Daily Archives: 20 June 2011

Social Liberal Forum: a question of definition

Jonathan Calder demands that the Social Liberal Forum answers the following question: “What is the difference between a social liberal and a social democrat?” Personally, I don’t think we should do any such thing.

It is certainly up to us to say what we mean by social liberalism, which is why we launched the SLF with David Howarth’s chapter from Reinventing the State on that very topic. But Jonathan’s question is a trap, akin to “when did you last beat your wife?” There is a presupposition in the question which we are under no requirement to accept.

Defining ourselves in relation to something else is entirely self-defeating. It is for social democrats to tell us what social democracy is; in what way is it incumbent on social liberals to put words in their mouths?

It was before my time, but the problem at the heart of the SDP always appeared to be that it didn’t actually have a satisfactory answer to what it was, other than that it wasn’t the Labour Party. It was preoccupied with filling in precisely the sort of negative space that Jonathan is now insisting the SLF should fill, rather than carving out its own identity. For the SDP, that course lead a lot of its members along a very rocky road indeed – not least of all David “vote Conservative… by which I mean Ed Miliband” Owen himself. It has always struck me that the Social Democrats who stuck around in the Liberal Democrats tended to be of a liberal bent in any case. Surely Roy Jenkins ranks as the most liberal Home Secretary of the 20th century?

Let’s not beat around the bush any longer: the implication of Jonathan’s post is of course that social liberals are merely atavistic social democrats. This is a suggestion that you can only make if you ignore the past 23 years. It is to ignore the fact that the SLF has just defied the most senior former SDP member in government, Andrew Lansley. It is to ignore the fact that a number of SDP members are now self-defined “Orange Bookers”. It is to ignore the fact that “liberal” was a word that the Liberal Paddy Ashdown was embarrassed to use – and event wanted expunged from our name, while the Social Democrat Charles Kennedy took back ownership of the word and nailed his liberal colours to the mast with the It’s About Freedom positioning paper. It merely revives a particularly dull tribal bunfight that most of us moved on from well over a decade ago.

Are there still some Lib Dem members – even SLF members – who call themselves Social Democrats? Of course, but if they are happy with the label, then why should we be concerned?

Do journalists habitually like to define the Social Liberal Forum as “socially democratic” (Jonathan cites the Guardian and the Independent on Sunday)? Of course they do. It fits into a frame which they decided years ago, before the SLF was formed. It isn’t an image problem of the SLF, which Jonathan suggests, but an image problem the entire party has. The Guardian in particular has been framing the debate within the party for years as a fight between “Gladstonians” and “SDPers”. Given that virtually none of us fit comfortably into either category, it would suggest that we all have a problem here. It has dogged us perpetually. But what can you do? We’re called the Social Liberal Forum and yet they still habitually replace the “L” word with the “D” word. How much more do you have to spell things out?

For what it’s worth, I’ve become terminally perplexed about labels. Most labels are inadequate. Progressive, is downright useless of course, but I realised long ago that even liberal, unqualified, was essentially vacuous. People who define themselves as “just” liberal tend to skim over the fact that most politicians are comparatively liberal these days – and tend to think that labelling something as “fundamentally illiberal” in thunderous tones tends to make a good substitute for actual argument. It often strikes me as more of a pose than a considered point of view.

I actually don’t really like the term “social liberal” much. If we were to be historically accurate, we should use the term “new liberal” – but that of course now carries with it certain Blairite connotations. Unless you choose to define “socialist” absurdly narrowly (in a way that Labourites never do), you could argue that the term “socialist liberal” is more technically accurate – but of course people do define socialist absurdly narrowly. Just by writing that I’m all but guaranteed to set certain people off screeching about “Beatrice Webb”, “Fabianism” and so on (I must get round to producing Lib Dem trope bingo cards at some point). All things considered, social liberal is the least bad term I can come up with for where I stand politically – and even then, as we can see, it can set people off.

