Am I a bad parent?Â I was a bit disappointed to find out that while the student protests were going on in London our daughter was in London…
…in a university lecture hall.
Anyway, a good excuse to include a photo that is sure to become an all-time classic and feature in many election leaflets for years to come, but probably not Lib Dem leaflets. (Hat-tip to Tom Watson)It is an interesting row this one.Â During PMQs today Clegg was in the chair while his master was out talking at students in China and he took a bit of a beating from Harriet Harman who started by asking how his plans to abolish student fees were progressing.Â Â There have been attempts to deflect criticism by pointing out that Labour introduced fees after saying it wouldn’t in a manifesto, and probably some reference to how compromises have to be made in a coalition, but I don’t think that is the point.Â I don’t even think that whether tuition fees and student loans are a good or a bad thing is the point either.
I think the real lesson is not to sign pledges.
Manifestos now have got ridiculously large, trying to cover everything, yet also quite vague to allow for the fact that circumstances may not always allow that many things to be done the way you intended.Â I think that new governments do try to work to their manifesto generally, even if a lot of specifics don’t work out.Â But that is not what this is about.
Abolishing fees, or opposing increases may have been in the Lib Dem manifesto, but that is not the point either.Â I doubt if there was a candidate for any party in the last election, or any previous ones, who agreed with every single part of their party’s manifesto.Â There were certainly items in mine that I didn’t like, for example the Trident renewal, but that didn’t stop me preferring our set of policies overall and I think any sensible candidate accepts they will have to agree to differ on some specific points.
In this case the manifesto is irrelevant.Â Lib Dem candidates all specifically singled out that one policy and publicly stated that they supported it, signing pledges to say they would vote against any increase in fees.Â It was a very specific and explicit statement with no wriggle room at all.Â The wording was a bit of a giveaway though, with its implicit assumption that the person signing it would not actually be in the government.
We all know the Lib Dems didn’t expect to be in government any more than I expected to win the seat in Horsham, but I was quite wary of signing all those pledges that I was being asked to on an almost daily basis by various pressure groups.Â I may have signed specific pledges on things like not repealing the anti-hunting laws or not renewing Trident but only because I knew that is what how I felt and I would have been quite prepared to vote with my conscience on them whatever the party line was in a parliamentary vote.
Otherwise I viewed all these pledge requests as being little hostages to fortune in the unlikely event of Horsham turning red.
It is rare that politicians or aspiring politicians make such very specific and unequivocal statements, and now we can see why, but having done so you should stick with them shouldn’t you?
There was a request to all candidates to sign a similar pledge about the Equitable Life settlement, which I declined but which Francis Maude and many other Tories did sign.Â I’m sure the campaigners, who recently described George Osborne’s settlement as “woefully inadequate”, will have kept their copies of who promised what.Â It will be interesting to see if they feel that the Tory MPs voting for the Â£1.5bn figure acted in accordance with the letter and spirit of that specific pledge and what happens if they think not.Â Nothing major I expect, but maybe some entertaining squirming.
I know that there was an active grapevine amongst Equitable Life customers, so my response will have been widely disseminated.Â It will have made quite a few people who were unlikely to vote Labour anyway determined to not vote Labour, but I was happy to escape with my integrity intact.Â I think I would rather lose honourably than win dishonourably, but don’t get me started on Woolas!
I think it is safe to say that there will be rather more reluctance to sign up to pledges in future elections, and at the same time more attempts to get candidates to sign them.