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Why I abstained in the tuition fees vote

December 13, 2010

This is a full account of how I arrived at my decision to abstain in the vote to increase tuition fees.  It was clear from the moment that the Coalition Government was formed that the vote on tuition fees would be the most difficult vote for the Liberal Democrats in the whole five year term of government.

The Lib Dems had gone into the election with a policy distinct from the Conservatives and Labour.  Both the other parties were committed to the maintenance of tuition fees.  Furthermore, both of them planned to increase fees.  Prior to the election the Universities Secretary Peter Mandelson had set up a review of higher education by former BP chief executive Lord John Browne.  Its remit had been agreed with the Conservatives and was expected to pave the way for a rise in fees.  The report was staged for publication after the general election.  As the Lib Dems’ shadow Universities Secretary at the time I criticised this decision as it robbed the electorate of the opportunity to have a full appreciation of all the parties’ policies.

The NUS pledge has been much discussed.  The pledge was in two parts – to oppose a rise in fees and work for a fairer system.  No leading Labour or Conservative MP signed the pledge.  This should have been a clear signal that both of them were intent on a fees rise and saw no need to reform the system.

The pledge was launched in November 2009.  The Lib Dem manifesto was finalised in the spring of 2010.  It significantly downgraded our opposition to fees, which were now to be phased out over two Parliaments.   We were absolutely clear however that we wanted to see a move to a fairer system.  In the manifesto we spelt out plans to put part time students on the same basis as full time undergraduates, which is not currently the case.  We would introduce a national bursary scheme.  There would be greater transparency for students on what they could expect from universities and a tighter quality assurance regime for lecturers.  However, the manifesto was silent on the long term replacement for the existing flat rate fees and repayment regime.  Internally we had looked quite hard at a pure graduate tax.  But a hybrid was more attractive as it could run alongside the existing maintenance loan repayments and could not be avoided either by EU students or English graduates living overseas, one of the problems with a pure graduate tax regime.

The Coalition Agreement foresaw the difficulties and provided for an abstention vote by Lib Dem MPs.  Early in the life of the new government several of my colleagues broke this agreement and stated they would vote against a fee rise whatever the detail of the proposals announced in response to the Browne Review.  I decided that I would work with the new Secretary of State for Business, Vince Cable and the Universities Minister, David Willetts,  to try and inject as much Lib Dem policy and principles as possible into the final package.

Browne had proposed a complete lifting of the cap on fees for new students from September 2012.  There would be a rise in the graduate repayment threshold to earnings over £21,000 and most part time students were to be put on the same repayment regime as full timers, so they no longer had to pay up front.  Although this was a step in the right direction, I was convinced we could make major improvements to this package.

Firstly, any fees rise had to be capped and come with conditions.  The government has now proposed an unrestricted cap of £6,000.  A higher cap will apply at £9,000 but to move to this level universities will have to meet tough conditions on fair access to students from all backgrounds.  This has always been my main concern – making it easy for the brightest students to access the best university courses, regardless of their background.

Nick Clegg announced the setting up of a National Scholarship Scheme, with an initial £150 million of government money.  This will pay the fees some of the poorest students, at least for their first year.  It will build on the party’s flagship election education policy of the pupil premium, with those who had been on free school meals being the main beneficiaries.  Universities wishing to charge more than £6,000 will be expected to participate in the National Scholarship Scheme. I will be working with Vince Cable and David Willetts to develop the details of the scheme over the next few months.  As someone who was on free school meals myself I know how important it is to give a clear pathway from poverty to university.

The repayment regime for graduates has also been made more progressive.  Currently, graduates make a payment equivalent to 9% of their earnings in excess of £15,000.  This threshold will be raised to £21,000 for graduates from the new scheme.  Crucially, the repayments will be made more progressive by charging a sliding scale of real interest payments.  Graduates earning more than £41,000 will be charged 3% real interest.  This surcharge subsidises the lower repayments for those with smaller salaries.   This is a graduate tax in all but name.  It is also collectable from international students and British students who move abroad.  And it’s fairer than the NUS’s own “fairer system” from their pledge!

The day before the vote Vince Cable announced further modifications.  These will largely benefit current students and graduates who are or will be repaying loans under the existing regime.  The £15,000 repayment threshold has not been changed at all for over 5 years.  From 2012 it will be uprated annually in line with inflation. The new £21,000 threshold for graduates from the new scheme (who will begin repayments in April 2016 at the earliest) will also be subject to annual uprating.  More part time students will also be eligible for support.

I took the view that the Liberal Democrats had secured the best possible deal given the political and economic circumstances.  But I remain troubled by the scale of the fees rise and the fact that arts and social sciences are to be mainly dependent on graduate contributions.  As I had been involved in the discussions with ministers on improving the package I did not believe that I could reasonably vote against the government.  Abstention was thus the best option available to me and it was in line with the coalition agreement from May.  I was however the only government MP in the West Country not to vote with the government.

