For those of you who aren’t fans of Russell Howard’s Good News, this title is going to have passed you by. But I won’t hold it against you.
Take a deep breath, because Bruntonia is about to get political. I maintain an active interest in politics. I have voted at every opportunity. However, I see myself as far from politically active on the whole, as compared to some of my peers. On the other hand, on occasion I feel as though I want to weigh in on an issue more than I might otherwise. Nick Clegg’s recent video apology is one of these occasions.
Let me give you a bit of background, from the perspective of a (then) student, first time voter.
The last UK general election was pretty damn contentious. Labour had been in power for some considerable time. However, as with any political party that has remained in power for a long stint, they had begun to decline in popularity. No longer the young, fresh-faced Labour of a youthful Tony Blair, Labour was beginning to look, well, a bit jaded. There was the longstanding issue of Blair’s apparent deference to President Bush, the Iraq war, the David Kelly controversy, the economic crash, and Tony Blair’s swift exit, and the unelected replacement, Gordon Brown. Although those who had historically voted Labour may continue to do so, a re-election was an unlikely prospect.
On the other hand, David Cameron was by no means assured of a clear victory either. Despite difficult economic times, people were concerned about what his budget cuts might entail, but weren’t guaranteed of an easy ride with Labour either. Similarly, the Conservative view on NHS reform provoked very mixed/bad responses. Add to that the fact that David ‘Call me Dave’ ‘I’m not a rich toff oh wait yes I am’ Cameron may take the biscuit as the most smug, untrustworthy, public schoolboy to stand as a contender for prime minister for quite some time. A vote for Conservative, I would argue, represented a vote for change rather than an actual alignment of political ideology between party and voter.
With the rock and the hard place that most voters were left choosing between, the third major party (still very much a minority compared to Labour and Conservatives) suddenly became a much more appealing option. The Liberal Democrats had something to say in all this, and more to the point, they had an audience for it.
This was the choice as we saw it. I don’t think it was a feeling unique to student first time voters either, but one felt to a less or greater extent, across the country.
Now as the name suggests, the LibDems are a liberal bunch. As such, a large proportion of their voting base is young students and similar. The only party to loudly voice support for gay marriage, voting reform and tuition fee reform, they have obvious appeal for a younger voting population. For many, (like me) this may even be the first time that they have voted in a national (or any) election. I would argue that most people’s voting preferences don’t really change much – or rather they evolve very slowly, if at all. Some wildcards will make a decision based on current circumstances, but most people would describe themselves as ‘A Labour voter’ or ‘A Conservative voter’ or ‘A supporter of the Green Party’ etc. Building trust in your voting population, especially for a smaller party like the LibDems is very important.
Now we all know that election promises are all very well until the party gets into power, and that politicians say things to get votes. Young does not necessarily equal stupid, or excessively naive. We all know to reduce our expectations of what a party will actually be able to muster enough widespread agreement on to have it passed through parliament. However, an expectation that they will remain true to the aims and intentions of those pre-election promises is not an unfair expectation. Amongst younger voters with perhaps less cynical views, this is probably especially true. Young doesn’t always equal stupid, but it does often equate to optimistic.
So when Nick Clegg was photographed with billboards stating that he pledged to resist raising the cap on tuition fees, I didn’t so much believe that it would be reasonable to expect no changes to the fee structure in the next election, but I did expect the LibDems to vocally support the needs of the students, their main voting base. I expected the LibDems to be a major player in negotiating a fee system that was both fair and sustainable. Similarly, when the LibDems promised to push voting reform, I expected a consistent and well-reasoned campaign – if not for change, then for at least a sound evaluation for whether the status quo really was good enough. Not only did I and many of my peers place a great deal of importance on these policies, but we liked the way the LibDems saw the world – we were pro equal rights, pro gay marriage, and generally pro liberal views.
For me, this wasn’t just a policy based decision. In watching debates, I often felt that the LibDem candidate was arguing the side that I probably would. To my mind, they deserved my vote as much on this basis as any other.
