On Wednesday 3rd March, Liverpool City Council became the tenth city council in England to pass a motion opposing the planned introduction of top-up fees.
The meeting itself had a very odd start, with the council chief executive declaring that any council member with a son or daughter at university had a conflict of interests which would prevent them from attending the debate. Bizarrely he ruled that anyone who was paying off a student loan was deemed not to have a conflict of interests. This made no sense of course, as the Higher Education Bill, and the motion put to Liverpool City Council will only effect future students.
The ruling however very much pleased one of the labour councillors. ‘Yes!’ she shouted with a big smile as she picked up her bag and walked. She obviously knew what was coming and had no wishes to be part of it. We knew labour would vote as a block, as they had all said they would follow the line, we just didn’t know what that line would be.
The debate started with addresses from student representatives. LUGS President, Hannah Charnock said ”Top-up fees will create a market where the course and the place students go to university will depend on their ability to pay, not their ability to learn. As you know, only two Labour Liverpool MPs stuck to guns, stuck to principles, stuck to manifesto. This is a disgrace"
Paul Twigger from LSU then spoke of the effects on Liverpool Students and the effects for the in the wider community in the City. He quoted research which showed that ¾ of potential students from Liverpool will be deterred by higher fees, before thanking the people of Liverpool for their support in the NUS week of action. He then said "Last week I met with a labour councillor and a prospective councillor and they told me education funding was not important. So I’d like to tell councillor Sharon Sullivan that the students and the wider community in Liverpool disagree with her."
Sullivan took a few sharp intakes of breath as she shook her head and protested her innocence.
It was then the turn of Lib-Dem councillor, Mike Storey who proposed the motion to speak. He said “I did not get into politics to limit the range of choice for students, with students from the poorest backgrounds effected most in the future. In Australia a survey has showed quite clearly that students from poorer families to cheaper courses at cheaper universities. Well I never, who would have believed it? What I cannot understand is when we are talking about a £9-10bn shortfall, these proposals will raise just £1bn. They will not solve the problem, they just put the burden of debt onto students and their families. And a sure as night follows day, while we are told that top-up fees will be capped at £3k until 2009, we know that unlimited fees are just round the corner. They may say they won’t do this, but in 1997 the labour party said it it had no plans to introduce tuition fees and nine months later it did. Then in 2001 they said in the manifesto not just that they wouldn’t bring in top-up fees, but also that they had legislated to make them impossible. Impossible for this government last about three years it seems.”
But when it came to the turn of the labour party group to speak things turned pure Monty Python. Labour Leader Joe Anderson went on a tirade against the liberal democrats accusing them of political opportunism, producing an illiterate, incompetent motion. After spouting a list of things that the Lib-Dems in power had apparently ruined in the city, he launched an attack on the assembled 20-odd student representatives. He shouted “I hope you lot know that you are getting into the spiders web here with the Liberal Democrats. It isn’t too late for you to come and join us in the Labour Party!” Anderson was completely unprepared for the volume of laughter this created. I don't think he quite got the irony of slagging us all off, then asking us to join labour. I’d of fallen off my chair if I hadn’t been sat on a table! He then stood up and led his party out of the chamber, accompanied by a slow hand clap and barracking from all those around. As he passed me I felt the need to point out that 2 Labour Councils have passed similar motions.
Pauline Connelly from Ward Labour (or proper labour who have 2 seats) said "What you have seen is pure cowardice, they’ve accused people of political opportunism, well that’s why they have walked out, it’s pure opportunism. They have walked out so that they don’t have vote for or against, and have that recorded and have the chance of that being used against them in the future.”
After further speaches from The Liberals and the Liberal-Democrats and a minor ammendment, the motion was voted on and without labour there, and a number of other councillors who had been forced to leave due to the conflict of interest ruling, it was passed by fifty votes to nil.
However it was Andersons attack on the assembled students which will be the thing people remember. It also highlighted one of the reasons why this tactic of pushing councils to oppose top-up fees is such a valid one. Anderson could not hide his disapointment, that in his eyes the students were 'getting into bed' with the liberal democrats. Whilst this was not the case in the wider context you could understand they displeasure at this idea. Over half of the speakers from all sides, be it Labour, the Lub-Dems the Liberals or Ward Labour spoke of their times on the union/guild executive committee, and that so many of their colleagues had 'come up' the same way, giving the impression that the chamber was an old sabbs retirement home. The idea that students are reconnecting with the political process -especially in a city with some of the lowest turnouts in the country- is something which all sides saw as opportunity. No matter how bizarre it seemed at some times, all parties basically asked the students to join them.
The other thing to consider this year is Liverpool, like many other cities is having boundary changes, meaning all three councillors for each ward will be elected at the same time, opposed to one a year (with a 'leap year' of no elections every fourth year). To get back to the old system after boundary changes, what that means this time is that if you finish top you get 4 years, 2nd gets 3 yrs & 3rd gets a 2 year term of office. This is in a city where you can win some wards with around 300 votes. Taking Liverpool Central as an example, you have a total of 10,000 people, 6,000 of which are students. And if an independent student can finish third and get in, well why not?
Now were not just talking about the short-term goal of making an impact on the funding campaign- which there would be- if say just ten independent students got elected across the country, it will send a strong political message that students are organising and are a force to be reckoned with.
But the bottom line is, why shouldn't there be a student representative on your city council. Here is Coventry, we have a population of about 250,000 with about 28,000 being HE students. Thats over 10% of the population, so why shouldn't they be represented on the citys' governing body? After all there are plenty of local issues which effect students more than the rest of the population, such as crime, street lighting and council tax (if someone drops out and finds they have to pay 75% for their student house). Some places used to have a university seat for Gods sake, and really we still have them, but they are just sat there totally ignored. To stand in a seat you just need 10 signatures (they have to live in the ward, but you don't), there's no deposit for council elections, but the dealine is soon!