The other problem with labels is that people tend to confuse argument for taxinomy. Particularly in the blogosphere, you will find people arguing that “if you are X you can’t possibly believe in Y” without ever contemplating the possibility that there is room within any political philosophy for debate and differing nuance. It is even, whisper it, possible for people advocating different political philosophies to agree on a lot for the simple reason that there will always be overlap and outriders. Yet all too often the debate – again predominantly online – tends to work on the assumption that all political ideologies are in hermetically sealed silos.

So let’s have a debate, and by all means criticise the SLF’s proposals, but let’s not get into an ossified discussion about labels. I would suggest that instead of attempting to answer Jonathan’s question, it should be focusing on policy. We’ve already got a working definition, and if that isn’t good enough? Well, tough.

Speech: Where we are and how we got here

Note: I got into a bit of a state preparing for my speech at the Social Liberal Forum Conference on Saturday, staying up the previous night writing and angsting about it: for some reason I found the prospect of sharing a platform with Neal Lawson, Will Hutton and Simon Hughes (who ended up replaced by Evan Harris at the last minute) quite intimidating. In the end, I would have been better off just writing half a dozen notes, having a good night’s sleep and winging it. I never got round to doing the final section because I went massively over time.

I’m not really happy with it – in particular I really need to spell out better what I’m trying to say about corporate culture and how the banking crisis is connected to IP wars and body image – but for what it’s worth here it is. In the event, a lot of what I didn’t get a chance to say was touched on during the day in any case, which was pleasing.

We established the Social Liberal Forum in early 2009, but its conception arose out of the Lib Dem 2008 Autumn Conference. Many will have forgotten, but that conference was dominated by the publication of the so-called “vision and values” paper Make It Happen.

The party leadership’s line to the press in the run up to that conference was that this paper signified a shift in policy, and specifically a move towards the party promising overall tax cuts at the following general election. This caused a predictable outrage and equally predictable froth about Clegg having a “Clause 4 moment”. In fact, the policy motion going to conference said nothing specific about tax cuts but was sufficiently vaguely worded that it was open to interpretation. The result was an absolute mess, with people hopelessly confused over what the debate was even about and the official line changing on an almost hourly basis. It was possibly the lowest point in the party’s proud history of deciding policy in a transparent and democratic manner.

In the end, the motion was passed, but it was a hollow victory. While we spent our time debating the prospect of tax cuts in Bournemouth, in New York Lehman Brothers was falling apart. By the end of the conference, it was already clear that we were going to have to tear up our economic policy and start all over again.

It is important to recall that incident because we need to be clear about where the SLF was coming from. We didn’t set up SLF to be some kind of Tribunite vanguard of a fringe liberal left. Our concern was that the mainstream voice of the party was being sidestepped and bypassed. The social liberal majority within the party had grown complacent about its predominant position, assuming that the party’s internal democracy would prevent the party from going in a direction it wasn’t willing to take. The 2008 conference made it clear to a number of us that it was important we got organised. As it happens, with the formation of the coalition, the need for that organisation is now more apparent than ever.

Was SLF established as a ‘response’ to the Orange Book? Well, it is true that several of its founding members were involved in the publication of Reinventing the State, which certainly was a response to the Orange Book. But 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. That isn’t to say there aren’t disagreements, merely that such an internal debate ought to be something that can only be constructive – as long as that debate is conducted fairly and democratically. It is the dogmatic approach of Andrew Lansley’s health reforms that, above all, should cause us concern, not the prospect of reforming the NHS at all.

The real ideological struggle we face is not over how we should deliver public services but over the size and the role of the state. This is clearly a dividing line between the Lib Dems and Conservatives. Is it a dividing line within the party itself?

There is certainly a libertarian fringe, but it isn’t a grouping that any senior party figure has ever chosen to associate themselves with. And despite the fact that senior figures within the party have occasionally appeared to flirt with libertarianism, I have never got the impression that this is part of a thought through position. Indeed, in some ways, it would be less problematic if it was. Rather, this flirtation appears to have more to do with an anti-intellectual tendency to confuse policy making with posturing.

