Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Why party politics is a pathetic joke

The three main parties have switched policy on tuition fees more often than tennis players swapping ends at the end of every game.

Wherever you stand on tuition fees, the recent debate said an awful lot about the world of party politics. And if you think this sounds like a bit of a swiping statement, just take a look at a few simple facts.

No matter which major party you look at, what you have staring at you in the face is politicking and opportunism of the worst kind.

It's a joy to behold when LibDem MPs and activists alike turn overnight into staunch defenders of the brand new Super-Expensive Higher Education system. The very same people who for years (and until the other day) were ranting against fee-paying universities as if it would mean the Apocalypse.

Read this BBC report from 2003. Look at the bit where the LibDems education spokesman slams the Labour government for the "nonsensical notion that all graduates suddenly become high earners". And then this: "Saddling students with a mortgage-style 20-year debt creates a huge disincentive for higher education". It's going to be "mortgage-style debts", is what the Lib-Dems shouted til the other day.

Not only that. The LibDems were also warning of the dangers of "[the] market [being] introduced into higher education". "Top-ups wil deter students", they protested.

Today Clegg & co would tell you it's not ideal, but it's ok. "You don't have to pay up front" must be one of their most quoted statements in defense of the new system.

Except that's exactly how the Labour government sold a very similar policy to parliament a few years back.

"[The students] will make a fair contribution to the cost but only after graduation, through the tax system, on the basis of ability to pay", said Tony Blair in a speech in January 2004, adding that "[tuition fees] do not penalise the ordinary taxpayer".

Now you hear Harriet Harman attacking Coalition plans to "dump the cost on to students". Which is amazing, because while she was in government and Labour was doing exactly the same, her colleague and then-Higher Education Minister Alan Johnson defended trebling tuition fees. "I just reject the notion that working-class kids are more debt averse than youngsters from other backgrounds", he told the Independent.

And when you read what Charles Clarke mumbled about "growing pressure on public budgets", you could be excused for thinking it was one of the current ConDem ministers talking. "There is no alternative", sentenced Charles Clarke. Just like what David Cameron said the other day.

Which leads us to the Tories. Back when Labour trebled tuition fees, they were frothing at the mouth. "Have the Tories become Old Labour?" wondered a BBC report in 2004, with reference to the Conservatives' proposal "to abolish tuition fees"!

Back in 2003, then-Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith pledged that all university tuition fees would be abolished under a future Conservative government, condemning them as "a tax on learning". Seriously.

A year later, then-Shadow Education Secretary Damian Green called for tuition fees to be scrapped altogether. "This would help students avoid the burden of long-term debt which deters increasing numbers of poorer students from applying to university", he said.

In opposition, current Coalition Minister Kenneth Clarke said "It is the ordinary student from the ordinary family [...]who will carry the burden of tens of thousands of pounds-worth of debt [...] Does [the Labour government] seriously expect that that will have no effect at all on the willingness of such people to go in for the more expensive courses in higher education?".

Well, apparently not. According to his current government colleague and fellow Tory Michael Gove, "[higher fees] won't put off students". Fancy that.

It really must take some stomach to still put up with it. How do you do tribalism? How can anyone keep up with all the somersaulting without getting a headache or feeling at least an inkling of nausea?

How can anyone still happily believe and justify either of the three parties while they engage in their pathetic exercise of swapping ends in the style of tennis players at the end of every game?

Because the truth is theirs is a world were both principles and respect for voters mean absolutely nothing. And tuition fees are just an example. The hopes of ordinary people can be trampled over and their good faith abused whenever and wherever convenient.

Which is why the non-voting contingent has just recruited a new follower.


Luis Enrique said...

if this is explained by in many cases there being one "correct" policy that whichever party finds itself in power has to adopt and the opposition oppose, it makes for hypocrisy but at least leaves us with the correct policy.

what else could explain it?

Mike said...

It could be that because the opposition to fees is raised mostly by current undergraduate students the opposition opposes them to win support with the current student population.

But however come 4-5 years later those same people aren't students and because the changes are retroactive it is far less of a hot button issue for them, so a u-turn in policy isn't as jarring.

Basa said...

This article should be distributed far and wide.