13 Nov 2010

Senior Lib Dems planned to drop fees pledge

The NUS tells Channel 4 News that scores of university towns, backbenchers and students feel let down by the Lib Dems’ secret plans to scrap their pledge on fees, months ahead of the election.

A confidential document – written by senior Lib Dems in preparation of coalition negotiations – said keeping the promise would be a “headache”.

Details of the document were revealed in a new book by Conservative MP Rob Wilson about the formation of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government.

The news comes as a further blow to Liberal democrat leader Nick Clegg who has faced scathing criticism of the party’s position on fees – which boiled over into violence on Wednesday during a protest march by students.

Mr Clegg admitted this week that he “should have been more careful” when he signed a pre-election pledge to oppose a rise in tuition fees.

Watch: exclusive footage of the student protest showing the storming of Millbank
Lib Dems drew up plan to scrap pledge on tuition fees

No more broken promises?

The move prompted a protest march led by the NUS in London on Wednesday, which erupted into violence as a splinter group of demonstrators stormed the Conservative party headquarters in Westminster.

While the tuition fees pledge was not central to the Lib Dems manifesto, it was the “biggest issue” among their pledges, Aaron Porter, president of the NUS, told Channel 4 News today – and it was a pledge that clinched countless student votes for the party.

Mr Porter said: “In the scores of university constituencies this was the biggest issue that the Liberal Democrats were talking about – actually 15 of the 57 Lib Dem MPs are in university towns and cities. I think Nick Clegg has let down those cities and students feel let down too.”

“We would ask whether Nick Clegg was being truthful with voters when he asked them to vote for him when he said they’d abolish tuition fees. If he genuinely didn’t believe this, then why didn’t he have the honesty to tell people who were looking for their votes?,” Mr Porter added.

He said the unravelling of the Lib Dems’ pledge on fees would prompt voters to question every single promise in the Lib Dem ‘No more broken promises’ election campaign.

Student protests: more unrest to come

The student demo on Wednesday has "galvanised" university populations to fight tuition fee increases and there will be more protests, a Goldsmiths, University of London tutor tells Channel 4 News.

Read more - Student protests: more unrest to come

Confidential document

The Lib Dems’ negotiating document, dated March 16 and marked “confidential”, was prepared by a team led by Danny Alexander, then Mr Clegg’s chief of staff and now the Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

He wrote: “On tuition fees, we should seek agreement on part-time students and leave the rest.

“We will have clear yellow water with the other [parties] on raising the tuition fee cap, so let us not cause ourselves more headaches.”

The Lib Dems said the document was a recognition of the reality of negotiating with two parties that were diametrically opposed to the policy to scrap any rise in fees. Protection for part-time students was achieved, a party source added.

The Lib Dems issued a statement which read: “These are selective extracts of documents which discussed a range of options ahead of any possible negotiations.

“As the Liberal Democrats made clear throughout the election and in negotiations, they had four key priorities which were set out on the front page of the manifesto.

“All of these priorities were agreed in the coalition document.”

“The nature of the coalition agreement has meant we were able to set the foundations for a stable five-year government that will deliver many of the priorities the Liberal Democrats have long supported.”

In his video address to the NUS, Mr Clegg said the party’s manifesto commitment to scrap fees altogether within six years was “a plan that works”.

The document makes clear, however, that the commitment had already been identified by that time as one that would have to be ditched in coalition talks.

Mr Alexander’s assessment did leave the way open however for the Lib Dems to insist on maintaining their opposition to increasing fees.

Shadow business secretary John Denham said: “Nick Clegg has no credibility on tuition fees.

“This week he said he should have been more careful before promising he would vote against fee increases but now we know he was planning to drop his fees abolition policy long before he made this promise.”