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Sunday, November 14, 2010

The partisan nonsense of the NUS decapitation strategy

Students all over the country are angry. I do not blame them. Despite the fact that the proposals on student funding contain several concessions directly attributable to the Liberal Democrats' position in government, the bottom line, the amount that students will have to repay, is too high.

The concessions that the Liberal Democrats have obtained are not insignificant. They include removing up-front fees for part-time students, keeping a cap (albeit at the wrong level), raising the threshold for repayment so that many poorer graduates will never have to repay the fees and ensuring that richer students cannot secure an unfair advantage by paying off the amount owed early.

Of course this is not what was in our manifesto. We put forward a six year programme that would have phased out fees altogether. Not only would we have implemented that promise if we had had a majority, but even the Guardian, who allege that we were planning to ditch the pledge, acknowledge that this was the case. In the middle of an otherwise non-story yesterday, their journalist writes:

Clegg also joined all other Lib Dem MPs in signing an NUS pledge to "vote against any increase in fees". The leaked document showed that during the preparations for a hung parliament the Lib Dems still intended to fulfil that commitment.

The fact is that in a hung parliament scenario we need the agreement of other parties to get anything through. Both Labour and the Tories are pro-tuition fees, a fact scarcely acknowledged by the Labour leadership of the National Union of Students, who were strangely quiet when Labour broke their promise by firstly, introducing fees and then trebling them. The document highlighted by the Guardian was a discussion of what concessions we might have to make in coalition talks, it was by no means an abandonment of any promise.

This brings me to the question I was asked by students in Coleg Afan Nedd on Friday morning. They referred to the pledge signed by Liberal Democrat MPs to oppose an increase in tuition fees, which by the way is different and separate from a policy of phasing out fees altogether, and asked why we could not just vote down the lifting of the cap to £6,000?

The answer is that there is no reason at all why Liberal Democrat MPs cannot vote in that way and I hope most of them do. However, there are complicating factors that have to be taken into account, not least the Coalition Agreement itself. That document provides that Lib Dem MPs can abstain on this vote. As I understand it that applies to Ministers as well, who would otherwise be bound by collective responsibility. Thus there is no reason for Clegg and Cable to do anything more than abstain, even on proposals that they have put forward.

The issue then of course is what happens to those proposals. They will go through, even with Labour opposing them. And because the Liberal Democrats have washed their hands of them the Tories will no longer be bound by the concessions they have made. They may decide that they wish to do away with the cap altogether and abandon the changes on part-time students for example.

Of course Liberal Democrat Ministers could break the Coalition Agreement and vote against the lifting of the tuition fee increase, but that would mean the end of the Coalition Government, a General Election and the inevitable return of a majority Conservative Government that can do what it likes. That would not be in the best interests of students.

I am conscious that all of this sounds like I am making excuses for the behaviour of Liberal Democrat Ministers. I am not. These are the very real considerations that need to be taken into account when a final decision is taken as to how the party should vote when the proposals come to the House of Commons. It is an argument for more talks and more concessions. Clegg and Cable need to go back to the drawing board and put it to Cameron that the proposals as they stand remain unacceptable and need amending.

This brings me to the tactics of the NUS. It is now apparent that although the vast majority of students protested peacefully last week, some of the damage to property and violence was not just the work of anarchists as alleged. Some ordinary students appear to have got caught up in this and as Guido Fawkes reports some NUS UK Officials failed to appreciate the gravity of the situation:

Writing in a “Coalition of the Resistance” letter Mark Bergfeld, (NUS NEC), Vicki Baars (NUS LGBT Officer) and Sean Rillo Raczka (NUS NEC Mature Students’ Rep) said:

‘During the demonstration over 5,000 students showed their determination to defend the future of education by occupying the Tory party HQ and its courtyards for several hours. The mood was good-spirited, with chants, singing and flares. We reject any attempt to characterise the Millbank protest as small, “extremist” or unrepresentative of our movement… We stand with the protesters, and anyone who is victimised as a result of the protest.’We reject any attempt to characterise the Millbank protest as small, “extremist” or unrepresentative of our movement… We stand with the protesters, and anyone who is victimised as a result of the protest.’

