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Monday, 6 December 2010

Mulholland calls for tuition fees vote delay

I've just watched Lib Dem MP Greg Mulholland argue on BBC News 24 that Thursday's vote on Higher Education tuition fees should be postponed. Citing the lack of debate - only three hours will be given to the issue on the floor of the Commons - Greg indicated that he would have to vote "no" on Thursday as what is actually being debated is not some of the more progressive aspects of the government's proposals but merely an increase in tuition fees. Voting simply for an increase, asserts Greg, is something that "many" Liberal Democrat MPs have trouble with.

"I don't want to vote 'no' ", he explained. "There is one way out - postpone the vote and look at this again in 2011".

This approach is more reasonable than it at first might appear. It is pretty clear that divisions seem to be deepening within the party. It is also clear that the leadership has been unconvincing in its efforts to contain this division. Many party members are concerned, understandably, that coalition unity is being placed before party unity. Perhaps some more time to think seriously about the vote and its potential ramifications would help heal rifts and allow for the development of a new understanding within the parliamentary party.

Perhaps.

I'm not convinced. There has been plenty of time for the party's MPs to consider their stance - both as individuals and collectively. Understandably two distinct approaches have emerged: "we're bound by collective responsibility and therefore must vote with the government" and "we owe it to our constituents to honour our pledges". These are both simplistic attitudes, and are hardly indicative of the "grown-up politics" we are supposed to be championing.

The first perspective illiberally reduces MPs to unthinking, robotic and unquestioning lobby fodder, whose only purpose is to see through government policy, irrespective of individual conscience. While I recognise the need for "collective responsibility", clearly that term means a multitude of things to different people. My own interpretation of "collective responsibility" does not attack individuality as dangerous and is more than merely a means to impose conformity.

The second approach perhaps gives insufficient consideration to the needs to keep the coalition united. That does not mean that coalition interests supercede those of the party. But our party's interests are inescapably linked to the success of the coalition. There is little purpose in pursuing goals that will untimately compromise broader opportunities for the Liberal Democrats.

Unfortunately, there is a widespread - and I think mistaken - belief that a sizeable "rebellion" would be bad for the coalition. It wouldn't; it would be unlikely to affect the outcome and would hardly cause David Cameron headaches. Neither would Lib Dem MPs voting three ways necessarily damage the party. As Paddy Ashdown (also speaking on BBC News 24) said "the process is as important as the outcome to hold the party together." And public disagreement on policy and principle, however regrettable, is infinitely better to the personality centred divisions we witnessed within the Labour Party in the final months of the Brown administration.

And it's this "process" I have concerns about. Lord Ashdown might contend that "the process...[allows MPs] to respect each other's views without rancour...[the party has been united] in listening to all the voices...agreeing maybe to disagree ...people will take different views." While the unity he promotes - that of honest discussion and mutual respect, irrespective of agreement on principle - is a more genuine unity than one that is enforced and dictated, there is no escaping the unfortunate reality that the "process" has ultimately failed. The party appears divided and chaotic, while the strict terms of the coalition - allowing only for abstention - undermine any unity based on "the agreement to disagree".

Greg Mulholland's proposal to postpone the vote, however laudable his reasons, would only serve to further confuse the situation and would in all likelihood have the opposite effect to the one he intends. The Lib Dem leadership would be made to look particularly weak and incapable of maintaining party discipline. Suspicion about the depth of supposed divisions would be heightened and probably exaggerated. We would be ridiculed as a party in turmoil.

Tensions have already been raised today with Norman Baker indicating he "is unsure" of how he will vote and that he may be willing to resign.

Nick Clegg's job is probably the most difficult in British politics. Deferring the vote would make it more difficult still.

What I really struggle with is why "grown-up politics" should be so averse to the possibilities of allowing MPs a free vote on this issue. Surely, as Paddy Ashdown says, "the process is as important as the outcome" in respect also to coalition unity? If our MPs vote three different ways and yet can retain respect for each other, and if our party can remain united and committed to pursuing a fairer society irrespective of our disagreements on this single issue, that will be a greater achievement than enforcing a superficial, undemocratic and artificially created "coherent position" at the vote on Thursday. Even if the government wins the vote (which it will surely do), it will be a hollow victory if it has been gained at the cost of losing the trust of the public, creating resentment among Lib Dem MPs and undermining the Lib Dem leadership.

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