Tag Archives: social liberal forum

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.

For the record…

I was a bit disappointed by Andy Beckett’s article on the future of the Lib Dems in the Guardian today. It is not that I have been misquoted – although I seem to recall saying that the number of Lib Dem MPs after the next election could be as low as 30 rather than probably 30 (a small but distinct difference). It is just that some of the potshots he makes are rather lazy ones.

I’m annoyed that he repeats the great Orange Book fallacy, that being that the book in question was written by a bunch of right wing idealogues with a specific agenda in mind. In fact, as anyone who has read the book cover to cover can testify, it is a mish mash of chapters which don’t particularly hang together. The only authentically economic liberal chapter is David Laws’ chapter on the NHS – even his chapter on liberalism is more of an overview than anything else. The rest of the book is written by people from all over the Lib Dem political spectrum. Still, the legend is more interesting than the fact, so print the legend. You can’t fault David Laws’ genius for giving his political movement a name simply by publishing a book and shouting about it six months before an election in a way that really annoyed people. At the time it looked reckless and foolish; now it looks inspired (if more than a little devious).

I’m irritated by his quoting of a comment by Joe Edwards on the Social Liberal Forum website. I don’t know Joe Edwards from Adam but if the irate text message from a reliable source I got this morning is correct he is not a Lib Dem member, resigning from the party before the election. He certainly has no association whatsoever with the Social Liberal Forum, and the biography on his blog makes no mention of party membership. Yet the article invites you to infer that he is somehow an SLFer. I thought the practice of quoting comments from blogs had been discredited by the West Wing?

Finally, just to clarify my position about the “long game” and the “short game”. I do see the Lib Dems taking a hit in popularity at the next election (assuming neither the Tories nor Labour self-destruct, which isn’t entirely impossible), but I wasn’t merely arguing that the party would crawl back in the long run. My point was that this government’s political reforms, if fully implemented, will transform UK politics for the long term and that in the long run the Lib Dems will get credit for that. And even if the party doesn’t get the credit, those reforms should be worth the hit.

Neal Lawson and James Graham: All your base are belong to us

The cat is now well and truly out of the bag and it will be interesting to see how the blogosphere responds. Beyond the usual “OMG!!1! YOU’VE SOLD OUT TO ZaNuPFLieBore!?!11!” of course.

I thought I’d add a few comments here in a vain attempt to clear a few things up and prebut some of the more predictable criticisms.

The first thing is, we are calling for a coalition of ideas and thus social liberal-minded (and liberal socialist-minded) individuals from all parties and none, not some kind of pact or deal between the Lib Dems and Labour. I am personally quite sceptical about how a coalition between the two parties could be steered in the event of a hung parliament next year. But this isn’t about positioning and all the sorts of things which obsessed the architects of the “Project” in the 1990s. It is interesting to note that Neal Lawson and I were on differing sides of that particular debate. Neal has become deeply sceptical of what he called that “coalition of five individuals” approach at our joint Social Liberal Forum/Compass fringe this evening. Meanwhile I have come to learn the importance of developing a cross-party dialogue between people with shared goals across the political divide. The right are much more effective at that (look at the chumminess between Nigel Farage, Dan Hannan and Mark Littlewood despite the latter’s principled and fundamental disagreement with the former two on the issue of Europe).

The second point is that this is certainly not on my part in any way about making excuses for Labour’s horrendous record on civil liberties. I broached this with Neal at our fringe this evening, challenging him on (for example) the failure of Compass No Turning Back statement at few months ago to offer a critique on Labour over civil liberties. While acknowledging that he sees Liberal Democrats has providing a valuable critique for Labour members regarding the civil liberties agenda (just as Labour members can offer a critique when it comes social justice), he did state that for him, Tony Blair’s attempt to impose 90 days detention without charge is the one issue which nearly caused him to resign from the party. Compass did indeed mobilise a grassroots campaign in opposition to that proposal which played a major role in stopping Blair from getting his own way on that occasion. If I didn’t believe Compass were allies when it comes to reversing the database state and this attack on civil liberties (even if they do on occasion require a little jostling), I would have resisted us even beginning this dialogue.

Anyway, those are the two most obvious brickbats hopefully broken. What do have to say for yourselves blogosphere?

Andy Burnham’s unhealthy flag wrapping claptrap

I’ve written a response to Andy Burnham’s astounding Guardian article on the NHS on the SLF website:

Given the choice between “national”, “health” and “service” the word that Burnham considers most key to the Labour approach is the former. Ignore “health”, never mind “service” – who needs a bandage when you can wrap yourself in a flag?

Read the full article here, but frankly, Richard Grayson’s article from Reinventing the State on the NHS is more interesting.

While we’re at it, here’s an article from Chris Huhne from 2004 about why the party rejected the social insurance model for healthcare (pdf), courtesy of the Beveridge Group.

Three things for your attention

Firstly, I just thought I would direct people to my piece defending the Convention on Modern Liberty and its “outrageous” decision to be cross-party.

It has had an interestingly muted response. The most fascinating one was from Sadie Smith whose paraphrase of my article was that I defined anyone who is boycotting the Convention “because of the miner’s strike” is a “ZANULIARBORE HATER OF THE LIBERTIES WE’VE ENOJYED SINCE THE MAGNERCARTER WHO IS MORE AUTHORITARIAN THAN HITLER AND STALIN ROLLED INTO ONE!!!!1!!!! LOLZ!” If self-obsessed lefties want to turn themselves into a parody of themselves, that suits me.

Secondly, and slightly more constructively, Paul Bergin asked me to take part in his bloggers’ interview series. My contribution can be found here.

Finally, the Social Liberal Forum’s Ideas Factory is starting to take off. At the moment, Tim Leunig’s “right to move” and Thomas Hemsley’s ratification of appointments are available for your perusal, comments and rating, with more to come.

What’s the big idea?

The first Social Liberal Forum project (technically the second one, as I will explain later) has now wheeled into view: The Ideas Factory.

We want your ideas for what should be in the Lib Dem manifesto. Your idea will be critiqued by our dragons advisory board and opened to further debate. Visitors to the SLF website will be able to give each idea marks and the whole lot will be submitted to the Lib Dem Manifesto Working Group.

To start things off, I’m going to write my own pitch this weekend. Want to do one as well? Email it (max 500 words) to manifesto *at* socialliberal.net.