Now we have a situation whereby the Labour leadership of NUS UK have announced that they are going to use their position to seek to decapitate key Liberal Democrat MPs. That is not partisan at all, oh no! Given their previous attitude to broken promises by Labour MPs on tuition fees, it is sheer hypocrisy. Or, to put it more politely, as Evan Harris says, it is a "transparent stunt".

The Neue Politik blog sums it up:

Secondly, what does this plan achieve?

i) it's not going to stop the rise in tuition fees from going through. Only lobbying and building as broad a, dare I say it, coalition as possible MIGHT achieve that.
ii) it's unlikely to succeed, as the stringent requirements for a recall will probably not be met
iii) if it did succeed and the Lib Dem MP was removed, what's the best scenario? A Tory MP who will happily screw over students or a New Labour MP who will not care either way, it'll just depend on which way the political wind blows at the time. This progresses the cause of students, how?

Thirdly, it spells out to every sensible person that the NUS isn't interested in students or tuition fees (it's policy on a graduate tax is less progressive than what most students actually want!) but is acting as an offshoot of the Labour party. It risks losing the support of the sympathetic non-student population, like my Mum, who dislikes the Coalition, hates tuition fees BUT who remains firmly unconvinced about Labour following the last 13 years.

For the sake of the fight against tuition fees, the NUS needs to make a stand now fighting against EVERYONE in Parliament who has allowed this policy to exist be they Labour, Tory or Lib Dem. Otherwise it's about as useful as a chocolate teapot.

The problem that the National Union of Students has created for itself is that they are focusing on one political party rather than the issue itself. Given its own inconsistencies on tuition fees that is hardly surprising but even they must know that alienating likely supporters with partisan threats and taking to the barricades rather than engaging in rational argument does their members a disservice and will fail to achieve anything. The question is, do they care?
Firstly I am a student thats not hugely into politics until very recently.
If you asked me in 1997 who was the party "for the students" I would never say Tories nor Labour. I would have always said the Lib Dems. I don't remember seeing Tony Blair or John Major every signing a pledge infront of the full glare of the media- in fact as I remember the whole Tution Fee was a fairly koy affair within Labour... until they introduced them.

So why are we more angry with the LibDems, despite the fact that Labour INTRODUCED them. Simply because the LibDems WERE the party of the students, (I'm sure if you counted how many students voted for the LibDems in the election purely on this issue it would be substantial).

Neither other party, trounced around with students being all smiles and friends, signing pledges (as probably this and P.R are the cornerstones that the public see the LibDems stand for).

And this is why we are angry. If any other party (including any within the Assembly) raised fees we would be angry, but not distraught. But because the LIbDems key issue is this, we are furious because they seem to have turned their backs on us. And most of us wouldnt have voted for them if we knew this.
You say you are in coalition, and I understand that you there must be negotiations. However some things are non-negotiable:
-Plaid's keystone is more powers (and eventually independence) for Wales- I would never see them going into coalition without this gurantee i.e there is a referendum in March
-Tories keystone is a smaller more efficient Government- and I could never see them wanting to nationalise railways, or expanding Government.
-and previously I would have said that LibDems would have made concessions but never on Fees and PR.

How wrong was I!? How do I feel that I wasted my vote!?! Absolutely fuming. I knew they'd go into coalition, but NEVER EVER thought they'd turn they're back on these issues (yes the whole A.V thing is a sham- I've read that its almost as unfair as FPP (almost I say!)).

Anyway this recall thing won't stop fees going up. But the NUS is right, it will send a message to all MP's that some promises you can't break. Will it break the party I once loved? and once was a member of?... I feel sorry but, unless the coalition does wonders by the end of 2015 I think the LibDems are now walking dead, and I'm so angry about this.

One things for sure, if they manage to get rid two-face Nick Clegg it will send a clear message, and I will be ecstatic. It won't fix the fees issue, but sometimes "revenge is sweet".

As for the Welsh Lib Dems, the party I once was a member for until last month. I really fear for your chances in the Assembly Elections, any policy you bring just cannot hold water even the biggest of ones as Nick has shown that you'll drop it at the chance of a Ministers wage.
What about others? well atleast Plaid can say that they won't back from there key policies like more powers.
What about Labour? well they can see that even in hardship they wont leave the belief they have in Universal Benefits.

