If it was food for thought you were after then the conference organised by the Social Liberal Forum at City University on Saturday was a huge success. There was challenging thinking and debate across a wide range of topics. Plus some thought provoking presentations from some excellent speakers. So I came away with ideas for several things to write about.
Possibly too many. As, aside from other things getting in the way, I have struggled to get my thoughts about the conference into a sensible order. Indeed this is my third attempt to write this post. I gave up the previous two as trying to make a coherent story out of too many conflicting ideas made them impossible to write.
One thing I am clear about though is that I am glad I went. I want to thank all those involved in organising what was a very worthwhile event. The feeling I got from the people around me was that most of them found the day both enjoyable and useful.
My personal highlights were:
- The clear indications that pressure for further banking reform is likely to be put on the government by sections of the Liberal Democrats
- Both Vince Cable and Simon Hughes talking about the importance of land taxation
- The powerful contribution, more a call to arms than a speech, from Will Hutton
- Vince Cable’s “Plan A +”
- The fascinating discussion on community politics and the big society
- and a vintage Simon Hughes performance – arriving late and then saying “and lastly” several times during his speech
I also think it was a useful exercise for the Liberal Democrats.
In his speech in the opening session James Graham argued that a tendency towards anti-intellectualism within the Liberal Democrats is “one of the biggest challenges we face as a party”. On this point I strongly agree with James. I’ve started to argue myself that the party’s ideas cupboard is far too bare and that, along with a lack of activities designed to re-stock it, is one of the key areas of vulnerability for us within the coalition. If it proves to be the Tories who have the more innovative and thought through ideas, which in several areas seems to be the case, then it will be harder for the Liberal Democrats to influence and make a distinctive contribution to the policy agenda of the coalition government. We need to take concrete steps to do something about this problem and Saturday was a good start. If further events of this quality help to tackle that vulnerability and to challenge that anti-intellectualism then the SLF is doing the party a great service.
The other useful function that I think the conference performed was to do with the Liberal Democrats’ relations with the Labour party. We had two Labour speakers, both from Compass, who talked about the need for us to talk to each other and over come the tribalism in both parties. To be fair they both received a rather mixed reception. This isn’t a particularly fruit-full environment for Lib-Lab cooperation and I have mixed feelings about it myself. My view is that we shouldn’t be too distracted with talking to Labour while we still have so much work to do to in finding the right balance of co-operation versus competition with the Conservatives. If we want to talk to a bunch of right-wing authoritarians then isn’t it more useful to talk to the ones we share a government with rather than the ones in opposition? However, the pragmatist in me knows that we need to keep the lines of communication with Labour open and I believe that the pluralists associated with Compass in particular are a positive force within politics. If the SLF, and events like these, are to be the vehicle through which a dialogue with Labour takes place then, on balance, that is going to be a good thing.
However, on my way to the conference I had wondered whether my prejudices about the Social Liberal Forum would be confirmed or confounded by the day. I have to say that they were mostly confirmed.
If there was a unifying theme to the day I think it would have been “we are the mainstream”.
Several speakers made the argument that social liberalism is at the heart of what the Liberal Democrats stand for. Amongst the phrases I heard used were “we are the soul of the Liberal Democrats; “the mainstream voice of the Party”; and “we represent the majority”. We are a social liberal party they claimed.
And in one important sense they are right. If you take those European countries that have more than one liberal party and compare them to the Liberal Democrats we are clearly closer to those that describe themselves as social liberal. Historically, as Will Hutton powerfully reminded us, we are the inheritors of the social liberal tradition of British politics. We are the children of T H Green, Hobhouse, Keynes and Beveridge. The party has grown from and been influenced by that tradition. In that sense we are all social liberals.
But by the same logic we are all economic liberals too. Also you can say we are classical liberals and for that matter Whigs and Radicals. We are inheritors of the ideas and movements that have made up the different moments of history of the development of British liberalism. Indeed David Hall-Mathews, the Chair of the SLF, clearly stated that you can be both a social liberal and an economic liberal. He wanted to emphasis the “Forum” part of their name. The SLF is predominately a forum for debate that sits within the mainstream of the party was the clear implication. James Graham has gone further;
“I don’t think that portraying tensions between “social” and “economic” liberals within the party is some kind of ideological schism is helpful or especially meaningful. Within the Lib Dems, the debate over how public services are delivered ought to be entirely pragmatic and evidence-based.”
I agree 100% with that statement.
But here things get at best confused and at worst disingenuous. It is clear and obvious that the SLF have a particular policy agenda that they want to advocate within the Liberal Democrats. There is nothing wrong with that. Indeed I agree with much of it. So even if they are primarily about providing a forum for discussion then they can’t pretend that they are neutral referees of it. They want to steer that discussion in a particular direction. Again nothing essentially wrong with that provided the agenda is out in the open.
Yet there was another, and contradictory, theme coming out of the day. This was most clearly expressed by, but not only by, Richard Grayson whose argument was essentially that the purpose of the SLF was to rescue the Liberal Democrats for the members from the small clique of “orange bookers” who had captured it. At least to me that seemed to be the essence of his argument. Others were less extreme than Richard but it seemed to me that there was another, more immediate and less philosophical, sense in which the claim “we are the mainstream” was being made. That is to make views that don’t fit within a given definition of mainstream social liberalism be seen as fringe and to some extent illegitimate.
Within the Liberal Democrats it is perfectly legitimate to argue for a more “socially liberal” approach to the delivery of public services. Yet if that debate is to be entirely pragmatic and evidence-based then it has to be equally legitimate to argue for a more “economically liberal” approach. That cannot take place if those who argue for the latter are at the same time portrayed as being fringe figures.
I am not sure that those members of the SLF who confidently proclaim that they represent the mainstream of the party have the evidence to back up that claim. There are party members who do define themselves as economic liberals and reject the label of social liberal. There are many more, like myself, who wouldn’t want to claim either label, at least not in any meaningful way. If members of the SLF represent “the soul of the Liberal Democrats” does that mean that others have no soul?
This could be dismissed as froth. The rough and tumble of internal party politics. Liberals have a long and honourable tradition of mistrusting our leaders and we are all the better for it. But I think it restricts the usefulness of the SLF and limits their ideas and objectives. In seeking to exclude the “orange bookers” they may diminish the influence of a few misguided libertarians and apply a corrective to the populism that is the result of the anti-intellectualism that James Graham has described. But they will equally excluded many who are seeking new and innovative ideas for public service reform and those whose interests extend beyond arguing about the size and nature of the state.
I repeat what I said on Saturday;
“I haven’t signed up to the SLF. I don’t really want to choose sides in what is a mostly artificial, and often sterile, debate between the social liberal and economic liberal wings of the Liberal Democrats.”
I am very sympathetic to much of what the SLF are trying to achieve. I am impressed by much of what they have already achieved and I am confident that they will continue to play a really vital and useful role within the Liberal Democrats over the next few years. They can organise a damned good conference! But I’m afraid too much of what they are about is still locked into that sterile debate. So, I wish them well, but I won’t be signing up any time soon.
This content was originally posted on my old Strange Thoughts blog.