In 2010, hundreds of thousands of teenagers had the chance to exercise their right to vote in a General Election that was to oust the Labour party from its 12-year grip on power. As a fresh-faced first year University student, I unashamedly voted for the party who promised to serve my best interests at the time. Nick Clegg’s widely publicised personal pledge to scrap the planned rise in university tuition fees garnered the support of the student vote; propelling the ‘3rd leg’ party into holding a dominating negotiating position in Westminster. Fees were going to be capped, maybe even scrapped if the Liberal Democrats got into power. Their USP promised to launch the Liberals back into the limelight of decision-making politics.
Fast forward 5 months, and the limelight had turned ugly and dark for the victorious joint coalition of the Tories and Liberals. Having placed my voting slip in the ballot box with more than a fair share of excitement and enthusiasm, I found myself in the middle of a riot of anger and violence, as a backlash against the Liberal party in general, and Nick Clegg in particular, took hold. The 10.11.10 ‘Demolition’ student protests were intended as a show of unity against the decision not to scrap tuition fees for students. The vast majority of protesting students passed peacefully through the route, and cheered a rousing speech made by the NUS President at the time, Aaron Porter. However, I had taken my camera and followed more vocal elements of the protest along to where the Millbank building, housing the Conservative party campaign staff, was under an effective siege. The sight of police officers being hit by debris and the windows being kicked in hit the evening prime-time television slots; there were three helicopters filming in real-time whilst I was there. This was not the passion and frustration of students being let down by politicians, it was an excuse for anarchist groups to have a brawl. Whilst the violence was widely perceived to have been damaging to the intended overall message of that march, the actions of the few hundred outside the Millbank complex ensured long term news coverage; infinitely more damaging to both Clegg and his party.
There was no apology forthcoming then, and for a further two years the pre-dug grave got deeper and dirtier as tuition fees not only stayed put, but subsequently rose exponentially to a maximum level of over £9000 per year. Promises that only a few select universities would demand the maximum tuition fees proved false, as the vast majority seized the opportunity of vastly increased funds, and a minimum £8000 was set by most of the institutions in England. The fact that the University system urgently needed the increase to deal with the rise in the number of young people wanting to attend further education was forgotten in the minds of the students who still held fresh memories of a ‘personal pledge’.
Two years later, and Nick Clegg’s decision to personally apologise for not sticking to his manifesto promise has drawn the inevitable criticism of being just another PR attempt to persuade disenfranchised Lib Dem voters to clamber back on board. With a likely two more years until the next general election, the leader of the Liberal Democrat party is readying to defend the expected onslaught of lost votes when the public go to the polls in 2014. This humble and somber apology, clear and direct in its meaning, is seen as laying the first ground works for Nick Clegg to begin to mend the party’s reputation, and salvage some trust in the next two years. However, with the perceived integrity and ethical committment of British politicians at an all time low following some high profile, wide-spread scandals, he will find it very hard to confront the cynics and doubters who now make up the voting public. Words, so often spoken willingly in election campaigns and manifestos, cannot salvage a situation that has bubbled and brewed for the past two years.
The Liberal Democrats have a chance to survive being wiped out at the next election. Unfortunately for Nick Clegg, his presence will surely entail irreparable damage to his own party. A new leader, fresh faces and a determination to establish their own values away from the Conservative coalition looks to be their only chance of salvation.
Image: ‘Dear Nick. We found this in our backs. We believe it’s yours.’ Copyright Chris Watson 2010