And as it turned out, there were quite a few of us like it. Fewer votes than I think the LibDems had hoped for, but in the climate of uncertainty, enough to gain them a foothold in government as a coalition power. Now although we don’t really do coalition governments here in the UK, I, and many other voters welcomed the platform the LibDems had been given in the debates that would follow.
And then Clegg happened.
Not having nine to fives to go to the next day, my housemates and I sat up all night, glugging coffee, watching Dimbleby valiantly stay awake with the election coverage. We watched, hooked, the next day as the results came in, and watched as a coalition government loomed into view. I equated it to watching an elephant try to have sex with a poodle. Another (strongly Labour) housemate simply dubbed it political suicide. Nonetheless, we held out that a left-wing spin to an otherwise grotesquely Tory government was not to be sneezed at, and waited to see what would happen.
As it turned out, Clegg happened. The introduction of £9,000 tuition fees was a scandal in many respects, not least the way that Clegg rolled over, belly up, to Cameron. For those readers in the States who I am sure would love to be paying £9,000 a year with a far more reasonable loan repayment system – I hear you. But nonetheless, what happened here represents a disastrous move towards the financially crippling example of our friends across the pond.
Not only did it represent an ideological shift, but by ignoring several key points in the report commissioned for this change in policy, it also left the universities financially crippled, and introduced a debt repayment system that meant the loans were not just bigger – they were just not going to get paid off. Funding was withdrawn from universities in such a vicious cut that not even the increased top up fees students were expected to pay would replace the lost funding. However, amid the outcry over students forced to pay more, universities who increased their fees by the full amount were made to look greedy, while the government sat smirking, like a self-satisfied, corpulent banker.
The ‘optional’ increase to £9,000 a year placed the universities in even more dire straits – those who didn’t increase the fees risked financial difficulties as well as appearing second rate compared to their peers who had raised the fees. Similarly, raising the fees had then listed in newspapers as part of a long line of ‘greedy’ universities.
Clegg’s refusal/inability to keep to his election promise – that is rejecting higher top up fees and campaigning for a fairer system – has both saddled a young generation with more debt than ever before, financially seriously damaged universities, and threatened the reputations of some of the institutions who could afford it least. In terms of abandoning the students – the student loan is probably the best debt you will ever have in as far as if you cannot afford to pay it, then payments simply stop. Right now I pay a small enough amount that I don’t have to worry about how the debt will affect my long-term future. However, a slightly older generation of graduates, with children, mortgages, and generally more financial commitments really feel the sting – and their debts are a third of mine, just as my debts are a third of the next generation of fee-paying students. Before anyone begins to cry out about irresponsible spending and credit card debt – I left university with no debts incurred from my time spent there. My only debt was a chunk of student overdraft that I used to help pay for my wedding. We are not all naive, stupid and irresponsible children, petulantly expecting the luxury of education to be free. We expect the luxury of education to be equally available across all social classes, even in those whose families cannot afford to provide extra support during and after their children’s degree. Clegg’s spinelessness has only helped widen that gap.
I actually lived in Sheffield at the time of the last election. Thankfully, I voted in the middle of the day. For those students who voted (as most people do) around dinner time, they found themselves segregated into a separate queue to vote, where ‘residents’ were allowed to vote, while students had to wait until the residents had voted. So much for all votes are equal eh? At some polling stations, voters were outright turned away. Where was Clegg’s apology? Where was the investigation? Where was the assurance that this wouldn’t and couldn’t happen again? Who knows, we may even get that apology in two years’ time when Clegg is campaigning again, since that is apparently his latest means to attempt to curry favour with his voters.
This is already a long blog post, so I won’t go into much detail on how Clegg allowed the referendum on voting to turn into a pathetic propaganda war he had no hope of winning, or how he has rolled over and allowed Cameron to steamroller our NHS into a privatised service. Nor do I want to get into the new English Baccalaureate. I’ll start frothing at the mouth with rage at this utterly ineffective change to our inherently useless examination system. But suffice to say, Clegg’s boasts of doing the right thing ring somewhat hollow when as far as the rest of us can see, he has done nothing of the sort.
So, the ‘apology’. I even feel a little nauseous calling it that.