An inevitable contrast will be drawn with the previous vote on raising tuition fees in 2004.  That year Labour broke its tuition fees pledge from the 2001 general election.  This was despite the fact that they won the election with a substantial majority of seats and faced no difficult economic circumstances.  The situation in 2010 is totally different, with a coalition government and the most dire state of public finances in decades.  The 2004 rise came with little mitigation for poorer students (a derisory £300 maintenance bursary) while the 2010 package comes with a substantial raft of progressive measures to protect the poorest students and to levy the graduate contribution more heavily on the high earning graduates.

If the Lib Dems had won 270 more seats in the election then we would be able to implement more of our manifesto.  In the circumstances which I and my party find ourselves we have done the best that we could for both students and graduates.


NOTE – anyone reading this blog would benefit from reading my October posting too, to get the long term background.

54 Comments leave one →
  1. December 13, 2010 4:26 pm

    So, having read the above, what you appear to be saying is this:

    “Party-based politics is deeply flawed as it does not allow those MPs elected for a constituency to vote for what they actually believe in. Instead they have to either tow the party line (as we already knew), vote for something they don’t believe in (should they enter a coalition of governance) or simply abstain from the vote.”

    Which, from where I’m sat, makes a tremendous case for people to start taking their votes away from the “Big 3” parties, because whomever they vote for they end up with a system that remains unchanged. Post-election Mr Clegg uttered the following:

    “As we tear through the statute book, we’ll do something no government ever has: we will ask you which laws you think should go,”

    However not only has that project (that of improving civil liberties) been passed and ignored, those who found themselves as a part of the Coalition are not even asked which laws they actually think should be passed, instead they have to follow the lead of the party and/or abstain.

    Don’t get me wrong, I totally accept that the university system is unaffordable as it stands. But this is entirely due to the numbers of those attending university being too great (and, let’s face facts, a large majority of whom are there because University is “what you do”, as opposed to them genuinely having the intellectual mettle to be studying a degree – but this is a different matter altogether). The notion of reducing university numbers through the fear of debt was always the wrong route to take, and the students of this country are informing you as such (even if the majority of those who will be scared away are likely those who shouldn’t be attending so the end may justify the means).

    Yes, you were in an awkward position and yes, you did the best you could with that position. However what you have confirmed to me, and hopefully a considerable number of other voters, is that over the last five years the 3 main parties have now all proven their system of governance does not work, and alternatives need to be sourced. The use of AV will inevitably provide this as a start, and maybe inject a few more ideas into the house.

    • December 13, 2010 9:14 pm

      Dean – I don’t agree that too many students are at university. The participation rate has actually barely changed in the last decade, at about 40% of 18 – 30 year olds. I have always been more concerned about who goes, rather than how many. That’s why I am pleased to be working on the details of the National Scholarship Scheme, which will part fund places for the poorest students.

      On parties – I agree with your remedy of electoral reform, if not your diagnosis of party politics!

      • December 13, 2010 9:29 pm

        And it’s this 40% of 18-30 year-olds that have managed to single-handedly devalue the degree and at the same time cause the education system to run at such a cost that has pushed your coalition into this corner in the first place. The system has been running oversubscribed for some considerable years, I’ll wager since the printing presses started running overtime in 1997 but will happily be contradicted if anyone provides evidence to the contrary, it’s not something I’ve researched.

        The point concerning there being too many students also has some backbone with regards the number of graduates who still can’t master simple things like basic grammar or straightforward maths. This genuinely concerns me and really does suggest that the university system should be based upon a meritocratic means and genuine attainment, rather than the current “Go to uni, it’s the only way to get a good job” nonsense that currently gets peddled.

    • December 16, 2010 5:10 pm

      The proportion of graduates is up from 14% around 1980 to nearly 50% today. Surprisingly, the evidence I’ve read points to no issue of overqualification.
      Rather, the shift from a manufacturing economy (where employees would get on-the-job training) to a service economy has been aided by the explosion in higher education.

      One could rightly ask whether corporations should be taking a bigger role in funding higher education and actually, under the Browne reforms, this is quite likely:
      1. Three and four year non-science degrees are becoming unaffordable without sponsorship. Indeed, universities are already talking about 2 year degrees.
      2. Part-time courses are treated fairly.

      What we might see are shorter, part-time business-oriented courses, funded by private loans with clauses that make sure you work for the company funding you.

      It’s a big risk of course and hence I sit on the fence.

  2. James permalink
    December 13, 2010 5:09 pm

    The issue still remains that the coalition government, in the Comprehensive Spending Review, has proposed a 40% cut in higher education funding, and over an 80% reduction in the teaching budget, equating to £3.2 billion.

    The tuition fees scheme is essentially a contract between the student, the university and the state, within which all parties contribute.

    Under your government’s proposals, that contract has been broken (particularly for Arts and Humanities students), and despite your efforts here explaining how the new system will be ‘fairer’, the reality is that the state has abandoned its responsibility to the students wishing to study in this country. That is unacceptable, and should have been met with a resounding ‘no’ vote.

    To ask students to foot the entire bill for their further education is entirely unfair, especially from a government who continues to allow big companies like Topshop and Vodafone (amongst others) to avoid paying their contribution to society. Who are the future employees of these companies that the Coalition is so desperate to keep on side? Why, graduates of course.

