Three mistakes for Liberal Democrats to avoid when campaigning over Labour’s (deeply flawed) policy on tuition fees:
Quoting Liberal Democrats: when arguing over a policy you need to quote people who have instant credibility in the eyes of persuadable voters. On tuition fees, that means not quoting Liberal Democrats, whoever they are. (Just as for many issues with Labour, it means not quoting Ed Balls, for example.)
Leading with detailed statistics: yes, the numbers behind what you say need to add up but a persuasive argument doesn’t start with “let me give you 5 minutes of complicated statistics”.
Defending what the Liberal Democrat did in 2010: an understandable temptation, perhaps, but it’s not only a distraction from the main point about the flaws in Labour’s policy, it undermines attacks on them but raising an issue which isn’t the party’s strong ground as if it’s a choice between that and Labour’s policy. That’s an unhelpful forced choice.
Conversely, here are three ways to get it right:
- Quote credible, independent third parties slamming Labour’s plans: such as Money Saving Expert’s Martin Lewis (“A financially illiterate policy … only affluent graduates will gain” and “a policy that effectively [means] that poorer students would be subsidising city investment banking graduates” ), Anne McElvoy in the Evening Standard (“a regressive policy” which “will benefit only our better off graduates”) or the Institute for Fiscal Studies (“mid-to-high-income graduates are the primary beneficiaries of this reform, with the very highest earners benefiting the most”). A Lib Dem asserting something isn’t nearly as effective as a Lib Dem quoting someone else.
- Concentrate on a simple point: yes, the full story behind the impact of changing the maximum level of tuition fees is complicated, especially if you want to work out the impact not only on students but also on university funding but, no, that’s not the way to win a political argument. The way to win is to concentrate on the simple point: Labour’s plan is to help the affluent, not those most in need.
- Be brief and when choosing what to trumpet, pick something with a good record in government: of course when voters raise an issue, a good reply needs to be made. But when proactively choosing what issue to promote, the best ones are those that combine a good record in government with a powerful policy for the next Parliament. That works better than voluntarily leading with a weak spot.