What am I going to do come 2011. I'm so sorry Peter (or rather the successor to Jenny Randerson) I won't be voting for you, for the first time in (I think 4 elections). Who now fits me? well I'm not a nationalist and so for me personally I think it's amazingly going to be Plaid, as I know they won't drop key policies that they outline in Manifestos EVEN if they go into coalition. Again sorry that I have to turn my back on you, but its all thanks to Nick Clegg and the "negotiating team".
Sorry for the essay but I cant tell you how angry I am.

And as for your "partisan" NUS- its an elected body. And you ask most NUS students, do you back this? be they lab, lib, green or nationalist and they'll say YES..... even if the President is Chummy with Ed Milliband- so don't use this card!

Finally a message to the Welsh Lib Dems. Please peter, put clear 'yellow' water between you and Westminster and stand up (like you did for the Welsh Channel) and say stuff like "Nick did this, we disagree, and Kirsty does, we wouldnt do this in Wales, its awful" etc and do it aloud.

But the problem is if you say that, nobody will believe you.... again due to Nick Clegg's lies!.

Thanks Peter... interesting blog. Please Stand up to London aloud, and dont let the LibDems die here in Wales- what would my hero David Lloyd George (or at least SOME of what he did) do?
I think if he disagreed with it, he would definitely stand up in the middle of Caernarfon and tell them what a disgrace they are..... I think the streets of Swansea are calling for this too!.
Jake, I am trying to make it clear that I disagree, as are other Welsh Lib Dems. As for Plaid, I am afraid that they did abandon a manifesto promise in similar circumstances to introduce top-up fees into Wales. Just thought I should correct that misconception.
Thanks for the reply.
I believe top-up fees had already been introduced to Wales, however the WAG at the time gave a grant of £1,800+ to Welsh/ non UK E.U students. And it was this that the Lab/Plaid Coalition got rid of. Just thought I'd correct you on that. But again not happy about that.

However when one says Plaid to me, its not anti top-up fees that comes to light, its powers etc and they would never turn they're back on that. Something I thought the LibDems would never do too.

I just downloaded their manifesto and Universities was something like no5 priority. However just a small paragraph on abolishing fees- not the whole sham that the Nick Clegg did i.e emphasising fees by signing pledges, close ties between S.U's and Liberals etc- this was the main reason I turned my back on it.
To make a comparison, it'd be like the SNP saying, no to independence (their key ambition, like fees were to many Liberals), and instead doing the opposite and abolishing the Scots Parliament, and getting direct control on Health etc from Whitehall. They'd like creditability don't you think? and thats how I feel at the moment about us, just dropping a key fundamental policy at a drop of a hat.

Glad to hear you disagree with Nick Clegg on this. But do you know what would be great? All members of the WelshLibDems standing together outside the Assembly United and saying that they're against whats happening, and what crucially gives a knock on effect to Wales. It would send a great message and make me proud.
Instead, I remember cringing when I saw Kirsty (who I like) having to stand next to Cheryl Gillan on the news and you could see her trying to force a smile, yet having to agree with her. Oh it was awful to watch!

Anyway, thats all I want to say- I just like looking at your blog once in a while, to see whats going on!
Jake, there is nothing in the One Wales Agreement about Independence and nor are tuition fees as fundamental to the Liberal Democrats as self-determination is to Plaid Cymru. Our raison d'etre is the freedom of the individual and the enabling state. Free education forms part of that because it is empowering but as with most practiacl policies there is not just one route.

The £1,800 grant was in lieu of the student paying top-up fees. The abolition of that grant effectively introduces top-up fees into Wales. That is the responsibility of Plaid Cymru, who pledged in their manifesto not to do it.

The recall mechanism by the way is completely superfluous to this argument and could not be used on an MP who voted contrary to their manifesto. It does not come in until 2012 and it only applies to an MP who has been suspended due to a misdemeanor.

As I have explained in this post there is a huge amount of over-reaction on this issue that has largely been the result of manipulation by Labour. The policy itself has not been ditched, it is still our intention to implement it if we ever got a majority. However, what is possible in a coalition government is different to that.

We already got huge concessions on tsx, pensions, civil liberties and the environment and forced the Tories to drop some cherished policies. In the present economic climate we can try to get a better deal for students but the odds are against us. The choice then is to compromise or to break up the coalition. That is likely to lead to a General Election and a majority Tory Government who will eliver a worse deal for students.

