Get Clegg! Jilted students target Lib Dem love rats

Neil Clark: Students who once loved Nick Clegg are now going to rally in his constituency

BY Neil Clark LAST UPDATED AT 16:38 ON Wed 17 Nov 2010

Hell hath no fury like a student scorned. Seven months ago, in the build-up to the general election, the love affair between Britain's large student community and Nick Clegg’s Lib Dems was at the height of its passion. Today they’ve fallen out so badly that students in his Sheffield constituency are planning to walk out of their lectures and march through the city next week in protest at Clegg's U-turn on tuition fees.

How did it go wrong? The Lib Dems were seen as young, hip and truly 'liberal. They were against ID cards and other illiberal New Labour measures and had opposed the hugely unpopular Iraq war.
Most important, they were the only main political party that seemed to have the interests of Britain’s students at heart.

Not only did Clegg and co sign written pledges that the party would "vote against any increase in fees in the next Parliament", they were also considerate enough to warn students that tuition fees could rise to as much as £7,000 under Labour or the Conservatives.

"Labour and the Conservatives have been trying to keep tuition fees out of this election campaign. It's because they don't want to come clean with you about what they're planning," Clegg claimed in late April.

But if anyone wasn't coming clean about what they were planning it was those nice "student-friendly" Lib Dems. We now know that, despite their pledges, the party was already drawing up plans to abandon their policy to scrap fees two months before the election.

In short, Clegg and his party deliberately courted the student vote, knowing full well that if they did end up in government they would support the very policy that they had sworn to oppose. There are plenty of words we can use to describe such behaviour - "nice" is not one of them.

For his Ramsay Macdonaldesque betrayal of people who voted for him in good faith, Clegg has, quite rightly, become Public Enemy Number One on Britain's campuses.

Last week at the anti-fees demonstration in London, effigies of the Lib Dem leader were burnt by irate protestors.

On Monday, the National Union of Students launched their 'Right to Recall' campaign, under which they aim to use the procedure against any other Lib Dem MP who votes for a tripling of tuition fees.

Lib Dems who cry 'foul' at such tactics are on a very sticky wicket - it was the Lib Dems themselves who called for the introduction of a recall system at the last election.

Whether the "right to recall" will cover broken promises when it becomes law is a moot point. It was introduced in the light of the expenses scandal to deal with MPs who "break the rules".

Either way, Clegg will be hoping that the controversy over his massive U-turn will gradually blow over and that a larger share of the flak will be directed at his Tory coalition partners.

While there may have been a few naïve individuals who swallowed the line that David Cameron’s Conservatives had ditched Thatcherism and were no longer "the nasty party", the Tories’ stance during six months in government - on tuition fees, VAT rises and cuts in public spending - is nowhere near as shocking to most people as the Lib Dems' change of heart.

Modern Tories have never been the students’ friends. Did anyone seriously expect a Tory government, with George Osborne in charge of public finances, not to massively hike tuition fees?

But people really did expect something rather different from those nice, 'progressive' Lib Dems. Now they’re set to pay the political price for their duplicity.

In addition to the ‘Right to Recall’ campaign, direct action by student activists against the Lib Dems and their leader is set to increase.

Next Wednesday in London the 'Day X' protest will target the Lib Dems' HQ in Cowley Street. On the same day, the Education Activist Network (EAN) - one of the groups involved in last Wednesday's London protest - has decided to target Clegg in Sheffield. Students at Sheffield University will march to the town hall and most likely protest outside his constituency office, too.

(Earlier reports that they plan to demonstrate outside Clegg's Ecclesall home are wide of the mark - he has sold the house having promised to do so following last year's Commons expenses scandal.)

"We are targeting the Lib Dems in particular for their lies," says Mark Bergfeld, an EAN spokesman who is also an executive committee member of the NUS. "I think we have the right to target Lib Dems up and down the country, occupy their offices and call on them to join our fight. Ultimately, we want to split the government."

Bergfeld could well get what he desires. Back in April, I predicted that if Clegg continued his move to the right and entered a coalition with a Conservative government, the party could fragment into left and right factions.

The row over tuition fees means that is likely to happen sooner rather than later. Former leaders Sir Menzies Campbell and Charles Kennedy have already come out against the changed policy. So, too, has Tim Farron, the party’s new president, who has described tuition fees as “the poll tax for our generation”.

In the same way that the poll tax - and the ensuing political protests - sunk Margaret Thatcher, so tuition fees are likely to do the same to Clegg.

Britain’s student activists are politically savvy and well organised – a powerful enemy Clegg could do without.

Their clever targeting of Lib Dem MPs who broke their pledge on fees is likely to inflict even greater damage on a party who already face an electoral backlash from disillusioned voters at the next election. Any Lib Dem MP in a marginal university seat who votes for a tripling of tuition fees is virtually guaranteeing that he/she will be out of a job after the next election.

Just seven months after falling head over heels in love with the Lib Dems, Britain’s jilted students appear determined to teach the love rats a lesson they will never forget. · 

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