During the night we had an understandable focus on the Lib Dem so-called ‘pledge breakers’ who won’t be returning to Westminster next week. But the “cruel night” also saw prominent figures associated with the party’s progressive centre-left swept away – including many who actually voted against the Coalition’s tuition fees changes.
But first, we must start with the Minister who was in actual charge of higher education policy, Vince Cable. It had been thought that Twickenham could be close, but surely Vince would hold on. Surely? No such luck. Despite his high-profile, local popularity and being someone a coalition of centre-left voters could assuredly get behind, the Business Secretary lost his seat to the Tories.
From the constituency that’s home to English rugby, we travel down the M4 to the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff Central. Jenny Willott, who resigned from her government position in 2010 to vote against the tuition fees rise, lost the seat to Labour. It caps a bad few years for the party in the Welsh capital, in a seat that was a source of huge campaigning pride – the Welsh Assembly seat, Council control and Parliamentary seat have all gone to Labour in the last three elections.
Due north of Cardiff, the immensely popular Roger Williams lost Brecon & Radnorshire to the Tories. He also voted against the tuition fees rise in 2010. In consecutive elections the Welsh Lib Dems have now lost their two mid-Wales Tory battleground seats, having lost Montgomeryshire in 2010. These are contests of radicalism vs. Toryism that go back over a century.
Charles Kennedy, undoubtedly one the most articulate and admired progressive politicians of his generation, saw his 32 year Westminster career come to an end. He was another fees rebel – indeed he was the one Lib Dem MP not to back the coalition deal. The list goes on, Julian Huppert in Cambridge, Adrian Sanders in Torbay, and Bob Russell losing his battle to remain the only non-Tory MP in Essex. Fees rebels all.
It’s now likely that the task to rebuild the party will fall to Tim Farron, who also rebelled on the tuition fees vote. He – or any other leadership candidate – will undoubtedly focus on the party’s organisational and campaigning challenges. It needs to be fit and ready for next year’s Scottish, Welsh and English local elections. But crafting a brand, personality and policy platform that gets people listening to the Lib Dems again will also be near the top of the in-tray.
This cannot be done without addressing the long shadow that trust and tuition fees continue to cast. Of course, this will not be done by higher education policy alone. But it might be one of the places to start and be representative for other key questions. The very idea of what now constitutes a ‘public good’ in England? What does social mobility actually mean, how do we measure it, and what’s the role for government and institutions such as universities?
Ensuring that equality of opportunity delivers outcomes for individuals and society, and is not just ‘feel good’ efforts? How government investment, in whatever form, actually stimulates growth and enterprise in a high-skill economy? And these are just for starters.
The party, along with Labour, will also have to be ready to respond to potential changes on the fees level, tougher immigration rules and further moves on a more diverse sector and private provision. It’s going to be interesting…