Finally, I think you will find that all the Welsh Lib Dem AMs and MPs are opposed to this deal. We are standing up to be counted but our voice on this essentially English matter is limited.
As long as they keep to their personal pledges then they have nothing to fear, decapitation strategy or not.
"the bottom line, the amount that students will have to repay, is too high."

I disagree Peter. i think the bottom line is that many Lib Dem MPs made personal pledges not just to oppose increases to tuition fees but to scrap them altogether. To have voted for a Lib Dem then see fees increase so dramatically is why students, and indeed parents, are deeply angry
Except Matt there has been no vote yet so there is still an opportunity for MPs to keep their pledge and many will. And as I said in the blog we need a majority to scrap fees altogether and we do not have that. Dont confuse the NUS pledge with the manifesto.
It's so frustrating Peter trying to see you 'spin' this issue, trying to justify it on 'what is a pledge' and 'what is in the manifesto'.
You dont need to have a majority to scrap fees, if you were really committed you could've demanded that in the negotiations.

You say most will not vote for- I assume abstain or not turn up rather than vote down the proposal.

What do you think Nick Clegg will do out of interest!!??
"The £1,800 grant was in lieu of the student paying top-up fees. The abolition of that grant effectively introduces top-up fees into Wales. That is the responsibility of Plaid Cymru, who pledged in their manifesto not to do it."

The thing is Peter, can you honestly argue that if the Lib Dems went into a Welsh coalition with Labour, you would be able to afford to reinstate that grant, particularly as we are facing unprecedented spending cuts in Wales?

I only say this because in defending Clegg (or explaining the UK Lib Dem position) you are playing the "realist" card, but you then refuse to play that card in Wales.

The reason you won't break the UK coalition over this is because of realism. But you won't accept the realism Plaid faced up to in Wales.

To some people that would smack of the opportunism that the Lib Dems are often accused of.

£9,000 is ridiculous. It is materially worse, by a long shot, than the unideal but probably manageable situation facing students in Wales.
Jake, I am not trying to spin this at all but to say it as it is. You have to acknowledge that there is a difference between the manifesto promise to phase out fees over a six year period, which you need a majority to deliver, and a pledge by individual MPs not to support an increase in fees.

The point is you DO need a majority to scrap fees, especially when the plan is to phase it over two Parliaments and it is intrically tied up in the economic agenda as it was. We could have put it into negotiations and as far as I know we did, but when both Labour and the Tories are in favour of fees then you are not going to get very far. That is why the provision for an abstention was included in the agreement. The issue then is whether this is something that will prevent you acting in the best interests of the country and forming a coalition or not, knowing that if you dont it will be even worse for students as I have outlined in the post.

I believe most Lib Dem MPs will fulfill their pledge and vote against the present proposals assuming that is what comes before them. Ministers are likely to abstain or vote for. It is still crystal ball stuff I am afraid. Whether that is enough to defeat it I dont know. I hope so.

Ramblings, I think I can honestly say we would not have signed up to the deal Plaid agreed to. However, in the present economic climate I do not know if we can afford to reverse it and I did not say we would. We will have to consider that when we draw up our manifesto.

I do not believe that Plaid faced the same situation at the time but realistically we do now. My criticism is that Plaid are jumping onto the bandwagon to have a go at us when they did the same thing.

The fee limit is of course £6,000 a year not £9,000, which is the exception.
The UK is in a battle of its life, the status quo no longer applies.

"[I]think the bottom line is that many Lib Dem MPs made personal pledges not just to oppose increases to tuition fees but to scrap them altogether."

Yes, but the UK no longer has the financial resources to scrap tuition fees. Sorry, but the public at large sees that.

Resources should be focused on making sure that science and engineering students have unimpeded access to university science and engineering courses. In that narrow sense tuition fees should, imho, be scrapped and money specifically allocated (and it won't take a lot of money) to protect UK intellectual property. Are there many UK students who know about the MRC/MABs fiasco where a massively important British invention was not patent protected and led to huge profits and massive job creation? For example, in the USA - particularly in the biotech industry around Chicago.

Absent fundamental rethinking of the UK business model, UK PLC will experience a plurality of downshifts in living standards.
Dr Chris,
I think that is an excellent idea. I always thought that would work in an ideal world. For example if there are shortages of Civil Engineers then fees should be lowered for them or abolished, whereas if there arent any jobs for people studying "McDonalds degrees" fees for these should be sky-high.

