Liberator has marked the launch of the Social Liberal Forum with two articles which they have kindly allowed us to republish – one by SLF Director Matthew Sowemimo and the other by Federal Policy Committee member and writer David Boyle.
David is a different kind of critic from someone like Charlotte Gore. Very much “one of us,” he wrote a chapter in Reinventing the State and I’ve worked with him on a number of projects over the years, including a motion on participatory democracy that was debated at Autum Conference last year. So the fact that he is a sceptic is a real disappointment. Having said that, I do think he could have picked a better argument.
His problem with the SLF stems not from anything on our website, or anything Matthew or Richard Grayson have written (I seem to have been written out of the equation, being a mere flunky), but from a presentation made by a staffer of the Institute for Fiscal Studies at the Reinventing the State breakout session at the party’s LSE conference on social mobility in January before the SLF had launched. I didn’t attend that session as I was at a parallel one at the time, but David’s concern stems from the IFS chap’s definition of equality. This then moves into an all out assault on Fabianism.
He is right to warn against defining equality too narrowly or adopting technocratic solutions, but I’m not clear how either are really concerns about the SLF as opposed to the debate within the left more broadly. It is a bit of a leap, from the personal views of a guest speaker at an event before the organisation is launched to Beatrice Webb to concluding that the SLF is in danger of endorsing state socialism. By not reflecting on anything the SLF has actually done or put out thus far it does feel as if a number of straw men are being laid at our door.
The biggest straw man is the one that vaguely resembles Quintus Fabius Maximus. Fabian-bashing is a time honoured liberal pastime and one which I indulge in myself from time to time. And why wouldn’t you, when people like Beatrice Webb offer us such a wealth of infamous quotes to cite? Even Labour apparatchik Philip Collins tried this line of attack in Prospect last year. But if you think that new Labour state socialism stems from the modern Fabian Society, you are dead wrong. Indeed, the modern Fabian Society’s favourite Lib Dem-bashing tactic at the moment is to denounce us for not supporting asset-based welfare (the specific criticism that we plan reallocate resources away from Labour’s tokenistic Child Trust Fund is rather fatuous but more generally, I think they have a point more generally). I am pretty certain that Sunder Katwala being the Fabian Society’s General Secretary is a fact that has both the Webbs spinning in their graves.
And finally, while I would agree that income-inequality – and even consumption-inequality – should never be the only measure, David risks understating its importance. He is right to say that we won’t ever solve the underlying problems of inequality with charts and targets. David wrote a fantastic book in 2001 called The Tyranny of Numbers which forecast the failure of the New Labour project before most people were getting their heads around it, but the conclusion I took from it wasn’t that we must never count things – merely that we understand the limitations of statistics. Indeed, David’s own think tank, the New Economics Foundation (of which I am also a supporter), is continually coming up with new ways to measure social progress. It is an odd charge to suggest the SLF is enamoured by “the fantasies of Fabianism” while not applying the same standard to NEF.
While I think SLF has already avoided two of David’s potential pitfalls – centralisation and education – I will readily admit that the other two – snobbery and passivity – are tougher nuts to crack. But they are for everyone. How do you ensure universal entitlement without creating an inflexible, impersonal system? How do you ensure a flexible, personalised service without giving the articulate middle-classes an advantage over less well off? Unlike state socialists or libertarians, the social liberal doesn’t have the luxury of picking a side in this debate. But please don’t assume that acknowledging the need for one doesn’t automatically assume a dismissal of the other.