For one thing, it just smacks of pre-conference political posturing by its very nature, and no more. Listen to the content, and frankly, this ‘apology’ can be accused of exactly what it pretends to apologise for – insincerity and deceit. You see, Clegg never meant to keep that promise. The whole time he was proudly parading about with those pledge billboards, claiming to oppose tuition fee rises, internal memos were being sent suggesting that if the LibDems received any say in the upcoming changes to the cap being lifted on fees, then they would they would do no such thing. Clegg doesn’t apologise for lying – he apologises for getting caught. He doesn’t apologise for abandoning the pledge and breaking the trust of his voters – he apologises for supporting the principle in the first place.
The common belief in the principle that education should be as accessible as possible was what (many of) his voters stood alongside him for now. By sidestepping the more difficult apology, Clegg has in fact distanced himself further from his voters – they don’t even have ideology in common anymore.
The big hurt, however, isn’t that the fees were raised. In difficult economic times with an increasing proportion of students attending university, the ugly truth was always that we were always going to see rises in tuition fees. The greatest damage done by Clegg was in so utterly giving in – not even supporting a fairer system for students to repay, better support for the worse-off, and coming up with a system of long term structure rather than short term gain. You see, this system, with its vicious PR twist making the universities the bad guys instead of Clegg and Cameron, is equally unsustainable. Those increased tuition fees are just not going to be paid back, and somebody is going to have to foot the bill later on, when (eventually) the debt is written off as unpayable (for me, this is 25 years down the line).
By never even being seen to attempt to do right by his key voting demographic, Clegg wrote off his chances of inspiring a generation of LibDem voters from the outset.
The trouble is, that for us first time voters, by the time we have lived through one generation of government, voted in by us, we will be older, and wiser. Mid-twenties, we will probably have more at stake than we did when we first voted. Potentially jobs, houses, spouses, children, taxes, mortgages – and a substantial student debt to boot. For that next generation who have never even had chance to vote, and had a minimum of £27,000 debt levelled at them – I can’t imagine finding many LibDem loyalists there. Are we going to risk voting for a party that will so readily and transparently lie, only to abandon its voters? Probably not.
There also comes the fact that this apology has come much too late. As spoken on the inimitable In The Thick of It, ‘you can’t apologise for a fart you did in the elevator two days ago’. Maybe this is good timing for Clegg – but it’s not good timing for the people he’s apologising to. That’s sort of the point of apologies – you don’t make them when it’s convenient to you. You make them because you have done something inherently wrong, which needs to be put right. I understand that to apologise straight away would undermine the policy that Clegg helped to put into place – this doesn’t make his belated apology any better. It just serves to illustrate how badly Clegg has done in serving his voters. Equally, I see very little by the way of things being set right. Not always possible, I grant you. But if this silly little contrite video is meant to renew our trust – frankly, it doesn’t.
I am all the more ashamed of Clegg’s behaviour, because it just so happens that I have a particularly excellent LibDem MP.
Julian Huppert is a bloody marvellous MP. He listens. He responds to letters. He takes action. He stands by promises and serves his community well. I often see him cycling around the city, and is happy to stop and talk to his constituents. Active on twitter, he has his finger on the pulse of public opinion in our very liberal city and represents everything that Clegg is patently not.
Unfortunately for Dr Huppert, it is his face pictured alongside Clegg’s with that now-infamous pledge. Unlike Clegg, he continued to vocally speak out against tuition fee rises, and voted against them. Sadly, Clegg hasn’t just let down his voters. I have no idea if Dr Huppert sees it this way, but Clegg’s poor decisions and lack of leadership, followed by this pathetic non-apology does not do his party justice, and more to the point, it doesn’t do his MPs justice.
By failing to recognise the source of mistrust and disappointment in his apology and effectively sidestepping the more difficult issues, Clegg has failed to reconnect to his voters – it isn’t only his detractors who think this false apology is an utter debacle. Instead, the ‘let’s get the lies out of politics’ Nick Clegg has just showed himself to be as out of touch and deceitful as so many of our senior ministers.
In these politically strained times, I think we may see more coalition governments, and as the next largest party, the LibDems are likely to remain more of a prominent feature of government in this country. We all just hope it’s not with Clegg.