    This proposal merely encourages the privatisation of higher education institutions – it is Tory political ideology pushed through under the veil of economic necessity. New students will no longer feel they have the opportunity to study for study’s sake: they will be forced into making degree choices based solely on how it will impact on their future career prospects.

    • December 13, 2010 9:16 pm

      I agree with your sentiment on arts and social sciences. But the upfront funding will still be there from the state (and most of the research will still be state funded) and the eventual recovery will be from taxing graduates, rather than everyone for the teaching grant.

  3. Luke D permalink
    December 13, 2010 9:14 pm


    I am furious with your decision on this issue. You should be under no illusions that students contributed very significantly to your increased majority in the election and you’ve completely betrayed them. I was one of those (naive?) students who believed in your party, actively encouraged peers to vote for you, and genuinely believed you presented an alternative to the crooked politics of the big two. How wrong I was.

    If you were so troubled by the scale of the fee increase, and the details that you liked weren’t enough to sway you, then you should have shown some backbone and voted against them – you promised your voters that you would. In a way, I’d have more respect for you now if you’d voted for the rise and explained why. What is the point of democracy when a policy like this, of which the government has no mandate for whatsoever, can pass through parliament.

    Be under no illusions, voters are aware that Liberal Democrat abstentions allowed this vote to pass, and we won’t forget it. You are as responsible as any MP who voted for this rise. You work for us, remember that, we didn’t elect you to abstain on crucial issues.

    See you at the next election.

    • December 13, 2010 9:18 pm

      Luke – your arithmetic is wrong. Abstentions did not allow the proposals through. The majority was 21.

      • Luke D permalink
        December 13, 2010 9:32 pm


        Despite all the issues I’ve raised with you, that is all you can reply with? Petty.

        I’m aware of the numbers involved, my point was that you were aware that by abstaining you presented no threat to the vote – hence making you as responsible as any who voted for.

      • Thomas Smith permalink
        December 16, 2010 3:18 pm

        To further retaliate to your reply to Luke’s comment, the fact that the vote would have gone through even if you and your abstaining cronies had voted against it makes no difference to the disgusting reality that you went against the will of the people- your constituents – who put their faith in you to further your career.

        If this was a vote on capital punishment that had passed and you abstained, would you feel the same kind of misjudged contentment that your vote would have “made no difference” as people get their heads chopped off?

        Stand up and grow a pair.

    • December 17, 2010 6:35 pm

      Totally agree with you ,it`s the same old thing every time…promises that are just NOT kept,just to gain votes!ShAME ON THEM!!

  4. December 14, 2010 8:35 am

    This is a well written piece and Stephen is practiced in the art of smoke and mirrors. Let me put it more bluntly Stephen you have misled but not lied to the electorate.

    The line you peddle that the Lib Dem manifesto superseded the tuition fees pledge is a nonsense. You placed that pledge in much of your literature that went out “up the hill” in Clifton, Redland and Cotham. (I know as I have a copy of each one here.)

    The suggestion that your pledge and manifesto commitments were based on the Lib Dems obtaining a majority on their own is farcical. That was never going to happen. Everyone knew that. Are we therefore to assume that every promise you make is based on the same fantasy? Why not clearly qualify it on your literature?

    Your arguments that the coalition agreement some how superseded everything is equally limp. People of higher standing than you in your party felt that they had a moral obligation to honour their pre-election promise. It appears the same moral concerns did not weigh you down.

    This line about the “difficult economic circumstances” being the cause for your fence sitting is equally odd. Were you not aware of the economic crisis when you made your promise? Vince Cable literally wrote the book on this crisis. Have you not being paying attention? Or is this just a fig leaf?

  5. December 14, 2010 8:37 am

    Not only have you shown yourself as a man whose word is not to be trusted but you are also a hypocrite.

    You defeated the last Bristol West Labour MP with strong criticism of abstention:

    January 2004 “Bristol West electors must be wondering what on earth to make of their MP’s voting record… Abstain, abstain, abstain. Not a very courageous stance. Bristol West needs an MP who can adequately represent the constituency and remain faithful to campaign promises.”

    “I think that most Bristol West electors will not see an abstention as a particularly courageous stance on your part.”

    April 2004 –

    “Thousands of students and parents will be wondering what on earth is the point of an MP who can’t take a stand on such a major issue.”

    April 2005-

    “I think it is important that voters know how their MP has voted over the last eight years. She has ducked most of the tricky decisions completely”

    I’m afraid your previous yearsof being an unashamed populist without having to account for your rhetoric with the burden of responsibility have come back to haunt you.

  6. December 14, 2010 8:44 am

    You must realise that your current position is untenable. Every time you comment on Facebook your “friends” descend on you to criticise you and poke fun. When you go to public meeting students protest outside. You are forced to cancel public meetings allegedly on police advice.

    Despite you large majority you’ve gone from hero to zero in the space of a month.

    Your ability to represent citizens of Bristol West has been compromised, your legitimacy undermined.

    Yet you protest that despite your broken promises and the current lack of trust you did the right thing.

