Before the election last year, Nick Clegg had a higher public approval rating than Winston Churchill had at the end of the War. Now he has lost more than half of his party voters, he has been burnt in effigy in demonstrations and has had dog shit posted through his letterbox. But I really think he deserves a lot more credit for what he’s done as Deputy PM, and what his party in general, has done in government.
Of course, the thing that has understandably angered people most, especially young people like myself, has been their broken promise that they would always vote against any increase in tuition fees. This sparked angry and sometimes violent protests, with some even targeting the chairman of the Nation Union of Students because he had condemned the violent behaviour of some of the protesters as “despicable”.
Obviously it was a stupid promise for the Lib Dems to make, given that there was always a very high chance of a hung Parliament, and both of the main parties (both – including Labour) would have risen tuition fees. But it’s not just the Lib Dems. Tony Blair promised fourteen years ago that the Labour Party had “no plans to introduce tuition fees for higher education”, and what did they do? They introduced tuition fees for higher education. That was just one of the many important things they said they were or were not going to do, and then went back on their word. Still, dismayingly, their blantant hypocrisy of using this of all issues to gain votes from the Lib Dems appears to be working, if opinion polls and the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election are anything to go by.
And this may seem surreal to everyone who is only concentrating on the fee rises and not the change of system, but overall, most of us – especially the poorest – will be better off in our twenties than before, under Labour. No-one will have to pay up-front tuition fees; it will all be transferred to loans. The rate at which we have to pay off our loans will depend on how much we’re earning, so that if my first job is working in the London Metal Exchange for £100,000 p.a. I’ll be paying off my debts far more quickly than if I’m just earning £21,000. If I’m earning less than that, I won’t have to start paying them yet at all. And these progressive changes are mostly likely due to Lib Dem pressure on the Tories to make the fee rises more progressive.
And let’s stop assuming that tuition fees discriminate against the poor – they don’t. The gap between rich and poor going to the top universities was always large, even way before fees were introduced. In the US, where universities are very expensive indeed, half of the poorest fifth of the population – and half of the overall population – goes to university. It all depends on the system, and on how well competition is encouraged between the universities, which needless to say, is not going to happen if we don’t have fees.
And generally, considering the Lib Dems are a far smaller party in Parliament than the Tories, they have had quite a lot of very good influence on government policy. Because of them, those earning less than £10,000 a year no longer have to pay income tax, ID cards are being scrapped, civil liberties are generally receiving more attention (except with regards to the EU, obviously), we’re having a referendum on AV, the government is more “environmentally friendly” and rich people are bing taxed more. Personally, I don’t entirely agree with the latter two points, but you can’t deny the party is making a lot of influence, given their smaller number of votes and seats.
So let’s stop bashing the Lib Dems. They are still putting their position in government to some good use. And frankly, if they actually deliver on their manifesto pledge to give us a referendum on EU membership, I’ll forgive everything else. But we’re still waiting…