GLASGOW – Paddy Ashdown, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats, said students approach him to say they're grateful for the new tuition fees system introduced by the coalition government.
"Students [under the old system], and I speak to many of them, come up to me and say, 'By god, I wish we were under your system, because the one that we protested to keep was worse,'" Ashdown told BuzzFeed News at his party's annual conference in Glasgow.
Typical undergraduate tuition fees tripled to around £9,000 per year after the Liberal Democrats joined the coalition government and broke their high-profile promise to abolish fees for higher education, which had been a key part of their manifesto. But Ashdown reckons students are happy, because many of them will never have to pay back the fees in full, unlike in the previous system.
"Everybody said the number of students going to university would drop; it hasn't, it's gone up," said Ashdown, a former Royal Marine who served with the Special Boat Service before turning to liberal politics. "The consequence of this system is that more students are coming from poor families than they did before."
"This is a hugely beneficial system – even students recognise that."
That said, he regretted the decision to pose with the infamous pledge cards that committed the Lib Dems to abolishing fees. "Nick [Clegg] has said it was a mistake to [sign the pledges] but sometimes, coming from a party with 100 years of opposition, sometimes you're a bit opportunistic."
"I'm entitled to say that because I said it was a mistake at the time," he added, a view echoed last week when one of the party's own ministers jokingly said she wished she could "shoot" the team who agreed to that compromise.
But for a party that's shed 20,000 members and most of its poll support since the 2010 general election, Lib Dems in Glasgow are strangely upbeat. That's because they reckon they're likely to be in government for another five years.
"We accept a coalition is a likely outcome," said Ashdown, who is planning the party's general election campaign with this in mind.
Explaining Labour wasn't "in the psychological position" to form a coalition with the Lib Dems in 2010, he hinted that Ed Miliband still wouldn't be up for sharing power with another party, casting doubt on the chances a 2015 Lib Dem-Labour coalition.
"If you want my guess, I think [Labour's] still in that psychology. I don't think they've changed. In which case, they've got some changing to do."
The rise of Nigel Farage's party is irrelevant to his election planning ("We're the polar opposite of UKIP. We're going to pay no attention to them"), and he boasted of being the only party with "the guts to stand up and make the case for Europe", not that it did them much good in May's European parliament elections.
But in an attempt to avoid the embarrassing student fees debacles, he said a two-tier Lib Dem manifesto is likely, featuring some policies that are ambitions and some policies that will be implemented by any government featuring the Lib Dems at all costs.
"I do think that all the parties will have to say they are ready to negotiate with others, and here are the things that are the red lines and here are the things we will undertake to do in all circumstances. I think probably that is what we'll have to do."
And he reckoned that, when the time comes, there's good chance Nick Clegg will be replaced by a woman.
"It's time for every party to have a female leader. One of the things that gives me a huge amount of enthusiasm is that of the nine MPs standing down, seven are being replaced by female candidates. My guess is that the next leader of the Liberal Democrats may not even be in parliament."
But for now there's the prospect of an election in which the Lib Dems could lose substantial numbers of MPs and millions of voters. What's the pitch to the nation?
The 73-year-old, enjoying one of his final elections at the centre of the Lib Dem campaign, said: "The centrepiece of our manifesto will be, 'Don't let the other two in because you know they'll wreck it, but if you do put it in then this is why we'll stop them wrecking it.'
"My pitch is: Do you want a job? Do you want a future? Are you going to trust that to a Labour party that trashed the economy? Because they'll do so again.
"You also want a fair society, you want decent public services, [and] you now know the Tories want to cut the deficit by slashing public services.
"I don't see liberalism as a cosy little herbivorous creature on the edges of British politics that never touches power and has the idea everyone else borrows. I want to see a government informed by liberal principles. I'll take the risks for that."
And Ashdown really, really wants voters to move on from tuition fees and look at the Lib Dems' broad record in the coalition. "Are you going to judge us by one mistake made before the last election? Or four years' solid government that has taken this government out of the mess Labour had put it in?"
Jim Waterson is a politics editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Jim Waterson at email@example.com.
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