    I have publicly called on you to resign and fight a by-election. This is the only way you can legitimately proceed to represent us in the next 4 years. The alternative is your experience of the last month (albeit at a lower level) lasting indefinitely.

    I hope for once in 2010 you make the honourable decision.

    • December 14, 2010 9:19 am

      It’s going to take a whole lot more than a Lib Dem abstaining from a tuition fees vote for people to be gullible enough to vote Labour back in again, sorry to say it, but it’s true.

      The public has absolutely zero trust in Labour and no amount of promises made by them to clean up their act is going to change that, so please don’t go trying to be a political opportunist over this matter, by all means constructively criticise but if all you conclude is “call a by-election so we can win again” then frankly you’re missing the point and thinking in the way Labour is known for: Making promises purely to obtain power.

      After all, Labour MPs are also all just as guilty of voting according to the party whip, meaning they also mis-represent their constituents over and over again. Until party politics is broken down we will never have a system where our MPs actually work for those that elect them.

      • December 14, 2010 10:08 am

        A credible opposition constructively criticises and prompts those on the government benches to action. Stephen had plenty of opportunity to vote this measure down. The strength of feeling was made clear to him.

        You are right Labour certainly suffered electoral defeat having lost the public trust. We have been punished for that. You may or may not believe we have been chastened by that and are learning.

        As someone who has never held public office and watched things unfold I do appreciate how strongly people feel let down. I think we also did plenty of good things too. It’s the job of myself and a newer generation of Labour members to change your opinion (if you are open to it being changed).

        But the (understandable) criticism of Labour only serves to distract from the fact that the MP for Bristol West has misled the public, caused a massive breakdown in trust in him and he can only obtain the legitimacy he needs to maintain him by asking the voters for their endorsement again.

        Then the people can freely decided who they want and trust.

    • December 14, 2010 10:28 am

      Just in case anyone reads this pompous rant – it comes from the secretary of Bristol West Labour Party, hardly an objective source. And for the record, there have been two student demos against me, both orchestrated by your Labour friends.

      What is Labour policy these days? Are you for Ed’s phantom graduate tax or would you stick to Labour’s pre election policy of paving the way for a fees rise??

      • December 14, 2010 10:50 am

        You do yourself no credit with this hissy fit Stephen. You’ve not answered a single point which I have tried to cogently set out.

        I see you repeat the tactic of your new leader Mr. Cameron and answer a question with a question. Rather than studying the Tories tactics please just answer the question.

        If you are so confident that your decision to break your pledge was right why not trigger a by-election? As the incumbent you will have a great deal of public attention and national coverage in order to explain your broken pledge.

        The Bristol electorate will then decide who to trust. Why don’t you trust them to support you?

        I hope for and adult response in reply

      • anonymous permalink
        December 14, 2010 11:32 am

        You’re still gonna lose your job come election time though, aren’t you mate?

  7. December 14, 2010 8:50 am

    I should also say that I and the Bristol West electorate aren’t interested in commentary or excuses from Lib Dem Cllrs, Students or any proxies.

    This is something Stephen has to confront himself, on his own. He can’t ignore this as he has done in the past or use proxies to distract others.

    His experience of the last few days should tell him that.

    • December 14, 2010 10:33 am

      Since this site won’t let me reply to the above comments I’m going to have to do so here.

      Unfortunately your comment “A credible opposition constructively criticises and prompts those on the government benches to action” only serves to further prove the gross failing of party politics. Those MPs who represent Labour only have the one common view to act as an opposition party, rather than individuals who have free will and who can suggest policy for the remaining 649 MPs to also make their own minds up over. The notion of criticism for criticisms sake is an easy accusation to make when you are in the minority (as Labour are now) as you know that whatever gets said it will not come to reality. The Conservatives proved it, the Lib Dems have proven it (as we see here) and Labour are proving it now as they did back in the mid-90s. Not one of the major parties are learning their lessons and I really hope the electorate begin to demand another way. The AV system will (hopefully) begin this change and we can finally get rid of self-serving candidates who know damn well that if their party tastes power all they will do is vote according to how the party whips demand. They know that to vote against would be career suicide and this is where the issues lay, career politicians always look out for number 1.

      At present, by calling for a By-election on this blog as you are, you appear to be acting for the benefit part of the Labour party rather than the Bristol west electorate who you claim to speak for above. This, once again, shows how your presence here is opportunism rather than in the interests of the voters.

      If Mr Williams wants to prove his mettle as a public servant then perhaps a new pledge is in order? For example, should the tuition fee bill be defeated in the Lords today (as is very possible, the Lords do not vote quite as tribally as the commons) then a pledge would be in order that he’ll look into other options and fight their cases when it ends up back in the commons for review? I have no doubt there are many, many other options out there (and these do not have to be as straightforward as dogmatic fee increases or some form of graduate taxation) and I have no doubt that if some genuinely intelligent minds put the work in that they could come up with this.

      Perhaps even ask the public what they think, how about that for a radical concept?

  8. harryT permalink
    December 14, 2010 9:03 am

    I think that Darren Lewis and Stephen Williams have proved Dean right.

    Death to party politics. A pox on all your houses. You exist for nothing but power. You are all equally happy to lie to the electorate once every 5 years. You all serve nothing but the status quo.