HOWEVER, I don't think any Government should work a system. Why? well in the teaching PGCE world there WAS a shortage of Maths teachers, so they increased the grant for them- great. However now there arent enough Maths teachers jobs with just one from UWB having a job, have they lowered the grant? No.

The same with nurses, there are now far too many nurses (with many coming to Wales from England to train) yet they dont lower the grant available.

If a system was set up and it did work it would be great.And if it makes people do cheaper degrees, then great as that'll meet the nations skills shortage.

In terms of the MRC/MAB fiasco. So sorry but your knowledge is far superior to me!! Despite me once studying I.P law!! Can you give me a link to a story on it, out of interest?!
Quote from Times Higher Education publication: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=168036
" ... [H]e also realised the commercial potential of monoclonal antibodies and therefore he suggested in a letter to MRC (UK's Medical Research Council) head office that his laboratory's invention should be patented. Unfortunately, it appears that the National Research and Development Corporation (NRDC) which had a monopoly over MRC inventions did not think César's idea about monoclonal antibodies was worth patenting. It took a narrow view and said that it would have been much more interesting if César produced antibodies other than those against sheep. As a result the potentially enormous royalty income on the key step of what became a multibillion pound industry was lost. When Margaret Thatcher became prime minister and learned about the failure to apply for a patent it is said (somewhat unfairly) blamed Sir James Gowen who was the head of the MRC at the time."

What I propose is very simple; file Welsh university publications on mass as PPAs (provisional patent applications) under the 12-month grace rule that operates in the United States patent system with some screening (but only to knock out obvious non-inventions) in the USA. For example, I could take the publication and file it as a PPA within one year of the publication date and then within one year of the PPA filing date 'we' can decide which ones to convert into NPA (non-provisional patent applications). I have put this into a pseudo-code format which was published on Prof. Dylan Jones-Evans blog some time ago (as a response/post, not an article). I tried to explain this idea to Professor Phil Williams - I flew at my own expense to Wales to see him and 'what-do-ya-know' (from Red Dwarf), Prof Phil Williams died a short time thereafter in a "Touch of Class").

My idea is so simple, yet could turn Wales's fortunes right around. I can fast-read Welsh university publications and turns selected ones into PPAs and file them. I could set up a small group. Of course there would be legal arguments if it turned out that one of the PPAs is in fact a MAB in disguise, but whoever ends up owning the IP (probably the Wales based inventors in combination with the university) could mean MASSIVE royalties and jobs flowing back to Wales for job creation in Wales. It would be like a small snowball running down hill. This idea could REVOLUTIONIZE Wales - make the Ryder Cup (as good as it was for Wales) chicken feed.

"Additional" (Red Dwarf):

Simon Gibson – the chief executive of Wesley Clover (Simon Gibson) – concluded some time ago that Welsh universities were sitting on a “GOLD MINE” of intellectual property that could be commercialised, thus bringing enormous benefits to the economy of Wales.

My simple idea, if put into practice would revolutionize Wales - turn the Wales into a thriving economy – Wales would, for example, leapfrog the entrepreneurial university in Singapore and for a fraction of the amount of money that IWJ (Deputy First Minister) has already thrown at buying supercomputers (on top of the supercomputer at ILS in Swansea University which has generated to date zip issued patents in the world’s largest economic market for patented goods).

Since the MRC/MABs fiasco the UK has lost out on patenting further key technology. For example, key stem cell technology was not patented. Sir Martin Evan’s had his name on a non-key technology aspect of his work – but the key technology was published without filing a patent application (bit like the MABs fiasco). In fact Sir Evan’s sole active patent (one that listed him as an inventor) on non-key aspects of his discoveries expired for lack of paying a maintenance fee on August 20, 2010.

Let Wales be different.

Sadly Plaid has shown a deaf ear to date, but I think Adam Price might have tuned into it and understood the idea ‘but for’ the simple fact we did not meet up in Washington, DC and right now given his recent outspoken comments he’s not exactly the flavour of the month, but that can quickly change. Welsh Labour simply doesn’t get it. The Welsh Conservatives seem to be disinterested in the idea and I have tried to explain it to them on more than one occasion. I was very disappointed in Phil Williams – I was looking forward to more discourse with him but as it turned out his heart/mind was focused on a different type of discourse.
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