Monday, 8 November 2010

Twisting and Turning

The Lib Dems continue to twist and turn over student fees, desperately seeking a way out which enables them to support their ministers whilst retaining some integrity around the promise that they made at the last election. 
Labour, meanwhile, are showing the zeal of the convert as they attack the government’s decision to do what the review set up by Labour recommended.  We should not forget that it was Labour who drew up the terms of reference, and Labour who appointed Lord Browne to conduct the review; the results can hardly have been a surprise to them. 
Things could have been very different, of course.  The Lib Dems could have decided not to join a regressive coalition with the Tories, and joined a regressive coalition with Labour instead.  For reasons which completely escaped me at the time, and which escape me still, there were some within Plaid who publicly suggested that Plaid MPs should join the same regressive alliance.
Had that alternative coalition come about, we would now have those Labour MPs who say that higher fees are unacceptable explaining why they are essential, whilst the Tories currently backing the plans would be vociferously attacking their unfairness.  The Lib Dems would still be twisting and turning of course; there’s no respite for them.  But they might have been joined by Plaid MPs, finding themselves in a similar position to that of the party’s AMs in Cardiff Bay.
In the great game of Westminster politics played by the Labour and Conservative parties, the nature of their deeply-held ‘beliefs’ often seems to depend more on which side of the House they happen to be sitting at the time than on anything else. 
For the people affected by their decisions, it’s far more important than that.  This really is not a game.

6 comments:

Adam Higgitt said...

"it was Labour who drew up the terms of reference, and Labour who appointed Lord Browne to conduct the review; the results can hardly have been a surprise to them."

Some might suggest it is a mark of a good and properly independent review that its findings surprise those who commission it.

John Dixon said...

"Some might suggest it is a mark of a good and properly independent review that its findings surprise those who commission it."

On that, I cannot but agree.

But when was the last time any government (in London or Cardiff) commissioned a "good and properly independent review"? (S)he who sets the terms of reference and appoints the reviewer generally knows what answer (s)he wants to get. (Long experience tells me that a consultant is someone who borrows your watch to tell you the time. And I speak as an ex-consultant.)

The usual purpose of a review of this nature is so that the government can do what they were planning to do anyway, and point to outside evidence in support. That's awfully cynical, I know, and sometimes I wonder if I'm too cynical about politicians in general, and too harsh on them. The thing is that they have a habit of living down to my expectations.

Siônnyn said...

Wasn't it also Labour that set it as a goal to see 50% of pupils go to university?

That surely is the error underlying the whole funding problem.

I can't see anything wrong with society as a whole funding, say, doctors, or engineers,or pure scientists to get their degrees, but when it gets to the point where a BA(Hons) Surface Pattern Design (Contemporary Applied Arts Practice) have the same value, and should be paid for equally by the candidates, is ridiculous!

Once again, the tension between UK right of centre perspective, and the Welsh collectivist consensus is thrown into sharp focus! How can we take advantage of it?

Adam Higgitt said...

While there is credence in what you say I think you are being a little cynical. Governments can commission reports to investigate a topic where they have neither the credibility nor the inclination to do so themselves, and in perhaps greater detail and with greater objectivity. Of course they are also used to give cover...

Of perhaps greater interest is your counterfactual. I wonder if Plaid would or could have supported Browne had they been either part of a coalition or party to a supply and confidence arrangement. The Lib Dems have changed their minds for reasons more sophisticated, one assumes, than that they are simply bad or weak-minded individuals. Personally, I do not find the argument that "circumstances change" to be credible, not least because the approximate scale of the deficit, and thus the likely nature of remedial measures, was known prior to the election. So we must conclude they assume that they have rationally concluded it is worth reversing their pledge for the other things remaining in coalition gets them. I wonder if the same would calculation have been true for Plaid.

John Dixon said...

Sionnyn,

I don't think that there was anything wrong with Labour's aspiration to see more young people benefitting from a university education, although the '50%' target always seemed a little arbitrary to me.

Presenting two extremes of types of degree, as you have done, makes it easy to distinguish; the reality, however, is that degrees lie on a very broad spectrum, and I think you'd probably have some difficulty drawing a line through the ones nearer the middle.

I believe that a university education improves the skills of all who meet the requirements, and enables them all to make a better contribution to enriching society as a whole.

John Dixon said...

Adam,

In my more fair-minded and less cynical moments, I'd have to agree with you that "Governments can commission reports to investigate a topic where they have neither the credibility nor the inclination to do so themselves, and in perhaps greater detail and with greater objectivity". I'd probably put the Stern report into that category. Still wouldn't put the Browne report there though - I think they knew what they were going to get, and were happy to see it delayed until after the election.

On the counterfactual, I would never have expected Plaid AMs to have ended up supporting tuition fees in Cardiff, but they did (and indeed, the AM Group proposed an amendment in the recent conference wanting to go further by dropping the commitment to abolition and investigating a graduate tax).

In the position that I held at the time of the tuition fees decision, part of my response was to ask whether the decision was enough to break the coalition or not. I suspect that the Lib Dems are having to face a similar question right now - and I might have more sympathy for them in facing that decision if they hadn't tried to paint things in such black and white terms when Plaid faced a similar problem. I also do not assume that "they are simply bad or weak-minded individuals"; but I might wish that they'd adopt the same attitude towards others.

If Plaid had entered into an agreement to support a Labour-Lib Dem coalition at Westminster, as some suggested, then whether the MPs would have found themselves in the same position depends to a very large extent on the nature of that agreement; but an agreement which did not give the government at least a sporting chance of getting its programme through would have been worthless from the point of view of the other parties.

The calculation, ultimately, would come down to the same core question - is the agreement, overall, still doing more 'good' than 'harm' (accepting that those terms are not morally neutral, but stem from a given perspective). So, yes, I believe that it's at least credible that Plaid MPs could have ended up taking the same position as the AMs in Cardiff (or the Lib Dems in London), and for similar reasons.

There are two morals to the story, it seems to me. The first is that parties need to be clearer about the implications of coalition politics, both with their own members and with the public (and that is especially true for junior partners). The second is that using over the top rhetoric to criticise another party's compromises is likely to rebound on you when you find yourself in a similar position.