  9. Sue Thorne permalink
    December 14, 2010 9:04 am

    MP Stephen Williams should resign. Bristol Students were duped into voting for him. He should of had the decency to have voted a resounding NO to tuition fees, instead of a cowardly abstention.

    • December 14, 2010 10:35 am

      what’s “cowardly” about being the only government MP in my region not to support the government? No political journalist would describe rebellions against the whips as cowardly. I made a rational judgement based on my opinions of the different elements of the package. If all that was proposed was a big fee rise then I would have voted against. But that’s not the proposal, which is a package of balancing measures.

      • anonymous permalink
        December 14, 2010 11:35 am

        Mr. Williams – it is cowardly by your very own standards. You were elected on a “abstention = cowardice” platform and a “no tuition fees” pledge. You then proceeded to abstain on a vote on tuition fees!

      • Joe permalink
        December 14, 2010 7:18 pm

        So you’re saying you agreed with the proposals, but didn’t have the guts to vote for them, representing a Universtiy seat and all. You are really are so utterly spineless. You can’t be unseated soon enough.

  10. Patrick Andrews permalink
    December 14, 2010 9:34 am

    So, the election pledge really meant “we will vote against only if it is a futile gesture”?

  11. December 14, 2010 10:17 am

    Abstaining is a cowardly action. Your contribution to the demise of the Lib Dems is amusing however 🙂

  12. ChrisB permalink
    December 14, 2010 12:01 pm

    After reading this page, I felt that one of the most positive things about Stephen Williams is at least he’s not a cheap political opportunist like this “turningbristolred” character. When faced with a difficult choice Stephen abstained; maybe not the strongest course of action, but prudent.

    I wasn’t happy at Stephen abstaining from the clear commitments he made to the electorate, but seeing as there’s no “credible opposition”, it’s hard to knock him for it. He’s still clearly a better bet for Bristol than any other possibilities and I think that holds nationally.

    Consider for a moment the horror and shame of Ed Miliband being PM – a man that doesn’t know his own mind can’t possible understand ours. A party that conceived of tuition fees and commissioned the Browne Report suddenly doesn’t have an answer to our higher education needs. The only thing that makes the coalition look good, is the complete lack of alternative.

    Labour supporters would be ill advised to rag Lib Dem MPs, because at any moment, you might need their support in the next government. At the moment, despite my left-leanings, I’d rather be in bed with the Tories, and these posts have just confirmed it.

    Also “turningbristolred”, I’d suggest with a look like that it might be better to post anonymously or at least without a picture, it’s not helping your cause. Think about it…

    • December 14, 2010 12:34 pm


      On the contrary. I was calling on Stephen Williams to tell the truth about his tuition fees position before, during and after the election and before during and after the vote. As you can been seen here

      You’re really talking about someone’s “look” on a political blog. Bless you.

      As I predicted Stephen Williams groupies are “running interference” to distract from their man’s lamentable performance.

    • December 15, 2010 12:16 pm

      You’ll notice that even publicly, Labour politicians are more interested in telling people what to do than listening or offering a way to help the country.

      Very, very scary.

      You’ll deserve power when you admit it was wrong to lie about WMD, you were wrong to prosecute people for reading out the names of the dead at the Cenotaph, you were wrong to try and create the 21st century equivalent of the Stasi, you were wrong to create 2 laws to abolish elections…

      It’s not about punishment. It’s about your party having been a far greater threat to this country than terrorism ever could.

  13. December 14, 2010 12:41 pm

    In the same way you are “running interference” towards Labour’s lamentable performance in the 13 years they spent removing civil liberties, bankrupting the country and developing a generation of kids with an entitlement complex?

    And the only opportunism on here is almost definitely coming from yourself. To be fair to Stephen he has attempted (badly) to justify his actions (or lack thereof). You, on the other hand, are just attempting to goad a response that Labour can use at the next election. Acting on the party-line as those of the Labour party so often do.

    Care to come up with some better solutions to the problems that face the country, or are you just going to criticise under the hope that power may swing back your way?

    • December 14, 2010 12:48 pm

      I personally support a graduate tax and a much more far reaching Robin Hood tax on the banks

      The idea that someone has fed me a party line is laughable. Dean you’ve suggested people taking their votes from the 3 big parties and are concerned at my agenda being a party line. May I ask if you are a member or supporter of a political party or movement

      • December 14, 2010 12:58 pm

        The Graduate tax calls for a higher interest rate the more success people have following their degree. This penalises those who do well and therefore will put people off doing degrees that lead to UK based success (including NHS doctors, Dentists and other such highly-paid, highly-skilled labour). It would act in the same way as a “far reaching” Robin Hood tax in that those with high earning potential would be out of the door in a second rather than pay higher taxation to a government who has no clue how to spend it to benefit society. When successful careers become no longer beneficial it leads to a culture which does not aspire to success, as we are starting to see with a huge proportion of people who believe the state should provide everything for them. But at least you do believe in something, which is a start, reading through your blog I was starting to think that all you were capable of was lashing out at the policies of others in a desperate attempt to get noticed and to bring others down, quite an odious practice in itself.

