The online reaction from LibDem supporters to the Browne report on Higher Education funding, at Liberal Democrat Voice (LDV) and elsewhere, has been intriguing. And, depending on your perspective, encouraging.
Following the General Election many of the blog posts over on the public areas at LDV have been broadly, if cautiously, supportive of the LibDem decision to enter a coalition with the Tories. There has been a considerable degree of support for, and willingness to rationalise, the tough choices the Coalition have been making, even where these choices would appear to run against LibDem policy or “liberal” principles more broadly. Comment threads have often entailed elaborating this defence of coalition policy, criticising the performance of the previous Labour government, and seeking to root out posts by alleged Labour trolls.
There have undoubtedly been voices of dissent. Concerns are raised that the LibDem leadership in government is strongly associated with the Orange Book contingent, even after David Laws’s untimely departure. But having followed many of these threads over the past months, my feeling is that this critical position has not been as prominent as might have been expected.
And yet following the announcements on tuition fees it has all kicked off. The tone of the blog posts, and particularly the comments, has completely changed. The question is why?
There have been suggestions that this is simply a demonstration that the LibDems are fundamentally a middle class sectional interest group and the hike in tuition fees is going to affect them much more than caps on housing benefit or a limit on the maximum benefit income to a household. Clearly it is impossible to rule this out as a motivation, but it would be cynical and inappropriate to settle on this as the explanation.
A more plausible argument is that the response by the LibDem leadership to the Browne report represents not simply something which sidelines previous LibDem policy, but actively rejects an established and totemic policy position. Many thought they appeared to do so with a haste and a relish that was entirely inappropriate.
The sight of a rather discomfited Simon Hughes being pressed by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight about the possibility of LibDems in government voting against backbench LibDem MPs, and against agreed party policy, was distinctly troubling. If the leadership do support the Browne proposals, and of course that is – let’s hope – a big if, we would be entitled to ask what has happened to the promised new politics of honesty and integrity? The credibility of any policy claim the party might make in future will be completely undermined. If the party can simply shake off this longstanding policy, is that the end of the LibDems as an independent force in British politics? What is the point?
And that leaves aside entirely the immense constitutional implications for the party if the leadership goes off and does its own thing. That’s the sort of thing we expect from Labour and the Tories.
This is a policy of deep significance to the party. This in itself could explain the reaction. But I would like to think it is also a case of the straw that breaks the camel’s back. It is just the latest in a series of announcements which challenge the core beliefs of anyone with a concern for human rights, equality of opportunity, and human flourishing. Not so exceptional in itself. But one disappointment too many. Perhaps the result is that the community is rediscovering its voice.
What are the fundamental differences between the LibDems and the Tories? The Coalition Agreement incorporated some LibDem policies that were red lined. But, with the imminent arrival of what can only be dreadful news in the CSR, are we clear enough what is truly core to the party’s values and priorities – and whether there are changes coming that should lead the party to say enough is enough?