest weekly poll for the Sunday Times.

On the policy itself, we asked: ‘The Government has proposed increasing the cap on university tuition fees to £9,000. Students would not have to pay the fees upfront, but would instead pay them using student loans that they would have to pay back as graduates once they were earning £21,000. Wealthier graduates would have to pay a higher interest rate on their loans. Do you support or oppose these proposals?’

The public are divided: 38% support them, while 49% are opposed.

Behind the figures...

Conservative voters are strongly in favour, with supporters outnumbering opponents by 62-26%. At first blush, it looks as if Lib Dem voters also tend to be in favour, by 53-38%. But when we look not at the diminished number of people who say they would vote Lib Dem today, but at the larger number who voted Lib Dem in the General Election seven months ago, we find that just 32% are in favour, while 55% are against.

Next we put this question: ‘During the General Election the Liberal Democrats campaigned against university tuition fees and some people have accused them of breaking promises by backing tuition fees. The Liberal Democrats have since said that the economic situation means tuition fees are unavoidable. Do you think the Liberal Democrats are right or wrong to go back on their pledge to oppose tuition fees?’

Among the public as a whole, 26% think the party is right, whole 63% think they are wrong. Today’s Lib Dem voters divide evenly 44% say right, 44% say wrong. But among those who voted Lib Dem in May, as many as 68% say the party is wrong to abandon its election pledge; just 21% think the party is right.

It’s clear from these figures that Clegg’s U-turn on tuition fees has played a big part in his party losing around half its General Glection vote. My belief is that his problem is not just, or even mainly, about tuition fees as such. Rather it is to do with the wider nature of his party’s image.

The pitfalls of plurality

Past YouGov surveys have found that voters don’t like politicians who evade straight questions, break their promises, or try to spin their way out of awkward political corners. A large part of the Lib Dems’ appeal in the spring was that they promised a different style of politics, more candid and more honest than Labour or the Conservatives. Clegg fostered this image assiduously. When Lib Dem MPs publicly signed the pledge to oppose tuition fees, they were not just asserting a particular education policy; they were also seeking to exploit their reputation for a more decent form of politics.

That reputation now lies in tatters. Clegg is of course right to say that his party did not win the General Election and is therefore not in a position to do everything it promised. It is also true that he and Vince Cable have secured changes to the Government policy to make it more progressive than it would otherwise have been. In some ways the coalition process has worked as it should.

Yet the collision between the Conservatives’ irresistible commitment to higher fees and the Lib Dem’s seemingly immovable opposition to that very notion has cost Clegg millions of votes. Perhaps one lesson is that parties who seek a more plural style of politics – a.k.a coalition governments – should campaign much more carefully in future elections. They need to be far more honest about those core principles that they really will defend to the last, and those policies that could be up for negotiation in the cold light of Coalition dawn.

See the latest survey details and full results here