        I am not a member of a political party, if you’d not worked that out yet then I suggest you read more slowly rather than bark answers at half-read comments. Thus far all you have done is tow the party line, though I do have to ask: You suggest a far reaching Robin Hood tax yet Labour were the party that chose to bail the banks out and also use their political muscle to offload HBOS onto Lloyds (thereby supporting fatcat bankers who you now propose to financially get your claws into). Would you accept that bailing the banks out was an utterly ridiculous idea, or are you a both-feet-in Brownite?

  14. December 14, 2010 3:32 pm

    Mr Williams,

    I’m so glad you found the time to construct an explanation for your voting decision at the Tuition Fees vote.

    Disappointingly, you have yet to find the time to write a response to me as a constituent despite me posting a letter to you on November the 3rd. Interestingly enough it was regarding this very issue. Was there an element of evasion going on ya wee scallywag?!

    Now, forgive me if I’m wrong but you did rather discredit your predecessor Valerie Davey after she abstained on the Tuition Fees vote during her tenure as Bristol West MP. It would be what is described in boxing as “trash talk”. It’s such a shame then that the very vote you chose to abstain (something which you did describe as cowardly) was one on Tuition Fees. In years to come we may be able to see this in the OED as a definition of ‘irony’.

    You’re a qualified Tax Consultant aren’t you, and a former member of the Chartered Institute of Taxation. Presumably this means you’re pretty good with figures? Would you be able to explain to me how deciding to abstain on this vote did not simply allow it to pass through the Commons. I’m sure that some of your party colleagues will have been telling you how simply marvellous it is that you decided not to vote with the government, and I’m sure we’ll hear you trumpet that “I was the only MP from the South West NOT to vote with the government” in the run up to the next election.

    Though wait, by abstaining, you lowered the government’s required majority and, oh no, the motion passed! See, what you’ve done there Mr Williams is you’ve really just helped the policy through the Commons by deciding to abstain (cowardly – your words, not mine).

    Coming back to your “profession before parliament” thing, as a tax consultant (and all round wiz with numbers I’m guessing) it should probably have been ‘on your radar’ that the threshold for Student Loan repayment was up for re-evaluation next year, and in all likelihood would have been raised to £21,000. Now where have I heard that figure?

    Staying with the tax thing (are you keeping up Mr Williams, I know it’s been five years at least since you’ve had to think like a tax consultant) you’ll know that there’s Inflation to take into account. If we think about Inflation and how it’s likely to affect salaries in say, 6 years time (plucked that figure out of the air in case you’re wondering), it’s entirely possible that £21,000 would have the same ‘buying power’ as £15,000 would today. Hold on, I’ve had a lightbulb moment there…that surely means that your concession of raising the lower threshold has been nullified there? Perhaps you could tell me, I’m not a Tax Consultant.

    I’ll wrap up there Mr Williams, but one last thing, in your previous post on this subject I asked if we’d see two arguments crop up in the Coalition government…namely, “We inherited this mess from Labour” and “Sorry, we can’t do everything we’d like, we’re in a coalition”. Has my prophecy come true in your final paragraph? By my reckoning, we’re about half way there.

    • December 14, 2010 3:46 pm

      The threshold for the new scheme will be uprated annually. The threshold for existing graduates (and current students who graduate under the existing scheme) will be uprated annually from 2012.

      As to your letter of 3rd November – if you mail the office with your actual name and address then we can check what happened.

  15. December 14, 2010 10:01 pm

    You blame the economic situation but say that if the lib dems had a majority in Parliament that things would be different but the economy would not have been different. Your pledge to phase out fees was an unfunded electoral bribe to students and their parents, one which you would not have implemented.

    You complain about the cuts in funding for arts and humanities courses but this is a cut you voted for in supporting the comprehensive spending review. I am not aware of you raising this issue in the House during the CSR – please refer to Hansard reference if I am wrong.

    On your leaflets in 2004 you relentlessly harried, insulted and attacked Valerie Davey for abstaining in votes including the introduction of tuition fees – the chickens are certainly coming home to roost.

    It particular you called her abstention a BETRAYAL –

    don’t be surprised if you are judged by your own words and actions

  16. woodsy permalink
    December 15, 2010 1:44 pm

    As a constituent I would like to tell you that your prevarication, dissembling and lack of candour on the tuition fees votes tells me all I need to know about you.

    You have broken your pledge given before the election and, if you had any decency or integrity, you would resign.

    You do not represent me. You are unfit for election to public office.

  17. Paul Bemmy Down permalink
    December 15, 2010 5:34 pm

    So, have I got this right? Valerie Davey stood on the Labour manifesto promise that they would not introduce tuition fees. When they went back on their word and introduced them, she abstained.

    • Joe permalink
      December 17, 2010 4:19 pm

      Sounds right to me.

      However, Valerie Davy wasn’t going around promising to be a new sort of politician. She didn’t campaign on MPs keeping their promises. She didn’t sign a personal pledge saying she would vote against tuition fees and fight for a fairer alternative.

      Stephen Williams is a liar. He is dishonest, selfish and arrogant. He is totally unfit for public office.

