Social Liberal Forum: a question of definition

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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.

6 thoughts on “Social Liberal Forum: a question of definition

  1. Why the ‘social’ bit anyway, James? Like you I find labels increasingly annoying/unhelpful – and arguing about them doubly so…

    I appreciate that ‘liberal’ has a lot of baggage/history too. But I suspect quite a number of people (beyond the shrinking echo chambers of political obsession of which Jonathan’s question is merely a symptom, and in which the parties seem to be in danger of disappearing up their own arses) might quite like to be able to nail their colours to as clear a mast. And to see leaders define themselves and their politics through – dare one say it – action with a hint of ideology…

    Salami slicing oneself to death is one thing – how many flavours of liberal do you need? – it just strikes me that someone should bite the bloody bullet and reclaim/reinhabit a word that could/should still mean something, while it still does.

    People did it with ‘gay’ and there were (different) sorts of battles around words like ‘spastic’. The risk of failure is high. But the pay-off would be immense.

  2. I could not have rebutted Calder’s post any better. His obsession with the tribalism of thirty years ago seems both quaint and sinister at the same time.

  3. What we all need is a new party – a party that doesn’t come with decades-old baggage. I see there is one – called the CommonSense Party, recently founded and building support all over Britain, particularly from housewives, apparently. If indeed common sense is its mission, then it will be a totally new phenomenon.

  4. I’m not entirely sure I agree, John. (Though I’m all for more common sense!) Do we really need a new new party?

    Starting from scratch is often very attractive, but also impractical. Another approach might be to shatter the existing parties down their fracture lines into the more ‘ideologically homogenous’ sub-parties from which they are composed and let them fight it out in a radically improved electoral system.

    I fear another party – even one ‘without baggage’ – that tried to appeal broadly enough to win office (assuming our highly-stacked electoral system would permit it, which is doubtful) would be likely to fall into many of the same traps and compromises that the current ones do.

    The rise of the single-issue pressure group – which I hope might evolve into a more sustainable, dynamic and open aggregation of ‘citizen watchdogs’ – is already happening. And it could be a way to drive more ‘common sense’ into (UK) party politics.

    Frankly, though, I think the party system itself is in need of a radical overhaul. It concentrates power into the hands of a tiny minority, even within the parties – which themselves no longer appeal to the majority of the public.

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