This anti-intellectualism is not limited to the top of the party; indeed I would argue that it is one of the biggest challenges we face as a party. For my job at Unlock Democracy a few years ago, I conducted a survey of Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem local parties. I was shocked when the figures came back to show quite how little policy discussion actually went on in the Lib Dems, even in comparison with our rivals.

For too many within the Lib Dems, party involvement begins and ends with winning elections. For them, policy is only a means to an end. All too often that leads us down the road of populism and all too often populist policy proves to not be terribly practical when it comes to implementation. We have a tendency to focus too much on what makes a good slogan.

There’s a very specific reason why, for me at least, we decided to call ourselves a Forum, and that’s because we wanted to foment debate within the party at all levels.

But what direction should future party policy take? Spearheaded by Tim Farron, and no doubt in response to the Big Society, there has recently been a flurry of excitement about the idea of reviving community politics as the party’s core strategy. I welcome this, but feel it will only be a worthwhile exercise if we can work how to prevent the hollowed out form of community politics, which exists as little more than a technique for winning elections, from predominating. Despite many of its adherents’ best efforts, community politics has been indirectly responsible for helping to form the very intellectual vacuum that we are now so concerned about. Somehow, the reinvigorated communicty politics of 2011 needs to avoid this.

What other policy challenges are there? In my view, we need to urgently come to some kind of understanding about what we mean by inequality, and thus fairness, as a party. We have to come up with a more compelling answer than “social mobility.” It isn’t that social mobility is a bad thing to aspire to, merely that it is hard to see how you can truly tackle it without taking on entrenched privilege, or recognising that it is harder for people to rise from the bottom to the top is the gulf between them is so high. I fear that there is a lot of talk about how to loosen up society at the bottom but very little focus at the other end of the spectrum. To me, you can’t seriously discuss inequality or social mobility without talking about wealth – and specifically land value – taxation, yet we continually shy away from it.

Closely linked to both the idea of community politics and the need for a more fair society is, in my view, the need for us to create a more dynamic, people-centred economy. It frightens me how the very financial corporations and institutions which took us to the brink less than three years ago have already reasserted themselves, and in such a way that appears to have achieved little other than the seizing up of the global economy. But it is about more than just banking; corporate culture has commodified everything. The mass expansion of intellectual property legislation has meant that our culture has been quietly privatised. Information technology has made our purchasing habits and even the friends we choose on social networks a commodity to be bought and sold.

I’m no Ned Ludd and this isn’t a plea to go back to a simpler age; I’m a great lover of technology and am deeply immersed in it in every aspect of my life. It’s capacity to liberate and empower people is something that inspires me every day. Nor is it anti-capitalist; in fact I’d go so far as to say that in wanting to challenge entrenched oligarchies and monopolies, this is very much a free trade argument.

Fundamentally however, I don’t think our politics has yet woken up to the implications of how the combination of information technology and trans-national corporations is changing society and making the very possibility of a fairer and more just society increasingly difficult. It links the drugs we take with the books we read and even questions about body image and low self-esteem which Jo Swinson and Lynne Featherstone have been doing so much work on recently.

How should we tackle this? It’s a good question and not one I have a comprehensive answer to. We need much stricter banking legislation of course and a vital aspect of it is to scale back our ever burgeoning intellectual property legislation. We also need to rediscover industrial democracy: a concept which the liberal party embraced and championed throughout the 20th century yet have forgotten in recent years.

But if we’re going to achieve anything over the next few years, we need to do more to build alliances, both inside Westminster and beyond. By holding the balance of power in both Houses of Parliament, we are in a real position of strength. We undermine that when we go out of our way to disparage and alienate the Labour Party. What’s worse, for many of the people who voted for us in 2010, it confirms all their worst fears. For a party which has always objected to a culture of two-party politics, we have done a remarkable job of reinventing it.

On a great many issues Nick Clegg is in a position to negotiate with David Cameron on behalf of the majority of parliament rather than on behalf of a minority third party. This doesn’t mean being uncritical of Labour by any means, but it does mean choosing fights with more care and positively encouraging Labour when does the right thing.