      • December 17, 2010 8:08 pm

        says Labour activist Joe Gilder. Actually she did. I was her opponent in 2001 too so know very well how clear and not at all ambiguous was the Labour pledge not to introduce top up tuition fees. They broke their pledge in 2004 when they had a secure one party majority and no economic emergency.

      • Joe permalink
        January 5, 2011 11:35 am

        I don’t see how being a Labour activist has anything to do with this. One of your sillier traits is your constant desire to write off the views of people who disagree with you because they are from different parties. Grow up.

        I was a sabbatical officer at Bristol Students’ Union before I had any involvement with the Labour Party.

        In fact, I supported the Lib Dems in Bristol West for one insane moment there in 2006-2007. My joining the Labour Party arose from two things: 1- Finally realising that they weren’t as left as they were selling themselves to be. 2- You! The way you refused to engage with student representatives in Bristol was absolutely appalling. Honestly, do you think this is a reasonable way for any MP to behave? Never mind, this is all history now- like your political career *fingers crossed*!

    • December 17, 2010 9:26 pm


      as I remember it Labour promised not to introduce variable fees in the period of the parliament then passed legislation to do it in the next parliament. This was clearly sharp practice and not in the spirit of the election promise. Valerie Davey abstained in the vote on this. I do not defend this.

      Lib Dems in university seats, including Bristol West exploited this mercilessy and won in several of them including Bristol West.

      Of course Stephen’s position is bizarre having attacked this reversal in the 2005 and 2010 elections and since he seems to think his betrayal is somehow principled. Having attacked an MP for doing something then acting surprised when people attack him for doing the same. Its a double deceit to repeat the act which got you elected in the first place, astounding. Valerie’s price for abstaining was to lose her seat, I guess the same will be true for Stephen (along with his credibility).

  18. Mark permalink
    December 15, 2010 6:32 pm

    Let me tell you why I think you got it wrong. Im not in any party and perhaps the nuances of party politics is lost on me but as a constituent i think my take on things is a little more relevant to you than the posturing of your political peers who appear on here.

    The election result dealt everyone a card; with no clear majority it was inevitable that someone would have to do a deal with someone else in order to form a credible government.

    The Tories were never likely to seek the assistance of the Labour party; having been rejected by the electorate a labour coalition would not make sense; so in every sense of the word Clegg became the ‘kingmaker’ as was widely reported.

    In this role what was the need for the Libdems to enter into a coalition at all? you could simply have sat on your hands and informed Mr Cameron that provided the policies he pursued made sense to the lib dems; given the circumstances; the libdem MP’s would support the government in approving policies that served your electorates expectations.

    But on the core issues that were the nub of your manifesto pledges their should not have been any room for compromise. You would require the tories to work very hard at being a little more lib dem in order to get your votes and keep them from having to throw in the towel.

    On Student fees; the hottest of all the issues on which you campaigned the answer should have been a resounding ‘no compromise’.

    Some other way should have been found to fund education while the whole question of costs and student numbers were examined such that we could work toward cutting that particular cloth to suit our pockets.

    A large number of our young people need to be weened off the notion that University is for everyone. Education is not so much a wealth or class issue as it is an issue of relevance, of acumen and brilliance and that of societies needs.

    From however you look at it it is clear that Clegg has sold the party out for power. You can only imagine that it was his expectation that putting the libdems on the front benches of parliament and into the cabinet would be one of those ‘giant leap for mankind’ moments that would finally propel the libdem party into the mainstream.

    It appears that somewhere in that journey the principles you had us thinking you stood for fell out of the bundle of papers and floated off into the ether.

    There is nothing of you left and nothing of those principles that you are holding out for; you have made yourself irrelevant and hated in a matter of months and for what?

    We the majority are all back under that veil of Tory oppression and it has been made made possible by you and your party.

    From now until the next election nothing else matters; nothing else that you do will take the foul stench of what you have already done away; and election day cannot come soon enough for me and for many like me.

    I can only hope that between now and that day a good, true and principled independent candidate manages to get a foothold into Bristol West; the best we can hope for is a resounding ‘none of the above’.

    • December 15, 2010 6:52 pm

      Mark – the arrangement you might have preferred is “supply and confidence” – we certainly considered that option but ruled it out. The Tory minority govt would have put up an emergency budget (the “supply”) which would almost certainly have been more objectionable than the budget Osborne eventually presented for the coalition. Voting down such a budget would have led to an immediate summer election and probably an outright Tory win. That would have meant 100% Tory policies for 5 years. As it is the coalition has much of the Lib Dem manifesto in its programme and is providing stable government.
      Just to correct a point on fees – it was not “the hottest of all issues” on which I campaigned. It was not in the top manifesto commitments that headlined every leaflet. I know the NUS/Labour have been saying it was our main policy but it wasn’t and certainly was nowhere near as prominent as 2005 let alone 2001 when it was a lead issue for us as a party.

