For five years, Nick Clegg has been the most unpopular politician in Britain. The Liberal Democrat leader and his party have been vilified since he broke that infamous promise “to vote against any increase in tuition fees in the next parliament”.
It was an unbelievably stupid thing to do. This was a man who should have been considering the compromises he would have to make if he ever found himself in government. Instead, he made a commitment he did not know he could keep. Understandably, support for the Lib Dems among under 25s has since evaporated.
But, after a parliament of pummelling them in the polls, it is time for young voters to forgive Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats for tuition fees.
Giving a politician a second chance is not something that should be done lightly, yet the case to do so for Clegg is compelling.
If you are a university student paying increased fees ask yourself this: is it right that students, the majority of whom come from relatively well-off backgrounds, should be given a key to unlocking higher wages at the expense of people earning the minimum wage? It might be unfair that previous generations paid less – or nothing – but isn’t asking students to contribute a bit more towards their higher education, and relatively poorer taxpayers a bit less, actually correcting an injustice?
Nick Clegg was wrong to make that promise not just because he couldn’t keep it, but also because raising tuition fees was the right thing for our country to do. Breaking that pledge ultimately had a positive effect on fairness.
The level of hatred aimed at Clegg is therefore disproportionate to the crime he committed. Politicians tell lies every single day. The vast majority of these lies are a lot bigger than the one told by Clegg. We are lied to about wars, about jobs, about welfare, about immigration, about deals with the SNP, about countless issues of vital national importance.
The difference is that these lies aren’t as blatant. When a politician lies to us about their plan for the deficit, or how they are going to fund their NHS spending, they don’t tend to put out a photograph of themselves saying one thing and then do the exact opposite. Because Clegg did, even though the lie he told was infinitely less bad, he is the one who bears the brunt of the public’s hostility towards politicians.
On Thursday, a lot of young people who would have voted Lib Dem in a past election will not bother to turn up. That could have a significant impact on the result. Take Bristol West, for example. The incumbent is Lib Dem Stephen Williams, who is defending an 11,000 majority from Labour’s Thangam Debbonaire. Williams was elected largely thanks to the student vote, at the time opposing Labour’s top-up fees. If those students don’t vote this time round, or choose the vocal Green candidate Darren Hall, Labour will be let in. Forget tuition fees, who is really going to help you when you’re looking for a job in the next few years? The Lib Dems, who in government have presided over greater job creation than the rest of Europe put together? Or Labour, under whom youth unemployment increased by 40 percent when they were last in power?
In 1997, there were 652,000 16-24s out of work. When Labour left office in 2010, that number was 930,000. If you are a student in a Lib Dem-Labour marginal, that is the sort of issue you should be thinking about in two days’ time. Not a very silly thing a very silly man wrote on a poster five years ago.