Monday, 11 October 2010

Danger, danger! A warning on underestimating the HE vote

Guest blog for PlatformTen:

On Tuesday morning Lord Browne’s Independent Review of Higher Education Funding will be released. On Tuesday a storm unlike anything that we have seen will be unleashed upon the coalition.

The National Union of Students has already set a date for a protest mach to Downing Street on November 10th – but it won’t just be students at the rally. Politicians, academics, ‘lay’ people will all be joining tens of thousands of young people/future voters in expressing their outrage at whatever it is that Lord Browne will be advising.

Aside from the mild point that the review has yet to be released to the wider public, hay is already starting to be made from this debate on both sides of the house. Ed Milliband is rumoured to be biding his time to hear the coalition response on the potential raise in tuition fees. The reason for his silence? This is one of the most fractious areas of the Coalition Agreement, with the Liberal Democrats having signed pledges both before and following the election vehemently refusing to implement a hike in fees. For Labour it could simply be the case of waiting for the Coalition to tear itself apart.

I am confident that the dexterity the Conservatives have thus far displayed in navigating through the mire of negative press over the child benefit cuts can be easily deployed for this similarly disruptive issue. Though this, as ever, relies on clear communication which in turn is dependent on a firm political line from the Government.

An ICM survey for The Sunday Telegraph found that 61% of voters supported a graduate tax, compared with 29% who would rather see higher tuition fees. This is in contrast to David Willetts, universities minister, who is clearly opposed to a pure tax and Vince Cable who argues that something more ‘progressive’ than it must be proposed. It’s easy to see why the public want students to pay – so they don’t have to! But with past data showing that students won’t run for the hills following a fees hike, is there any political reason not to?

Yes. There are over 481,854 students in Britain. Most of whom can vote. Therein lies the danger for the Coalition. Not only are the Lib Dems already being lambasted for a colossal U-turn, but if the Conservatives miscommunicate their motives behind whatever Browne’s review contains then the rancour of students, and thus middle-class voters, will haunt the Conservatives for many general elections to come.

University funding is turning out to be the one of the key debates that will determine the shape of the next general election. The student and youth movements are powerful and should not be underestimated, if only because one day they will be the middle-class tax-paying voters. Grudges are hard things to shake.


newellhj said...

Good points, although I think the Lib Dems have far more to lose than the Conservatives.

Even if they hike fees, the Conservatives can use their tired "it's Labour's fault" excuse which appears to be working to an extent for people who sympathise, if not support, Conservative ideologies.

Furthermore, the feeling is that whilst the Conservatives aren't devoid of a student presence, they didn't have as strong a student vote in the election as the left. Plus there is always the "people turn Conservative as they grow up" urban myth which I think the BBC published some tentative research earlier this year supporting. (I could be very wrong here, though)

Finally, the Conservatives made no guarantees on tuition fees. They also have been talking about everyone pulling their weight in the "age of austerity". With that in mind, they can't be spun in to being liars, only as being ideologically motivated which could strengthen support if it is done in an unfair badgering & petty way as politics on all sides tends to descend to.

Despite signing the NUS pledge, I heard very strong rumours that Nick Clegg has, in previous years, campaigned amongst his party to drop the tuition fees pledge in election manifestos. At the moment it seems he has to choose between his coalition partners, his (alleged) beliefs and what his voters want. I don't envy him at all.

If things go the way we are hearing they will go, I imagine something will have to break. Either the coalition, the Liberal Democrats' credibility (if the party itself doesn't tear itself apart) or Clegg's strength as leader.

Either way, the Conservatives can take a step back from this, let it descend in to a street fight between Labour and the Liberal Democrats and possibly emerge unscathed.

Martin Hughes said...

I agree with Newell that the Lib Dems have more to lose here. In many ways, the party have lost a lot since becoming part of the coalition government. This may be the killer blow.

I don't imagine the coalition will be able to implement Browne's recommendations 'as is' (or even closely) if they turn out to be as currently reported.

Now check out my quoteageness post on education & fees. :)