    • December 16, 2010 4:52 pm

      Again, as a non-partisan observer, the supply & favour route would have denied the LibDems…

      1) The all-important referendum on AV.
      2) The rise in the tax threshold.
      3) The pupil premium.
      4) The prison reform (although put forward by Clarke, he’d never have got it past the rest of the Tories).
      5) The upcoming Great Reform Act and abolition of many totalitarian Blairite laws you’ve probably never heard of.

      Furthermore, the LibDems got to shape the Tory party itself.

      I disagree with Stephen – voting down the Budget would have led to rapidly rising bond yields and probably an IMF bailout. More likely, the Budget would have been harder to negotiate (ahead of publication) but very similar.

      Staying out of Govt may have kept the LibDem Left happy but ironically at the cost of many important LibDem reforms.

      Back on tuition fees, it was decided in the Coalition Agreement that the LibDems would be whipped on the votes as a trade for the above LibDem policies. Electoral reform alone is worth at least 10 compromises on things like tuition fees. The Great Reform Act hopefully the same.

      Being part of the Coalition was putting the country before the short term interests of the party, no doubt about that.

  19. Patrick Andrews permalink
    December 16, 2010 11:03 am

    Why haven’t you resigned yet?

    You signed a pledge. People would have voted for you hoping that there would be a coalition (the idea you were going to win overall was ludicrous) and that you would make a difference by honouring your pledge. Abstaining was just making a gesture – would you have done it if the numbers were closer?. I think if most of us break pledges like this, we would be forced to resign. There are some men of honour in the Liberal Democrats (mainly Scottish MPS) and I admire them.

    I do not know how you can live with yourself.

  20. Mark permalink
    December 18, 2010 4:27 pm

    Most of all the ‘supply and favour’ route would have given a disaffected electorate; many of whom were voting Lib Dem for the first time the comfort of being able to see this newly empowered party which played so highly on the rhetoric of being different or ‘whiter’ play first for its principles and policies ahead of the tired old power politics.

    There was no reason that the miracle of transformation we witnessed in the live TV debates would not have continued unabated had Clegg and party continued to sound the bell of reason and a third way.

    All of this now has been laid to waste.

    From where I am I see and feel nothing that is not Tory ideology first and foremost. This does not feel like a coalition; it feels like a Tory majority made possible by Lib Dems.

    In this battle, those other policies as set out by waronfreedom above; I would liken to being as relevant as securing clean bandages for the wounded and are of little consequence as compared to the number of dead outside.

    Education will forever be the Lib Dems Waterloo, in this particular battle not only have you been slaughtered but you have been found wanting when it comes to a fight.

    You told us you were up for it; you lied and you have failed us.

  21. Ben Goodhind permalink
    December 21, 2010 3:12 pm

    Steven, I voted for you in 2005 and 2010 as I fell out of love with New Labour. Labour lost a huge numbers of voters to the Liberals. I passionately supported you to my peers as I saw a close contest between you and the Tories and was delighted that you won. I have to say though that I just could not comprehend a Liberal/Tory partnership and I always knew this would result in yourselves losing huge waves of support up and down the country. The first part is in the sell out of your pledges to not allow the increase in fees. What will clearly follow are huge cuts to jobs and services and we will see even more riots on the streets and the Liberals will take the blame. If you follow this path the party will die, it is so clear. It is not too late for the Liberals to see this and pull out of this awful government and force new elections. This coalition will result in the death of a party I supported and the Liberal Human shield will take the brunt for the huge cuts we are facing. Your party are being used and abused.

    As for you abstaining, it is the most gutless act I have ever seen from a politician. If you dont support the rise just vote no. You have that right. If you believe what they are doing is actually fare then vote yes and defend yourself. (you made a decent enough argument) Sitting on the fence is not what your paid to do. At least Steve Webb bothered to vote. I have to say I fear the reason you abstained was for the progress of your own career ?? and perhaps the hope of a future role in government rather then doing whats best for your university dominated constituency ??. I hope im wrong.

    Before I get fobbed off as a Labour voter im not. I voted for you the last 2 elections but never again. Im saddend and now I have no idea who to support.

  22. Paddison permalink
    December 22, 2010 10:22 am

    Pathetic excuses. As a constituent of west Bristol I am not represented when you decide not to vote. Where is representative democracy then?

    In the next election I will be taking a leaf out of your book and not voting (or as you like to call it, abstaining)

    Think outside the box

  23. Ex Lib Dem voter permalink
    December 22, 2010 5:02 pm

    Why I will never vote for you again (see blog post above above)

  24. domainsells permalink
    December 27, 2010 3:42 am

    Interesting and informative comments.


  25. Sally Robinson permalink
    December 29, 2010 11:59 am

    “A telling point about Clegg is that even after expressing private reservations about the Lib Dem policy, he did everything he could to publicise his pledge to scrap fees. He signed the NUS pledge card and when the cameraman came to film his promise, Clegg obliged. Even worse, Lib Dem HQ encouraged MPs to put their names to the NUS list. There was no sense of damage limitation, no insurance policy. The Lib Dems sought to squeeze as many votes as possible from the pledge. Had they shown more restraint, the pain would be more manageable now.”

    Power before principles perhaps?

    (from )


  1. Why students need Marvin: part 1 « bristollabourstudents

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